Gourmets rank Thai cuisine among the best in the world, for its subtle curries, imaginative use of herbs and spices, textural contrast, and above all harmony in taste. The Thai food is a blend of Asian and European influences adopted through centuries of trade and diplomatic exchanges.
The people of this enchanting land have always lived close to the land and the waters. The main ingredients (rice, fish, vegetable and herbs) reflect this close relationship. Meat was eschewed since animals were the mainstay of farm life.
Thai cooking involved grilling, baking and stewing, until the Chinese introduced the technique of hot frying in a wok a. k. a stir-frying. Portuguese trader brought chilli and Indians, curries ands spices. Over time, imaginative Thai cooks added their own ingenuity, substituting rare and expensive ingredients with local foods.
Thai cuisine has four regional styles and the Royal or Haute Cuisine. The latter uses the best, rarest, most expensive and freshest ingredients.
Only the best is good enough for the King and entourage. Aesthetically pleasing food presentation and colour contrast are important focal points in the Royal cuisine. Thai cooks are true masters in carving vegetables.
A typical Thai meal is a communal affair and meant for at least two, mostly for four or more. Everything is served at once and consumed with steamed rice. Essentially, rice is the starch base, flavoured with vegetables, protein and sauce.
Generally, the following dishes figure prominently:
* Hors deouvre are savoury and eaten on their own or as side dishes. Stuffed dumplings, crisp fried noodles, satay and spring rolls.
* Salads, called yam, may be sour, sweet or salty. Fish-sauce based dressings can be served with meat, seafood and vegetables.
* Marsh mint, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and cilantro are used as garnish, and hot chillies provide the ‘fire”.
* Versatile chilli dips are served with vegetables, meat or fish. Chillies, garlic, onion, shrimp paste, fermented fish, sour tamarinds, or dried shrimp, all serve as basic ingredients for dips. They are delicious, quick to whip, bur require a deep sense of ingredient compatibility.
* Flavourful soups are meat or vegetable broth or coconut cream based with a blend of herbs and spices providing the flavour. In Thai tradition, soup is served along with other dishes more as a ”lubricant” and flavour contrast to steamed rice.
* Thai curries consist of pastes of fresh herbs and spices cooed with coconut cream before adding meat or vegetable. Main curry ingredients are chilli peppers, garlic, shallot, galangal, coriander root and brachia (a small brownish orange). Canned curries never taste as satisfying as a fresh made from scratch.
* Thai main courses in western sense consist of fried rice or noodles with meat, vegetables and seasonings. Cooks prefer using a “dry” rice and separate noodles before frying.
* Desserts consist of candied tropical fruits (banana ad breadfruit), or for variety and an extra flavour dimension, coat them with coconut cream. Banana or dumplings in sweetened coconut cream and seasonal fruit in syrup topped with crushed ice are popular.
Thai cuisine is versatile, imaginative, offers a range of flavours and textural variety, and is aesthetically pleasing.
rticle contributed by Hrayr Berberoglu, a Professor Emeritus of Hospitality and Tourism Management specializing in Food and Beverage. Books by H. Berberoglu