Thai food is regional. You’ll be able to find Pad Thai anywhere but it’s worth sampling some of the regional specialties.
KEY FEATURES OF THAI CUISINE
Like other Southeast Asian countries, eating is synonymous with eating rice. There are generally two cooking techniques used depending on the region and type of rice. Khao hom mali (Jasmine rice) fragrant long grain found in most western supermarkets and more favourably used in southern Thai cooking. Khao niao (sticky rice) is a short gain variety commonly used in the north. As the name suggests this rice sticks together making it easy to mould into a ball with your hands. You can then squash the ball so its a spoon-like shape and using your thumb, scoop up other dishes into the rice. Khao niao is also used to make the delicious desert Mango Sticky Rice.
These are the most commonly used noodles in Thai cooking.
Sen Mee (Vermicelli Rice Noodles)
Very thin noodles used to make Mee Krati (Noodles in Coconut milk)
Sen Lek & Sen Yai (Flat Rice Noodles)
A large sheet is made from rice flour and cut into different thicknesses. Sen Lek (narrow noodles) are most famously used to make Phad Thai. Sen Yai (Wide noodles) are used in dishes such as Kuaytiew Ku Kai (Fried noodles with chicken and egg).
Kanom Jeen (Fermented Rice Noodles)
These are round noodles used in the north to make Kanom Jeen Nam Ngiaw (a spicy meaty dish). Kanom Jeen Nam Ya.
Bamee (Wheat Flour & Egg Noodles)
Look yellow from the egg yolk. These are deep-fried to make the crispy topping of the beloved northern Thai dish, Kow Soy.
Woonsen (Bean Thread or Glass Noodles)
Made from mung bean starch, these noodles look slightly transparent and shiny. Goong Ob Woonsen (Noodles with prawns cooked with lots of ginger, garlic and pepper)
Northern Thailand is more seasonal with influences from Myanmar and Laos, using more rustic cooking techniques, particularly in the Northeast. Pork and chicken are heavily used, while seafood dishes aren’t so common. These dishes will often have a more herby dimension compared to spicy dishes in found the south. Nearly everything is served with sticky rice, a staple of dishes here.
Much of the food found on the standard menus in the west are from the central plains and southern Thailand. Clear adjustments are made to suit the western pallet particularly in the levels of spice used. Bangkok’s proximity to the coast means you’ll find a fair amount of seafood.
Herbs and spices are important in all parts of Thailand but you’ll find spices more heavily used in the south where dishes take influence from Malaysia and Indonesia. Curries like Thai Red, Green and Massaman all originate in the south and include another feature of southern cooking, coconut milk. All curries are served with a side of fluffy steamed rice. Dishes will use meat but there is an abundance of seafood options too.
Pad Thai (Obviously)
This is Thailand’s most famous dish and it’s definitely worth experiencing this dish on the streets of Bangkok, where it originated from in the late 1930s. Plaek Phibunsongkhram, or Phibun, came into power after a military coup and was keen to promote a sophisticated Thai culture and a unified nation. Siam was renamed Thailand and a new national dish was created. Pad Thai was intended to keep the nation fed with quick meals which is why it is sometimes referred to as Thailand’s first fast food. The stir-frying technique and use of noddles were influences from China but the flavours are firmly Thai. Sour Tamarind, sweet palm sugar, hot chillies, crunchy beansprouts and peanuts with zesty lime – the iconic interplay of flavours and textures.
A spicy noddle soup found in Northern Thailand. Soft and crispy noodles combined with a mild yellow coconut curry soup, served with spring onions and cabbage. Chicken, pork or beef – some places add seafood too.
Gaeng Phed (Thai Red Curry)
Like Pad Thai, you’ve probably had this dish at home in your local Thai restaurant but there is nothing like having it in a beachside setting.
Mango Sticky Rice
Khao niao (sticky rice) is cooked in coconut milk and palm sugar served with freshly sliced mango. Every restaurant for street stall I had this presented it slightly differently. At the Saturday Night Market in Chiang Mai the rice was coloured blue and green served with blue flowers.
Banned in a lot of hotels and hostels because of the intense smell.
Tastes like a cross between banana and pineapple.
Small, hard purple shell with soft white segments inside.
Singha, Chang and Leo are local with import beers being more expensive. Serve in a glass with ice.
Rice Whisky & Rum
Popular with locals.
You’ll find lots of places selling fruit smoothies, normally with added sugar and salt blended with lots of ice.
A cooking class is a great way to learn more about local dishes and how to make your favourites. Most classes will provide you with a cook book with adaptations for western cooking so you can recreate the dishes at home.