Hot and spicy or cool and tasty, a Thai meal is always an interesting experience. If there is one cuisine that awakens all the taste buds in an instant, it is this one. The dishes never disappoint and are always an explosion of taste on the tongue as fiery chillies combined with the fresh tastes of herbs such as lemongrass and the creamy delights of coconut milk always leave you wanting more – though hungry is the last thing you will feel as you leave the table at a Thai restaurant.
There are few Thai restaurants mentioned in the Michelin Guide. In London, only one restaurant has a Michelin star and that is Nahm at The Halkin Hotel at Hyde Park Corner, but fans of the spicy and aromatic dishes know that there is no shortage of excellent restaurants throughout the world. The Gulf region has a number of highly-rated establishments, and Kuwait has four such restaurants at the last count.
A Thai meal is a sociable event where the dishes are served altogether, so that diners can enjoy a combination of different tastes. A proper Thai meal consists of a soup, a curry dish with condiments, and a dip with accompanying fish and vegetables. A spiced salad sometimes replaces the curry dish. The soup can also be spicy, but in that case the curry should be replaced by a non-spiced item. The Thais believe there should be harmony in the tastes and textures within individual dishes and in the entire meal.
As with all cuisines, the Thai diet originated from the country’s natural vegetation and the influence of other nationalities that left their mark on the civilization over the centuries. Fish and marine life played a large part in the early diet and still does to a large extent today. Mainly because of their Buddhist beliefs, meat was not a common feature in the early diet, and today large chunks of meat are nowhere to be found in the Thai menu. Meat, when it is eaten, is cut into smaller chunks and shredded before being cooked with herbs and spices.
Stewing, baking and grilling are the traditional Thai cooking methods, but over the years the influence of China has seen the introduction of frying, stir-frying and deep-frying. From the 17th century onwards, the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese all added their influence to the country’s kitchens. The ubiquitous chillies, for example, were introduced to Thailand in the late 1600 by the Portuguese, who had come across it in South America.
Rice is a staple of most meals, and jasmine rice, the highly prized and sweet-smelling rice which is grown in abundance in the country, is the most common. Steamed rice is accompanied by curries, stir-fry and other dishes, incorporating sometimes large quantities of chillies, lime juice and lemongrass. Sticky rice is a unique variety of rice that contains an unusual balance of the starches present in all rice, causing it to cook up to a sticky texture. It is often used in place of ordinary rice in some rural Thai dishes.
Noodles are popular as well, but usually come as a single dish, like the stir-fried Pad Thai or noodle soups. Many Chinese dishes are adapted to suit Thai taste, such as khuaytiow ru,a a sour and spicy rice noodle soup.
Thai food is generally eaten with a fork and a spoon. Chopsticks are used rarely and this primarily for the consumption of noodle soups. Often, Thai food is served with a variety of spicy condiments, ranging from dried chilli pieces, or sliced chilli peppers in rice vinegar, to a spicy chilli sauce such as the nam prik, which is prepared by crushing together chillies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste.
The ingredient found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce. Shrimp paste, a combination of ground shrimp and salt, is also used extensively.
No meal is complete without dessert, and a Thai meal is no different. Here, coconut is a main ingredient, particularly the milk and the shredded coconut pieces. Popular desserts are the sticky rice and durian in coconut milk; sweet potato pudding; fried banana with ice cream; pandan flavoured rice noodles in coconut milk; and the well-known sticky rice and ripe mango.
From the fiery to the sweet, a Thai meal is always a memorable and friendly event as its growing number of fans around the world can testify.
First published in Men's Passion issue #4 May.June 08