Thai Food: 
Background Information

       The food of Thailand is unique among the cuisines of Southeast Asia.  It has the quality and consistency of Chinese food and the spiciness of Mexican.  The genesis and principal culinary influences on  Thai cooking are Chinese and Indian.  The hot, spicy, and distinctive seasonings of Szechwan province's dishes have many similarities to Thai dishes.  This may be partly because the Tai [the historical ancestors of the Thai, Lao, Shan and other modern Tai-related ethnolinguistic groups], who originated in the southwestern provinces of China, later migrated to the Thai peninsula.  Thai gaeng som is a hot and sour soup similar to Szechwan hot-and-sour soup, for example.

    Thai stir-fried cuisine has neither the cornstarch thickening and complicated sauces of Chinese cooking nor the use of dairy products and the heaviness and rich aromatic curry powder of Indian food.   Indian style has influenced Thai food in the use of spice mixtures or khreuang gaeng, curries, and similar stewed dishes.  Thai food is a distinct cuisine in its own right, largely due to the ability to the Thai to absorb outside influences and transform them into something uniquely their own.

    Thai cuisine originated from valley settlements in the mountainous region of southwestern China (chiefly Guangsi-Gueizhou), which was the original homeland of the Tai tribes.  Between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, they migrated southward into the land that is now Thailand, Laos, and the Shan States of upper Burma. (There are also other Tai groups in northwestern Vietnam, such as the Black Tai and White Tai.)  Thailand's cuisine was then nourished and augmented by the wealth of tropical plants, game, fish, herbs and spices in the Thai peninsula as well as the influence of the foreign trading partners that brought a variety of dishes to Thailand.  For example, the Portuguese brought  their sweets to King Narai's court (1656-1688).  Indian curry and Muslim cuisine were introduced at a palace feast in honor of King Rama I (1782-1809).  Of these dishes, the following survive to the present day:  gaeng massaman -- a curry containing aromatic spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg (spices not otherwise favored by the Thai, except in beef stew); and gaeng karee -- tinted with curry powder, turmeric, and often containing cumin, ground coriander seed and dried, ground red chilies.  Another Thai dish, khao moke-kai (chicken curried rice) is also another Indian dish that has been transformed into a Thai dish.  This may be part of the reason that Thai cooking is very much a taste-and-add affair, much like an artist's painting.
    Thais eat with a fork and spoon, but not a knife.  Ingredients --- meat and vegetables --- are cut into small pieces to meet the short stir-fried cooking style.  Thai dishes are generally long on preparation but short on cooking time.   Everything is served at once, and diners take this or that dish according to individual taste, combining or tasting separately each dish against the bland background of rice.   There is no particular order or structure of courses served.  The meal is planned so that textures, flavors, and food balance each other. 

    A stir-fired chicken with hot chilies and basil leaves will be balanced by a pork stuffed bitter-melon soup.  Rice is like bread.  The dishes are served warm or at room temperature.  The Thais like rice to be served steaming fresh.   A meal will generally finish with a bowl of fresh fruits or desserts.  The Thais eat a little at a time and often.

    Presentation is an important thing to the Thais; they love elegant simplicity.  Decorative cuts or carving techniques create garnishes that are not cooked, but decorate the dish.  Fruit and vegetable carving is an art.  The edible fantasy will be displayed along with flower decorations at local feasts during celebration of  local Buddhist festivals and civil ceremonies.  Thais like to garnish dishes, with green onion and coriander leaves for stir-fried dishes.

    The skill of  blending the five flavors --- sweet, sour, salty , bitter, and hot --- is the hallmark of Thai dishes.  The ingredients that generate these tastes can be summarized as follows:

    Sweet - sugar from sugar cane or the sugar palm tree, ripe pineapple
    Sour - lemon, lime, tamarind, raw mango, raw pineapple, vinegar, ma-euk (Solanumferox - an eggplant having a furry fruit with a sour taste), madan (Garcinia schomburg kiana)
    Salty - salt, nam plaa (Thai fish sauce, which is used in the same way as Chinese and Japanese use soy sauce)
    Bitter - ma-ra (bitter gourd or bitter cucumber)
    Hot - fresh or ground dried chili peppers, peppercorn (Peppercorn provides a more modified tingling hot to dishes.)

Thai dishes may be categorized based on flavor into four groups:

    a.  Non-spiced and mild in taste in the form of stir-fried, steamed, deep fried, grilled, or soup (gaeng jeut) dishes, which are kin to Chinese recipes and the recipes of the Thais themselves.
    b.  Chili paste dishes with or without coconut milk in the form of sauce dishes (gaeng pet) or stir fried.  The amount of spices and degree of hotness can be modified to individual palatability.
    c.  Vegetable salads or vegetable salads with meat.  The dishes can be sweet, sour, or spicy-hot in taste.
    d.  Fermented vegetables that are generally sour in taste.

Chili paste or red curry paste (khreuang nam prik) is also a main ingredient in Thai dishes spiced with pungent seasoning.  There are different variations of chili paste; it depends on the type of meats used and the type of dishes, such as the Muslim Gaeng Mussaman (Muslim curry), Gaeng Phanaeng, Gaeng Phet, Gaeng Liang, etc.  However, the most popular is Gaeng Pet. (Gaeng is pronounced like the English word gang and means curry; Pet means spicy hot.)  The basic ingredients (khreuang gaeng) in Gaeng Pet are red chili, peppercorn, garlic, salt, shallots (small red onions) coriander root, lemon grass, kaffir lime rind and leaves, krachai (Boesenbergia pandurata), galanga (Languas galanga), and kakpi (Thai shrimp paste).

    The use of coconut and its milk in cooking Thai curry is a feature that the Thai have in common with other Southeast Asian and Pacific countries.  Coconut milk has the quality of blending together and mellowing the flavors of the dishes in which it is used.  Used as a liquid medium in meat and fish curries, it offsets the pungency of many of the stronger ingredients.  Coconut is the diary-product substitute of Southeast Asia.
    To make Thai dishes tantalizing for the food adventurer, the following are some of the popular dishes and their main ingredients.

Appetizers:  Poh Piah Sod  Spring rolls filled with sausage, scrambled egg
                                                  and mixed vegetables.
Mi Krob         Deep fried rice vermicelli mixed with sweet and
                                             sour sauce.

Soup:         Tom Yam Kung Shrimp and straw mushrooms in a hot, spicy
                                          and sour soup.
        Tom Kha Kai    Chicken in coconut milk soup with hot spicy
                                          and sour ingredients.

Yam Nua        Charcoal-broiled beef, cucumber, onion, with
                                         pepper and lime juice.
Larb Kai          Ground chicken with chopped onion, lime juice,
                                         and pepper.

Noodles:     Phat Thai     Soft rice noodles, stir-fired in special sauce, egg,
                                         shrimp, bean sprouts, and garnished with green

Spicy dishes: Kaeng Khiao Wan Nuea  Same as kaeng pet neua, except green curry paste is used.
Khao Nam Phrik Long Reua  Rice mixed with shrimp paste
                       Khao Phat Khee Mao   Rice mixed with seafood and Thai basil

Note: There are three types of kaeng, classified by color and hotness. kaeng leuang (yellow) is the hottest; kaeng daeng (red) and kaeng khiao (green) are about equal in degree of hotness. 

Some terms used in reference to Thai dishes:

Neua - beef; Gai - chicken; Tua - beans; Moo - pork; Pla - fish; Makheua - eggplant; Kaeng - curried dishes; Phat - stir-fried type dish; Tom - boiled dishes; Yum - salad type dishes. Nam-plaa - fish soy; Nam-tahn - sugar; Nam-chaa - tea; Nam-yen - cold water; Gleua - salt; Prik - chili pepper; Prik-Thai - peppercorn

Pet - spicy hot; Rawn - hot in temperature; Yen - cool; Wan - sweet; Khem - salty; A-roy - delicious.


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