A TASTE OF SIAM
From the mountains to the sea, Thailand’s regional cuisine is as varied as its tribes and landscapes
FROM THE MOUNTAINS TO THE SEA, THAILAND’S VAST LANDSCAPES AND VARIED TRIBES HAVE MADE THEIR MARKS ON ITS CUISINE. BEYOND TOM YAM AND PAD THAI, WE BREAK THE COUNTRY DOWN INTO FOUR DISTINCT REGIONS FOR A COMPREHENSIVE TASTE OF WHAT IT REALLY MEANS TO EAT LIKE A THAI
AS MYRIAD AS ITS PEOPLE,
Thai cuisine is an amalgamation of local ethnic traditions and international culinary influences; Dutch, Portuguese, French, Chinese and Japanese characteristics seamlessly blended into Buddhist roots. Traditionally, Thai dishes eschew large chunks of protein in favour of shredded meats laced with fresh herbs and spices, with gentler cooking methods such as stewing, baking and grilling. But with Chinese influences came the proclivity for stir- and deepfrying; Portuguese missionaries brought chillies with them in the 1600s; and Indian curry was adapted with the use of local ingredients and spices – coconut oil and milk replaced ghee, fresh herbs such as lemongrass and galangal replaced cardamom and ginger. What we define today as that uniquely Thai taste is actually a centuries-old confluence of Eastern and Western styles.
Yet in spite of these external influences, Thai cuisine remains distinctly local – a fact most clearly observed through its regional cuisine. Before the completion of the railway in the 1920s, travel within the country was slow and time-consuming, so the four main regions – North, Northeast, Central and South – were left largely to govern themselves, keeping their individual ethnic dialects and traditions intact, including culinary ones. So rather than the homogenised umbrella of “Thai food” that has been so successfully exported to the rest of the world, true Thai cuisine is really a complement of diverse styles and flavours, from the seafood-influenced curries of the South and courtly dishes of the North, to the herbaceous recipes of the humble Northeast and the colourful flavours of the fertile Central delta.
CENTRAL COSMOPOLITAN FLAVOURS FEATURING A VARIETY OF GLOBAL INFLUENCES
With a delta-like landscape fed by an abundance of rivers, streams, and canals, the Central region is a fertile bed of paddy fields, orchards, vegetable plantations, and freshwater fisheries. The best rice is grown in this region, most notably the hom mali, or jasmine rice, a major export.
Central cuisine is the most internationally recognised, thanks to the presence of Bangkok as its capital – stalwarts that originated here include tom yam, the famous hot and sour soup, and kaeng khieo wan, the coconut-based green curry. Chinese influences are especially strong in this region, as seen from the use of clay pots, popularity of starches such as kuay teow (flat rice noodles), and pervasiveness of stirfrying. Second in significance is the Muslim community, whose influence can be seen through what is lauded as the most popular Thai-muslim dish of all: satay, skewers of grilled seasoned meat often accompanied by a spicy dipping sauce.
Other Central inventions include tom kha kai, a creamy coconut milk-based soup with similar spices as tom yam; haw mok, a snack of small banana leaf cups filled with a steamed concoction of red curry paste, egg, coconut milk, and seafood; and phat phet, a spicy meatbased stir-fry of basil and curry paste.
Beyond Bangkok, you can find some truly local specialties. To the west at Nakhon Pathom, you can find khao lam, coconut sticky rice steamed in a length of bamboo. To the southeast at Chanthaburi, they serve a special dish of noodles fried with crab meat, and use a distinctly flavoured leaf, chamuang, which grows in this region, for its curries. To the southwest at Phetchaburi, you will find khanom maw kaeng, a baked custard with a mung bean, egg and coconut milk base.
NORTH MILDLY SEASONED LIKE THE ROYALS USED TO EAT
As a kingdom, Thailand first took shape in the mountainous regions of the North, forming a loose federation of states centred around Chiang Mai. It was only later that the first true capital of Siam, Sukhothai, was formed further down south. Due to its remoteness, Northern Thailand remains mostly untouched by external influences, retaining much of its original ethnic traditions, language, dress and food. Its cooler climate also means a larger variety of root vegetables and herbs, used in dishes that exhibit strong influences from neighbouring countries Myanmar and Laos – many in the North prefer sticky glutinous rice over white rice, usually rolled into balls and dipped into sauces.
Curries take on a different profile here, with stronger emphasis on ginger and turmeric, and with a thinner, almost brothlike consistency than the coconut-based curries of Central Thailand. One of the most popular examples of this is khao soi, a dish of egg noodles served with a chicken, pork, or beef curry soup and topped with spring onions and pickled cabbage. Two other popular Northern curries include kaeng yuak, made with banana palm hearts, and kaeng khanoon, made with jackfruit.
Sai oua, or sausages, are a Northern specialty, often featuring a secret blend of ground pork, dried chillies, garlic, shallots and lemongrass. For a more acquired taste, sample some naem maw, a sausage of uncooked ground pork, pork rind, garlic, chilli and sticky rice, mixed into a clay pot and left to ferment.
A signature of the North is khan toke, not a single dish but an entire ritual comprising a range of dishes and a basket of sticky rice. Guests are seated on the floor, usually entertained by a cultural performance of folk music or tribal dance, as they dig into the array of Northern specialties.
NORTHEAST PUNGENT RUSTIC CUISINE THAT DOESN’T SKIMP ON SPICE
Also known as Isan, this largest region of Thailand lies snugly against the borders of Laos to the north and east, and Cambodia to the south. Isolated from the west by the Phetchabun Mountains, Isan cuisine has more in common with Laos than the rest of Thailand. Even the Isan dialect is more Lao than Thai.
Food here is famed for being spicy and pungent, with a strong emphasis on dipping sauces that have been heavily seasoned with fermented fish (pla ra) and accompanied by raw vegetables and herbs. Isan people have a reputation for eating practically anything for protein including water buffalo, frogs, birds, snakes, lizards, and even insects.
As few trees grow in the region, there has historically been less access to wood for cooking, so Isan cuisine heavily features preserved, pickled and cured foods, and whatever can be eaten raw usually is.
Som tam, a salad of green, unripe papaya seasoned with lime, sugar, garlic, chilli and fish sauce, is this region’s most famous dish and comes in a few variations. The most common features dried shrimp, cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts, but other varieties also come with pickled field crab.
Another fiery dish that originated from Isan is laab, a minced meat salad that is often eaten with sticky rice or wrapped in lettuce. Available in pork, chicken or beef, laab is often stir-fried with shallots, coriander, fish sauce and garnished with mint.
A typical Isan meal will include a spicy and sour soup called tom saap, made with a base of shallots, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and chilli, and usually completed with pork ribs and offal. Two other popular varieties of tom saap are beef tripe and liver, and chicken and tamarind. Also particular to this region is the giant Mekong catfish, pla beuk, which can only be caught during a certain time of the year, usually May.
SOUTH SEAFOOD-DRIVEN WITH EMPHASIS ON CURRIES AND SALT
Consisting a slender peninsular of lush jungles and long stretches of beaches, Southern Thailand is topographically dissimilar from the rest of the country – a factor that is most evident in its dramatically unique cuisine. Most of the land is used for rubber and coconut plantations, and its close proximity to Malaysia and history of trade with India and Java mean strong Straits influences in its dishes. Bananas, cashew nuts and pineapples are also widely grown here, and form a familiar part of the cuisine, while its warm seas also mean an abundance of seafood, including shellfish, squid, and prawns, and a ready supply of sea salt.
Fresh turmeric turns many southern dishes a distinct yellow, and offers a piquant juxtaposition to the heavy use of chillies. A dish that perfectly encapsulates the flavours of the South is kaeng som, a spicy and sour soup usually made with fish and brimming with chillies and fresh turmeric. With its strong Malay, Javanese and Indian influences, curries also play a large part in the region, with a very typical version called kaeng tai pla featuring fermented fish stomach and pickled bamboo shoots. Another simply called “yellow curry” (kaeng leuang) is made with fish, green squash, pineapple, green beans and green papaya. Compared to the Central curries, Southern curries are usually hotter and feature shrimp paste for a more intense flavour.
Roti, a flaky, folded wheat bread fried on a griddle, comes alongside Southern curries at breakfast time, and is filled with grilled bananas and drizzled with condensed milk as an all-time favourite night-market snack.
FROM TOP Green curry is one of the most famous Thai dishes
Tom kha gai combines the flavours of tom yam with coconut milk
Sausage spirals on display
FROM LEFT Sai oua are a Northern specialty OPPOSITE Som tam, green papaya salad
THIS PAGE Southern curries usually come accompanied with roti instead of rice