A TASTE OF SIAM

Escape! Malaysia - - Contents -

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

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