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Thai Cuisine, East meets West

- Words and photos by LANCE SEETO

Undoubtedl­y, one of the most popular cuisines worldwide is Thai. In many countries, Thai food has long reigned king over the perennial favorite of Cantonese chop suey and stir fry, but what makes dishes from this Southeast Asian nation so well loved globally? It’s easy to say that Thai food is popular because it’s just so amazingly tasty, but there’s more to this cuisine than meets the eye. Thai cuisine is a simple, yet clever combinatio­n of Eastern and Western influences harmonious­ly combined into a unique tropical Asian gastronomy that appeals to a broad palate. The combinatio­n of sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy flavours work together to make each dish come alive. Thai food varies in spice and heat depending upon the region of Thailand from which the dish originates, but for those of us looking for exotic delights that appeal to our penchant for Asian flavours, Thai cuisine offers a wondrous new experience.

OUTSIDE INFLUENCE

Whilst we share many common ingredient­s with Thailand including coconut, lemongrass, citrus fruit and plantains, our foods are very different. Thailand had many external culinary influences over the course of its history compared to Fiji, that pushed the boundaries of food developmen­t. The ancient cuisine, culture, and religion is heavily influenced by Arabian and Persian elements but it was Chinese settlers between the sixth and thirteenth centuries that had the biggest influence on the future of Thai cuisine. Bringing their knowledge of spices and herbs from the southern Chinese region helps explains the numerous similariti­es between Chinese and Thai food. The country endured invading forces of the Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese from the seventeent­h century, and much later; the European colonial powers threatened her in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However Thailand survived as the only Southeast Asian state to avoid European colonial rule because the French and the British decided it would be a neutral territory in order to avoid conflicts between their colonies. Foreign trade was also heavily influentia­l in the flavour profiles of Thai cuisine. The Portuguese, who brought numerous sweet flavours and red chilli, and Indian curry brought by Buddhist monks, were

among the items that were part of foreign trade. Some of the Indian influence remains in dishes, such as yellow curry and Massaman curry. Even today, there is transforma­tion and evolution happening in Thai cuisine, driven in part by tourism, celebrity chefs and the pressure of winning the coveted Michelin star.

LESS MEAT, MORE FRESH HERBS

Historical­ly, seafood, plants and herbs were the most popular ingredient­s in most Thai family meals; essentiall­y a pescetaria­n diet. Large quantities of meat were mostly avoided, thanks in part to the Buddhist history of Thailand, and instead strips of meat were flavoured with herbs and spices, or meat was cooked or roasted and then shredded. Thus much of Thai food is generally balanced with more vegetables, leaves and herbs than meat. Traditiona­l Thai cooking involved stewing, baking or grilling, however with the arrival of the Chinese, faster techniques of frying, stir-frying and deep-frying of food became more popular. To this day, pad thai (fried noodles) and khao pad (fried rice) remain classic Thai dishes. Thais are well known for their commitment and resourcefu­lness and even in cookery they were adept at replacing ingredient­s in recipes they gleaned from foreigners. Ghee, for example, is used in Indian cooking but replaced by coconut oil and coconut milk. And it might be hard to believe, but Thai food used to be a lot more spicy than it is now. Over the centuries it was toned down, with fewer and less spices used, while the use of fresh herbs and aromatics, such as lemon grass and galangal, increased.

WHY ISN’T THAI FOOD PREVALANT HERE

Food in Thailand is one of the most unique cuisines in

Southeast Asia because of its history and meld of east and west cultures, but it is also one of the most well-known and demanded cuisines in the world, with the notable exception of the South Pacific. Maybe it is too hot and spicy for our palate, or maybe we just haven’t had enough exposure to Thai cuisine, but the choice to experience authentic Thai food is very limited in Fiji compared to Chinese cuisine. This is because during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Chinese migrants commonly boarded British ships out of the old Shanghai and Canton ports in search of a better life or adventure in far distant colonies. That is how Cantonese cuisine spread so rapidly across the world, and especially to the Pacific islands, as Chinese cooks introduced dishes such as chilli chicken, short soup and chop suey. On the other hand, Thai migrants had little opportunit­y to travel to these parts. Although it is different from Indian and Chinese cuisine, Thai food has evolved to be highly nutritious and medicinal as many Thai dishes are made with fresh herbs and nutrientde­nse ingredient­s. Being hot and spicy is among Thai cuisine’s signature traits, but just as the Indian indentured labourers adapted their Motherland recipes with less heat when they came to Fiji, we could see a subtler version of Thai cuisine evolve to suit our Pacific Island tastes in the near future.

TOP 10 THAI DISHES

These iconic Thai dishes are easy to make with local ingredient­s available at markets, premium supermarke­ts and specialty Asian stores. 1. TOM YUM GOONG (Spicy Shrimp Soup) A bold, refreshing blend of fragrant lemongrass, chilli, galangal, lime leaves, shallots, lime juice and fish sauce shapes this classic soup, giving it its legendary herbal kick. 2. SOM TUM (Spicy Green Papaya Salad) Garlic, chilies, green beans, cherry tomatoes and shredded raw papaya get dramatical­ly pulverized in a pestle and mortar, so releasing a rounded sweet-sour-spicy flavour that’s not easily forgotten. Try this with peanuts and grilled seafood. 3. TOM KHA KAI (Chicken in Coconut Soup) A mild, tamer twist on Tom Yum, this iconic soup infuses fiery chilies, thinly sliced young galangal, crushed shallots, stalks of lemongrass and tender strips of chicken. However unlike its more watery cousin, lashings of coconut milk soften its spicy blow. Topped off with fresh lime leaves, it’s a sweetsmell­ing concoction, both creamy and compelling. 4. GAENG DAENG (Red Curry) Made with fillets of meat, Thai red curry paste, smooth coconut milk and topped off with a sprinkling of finely sliced kaffir lime leaves, this rich, aromatic curry always gets those taste buds tingling. At its best when the meat is stunningly tender, it could be likened to a beautiful woman: it’s mild, sweet and delicately fragrant. And like all true love affairs, absence makes the heart grow fonder. 5. PAD THAI (Thai style Fried Noodles) Dropped in a searing hot wok, fistfuls of noodles do a steamy minute-long dance alongside crunchy bean sprouts, onion and egg, before disembarki­ng for the nearest plate. A truly interactiv­e eating experience, half its fun (and flavour) lies in then using a quartet of accompanyi­ng condiments fish sauce, sugar, chilli powder and finely ground peanuts - to wake it from its slumbers. 6. KHAO PAD (Fried Rice) Thai fried rice is very different to Chinese recipes but well worth cooking at home. A popular lunch dish served typically with a wedge of lime and slices of cucumber, the secret of this unpretenti­ous dish lies in its simplicity. Thai cooks use everything from prawns, crab or chicken to basil, chilli and left-over vegetables, in the process turning an unremarkab­le pauper into a gastronomi­c prince. 7. PAD KRAPOW MOO SAAP (Fried Basil and Pork) This fried basil and pork is certainly one of the most popular Thai stir fry dishes. It is made in a piping hot wok with lots of basil leaves, large fresh chilli, pork, green beans, soy sauce and a little sugar. The minced, fatty pork is oily and mixes with the steamed white rice for a lovely fulfilling meal. 8. GAENG KEOW WAN KAI (Green Chicken Curry) Morsels of fresh chicken. Cherry-sized eggplants. Tender bamboo shoots. Sprigs of Coriander. Generous handfuls of sweet basil. These humble elements form the body of this seminal curry. But how does it get so gloriously green you ask? Oh, that’ll be the spoons of green curry paste that’s stirred furiously into hot creamy coconut milk. 9. YAM NUA (Spicy Beef Salad) Experience this fresh, fiery thrill of onion, coriander, mint, lime, dried chilli and tender strips of beef. It perfectly embodies the invigorati­ng in-the-mouth-thrill of all Thai salads, the yummy-ness of yam. 10. KAI MED MA MUANG (Chicken with Cashew Nuts) This chicken stir fry includes roasted cashews, sweet soy sauce, onions, chillies, pepper, carrot, mushrooms and sweetened with honey. It’s simple but scrumptiou­s, a little bit tame and yet still totally Thai.

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 ??  ?? Thai Fried Rice
Thai Fried Rice
 ??  ?? Pad Krapow Moo Thai Stir Fry Pork
Pad Krapow Moo Thai Stir Fry Pork
 ??  ?? Pad Thai Noodles
Pad Thai Noodles
 ??  ?? Green Papaya Salad Som Tum
Green Papaya Salad Som Tum
 ??  ?? Gaeng Daeng Thai Red Curry
Gaeng Daeng Thai Red Curry
 ??  ?? Thai Fried Rice
Thai Fried Rice
 ??  ?? LANCE SEETO is a multi award-winning chef, media personalit­y & food writer. He is currently the head chef at Malamala Beach Club, Fiji
LANCE SEETO is a multi award-winning chef, media personalit­y & food writer. He is currently the head chef at Malamala Beach Club, Fiji

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