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Thai Cuisine

thai cuisineThe native cuisine of Thailand, a country in South East Asia which is unique in that it has never been colonized, has recently become a world cuisine phenomenon in the West with restaurants and cookbooks cropping up seemingly everywhere in the last twenty years. The characteristically lush produce and enticing use of fragrant herbs and spices has produced a flavorful cuisine that is ultimately more palatable to many Western tongues than the potent spice blends of Indian food, another popular Asian world cuisine.

Food plays an important role in Thai culture, and is involved in everything from religion to agriculture. Largely a Buddhist nation, Thailand in unique in that the religion has not established a predominantly vegetarian national cuisine, though the vegetarian schools of cookery are quite skillful at creating meatless dishes so satisfying even Westerners generally would not notice an absence of meat. Small offerings are made daily to a household's family spirit in Thailand, and food is given in the form of alms to Buddhist monks. Food and religion also manifest themselves in the interesting tradition of funeral food (food served to mourners and/or associated with funeral ceremonies). In Thailand the tradition presents itself in the form of small cookbooks authored by individuals before their deaths; sometimes ornately designed, the cooks are distributed to mourners at the funeral, who can then remember the deceased by their taste in foods or by their favorite recipes and food related anecdotes.


As in most Asian cuisine, rice is the staple starch in the Thai diet and the main agricultural crop. Long-grain jasmine rice is the most common variety as it is indigenous to the region. Jasmine rice is known for its fragrant aroma and has a nutty flavor which is preferable to that of the rather bland processed white rice available in the West. Sticky rice also appears frequently, particularly in the North. Sticky rice, or glutinous rice, is a short-grained Asian variety named for its slightly tacky consistency when cooked and not for a gluey texture, sticky rice actually is gluten-free, so it does not cook up as paste-like as some other varieties which can be classified as "sticky". Noodles (rice noodles, glass noodles) are also used, but as part of main dishes rather than accompaniments. Both jasmine and sticky rice are served as side dishes along with main meals of meat or sauce, or as the base for curries and stir-frys.

Other Staples

The climate and geographic layouts in Thailand assist in the diversity of regional cuisinesĀ : some areas are very dry, some lie on the coast of the Gulf of Thailand, others in the more mountainous terrain in the West, etc. Along with rice, the main agricultural crops are maize (corn), cassava, sugar, and pineapple. These crops are also staples of the local diet. Papaya, durian, banana, and mango also appear frequently. Meat, poultry, seafood, and tofu are the most common sources of protein, as are nuts like cashews and peanut (peanut sauce is a recognizable Thai item).

Thai Spices

Much like Indian food, Thai cuisine is defined by its spices, though Thai spicing generally is milder and more focused. The food is based around the concept of perfect balance between the five flavors (hot, sweet, sour, salty, and bitter). The dish mamuang khao niew, or green mango dipped in salt, sugar, and dried chilli, is an excellent example of this flavor representation. Spicing can vary depending on the region (southern food tends to be spiciest, while other regions utilize more lime or lemongrass than heat), but the basics remain fairly constant. Nam pla, or fish paste, contributes much of the salty flavors in food, as does shrimp paste. Sweet tends to come from palm sugar and fruits like pineapple, with sour qualities from kaffir lime/citrus juices or tart fruits. The heat characteristic of Southern and hot curries usually is delivered in the form of chillies. Other frequent flavors come from lemongrass, ginger and/or galangal (a root relative of ginger which is similar in flavor), fresh basil, garlic, tamarind, and coriander. Coconut milk is also a staple and the base liquid of Thai curry dishes.

Thai curries, or gaeng, can be equally as potent as Indian masala/curry dishes but tend to have more delicate flavors. Green curry (gaeng khieo wan, which is the spiciest) and Red curry (gaeng ped) dishes have the same spice blends (chillies, garlic, lemongrass, coriander seed, shrimp paste, galangal, cumin, coriander root, white pepper corns, kaffir lime) but green uses dried green chillies instead of fresh red. Mussaaman or Muslim curry is generally milder and has a thicker sauce than other gaeng dishes. All curries are served with rice.

Other Thai Dishes

Yam dishes refer most often to salads, which tend to be based on combinations of fruits, greens, noodles, edible flowers, and small portions of meat or fish. Larb are salads prepared from chopped or ground meats. Soups, or gaeng chud, are also staples of the diet; one basic variety made with rice and meat or seafood is common breakfast item. Tom yam kung, a hot and sour lemongrass soup with shrimp/prawns, and tom khaa gai, a coconut milk and chicken soup flavored with galangal, are the best known. Noodle dishes like pad thai (rice noodles with chicken, fried tofu, lime, peanuts, shrimp, egg, bean sprouts, onion, garlic, and chillies) and meek rob are also essential and signatures of the cuisine. Food is eaten with a fork and a spoon; knives are unneeded, as Thai cuisine, like most Asian cookery, prefers meat and other items cut small before serving.

Breakfast is often rice soup, rice, or noodles. Field workers take sticky rice as a lunch meal, while city dwellers utilize the vast array of mainstream restaurants and characteristic Thai street food (chicken or beef satay, grilled meat on a skewer) for an afternoon meal. Dinner is more formal, with families sharing cold salads, curries, soup, and vegetables dishes together. Dessert is usually fruit, or pairings of fruit like mango over sticky rice.

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