The national cuisine of Thailand
Thai food is based at its heart around the bounty of fresh and flavourful foods to be found and grown in Thailand. Fresh seafood, fresh herbs, rice, coconut meat and milk, limes and lime leaves, and an array of tropical fruits. (see sensei's What Little I Know About Ingredients For Thai Cuisine for a practical rundown) Fresh and pure is the emphasis.
Thai food is often characterised as spicy, but this was not always the case. The familiar chilis were introduced to thai cuisine by Portuguese missionaries who had acquired the habit in South America in the colonies there.
Traditional Thai food was largely vegetable and seafood based, served with lots of rice and eschewing most meat because of the Buddhist majority in Thailand. This is still the core of thai cooking, but many foreign influences have crept in over the years. Dutch, French, Portuguese, Japanese, and Chinese cooking have all added to Thai food over the years, with some modifications - ie, dairy heavy European dishes were made with coconut milk. Perhaps the biggest change, other than the introduction of chilis, has been the increase in the use of meat. Rather than being absent or shredded finely, there are now many dishes featuring chicken and beef, sliced or in pieces.
Thai food has a very distinctive flavour, owing to the abundance of fresh herbs and seasonings to be found in Thailand. One major flavour is basil, which is used heavily in many dishes. While Italian cooking uses primarily the familiar sweet basil, Thai cooking focuses more on Thai or Holy Basil, a spicy variety traditionally grown in Hindu monastaries. Tartness is a familiar note in many dishes, and is provided by limes and lime juice, lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, and pulped tamarind. Cumin, ginger, galangal, garlic, turmeric, and of course chili peppers offer a variety of savoury and spicy tastes.
Other common flavours in thai cooking include fish sauce and coconut. Fish sauce is a salty sauce made with anchovies, and used much as soy sauce is in other asian cuisines. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in curries and the many distinctively Thai soups. Its sweetness acts as a foil to spicy flavours and makes sauce-based dishes creamier and richer.
Typical Thai "styles" of dishes include soups, salads, curries, rice dishes, finger foods, and desserts. Soup is present at almost any Thai meal. They may be spicy or mild, and often feature seafood or coconut milk heavily. Salads include greens and/or cold noodles, but often also cold seafood or sliced beef with a vinegary, sometimes spicy sauce. Curries are where Thai cuisine's spicy reputation shines through. They are indeed hot, but also deeply flavourful, often featuring coconut milk and many fresh herbs and spices. A hallmark of Thai cuisine is the use of large quantities of fresh herbs, and it is not unusual to see handfuls of cilantro and basil topping a hot curry. Rice is the basic staple of Thailand, and plain rice, rice noodles,and fried and seasoned rice dishes are in evidence everywhere. Finger foods are a common feature of Thai meals, including spring rolls, satays with peanut sauce, and vegetables or "golden baskets" with dipping sauce.
Dessert deserves a special mention. Though sweet coconut and sticky rice dishes and custards are common, the overwhelming favourite dessert in Thailand is fresh fruit. In Thailand's warm climate, fresh fruit is in season almost year round, including mango, mangosteen, jackfruit, durian, pineapple, banana, lychee, coconut, longan, watermelon, and breadfruit. Mmmm. The Thai obsession with fresh fruits and vegetables is evident in their traditional art of fruit and vegetable carving. Fresh produce with a rind is carved with simple designs or elaborate scenes - I once saw an amazing watermelon carved in to a recognizable portrait of a Thai dancer I knew - and other fruits and vegetables are carved in to elaborate flowers, chains, and other shapes.