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.

The cuisine so ably and mouth-wateringly described by the good yam is, in fact, central Thai food, which is one of the regional cuisines of the country. Other regional cuisines exist, and I'd like to add to yam's excellent write-up by describing some of these other Thai food traditions, which together make up the national cuisine.

The south of Thailand is rather different from the centre in that it has a large Muslim population. In fact, the four southernmost provinces have changed hands between Thailand and its neighbour to the south, Malaysia, several times. Thus southern Thai food is more akin to Malay than central Thai food: it uses less chili, so is milder, and relies more on tumeric, coriander seeds, and cumin (Indian influences, no doubt). Chinese-inspired central people eat a lot of pork and fish, but the southern Muslims rely more on chicken, mutton, and goat for their lovely curries, soups, and rice-based dishes. Yellow curry with chicken is a dish you can find all through southern Thailand and into Malaysia and Indonesia. Another characteristic southern Thai dish consists of wonderful spiced chicken and yellow rice topped with caramelized onions; it's known as khao mok gai, literally chicken buried under rice.

Further north, but still in the southern part of Thailand, the Islamic influence lessens, and seafood takes precedence, as is only right in this narrow peninsula surrounded by fishy depths. Fabulous rustic fisherman stews abound on the islands, as well as delicious seafood curries baked in banana leaves and other finny delights.

The northeastern part of Thailand (Isan or Esarn) is ringed by Laos and Cambodia, and the cuisine of the region is dictated by the harsh environment. Central Thailand is a lush flood plain with abundant rainfall permitting two crops of jasmine rice a year and ample fish resources; Isan, by contrast, is situated on a dry plateau given to frequent droughts and much poverty. Where the staple in the centre and south is jasmine rice, the hardier sticky rice, which does not require flooded paddy to grow, is the staff of life in Isan. Isan has little fuel, and so many dishes are simple salads that require minimal or no cooking: som tam, kapi, and lahb are perfect examples of northeastern cuisine. Many Isan dishes are prepared using gathered ingredients which might not look much like foodstuffs to you and I: grubs, frogs, and insects are popular Isan fare. But poor people eke out an existence as best they can, and Isan people are no exception. Isan food is often very very spicy, the burning heat of hot Thai chilis not tempered by soothing coconut milk.

The north of Thailand, exemplified by Chiang Mai, has been influenced by its close neighbour and sometime occupier, Myanmar (formerly Burma), and the cuisines of the countries are quite similar. Northern Thai food, like Isan food, is based around sticky rice, and uses many of the same techniques for making simple, often raw, salads. Bangkok cuisine features a lot of fish and seafood, but pork is a much more common staple in the north, as is only fitting for a land-locked former kingdom. Perhaps the most famous dish from the north is khao soy, a variation on a Burmese dish, which consists of a bed of egg noodles with a creamy coconut curry spooned over, the whole topped with crunchy chow mein style noodles, pickled cabbage, and hot chili sauce. I ate a lot of this when I lived in Chiang Mai.

The kingdom of Thailand is a relatively new creation, and it's fascinating to see how the foods of each region have spread to all corners of the country, forging a national culinary identity comprehensible to, and beloved by, all Thai, no matter what their provenance.

And no matter what their provenance, Thai are passionate about their food. They prefer to eat communally, in a large group of family or friends. An ideal Thai meal involves no courses other than main and dessert; the main course usually consists of a collection of delicious dishes served in the middle of the group, accompanied by jasmine or sticky rice. In a restaurant, those curries and stir fries and other delicacies will be borne to the table as they are completed by the kitchen; at home, it'll all be on the table when you sit down. A meal is a social affair, with much sampling, discussion, and more sampling. Very pleasing. Noodle dishes like pad thai, by the way, are usually on-the-run food, eaten alone or with a few companions at a simple street stall. See also Dinner in Thailand for a story about doing it the wrong way.

Go here for a list of Thai recipes on everything2.

Common Thai ingredients not much found in other cuisines, and not mentioned by yam, include:

Thai Food (Arharn Thai)
By David Thompson
First published by Penguin Books Australia, 2002
ISBN 0 670 86761 6

As you could well imagine, my career as a chef has led me to collect a fairly large library of cookbooks over the years. When I was just starting out as a cook, I was wide-eyed and indiscriminate in my purchases. Just about any new cookbook released that had shiny enough pictures got my hard earned dollars. It was only after cooking a few recipes that I could test the mettle of each book - to see if it cut the mustard or not. Sadly, more often than not, the results would prove disappointing, so over time I became more discriminating, and more wary with my purchases. It got to the point that I now buy only a handful of cookbooks in any given year. I can now tell, after leafing through a book for 10 minutes or so whether it is up to speed, or just another ridiculous brainstorm from a marketing executive in a publishing house that possesses super-slick photography and close to zero content.

Every now and then a cookbook comes along that literally blows me away - one that is so ambitious in its scope, so meticulous in its execution, so generous with its prose that it leaves me giddy with excitement. These books come along all too rarely, but they soon form a centerpiece in my library, and I know that one day (hopefully in the very distant future) my kin will find it - dusty, food stained and well-thumbed - as they sort through my possessions. Thai Food by David Thompson is one of these books.

David Thompson has long been somewhat of an enigma in Australia. He first shot to prominence well over 10 years ago when he opened an unassuming Thai restaurant above a working-mans pub in grimy, inner city South Newtown, Sydney. The pub was situated on Darley Street, and thus he simply called his restaurant Darley Street Thai. The word rapidly spread that this was no ordinary Thai food. The spicing he employed in classic Thai dishes was forceful and powerful, yet at the same time seamless. Some dishes were close to overwhelmingly complex - not only in preparation and execution - but in the almost scholastic and cerebral way that he selected and combined ingredients. Sydney has more Thai restaurants than just about anywhere outside of Bangkok, but this place sent shockwaves throughout the town. And scarily, the best was yet to come.

In the early 1990's, Thompson moved Darley Street Thai closer to the culinary epicenter of Sydney; Bayswater Road in King's Cross. This time he started from scratch; a stunningly designed (if somewhat stark) dining room, and a gleaming new kitchen. Just like all important events in Thailand, a group of turmeric-robed Buddhist monks were bussed in for the opening, to bestow blessings of goodwill, and receive offerings themselves. The place changed dining in Sydney forever. No longer was Thai food just an el cheapo take away option to be had on Friday nights with your mates and a few beers. Later Thompson opened Sailor's Thai, in the historic Rocks region of Sydney - just 3 minutes walk from the restaurant I work in. Sadly (for Sydneysiders anyway), Thompson closed Darley Street Thai and aimed for bigger and brighter things abroad. 2001 saw him open nahm restaurant in the Halkin Hotel, London. It was recently awarded one Michelin star, the first ever for a Thai restaurant.

Whatever way you look at it, Thai Food is an awesome, startling and impressive work. The price is the first major indicator - at AU$75.00 it shares the title of the most expensive Australian cookbook ever, along with the equally weighty and impressive "The Cook's Companion" by Stephanie Alexander. After the price shock has settled, two things will grab your attention. Firstly, its size - it weighs in at a massive 670 pages. Secondly, it is pink - and not any pink mind you - it is bound in shockingly bright pink Thai silk. ¹

The book itself is a powerhouse of information. It is close enough to 250 pages before you even reach the first recipe. This "introduction" preceding the recipes is a wealth of history, culture and detailed information about Thai society and the royal court. I would lap this sort of stuff up even if it were dry, because that is just my thing. But let me assure you - dry it ain't. It reads like some South East Asian road book and a funkadelic history lesson rolled into one, with wacky anecdotes galore. Permit me to share a few examples.

I have known for some time that the Thai name for Bangkok is Krung Thep, or "The City of Angels". Bangkok (or "village of the hog plum") was simply the name of the hamlet that lay where the capital was established. What I did not know however is that Krung Thep is just a very convenient abbreviation for an astonishingly long name. Try this one on for size.

Krung Thep Maha Nakorn Amorn Ratanakosindra
Mahindrayudhya Mahadilokpop Noparatana Rajdhani Burirom Udom Rajanivet Mahastan
Amorn Pimarn Avatarn Satit Sakkatuttiya Vishnukarm Prasit.

Which Thompson translates as;

'The City of Angels, the Great City, the Residence of the Emerald Buddha,
the Impregnable City of the God Indra,
the Grand Capital of the World Endowed with the Nine Precious Gems,
the Happy City, Abounding in Grand Palaces that Resemble the Heavenly Abode of the Incarnated God,
a City Dedicated to Indra, Built by Vishnu.

Try getting that on the back of a postcard.

Further on, Thompson describes Regal taboos and the deferential customs that the Thai have always paid to the King - especially during the time of Ayuthyia, when the Rama was seen as an earthly deity.

"…In the past, strict decorum was insisted upon when approaching the royal precinct.
All were obliged to dip their parasols and slightly lower themselves,
while boatmen reefed their sails as they approached the palace,
otherwise archers on the parapets would pelt the offenders with balls of clay."

An absurd, and at the same time a fittingly severe discipline for wayward underlings. I must get me some balls of clay sometime soon.

This is all very well, but a cookbook lives or dies on its recipes. Happily, Thai Food delivers on this front in spades. The recipes are numerous - literally hundreds, all set out sensibly in the manner that Thais themselves eat. Soups, curries, salads, relishes, side dishes and accompaniments, street food and desserts. However, by placing the voluminous section on rice right at the front of the recipes, Thompson not-so-gently reminds the reader that all these complexly flavoured dishes serve one purpose alone - to simply flavour and accompany the most important part of a Thai meal - the rice itself.

Many of the recipes are unashamedly complex - calling for exotic and hard-to-find ingredients, and listing dauntingly complex methodology. For this I applaud him. As he explains it, some of these dishes would be debased if they were represented in anything less than their entirety. Cookbooks in Thailand are a relatively new idea. Before 100 or so years ago, the only place recipes were found was in the so-called "Books of the Dead". These touching tributes were compiled by friends and relatives, and outlined the legacy of a loved one's life. They would include a section detailing the deceased's interests - and in the case of women they would invariably contain recipes. A commoner would naturally leave behind humble recipes, but a noblewoman, or someone aligned with the Royal Court would pass on correspondingly complex recipes. Thompson himself learned Thai (and parts of royal languages as well) so he could delve into this massive treasure of Thai history, cuisine and culture.

Having said that, many recipes are at the same time astonishing simple - dishes that the most trembling beginner in the kitchen would feel confident in attempting. The scope of the recipes aims to reflect Thai cuisine as a whole - some dishes will be naturally daunting, while others will be easy and charming. Along with all this, Thompson also provides finely detailed sections on Thai ingredients, cooking utensils and techniques.

Some cookbooks have become so treasured, well known and representative of a cuisine that they are forever aligned and connected. As a botanist would remark - they are the type species of a particular genus. French Provincial Cooking by Elizabeth David is one shining example, and that is 43 years old. Thai Food by David Thompson is barely 6 months old, and already it is already quite possibly the finest collections of Thai Cookery ever printed.

Buy it and cook several dishes and you will have a solid grounding into the fundamentals of Thai cuisine. However, if you cook many of its dishes over time, and have the patience to master the subtleties of each - eventually you should become quite an accomplished cook of Thai Food.

¹ After checking web-based booksellers, it seems that the pink silk bound copy is either Australian only, out of stock or both. Perhaps ask your local bookseller if they can procure for you the fabulously over-the-top silk version.

² cbustapeck mentions that the US version (ISBN 1580084621) does sport the pink silk cover, but has a paper dustjacket. Check and see.

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