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The Flavors of Thailand

The Flavors of Thailand

By Chris QuanUpdated Sep. 12, 2023

Thai food is renowned for its quality and diversity — even every street food vendor has its own recipe and delights in his culinary skills. Almost all Thai cuisine seeks a balance between the four flavors — sweet, sour, spicy and salty, though the balance varies from dish to dish.

The sweetness is derived from palm sugar, while the sourness is introduced by lime juice. Spices like chilli pepper, lemongrass, turmeric, galangal and basil are widely used to create aroma. Fish sauce, made from fermented fish and salt, is the special ingredient to enhance taste.

Ingredients of Thai cuisine

An important feature of Thai cuisine is the combination of different flavors, textures, temperatures, and cooking methods in the same dish. Thai people aim to prepare a light yet complex and tasty dish where all the different ingredients are harmonized in a perfect way. As in other Asian countries, rice and noodles are served as the staple.

The most popular type of rice is the long-grain rice, named khao in Thai language. The most common variety is sticky rice, even if in some regions jasmine rice is favored. Noodles, made of rice, wheat and egg, are usually stir-fried or cooked in a soup with toppings of chopped nuts, basil and kaffir lime.

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Herbs & spices

Herbs and spices are probably the most peculiar feature of Thai dishes. Almost every dish presents one or more herbs and spices. The leaves of the kaffir lime are used in many soups like tom yam or curries from central areas. Kaffir lime leaves are usually combined with galangal and lemongrass, giving the dish a fresh and aromatic flavor.

Thai basil is used to add fragrance to green curries, and other common herbs are coriander, spearmint, holy basil, ginger, turmeric, and many more. Larb is an elaborate mix of spices that includes cumin, cloves, long pepper, star anise, and cinnamon.

Among other leaves used in Thai cuisine, we can find the cha-om (acacia leaves). They can be used for omelets, soups and curries, while banana leaves are mostly used for parcelling up certain kinds of food. Banana flowers, finally, are used in salads or in curries.

Five different types of chili are used in Thai cooking; the smaller the chili, the hotter the flavor. The smallest one is the phrik khi nu suan; the bigger ones are mostly used as vegetables.

Pastes & sauces

Pastes and sauces are extremely common in Thai cuisine, and they are part of its unique flavor. They are usually used as dips for raw vegetables or meat. A sauce used in every region is nam pla, made of fermented fish, usually anchovies. However, there are many variations of this basic sauce. Another popular sauce is pla ra, an opaque sauce more pungent than nam pla.

Kapi, a shrimp paste, is indispensable for making Thai curry pastes. Chili pastes (nam phrik) come in many different regional variations, and they are used to prepare Thai curry pastes (phrik kaeng or khrueang kaeng).

Soy sauce is mostly used for vegetable and meat stir-fries.

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Vegetables are usually eaten raw, steamed, or stir-fried. Eggplant is common, and it comes in many varieties like the pea-sized or the egg-sized ones. Cucumbers, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, winged beans, and corn are all commonly used.

Leafy vegetables are eaten as a side dish (most of the time raw, dipped in a fish sauce or in a paste). It will be common for you to find morning glory, Thai basil, water mimosa, Chinese cabbage, yellow burr head, rice paddy herb, etc. Mushrooms are also widely used: especially straw mushrooms and white jelly fungus.

The final mention have the flowers. They can be eaten as vegetables, like the flower buds of the banana; or used to add color to dishes, like the blue dok anchan, the flowers of Clitoria ternatea.

Interesting history of Thai cuisine

During its long history, Thailand has received many influences from neighboring and distant countries. Thailand shares some dishes with Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam, and some features of its cuisine come from China (especially from Yunnan). The South of Thailand, in addition, presents the influence of India and Malaysia.

Many dishes were introduced by Chinese people during the 15th and the 18th century. Chok Thai (a rice porridge), salapao (steamed buns, known in China as baozi, 包子), fried rice-noodles, and many more, are all Chinese dishes that now are part of Thai cuisine.

During the kingdom of Ayutthaya (15th – 16th century), many traders came to Thailand, bringing with them their own local dishes. Thanks to this, Thailand became familiar with the curries from the cuisines of India and Persia, and with some dishes from Portugal, like fios de ovos, a dessert made with eggs, now known in Thailand as foi thong. Spain brought tomatoes, corn, papaya, pineapple, cashews, and peanuts.

Thai cuisine became known in the West in the 60s, when tourism became widespread throughout the country. Tourists can appreciate the famous street food, especially in Bangkok, nicknamed as "the world capital of street food".

In the past, the government actively worked to promote Thai cuisine abroad with the "Kitchen in the World" project, which aimed to train restaurateurs willing to open a Thai restaurant overseas, and contributed to making Thai food well-known around the world.

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Tips for dining in Thailand

When we travel, we want to experience the best of the country and avoid any problems. Most of the time, doing so is really easy: common sense and a little knowledge are enough. Here are our quick tips for eating in Thailand:

  • We strongly recommend you try street food. However, when doing so, choose only the best places and watch the vendors prepare the food for other customers before buying it.
  • When eating dinner with Thai people, remember to use the spoon with the right hand and the fork with the left one. Use the fork to push the food on the spoon. Do not put the fork in your mouth.
  • Thai dishes are meant to be shared. They will be placed in the center of the table, and the host usually orders for everyone.
  • Do not take too much food if you are not sure you can finish it.
  • Wait for your host (or the oldest person at the table) to begin eating.

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Discover the creative and varied Thai cuisine and let it stimulate your taste buds with the abundance of flavors. Asia Highlights selects local restaurants and organizes street food tours to provide you with an authentic dining experience.

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