Thai cuisine is famous and popular the world over, and for many visitors a main highlight of any trip to the kingdom is the ability to sample Thai cooking on its home soil. While very few inbound visitors hailing from international cities do not have access to a Thai restaurant in their home country, there is still something unique and special about consuming a cuisine in the country of its origin. This unique experience is partially flavour driven, arising from the use of fresh, locally sourced ingredients. It is also about the setting and atmosphere, as irrespective of whether one opts to dine at a roadside stall or an upmarket establishment, the experience is likely to feel far more authentic and memorable.
A History At The Crossroads
The evolution of Thai gastronomy very much mirrors the history of the kingdom as a whole, with the diversity in its flavours and cooking techniques reflecting the diversity of cultural and ethnic influences. Many of Thailand’s oldest dishes share similarities with those of its neighbours, namely, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia and Vietnam. With a variety of ethnic groups having settled in the kingdom, in particular Chinese, Indian and Malay immigrants, Thai cuisine has benefitted from their contribution of new ingredients and cooking techniques.
Malay cuisine, for example, is considered responsible for the prominent use of coconut in Thai cooking, as well as the popularity of satays (skewered and grilled meat served with a peanut sauce). Chinese immigrants introduced the use of noodles, dumpling and soy products in dishes, as well as the steel wok as a cooking instrument. Indian cuisine is thought to be the source for a range of spices and seasonings, such as cumin, cardamom and coriander.
While Thailand is the only South-east Asian country never to have been officially colonised, its strategic position on both the silk and spice roads has meant that its cuisine has come into contact with a wide array of techniques and influences, as well as Western trading powers in more recent times. In fact, the chilli, which is today associated with Thai cooking, was only introduced in the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had brought the pepper plant over from South America.
Despite the myriad of influences, Thai cooking has gained renown due to its ability to adapt over the years and carve out a distinct identity of its own. For example, although many of Thailand’s curry dishes contain some key Indian spices in their paste, they are distinct in flavour through the addition of local spices and ingredients, including basil, lemongrass and galangal (a root similar to ginger).
Indeed, while Thai cooking comes in a variety of flavours and styles, if one were to highlight the one consistent attribute of any Thai dish, it would be the tendency to fuse sweet, sour, salty and spicy tastes into one delectable treat. A combination that serves to explain Thai cooking’s international popularity is precisely this ability to appeal to a broad range of taste preferences and palates.
To achieve the balance of contrasting, yet harmoniously fused tastes, common flavourings found in Thai cooking include fish sauce, dried shrimp paste, lemongrass, basil, three kinds of chilli (red Serrano, yellow and green), coriander, basil, garlic, ginger, cumin, cardamom and cinnamon.
Thailand is home to a wide spectrum of tropical fruits, which are customarily served after meals – often in elaborate carvings to add a visual element to the dining experience. Many fruits also form the main ingredient of Thai salads, giving them a sweet and sour blend of flavours that most Thai dishes strive towards. While listing all of Thailand’s common and rare fruits would result in the hundreds, some of the better-known varieties that make their way into dishes include mangoes, papayas, durian, pomelo, custard apples, mangosteen and jackfruit.
The Eating Experience
Thais love snacking, and wherever one finds oneself in the country there is almost always an entrepreneurial vendor nearby, pedalling an assortment of snacking options, such as barbequed or steamed meat or fish skewers, spring rolls, fresh fruits and even insects.
When it comes to mealtime, dining tends to turn into a more communal and formal affair, with many Thais considering eating alone to be bad luck. Typically, when dining with others all food is shared, rather than eating items ordered individually. Accordingly, the more people dine together, the greater the number of dishes everyone gets to enjoy. A formal Thai meal usually includes stir-fried meat, fish and vegetables accompanied by a soup, curry dish and salad. Rice forms a core staple of any meal and is also used as flour for making noodles and dumplings. All dishes, including salads and soups, tend to be shared at the same time as the concept of a starter does not exist.
The dishes served should collectively provide a contrasting balance of spicy, subtle, sweet and sour flavours, and should be presented in a way that is pleasing to the eye and nose as much as to the palate. In terms of eating style, although chopsticks were introduced to Thailand by the Chinese centuries ago, most Thais tend to eat their meals with a combination of a large spoon and fork.
A Regional Affair
Thai dishes come in many varieties and differ according to the country’s four main regions: Northern, North-eastern, Central and Southern. Influences from Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia and Malaysia and the Chinese province of Yunnan can be seen depending on the region. In addition, “Royal Thai Cuisine” traces its history back to the palaces of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351-1767 CE). Due to urbanisation and as the population flocks to the main cities and industrial centres for work, most regional dishes today are available throughout the country. Nonetheless, some of the key dishes associated with each region are: Northern: Khao Soi (curry noodles), Kaeng Hang Le (pork curry) and Sai Ua (spicy pork sausage). North-eastern: Som Tam (green papaya salad), Laap (spicy minced meat salad), Kai Yang (grilled chicken) and steamed glutinous rice. Central: Kaeng Khiao Wan (green curry), Tom Yum (hot and sour soup), Tom Kha (creamy hot and sour soup), Yam (spicy salad) and noodle dishes. Southern: Kaeng Tai Pla (spicy fish maw curry), Kaeng Leuang (yellow curry), Kaeng Mussaman (mild curry), Khao Yam Nam Budu (rice salad) and satay.
Getting Your Hands Dirty
Many visitors to Thailand, not content with passively consuming the local cuisine, opt to take their experience one step further by incorporating a cooking class or two into their itinerary. As with the food itself, cooking school options come in many varieties, ranging from morning or afternoon group sessions for novices, to week-long private retreats and courses tailored to those with more advanced culinary knowledge.
Scattered throughout Bangkok and available at most popular holiday destinations such as Chiang Mai, Phuket, Krabi, Ko Samui, Hua Hin and Pattaya, most Thai cooking schools catering to foreigners are associated with particular restaurants and follow a similar format. Morning sessions begin with an outing to a local market, where participants learn about and select the ingredients they will be cooking with for the day. This is then followed by a lecture on theory, where the instructor walks the students through a demonstration of the dishes to be prepared. Participants are then allowed to retreat to their own cooking stations to prepare dishes under the supervision of the instructor. While participants have the opportunity to take the meal they make in class home with them, most prefer the camaraderie of eating together at the school itself.
In Bangkok, one well-known cooking school institution is the Blue Elephant, which was founded by Thai culinary ambassador Chef Nooror Somany Steppe. Born in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province, Nooror opened her first Thai restaurant in Brussels, Belgium in the 1980s and has since grown her portfolio to include 12 establishments throughout major cities in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Her business includes franchises located in London, Copenhagen, Paris, Lyon, Dubai, Bahrain, Moscow, Beirut, Kuwait, Malta and Jakarta. The Blue Elephant’s two Thailand branches, located in historic venues in Phuket and the Sathorn district of Bangkok, both include popular cooking schools specialising in Royal Thai Cuisine and strive to provide a modern twist to traditional recipes and dishes.
Attendees at the Blue Elephant and many other cooking schools, though departing upon course completion with physical souvenirs in the form of a certificate, recipe book and branded cooking products, also leave with something not easily replicable. They gain the ability to personally reproduce and share a feature of Thai culture each and every time they cook an authentic Thai meal for friends and family in cities scattered throughout the globe.