Thai cuisine: A magical melange of assailing aromas and fanciful flavours

Uday Kumar Varma

Thai cuisine is a delectable enigma, an enigma one may like to fall in love with, an enigma that one enjoys exploring  and unraveling while delightful relishing it.
In this two-part article on Thai Cuisine, one assays to understand the complexities of this unique culinary evolution that rose and grew on account of the rich agricultural legacy of Siam, and which boldly assimilated and experimented with the alien influences that so frequently visited this land and its peaceful people.

Thai Cuisine. Photos (including featured image) courtesy – Tourism Authority of Thailand

“Thai cooking is about the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish. Like a complex musical chord, it’s got to have a smooth surface but it doesn’t matter what’s happening underneath. Simplicity isn’t the dictum here, at all.”
                                                         – Australian chef David Thompson, an expert on Thai food

If you ask a person partaking in Thai food, what flavours did he experience? the response is likely to be both amusing and confusing. The French have a term for it, ‘Je ne sais quoi’ (I don’t know what). Because Thai cuisine is a clever melange of all the flavours assailing you at the same time, sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. It’s the only cuisine, perhaps with the exception of the famed Indian cuisine, that makes all the flavours work together, enlivening each dish. And consummately combined are the flavours of western cuisine as well, truly eliciting the response.’Je ne sais quoi.’.

A delectable Enigma
The enigmatic and ensorcelling Thai food is a study in contrasts – unorthodox and loud contrasts. It pairs hot spices with sweet, light flavours with bitter, the natural salt of leaves with syrups and honey. Thai food usually has a blend of sour, sweet, salt, and savoury tastes plus heat from chillies. Some dishes add a creamy consistency from coconut milk. And the sauces  that add depth to any dish are no exception.

Harmoniously and delicately put together, the effect on taste buds is magical. And yet, for the dish to taste authentic, all the flavours need to be in a perfect balance. Cooking Thai food isn’t easy, and if the flavours don’t complement one another, the dishes cry. Therein lies the strength and appeal of Thai food.

Traditional Thai cuisine loosely falls into four categories: tom (boiled dishes), yam (spicy salads), tam (pounded foods), and gaeng (curries). Deep-fries, stir-fries, and steamed dishes are the Chinese contribution. And then there are distinct regional traditions, five of them well documented that make Thai food acquire a rich and rare variation.

In 2017, seven Thai dishes appeared on a list of the “World’s 50 Best Foods”, an online poll of 35,000 people worldwide by CNN Travel. Thailand had more dishes on the list than any other country: tom yam goong (4th), pad thai (5th), som tam (6th), massaman curry (10th), green curry (19th), Thai fried rice (24th) and nam tok mu (36th). The privilege remains unchallenged even today.

However, for those whose interest does not go beyond enjoying a good exotic meal, some dishes of interest include, Som tam (green papaya salad), Tom yum kung (a sour shrimp soup), Khao phat (fried rice), various kinds of satay, and various curries. Pad Thai, of course, remains an all-time overwhelming popularity.

Pad Thai
Perhaps the most known food of Thailand, also widely accepted by Western palates, is Pad Thai. A traditional Pad Thai recipe includes rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and tofu, seasoned with tamarind juice, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, onion, pepper, and palm sugar.

Street Food of Thailand
And though Thai food may boast of, rather stylistically, offerings like the ‘Recipes from the Royal Kitchen’, and ‘Classical Thai’, almost every Thai dish is available as street food, in Thailand and elsewhere.

The street food culture of Southeast Asia was introduced by coolie workers imported from China during the late 19th century. As a result, many Thai street foods are derived from or are heavily influenced by Chinese cuisine. Street food was commonly sold by the ethnic Chinese population of Thailand and did not become popular among native Thai people until the early 1960s, when the rapid urban population growth stimulated the street food culture, and by the 1970s it had almost displaced home-cooking. House-wives began feeding their families on street food, earning a rather derogatory sobriquet a “plastic-bag housewife”, because street vendors packaged the food in plastic bags. Bangkok, however, became the number one city for street food, offering a notable variety of dishes and the abundance of street hawkers. There is scarcely a Thai dish that is not sold by a street vendor or at a market somewhere in Thailand.

Canal Food and Food Markets
Floating market food or canal food has been sold from boats on Thailand’s rivers and canals for over two centuries. However, since the early 20th century King Rama V’s modernizations caused a shift towards land-based stalls.

Food markets in Thailand, large open air halls with permanent stalls, tend to operate as a collection of street stalls, each vendor with their own array of tables and providing (limited) service, although some resemble the regular food courts at shopping malls and large supermarkets, with service counters and the communal use of tables. 

Night food markets, in the form of a collection of street stalls and mobile vendors, spring up in parking lots, along busy streets, and at temple fairs and local festivals in the evenings, when the temperatures are more agreeable and people have finished work.

There are many areas in Bangkok that are famous for as a street food centre such as Yaowarat and nearby area (Talat Noi, Wat Traimit and Chaloem Buri), Nang Loeng, Sam Phraeng, Pratu Phi, Bang Lamphu, Kasat Suek, Sam Yan, Tha Din Daeng, Wongwian Yai, Wang Lang, Talat Phlu.

A Traditional Thai Meal

Traditionally, Thai foods are prepared daily by housewives in every Thai household. Traditionally, a meal would have at least five elements: a dip or relish for raw or cooked vegetables (khrueang chim) is the most crucial component of any Thai meal. Khrueang chim, considered a building block of Thai food may come in the form of a spicy chili sauce or relish called nam phrik (made of raw or cooked chilies and other ingredients, which are then mashed together), or a type of dip enriched with coconut milk called lon. The other elements would include a clear soup (perhaps a spicy tom yam or a mellow tom chuet), a curry or stew (essentially any dish identified with the kaeng prefix), a deep-fried dish and a stir fried dish of meat, fish, seafood, or vegetables.

The dishes are all served at the same time, including the soups, and it is also customary to provide more dishes than there are guests at a table.

(To be continued)

Uday Kumar Varma, a 1976 batch IAS officer of Madhya Pradesh cadre, was Secretary Information & Broadcasting, member of the Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT) and member of the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council, a self-regulatory body for general entertainment channels. As Secretary I&B, he spearheaded the nationwide digitisation programme.

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