Did you know that Thai cuisine is one of the most popular in the world? In a recent international “reader’s pick” poll of delicious foods, numerous Thai dishes are consistently found among the favorites, ranking them among the most popular.
And with the Thai cook’s skillful blending of fresh herbs, spicy sauces, and distinctive flavors, it’s a small wonder that this tantalizing cuisine is a favorite for many.
So let’s check out some of the factors that make the tastes of Thailand so well liked, and then we’ll look at how to create them for ourselves, with a couple of authentic recipes that demonstrate why these dishes are such a hit.
Common Flavors Among Neighbors
Thailand and her close neighbors have influenced one another over the course of many centuries in food, culture, and traditions.
Within the national cuisine called “Thai,” numerous regional variations in dishes and traditions tend to correlate to the proximity of neighboring states.
Not surprisingly, both sides of a given border will often have similar cultural backgrounds and ethnicities, as well as sharing a similar climate and geography.
Neighboring states of Myanmar (formerly Burma), Laos, China, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Vietnam have all had regional influences to some degree, with many popular Thai dishes actually being Chinese in origin.
In the fifteenth and later eighteenth centuries, immigration from China led to strong influences on flavors in the northeast. And, early traders from India and Persia introduced the use of spices, both dried and fresh, that gave rise to Thai adaptations of popular dishes like curry.
Western influence began in the early 1500s with the arrival of the Portuguese, and later included French, Dutch, and English expansionists.
And while Western interests never led to the colonization of Thailand (formerly Siam), it did lead to a common recipe variation that’s become a signature of many beloved Thai dishes – the substitution of coconut milk for cow’s milk.
At first used to create sweets for visiting dignitaries, soon the rich and nutty milk found its way into entree adaptations of Portuguese dishes that are still found on today’s menus.
Perhaps the most significant introduction of an outside flavor was that of chili peppers from the Americas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, arguably one of the most important ingredients in Thai cooking today.
Some of the other important foods introduced at that time include tomatoes, corn, papayas, peas, eggplant, pineapple, pumpkins, cilantro, cashews, and peanuts. All are still very much in use in contemporary dishes today.
The landscape of Thailand is lush and varied, from fertile river valleys to high mountainous plateaus. And this great diversity is reflected in the broad list of readily available fresh ingredients used in Thai kitchens.
Thai cuisine is internationally known for the use of fresh herbs, spices, and aromatic roots in almost all dishes, and it is composed of four elements: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy.
Some Thai dishs are notorious for their tropical-tinged heat. But the nice thing about cooking Thai: you can balance out dishes that get too spicy with the addition of trademark Thai ingredients, like coconut milk or citrus, without altering their authenticity.
Common flavors include garlic, galangal, coriander or cilantro, lemongrass, shallots, pepper, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and chilies. Palm sugar is used as a sweetener, while lime and tamarind are common sour flavors.
Delicious and flavorful sauces and pastes are also widely used, created by grinding fresh herbs and spices with a mortar and pestle, and then combining these with a fragrant, salty fish sauce – commonly used as a condiment for many dishes.
And shrimp paste is another multi-purpose ingredient that’s often used as a base in both chili and curry pastes, as is soy sauce. Unfortunately, this can be a significant problem for those with shellfish or soy allergies – but not if you are making these dishes at home, which enables you to have full control over the contents.
With its lengthy coastline and the many rivers that empty into the Bight of Bangkok, fish, crustaceans and shellfish of both fresh and salt water varieties are an important part of the cuisine as well.
But, by far, rice is the number one ingredient used in cooking. Rice is actually synonymous with the Thai word for food. There’s also a variety of noodles used in Thai dishes that are typically made from rice, wheat, or mung bean flours. Overall, Thai cooking includes plenty of options for those on a gluten-free diet.
Staples of Thai Cooking
Among some of the staples of Thai cooking you’ll find:
Commonly used and traditional flavors include herbs and spices such as:
- kaffir lime leaves
- Thai basil
- coriander or cilantro
- curry powder
- various additional “special spice blends”
Banana leaves are often used for wrapping and packaging dishes, while the vegetables of choice are eggplant, beans, bamboo shoots, tomatoes, cucumbers, Chinese kale, bok choy, sweet potatoes, squash, and corn. Several types of greens, mushrooms, and flowers are used in this type of cooking as well.
And of course, coconuts are important – using every part including the milk, oil, and meat. Most meals are finished with fresh fruit and occasionally a sweet, often prepared with coconut.
Some additional culinary traditions that may still be found in Thai households include eating with the right hand, while seated on mats or carpets on the floor.
Western influence gained more ground when kitchen tables and chairs were introduced to the country in the early 1800s, while cutlery, particularly the fork and spoon, first came along in the late 1800s.
A traditional ceramic spoon may be used for soup, while knives are generally not found at the table at all. Sticky rice is also used as an edible utensil, formed into balls and then dipped into a sauce.
Historically, most Thai people ate with their hands, as chopsticks were an import from China. In today’s culture, they’re mainly used for Chinese-style noodle soups, often found at Chinese, Japanese, or Korean restaurants.
An everyday Thai meal will normally consist of several items: rice, raw or cooked vegetables with a relish or dip, a broth-like soup, a curry or stew, and a deep-fried or stir-fried dish of meat, seafood, or vegetables.
Sliced cucumbers and plain sticky rice are standard sides dishes used to cool the heat of the spices.
And then there is the custom of “Royal Thai Cuisine.” While the dishes themselves don’t include different ingredients or flavors, there are some nuances in presentation and appearance that set this style apart from everyday fare:
- There are no extremes in the royal versions of dishes, meaning nothing is too spicy hot, and nothing too bland. All ingredients will be in harmonious proportion and balance.
- You won’t find any bones in a royal dish, be it fish, pork, or poultry.
- Fruits and vegetables will have all of the seeds, pits, and peels removed before preparation. And fruits and vegetables may be elaborately carved, for the sake of aesthetics in presentation, and used as decorations.
- Royal dishes are prepared in the most creative ways, beautifully arranged and displayed in colorful porcelain dishes.
If you’re looking for a “secret” to successfully create superb Thai dishes, it’s in taking the time to prepare the entire list of ingredients before the actual cooking starts.
This step is particularly significant when you are cooking with a wok – the pace is intense, the heat high, and food is cooked in a short period of time. You don’t want to be dithering about crushing chilies or chopping chives while everything else is cooking on high.
Thai food is characteristically fresh and crisp, with brightly colored vegetables and seared proteins that retain important nutrients because of the quick and hot cooking style. To stay on top of this fast paced style, the following steps will help:
- Start your preparations with any instructions for making a paste, or grinding spices. You can use a food processor, but a more “hands-on” approach is the traditional Thai method of crushing and grinding with a mortar and pestle for the best possible flavors. If you don’t have one, a spice mill will work as well. Have your spices, pastes, and sauces pre-measured into small ramekins, and lined up in the order required, close to your cooking station.
- The next step is to chop all the veggies into the required shapes and sizes, then stack in cooking order with the spices and pastes, on the counter close to the stove.
- Next, chop up your proteins. Slice and arrange any seafood, poultry, meat, tofu, or meat substitute and stack with your other ingredients. It’s important to prepare fresh meats and veggies separately, and to use separate utensils than you use for preparing cooked items, to avoid cross contamination.
- And finally, have your serving platter clean, warm, and ready to go for serving what you’ve made piping hot from the wok.
In Thailand, chefs commonly use coconut or peanut oils for stir-frying and deep-frying, and for stir-frying, most recipes call for a medium-high to high heat.
The actual cooking methods are really quite simple, and require only a few tools and utensils. The mortar and pestle is a foundational cooking tool, along with a wok (or a deep frying pan if you don’t have one), which is used along with wooden spoons or spatulas for stir frying.
Thai people do love their fresh seafood and grilled meats, which are usually eaten after dipping into sweet and sour flavored dips.
Grilling is done with various heat sources in the form of coals or charcoal, an electric grill, the oven or the stove top, using a heavy griddle pan.
In Thai cooking, meats and other proteins are exposed directly to the heat, or wrapped in leaves or foil, “en papillote” style. Screwpine and banana leaves are commonly used for wrapping, for the lovely fragrances they impart to the cooked food.
The stir-fry is a method of cooking with direct influence from China, although stir-frying is common all over Thailand. To utilize this quick and no-frills technique, ensure that the wok is hot before adding the oil, then allow it to heat quickly before adding your other ingredients.
Stir quickly with a spatula to heat through, and as soon as the food is cooked, dish it up and serve hot.
Because the stir-frying process is so quick, have all the ingredients prepped and ready to go before heating the wok, to ensure that some ingredients don’t overcook or burn. Toss ingredients quickly for fast and even cooking.
Try our recipe for Sriracha tofu, green bean, and carrot stir-fry to have fun with this technique!
Stewing and Braising
Stewing helps to retain the full flavors and nutritional goodness of the ingredients, and is superb for tenderizing tougher cuts of meat.
In Thai stews, the ingredients are cut into similar sized pieces and placed into enough liquid to completely immerse them. The pot is covered and placed over low heat for a slow braise.
Steaming is another popular method, traditionally using bamboo steamer sets to cook the ingredients over boiling liquid in the wok below.
A nutritious and healthy means of cooking food, for best results use only the freshest ingredients, and cover tightly with a lid to keep the steam in.
Deep frying is usually done in a wok or a deep pan, and the temperature of the oil is critical to success. Oil that’s not hot enough will result in greasy food, while overheated oil will burn the ingredients.
Foodal recommends Dave Thompson’s Thai Street Food
For most Thai dishes, the optimum temperature for deep frying is 350°F. Use a long-handled wire strainer or tongs to remove deep fried foods and drain on a wire rack over absorbent paper, as this will help the food to stay crisp.
An important technique in Thai cooking, tasty soups and curries are achieved with well-timed boiling of ingredients.
While salad preparation isn’t really a technique as such, these dishes are an important part of Thai meals, with their strong tastes and fresh ingredients.
Vegetables and meat are cut into small pieces, combining sourness and saltiness with some spice for heat. Less spicy chili-free dressings are usually available as well, if desired.
A Couple of Easy Thai Recipes For You To Try
That concludes our overview of the sumptuous tastes of Thailand! If you want to explore it a bit further, try out our delicious recipes for authentic Pad Thai or Chicken Satay – if you like Thai food, they’re sure to bring a smile of satisfaction to your face.
Pad Thai with Prawns and Chicken
There are many variations of Pad Thai available, so it may be helpful to keep the three primary flavors of salty, sweet, and sour in mind when preparing your version of this popular dish.
Adjust the core flavors of fish sauce, tamarind, and lime to suit your own personal tastes.
Spicy Peanut Chicken Satay with Cucumber Salad
This delicious chicken satay is marinated, skewered, and then grilled with a spicy peanut sauce – all made from scratch. Easy to make, it’s the perfect one-handed appetizer, ideal for snacking and socializing at the same time… great for summertime backyard parties!
About Lorna Kring
Recently retired as a costume specialist in the TV and film industry, Lorna now enjoys blogging on contemporary lifestyle themes. A bit daft about the garden, she’s particularly obsessed with organic tomatoes and herbs, and delights in breaking bread with family and friends.