A trip to the Land of Smiles just wouldn't be complete without sampling some authentic Thai dishes, and it would be considered an act of sacrilege if you resort to fast food when you're in the city where tasty food can be found 24 hours on almost every street corner. Due to its geographical location and cultural heritage, Thai food is often said to be a fusion of Indian and Chinese food. That's just a short-cut definition though, because many different influences are evident. Some Thai desserts, for example, have a distinct Portuguese influence. Modern Thai cuisine, snacks and even eating habits show many other signs of Western 'interference' too.
Although often thought of as a whole, Thai food is divided into four different types according to its region of origin, namely Central, Northern, Northeastern (aka Isaan), and Southern. Each region brings with it a touch of foreign influences and unique tastes. Many dishes of the Central region are Chinese-influenced, whereas the Southern ones have distinct Malay touches. People in the Central and Southern regions eat steamed rice with side dishes, such as curries, paste dips with fresh vegetables, stir-fried dishes and soups. However, many Southern dishes tend to consist mainly of seafood and fish, and the taste tends to be sour, salty and very hot since people like to use turmeric in cooking.
The Northern and Northeastern people prefer steamed glutinous rice (sticky rice) to non-glutinous rice. Northern dishes are generally milder than those of the other regions. The most famous northern-style dinner is 'Khantok', which contains sticky rice, curries and 'Nam Prik Ong' (a spicy sauce with minced pork, tomatoes and chilies in it). The food are placed in a wooden tray and guests would, traditionally, sit on the floor and eat with their hands.
The taste of Northeastern (Isaan) food is stronger, more salty, sour and much hotter (spicier) than elsewhere in the country. Most dishes are influenced by Lao cuisine. It is, perhaps, Thai people's most favourite food and the culinary 'nemesis' of many foreigners (farang). 'Som Tum' (spicy papaya salad), 'Kai Yang' (grilled chicken), 'Larb Moo' (spicy minced pork salad) and sticky rice are a must-try. One unique characteristic of Isaan food is 'Pla Ra' (fermented fish). It is plainly eaten with sticky rice or added to 'Som Tum' and other dishes. Be warned that it has a very strong smell and you might find the taste a little too 'different'. Don't let a chili-phobia restrict you from trying Isaan food. If you want to try something from street vendors, simply remember these basic Thai phrases like 'mai ped' (not spicy) or 'mai sai prik' (no chilies) and you'll be safe. 'Prik Khii Nu' (small red and green chilies) are especially, well, 'hazardous'. Despite their humble size, these little ones are exceptionally potent, and have an unforgettable, long-lasting effect.
Ingredients & Cooking Styles
Thai cooking involves the use of ingredients like chili, shrimp paste, fish sauce, sour tamarind, garlic, lemongrass, ginger, shallots, spring onion and coconut milk. Most of which carry medicinal benefits. The smell of 'Nam Pla' (fish sauce) may take a bit of getting used to for some, but it's a vital ingredient used in most, if not all, Thai dishes. Meat and vegetables are either cut or sliced into small pieces to accommodate Thai cooking styles such as stir-frying, deep-frying, steaming, boiling and grilling. Hence, the use of a spoon and fork to eat with, since everything has already been sliced up for you.