The first thing when talking about Thai food is of course Rice. Whether it is white steamed rice or red, brown, blue yellow or black rice, perfumed rice, whole grain rice or sticky rice doesn’t matter but it is rice. For Thai people eating without rice is like not really eating.
In English, when food is ready mom shouts everyone together and says “foods ready” in German we say “Essen” (what means “eat”), in French they say “manger” (also “eat”) but in Thailand they say “gin kao” meaning (“eat rice”). What I mean to say here is, if you ask me what is Thai food I’d have to say first its rice.
What Is Thai Food? The cuisine we all love so much
Now the secret of Thai food is the taste. It is not the seafood or the meat, not the leaves and exotic vegetables they use but it is the way they use the seasonings. For the Thai kitchen, the most important things are the five different tastes. Sweet, sour, salty, hot and bitter. The perfect balance of these tastes makes a Thai dish so very special. Of course, we all love the different ingredients Thais like to eat but without the seasoning, we would not even know it is a Thai dish.
The easiest way to eat in Thailand but still have a satisfied tummy is to eat rice together with just a spicy sauce, The sauce contains all the five tastes or at least sweet sour salty and hot plus garlic, it’s a bit thickish and very hot. Lots of times we are in a rush and eat just this, maybe with a cooked egg or some steamed vegetables and that’s fine.
In my culture, Switzerland we had things like that but the tastes were more separated. You all know how nice just a slice of bread tastes with some jam or honey… This is salty and sweet. Or a steamed or baked potato, with salt and pepper. This is also only two tastes, salty and hot. When Thais eat, things must be more interesting.
This Thai cooking culture is an old tradition that children learn from their parents from generation to generation. That’s why you will probably never eat the same menu tasting exactly the same in two different families. Regions or even different villages can be famous for a specialty they serve, although you can eat the same dish all over Thailand. The fame comes from the special mixture of tastes presented in the prepared meal.
The five tastes and where they come from
All the tastes used in the Thai kitchen are being produced in Thailand. For the best results, natural ingredients are used to create the perfect mix. Some ingredients people can grow in their backyard and some they have to buy in the market.
The Sweet Taste
The older and still often used sweet maker in the Thai kitchen is coconut palm sugar. Many people still have their palm trees and use them for many purposes but also for making sugar. Palm sugar is sold in fresh markets in cup-like brown pieces.
This product is still mainly made by hand and you won’t find two identical looking cups on the market. This is because the hot cooked out coconut sugar paste is poured into a half shell of a coconut to dry out. I love to nibble some fresh coconut sugar just like that, it tastes like a candy.
The second, nowadays more common way to produce sugar in Thailand is the sugar cane plantation. It is getting more and more common also here in my region to grow sugar cane and sell it to big sugar production plants. Sugarcane planting has a big advantage to other crops, you can harvest for several years without planting everything new.
Today, most meals are prepared with brown or white refined cane sugar. It is tasty too but certainly not as healthy as the good old coco sugar. Some specialties still have to be made with coco sugar as the world famous papaya salad. Even in Switzerland in the Thai shops, I found coconut sugar being sold. So it has not died out yet, lucky us.
The Sour Taste
First of all the fresh juice of the tasty Thai lime is used to make things sour. Us like many Thais grow them behind the house and are fortunate to use BIO limes all year round. The lime is the best-sold fruit here in Thailand and if you don’t find limes in a household, there is something wrong with their cooking style.
Lime juice belongs to almost every meal prepared in Thailand. They are a bit expensive, especially at the end of the dry season when not that many fruits are available. Things have changed now though, everybody has jumped on the lime growing boat and the prices have fallen drastically in the last year.
Limes are sold in every fresh market, by piece or in bags for then or twenty Baht. Thais are very picky when it comes to buying limes. I once grew a lot of nice big fruits, without seeds and a lot of juice. The trees grew easily and could be harvested after only one year. I could not sell them, at least not for a good price, the customers said they don’t have the right taste. They want the perfectly round ones, slim skinned and with lots of seeds, these are the best.
The second and also very important way to make our Thai food sour is the use of sour tamarind. The tamarind is a fruit growing on trees of different types. The fruit of the sour tamarind has to be dry first, then it gets pealed and unstoned and then turned into a paste.
Here sour tamarind products in every stage can be bought on fresh markets or like us, picked from our own tree. The paste is sold in plastic or glass jars internationally. Look out for sour tamarind paste for cooking. The paste is used in many soups and raw meals and gives a very special sour taste to the Thai kitchen.
Last but sadly today used far too often is the clear fermented rice vinegar produced industrially here in Thailand. There are some brands I like but some have definitely a synthetic taste. Okay, the white or rice vinegar holds much longer and for sure there are several preparations that have to be made with vinegar, like the sour sliced chilies provided on every restaurant table in Thailand.
What I not like though is when vinegar is used in freshly prepared meals just to save time or for the few Baht one can save. When you want to prepare a really nice tasty Thai dish you always need limes, even if a little bit of vinegar has to be added.
The Salty Taste
The salty taste comes from sea salt haha, what else. Thailand is producing its own sea salt since ages. Down below Bangkok in the Gulf of Thailand are the biggest salt farms of the country. The salt is harvested in the old style like it is done in every country bordering a sea.
Large flat fields are flooded with seawater and the sun dry them out. This procedure is repeated several times and like this, the water gets more and more saltier. Once the salt concentration is sufficient they let the field dry for sure and scratch off the salt crust left on the ground. It then has to be washed and some of it gets refined and made into small grains or it gets sold washed in bigger grains which is fine for cooking.
Of course, the Thai kitchen uses many different mixed salts and salted waters or sauces for their cooking like soja sauce or fish sauce I will get into that later.
Actually, today when Thais cook at home I often don’t see them using salt anymore at all. I find it a bit odd but they say a meal without “Rot Dee” doesn’t taste right. “Rot dee” is a salty powder mixture industrially produced. The brand seems to have come up at the right time when Thais learned to live in a more modern and convenient way. It is something like we know as Knorr, a bit saltier and today you will hardly find a Thai kitchen without it.
Something else a bit special about the Thai kitchen is, they don’t prepare their rice with salt. Not an itty bitty little bit of salt but plain stale rice, just as an information.
The Hot Taste
I guess we all know that. It’s chili. Every one grows chilly in their backyard. Chilly is the most sold vegetable in Thailand even more than garlic. You need to have many styles of chili ready to cook a proper Thai meal. There are the fresh chilies, big, small, red, yellow or green, then you need dry chili, the medium size red. Then the roasted medium red chilies are a must too.
At least half the things Thais eat has some form of chili in it. We eat fruit with chili, meat with chili, vegetables with chili and even some deserts need to have chili in them. Chili spices the life up here in this hot climate. A lot of dishes are eaten when not hot anymore, but with the right amount of chili, they can still burn your mouth lol.
Another spicy ingredient, not that hot, is the good old pepper as we know it. This tasty fruit is used raw fresh or dried and grained. Especially whole grapes of fresh green peppers, added in a cooked meal give a great special taste.
The Bitter Taste
The bitter taste is the least used in the daily kitchen here in Thailand. Most often the bitter taste comes from leaves or roots and these meals are often called very healthy or even some sort of preventive medication. There are loads of bitter ingredients growing wild all over the place, the only thing is to know what, when to take and eat.
On the markets are few of the most common leaves and roots sold when available but these bitter dishes are mainly prepared private at home for family and friends.
Bitter prepared meals with meat, are more popular for the older generation, often consumed with alcohol. These bitter makers are part of the animal eaten, called the bile. In the western countries this little part of the animal is not used for consumption but here some people love it.
If you happen to get the chance to eat a real “laab nua” in northeast Thailand you might taste it to be very bitter. Usually, though they ask foreigners if they like to eat the great “raw spicy minced beef” with the bitter or without.
So much for the five taste directions in the Thai cuisine. Now we want to learn a little of what is actually prepared with all these exquisite aroma buffets.
What is Thai food besides rice and spices
To put it in a short sentence, Thais eat everything that is edible and doesn’t make them sick.
It is much easier to call out what they don’t eat. Now house cats they definitely do not eat, dogs, sadly are still on the menu of some few, although it is not allowed anymore. I have never heard of Thai people eating elephants as well and there I think the list is about to end.
I can come up with anything brought from Switzerland and it will be eaten sooner or later. With some extreme french cheese, it takes more to find someone not scared to try, especially here in the countryside.
Meat used for typical Thai dishes
Pork, beef, chicken, and duck are the most commonly used animal meats. These animals get eaten off 100% though. Many dishes are specialties with chicken giblets, even the unfinished eggs are sold as a special. The same happens to all the other species. The difference in price on a kilo of raw pork bacon or a nice dry stake is like nothing. You might even pay more for the liver than for some real meat.
You will never get a big piece of meat on your plate when you eat Thai food. You will never see a Thai eat with a knife as well. The biggest chunks of meat you find in long-cooked soups, sorry, there’s always an exception, the grilled chicken you buy in the street is in one piece. But you have to react fast if you want to take it away like that or they chop it into smaller handy pieces faster than you can say hello.
Actually, most meat is served in a sort of chopped hand minced way. Thais don’t usually eat a big percentage of meat and with the mixtures of spicy sauce and minced meat, it is easy to get little bits of everything on a full spoon of rice.
The same works for all the different curies, lots of small pieces, chopped bones and everything mixed. Be aware of the bone pieces, they can easily hurt when bitten on too strong or get stuck between the teeth. My father hated this about the Thai food, “always these chicken bone pieces between my teeth”.
Thai meat dishes are prepared like everywhere, grilled, fried or cooked. I prefer the grilled on charcoal but the best I still prepare at home. Thais often leave their meat on the fire for too long and eat it quite dry. Don’t let a Thai prepare a beef steak for you or you will be disappointed, They manage to turn a perfect filet into a piece of a shoe sole. (Sorry for that, but it happened more than once).
All the other, smaller, wild, animals like toads, snakes, field rats or some birds and small lizards are also chopped in small pieces with bones and prepared with a lot of garlic, chili, and all the other spices and then made hot in oil in the wok. Don’t worry, these delicatessens are not on the daily menu and can rarely be eaten in restaurants.
Freshwater Fish and Shrimp
There are three kinds of fish eaten most often in Thailand. The first is a catfish type (blah duk) which is mainly grilled or cooked. The two others are the orange and grey Tilapia (blah tabtim, blah nin). These are prepared steamed, cooked, fried and grilled. Thais love to eat fish a lot.
In every fresh market, you will see these three fishes being sold fresh, most often alive. They cost less than pork but make a very nice menu. I prefer to eat these farmed fish to sea fish here in central Thailand. I can get them fresh every day what is not guaranteed if you eat fish from the sea.
Another specialty out of fresh water ar the farmed shrimp. They sell quite big but also smaller sized sweetwater shrimp in some markets. They are quite expensive, especially the big tiger prawns which go for more than 350-400 Baht per kilo, compared to pork, 140 per kilo.
Still, when you eat tiger prawns in a restaurant, made for a Thai audience, you get a nice portion for not much more than 400 Baht. To eat all of these freshwater creatures is a little problematic though due to sometimes too extensive farming using too many chemicals to keep them from getting sick. I eat fish once a week here or if I get my own, it doesn’t matter because they get no medicine at all:)
Seafood Thailands favorite
You can eat seafood meals almost everywhere, even if you are far away from the sea. Squit and shrimp, sometimes also shells. I try to avoid these things as long as I am not at the beach. At the beach, though it is a pleasure to try all the different kinds of seafood offered.
You still want to make sure you eat fresh seafood, even when you can see the beach from the restaurant. A good sign for quality and fresh seafood is if the restaurant or shop sells a lot to locals. Locals know who tries to sell old stuff or who is cheating.
The most dangerous places to eat seafood or actually any kind of food is in places specialized for foreign customers. They have the problem, they are dependent on tourists due to higher price and if they don’t sell out every day they don’t like to throw away food but rather sell it another day. They don’t have to worry about a bad image amongst the Thai community because these don’t eat there.
It is great to walk through fresh fish markets in fishing villages. I always see exciting strange looking creatures sold here which in Europa or elsewhere I have never seen before. There you can check out what you want to eat in the evening. Things sold in the fresh fish market you get almost for sure fresh on your table. Things they don’t have in the marked are delivered either frozen or bought days before.
Vegetables are used a lot in the Thai cuisine
Now vegetables of all kinds are a must in the Thai kitchen, one of the most common is the really nice and fresh water spinach. But, from different mushrooms to tomato, pumpkins, onion, cucumber, soja shoots, salads, eggplant, pepperoni, white radish, carrots and and and everything has its place in one of the many dishes in the Thai kitchen.
The Thai people actually eat quite healthy, a lot of vegetables are eaten raw or just steamed a little with rice and one of the many different hot pastes, sauces. It might be a little hard to get these things on your table
when you just come for a holiday and are depending on eating out. But
due to the rather cheap price, vegetables go for an average of 30 Baht a kilo, Thais love to eat a lot of them.
Very important are the different fresh herbs used for cooking and eaten raw to almost every meal. The most important are coriander, leaves and root, hot basil, Thai sweet basil, garlic, spring onion, lemongrass, ginger roots and galanga root, turmeric, Kafir lime leaves and spare mint.
Sum up, what is Thai food
A portion of rice, a plate of somehow prepared meat or fish, an omelet or fried or cooked egg, a plate of steamed or fried vegetables and a plate of raw vegetables and herbs and at least one or more hot spicy sauce-mixes. And of course a glass of water after eating.
These are the typical breakfasts, lunches, and dinners around here in the locals homes. The variety of mixes is endless and only limited by the fantasy of the cook or the budget. Most often there are one or two ingredients found in the garden or just growing around the house.
Of course, this is far not all I could write about Thai food but for today it has to be enough. There are deserts, fruits and salads I didn’t mention yet. Don’t worry, I’ll be there. If you would like to always get my newest posts per Email please subscribe, at the top right side of the post.
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