Enjoy Eating Thai Style
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This gentle introduction to Thai food talks about the typical dishes and flavors you will find in Thailand...along with some of the most common ingredients. It also debunks a few of the popular misconceptions about Thai food and how it is eaten.
Enjoy Eating Thai Style
One of the things visitors to Thailand always rave about when they return home is the wonderful food they experienced while they were here. It is not surprising, then, that Thai restaurants have become extremely popular throughout Europe and America. The Origins of Thai Food While it is true that the food in South Thailand has been heavily influenced by the foods of Malaysia and Indonesia, the major influence on Thai cuisine for most of the rest of Thailand (and especially here in the North) comes from southern China and, to a lesser extent, India.
Hundreds of years ago, when the T'ai tribes migrated to this fertile land from what is now the Yunnan Province of southern China, they brought with them their customary eating habits and traditional dishes. Their diet already consisted mainly of rice. Their food was dry and they ate glutinous rice (Kaow Nee-o or "sticky rice"), which they pressed into balls which were used to scoop up the food. Even today, many of the people of northern Thailand and Laos still eat in the same way, especially in the countryside.
The cultural intermingling of the T'ai and the Chinese led to the adoption by the T'ais of many Chinese culinary practices and the Chinese influence was further strengthened over time as many Chinese migrated to Thailand.
A third century Chinese poem refers to the five basic flavors of Asian cuisine: bitter, salt, sour, hot and sweet. This balance of flavors was established early in Chinese cooking, and is certainly descriptive of Thai cooking today. The rule of five flavors is generally faithfully adhered to when planning and preparing the Thai menu.
Most dishes, now changed and adapted to Thai taste, have their origins in China. Fish, for instance, is a primary item in both Chinese and Thai cooking. The Thai dish of whole fish poached with soy and ginger, Pla Priaw Warn, is almost identical to the Chinese Ho Nan Jum Choa Yue, although with subtle differences.
Other Thai dishes with almost certain Chinese origins include omelettes stuffed with minced pork variations Kai Yaad Sai, and the tasty Mee Grob, the dish of crisp fried noodles with various meats or seafood and bean sprouts, which is surely derived from the popular Chinese chicken salad with crispy noodles.
The Indian influence on Thai cooking is more subtle and difficult to trace. However, some dishes, such as Gaeng Mussaman (Muslim curry), have come directly from the cuisine of Muslim immigrants many years ago. There is also the ubiquitous Satay, which first gained popularity south of Siam in Malaysia and Indonesia, and was introduced by Arab traders from the Middle East.
The true Indian curry, a sauce designed to add relish to rice, is an antecedent to many Thai curries, of which there are numerous examples. The use of coconut milk in southern India as an agent to dilute the fierce attack of the group of spices in the curry pastes, is identical to its use in curries and meat dishes in Thailand. Other types of Indian curries were historically described as: "a spicy stew of vegetables, fish or meat". What better way to describe the curries of Thailand? Many experienced travelers have observed that the curries available here in Thailand are actually superior to those which can be found in India.
Garlic (Gra Tiem) plays a very special role in Thai food. It is used in nearly every Thai dish served, whether it be in a restaurant or prepared at home. Part of the reason for this is the preferred taste of Thai people, but also that vast quantities of garlic are grown in Thailand and it stores well, so it is always available at very low prices. But a third reason is the addition of nutrition to the wide range of Thai dishes.
Thai garlic is much smaller than the garlic cloves found in Western countries, and it has a thinner skin. As a result, Thai garlic cloves are not peeled, and are usually simply crushed whole and added to food, this often being done in a mortar and pestle, which no Thai kitchen is without.
Coconut (Ma-Prao) coconut milk known as Grati is another integral part of Thai cuisine. Many Westerners think that coconut milk is the liquid held within the coconut, but for Asians this is simply coconut 'water'. Real coconut milk is obtained by grating the flesh of a fresh, nature coconut and squeezing it together with water. Coconut milk is an essential part of many Thai curries, soups and desserts.
Fish sauce (Naam Pla) is to Thai cooking what soy sauce is to Chinese and Japanese cooking. It is the base of most Thai sauces, except bottled chilli sauces, and most Thai dishes. It is a salty seasoning made, traditionally by fermenting tiny shrimp, salt and water together. This process goes on for several days, with daily additions of salt. This mixture is left to dry in the sun while the salty liquid drips down into a container. The liquid is then bottled and left in the sun to clear and develop its characteristics smell, Others may be happy with simple salt as a seasoning, but of to the Thai there is simply no substitute for genuine naam pla mixed with a few drops of fresh lime juice and chopped chillies to complement the individual dishes.
Green chili pepper (Prig) This innocent looking demon, which adds the all important "hot" to many Thai dishes is a relative newcomer on the scene. Back in the year 1492, when Columbus was busy discovering America, Martin Alonsa Pinon discovered the chili pepper or Capsicum. It traveled with the Portuguese back to Europe and, later, to Thailand when the Portuguese discovered the fabled Kingdom of Ayutthya around 1511. It didn't take long before the green chili rose to assume a starring role in many Thai dishes.
Chilli sauce (Naam Prig) is often served as a side dish, its a smooth mixture of the following ingredients, salted fish, garlic, red chillies, naam pla, fresh lime juice and palm sugar. One of the best bottled brands of this sauce is called "Si-racha" sauce, after a small seaside town in Chonburi province where it was first made locally and sold on the beach front seafood stands to accompany paad hoy namg lohm. Nam prig can be red or yellow and prepared in 3 strengths: mild, medium or hot spicy. Some other Thai chilli sauces are sweeter and have whole seeds and chilli fragments.
Coriander (Bhug Shee) is a plant which is part of the Western parsley family, and a most essential ingredient in Thai cooking. The seeds, roots and leaves are all used and each has its own distinct flavor. Although coriander has been used in Asia as well as the Middle East for many centuries, the Thai seem to be the only people who use the roots in their cuisine. The leaves are commonly used for decoration and in sauces and curries, while the seeds are usually found only in curry pastes.
Hot and Spicy
Many people believe that all Thai dishes are "hot and spicy" to the palate, and burn the tongue. This is not entirely true. There are many dishes that are, of course, but there are also many which are not at all. And these milder dishes are available wherever you eat.
If you are one of the ones who doesn't enjoy "hot" food, simply tell them you want "mai phet", which means "not spicy", and they will understand, and help you order something you will like. Restaurant staff are very accommodating on this, all you have to do is ask to the kitchen to prepare the dish without peppers..
Eating Thai Style
Most first-time visitors to Thailand are surprised that the Thais do not eat with chop sticks (except in the noodle shops), but rather eat with a large spoon and a fork. They adopted the fork and the large spoon, but not the knife because, like Chinese fare, Thai food is prepared in small pieces so does not need cutting at the table. The soup plate was also adopted.
Whether one talks about food recipes or eating habits, the Thais seem to have a unique way of adapting - rather than adopting - things foreign and, even though most of their dishes have origins in other cultures, over the years, they have become distinctly Thai lifestyle.
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