When I came to Thailand five years ago on a four week backpacking holiday, I seem to recall only eating either Pad Thai or Green Curry. Whenever I go to the Thai restaurant back in Falmouth (big ups to Mali Thai - good food and bring your own booze - what more could you want?) I exclusively order Red Curry with coconut rice, oh and maybe some spring rolls. But that is it. Despite having been to Thailand myself, my Thai menu was limited to three things.
Now I am living over here, and I very rarely eat any of my three go-to Thai dishes. In fact, it is almost impossible to track down a Red Curry where I live, and until recently I couldn't find anywhere that would cook Pad Thai. Over the past ten months I have been on a culinary adventure, starting off only being able to order one thing (Khao Pad Gai - chicken fried rice - for lunch again anyone?) until my fledgling Thai language abilities enabled me to begin to order new dishes which I soon realised tasted far better than what I had stuck to before.
Thai food is an attack on the senses with its combination of four key flavours; sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Each dish will lean more towards one or two, but they are all there. Sweetness is brought to you by spoonfuls of sugar, sourness with vinegar or lime. Spiciness from chilies; red, green or yellow, and saltiness from nam blaa - fish sauce. It's all about the balance of the four flavours - although the thought of eating fish sauce, which stinks to high heaven when being added to the stir-fry, may put you off - without it the meal wouldn't quite taste right.
Once the dish is brought to your table you can further adjust the flavours by adding your own condiments from the table. Usually there will be a pot of sugar, a sour chili sauce, chopped chilies in fish sauce and chopped green chilies in white vinegar. Much like the salt and pepper you would get at home.
Thai food is widely varied and I haven't touched the surface when it comes to sampling everything on offer, so here is my top five for food in Thailand, in no particular order.
1. Pad Grapow Moo - stir-fried pork with holy basil and chili
I first tried this dish in a beach side restaurant on Koh Samui during my stay on the island for my TEFL training. A few of us had gone to find the Grandmother and Grandfather rocks (see my post here for when I finally actually went to visit them again) but I was either tired or hungover or just lazy, because when I saw a hint of having to walk slightly uphill I opted out and found myself a seat overlooking the beach in a nice looking restaurant. I wasn't particularly hungry so I thought I would order something different just to try it.
It was really tasty and quickly became a firm favourite of mine from then on. For a while I was eating this every other day, sometimes two days in a row. We had found a restaurant in the village that we moved to and this was the only thing that we knew that they could cook for us. It varies from place to place, sometimes using minced pork, other times thinly sliced instead. Some places throw in some carrots too. It's usually served on rice with a fried egg, but as I don't eat fried eggs I sometimes have a little omelette or nothing at all. Pad Grapow is usually pretty fiery and the fragrance brought to it by the holy basil gives it a unique taste that I really love.
2. Pad See Ew - fried noodles with dark soy sauce and vegetables
When I discovered that I wasn't able to easily order Pad Thai, this quickly became my go-to for when I need that noodle fix. Stodgy and filling, with a bit of green veg to boot. Something I miss about Western food is the portion sizes. The majority of your plate in Thailand will wither be noodles or rice - it's a carb fest out here. At least there's not so much bread; I think that was my downfall back at home. Portions of meat are small and I don't mind that, it's the equally small helpings of vegetables that I wish were bigger. Anyway, I digress. Pad See Ew can use a variety of noodles from wide and thick to thin and yellow. I always give mine a helping hand with a spoonful of chili sauce. This dish is particularly good when hungover. It's not quite a full English but it helps to soak up any leftover booze.
3. Moo Klob - crispy belly pork with sweet Chinese sauce
I'm a lover of pork belly and this is the one way I am able to get my fix of roasted meat. The pork is roasted, or maybe boiled, and then fried so it is a perfect mix of falling apart flesh and crispy fat. The sweet sauce is a welcome change from the same-same-ness of many Thai stir-fries and at this particular shop you also get a serving of sweet Thai sausage which kind of has the consistency and appearance of a cured sausage like chorizo, but a completely different flavour. Again, I spice this up; this time with sliced green chilies in white vinegar, which the owner of the food place seemed to suggest was the normal accompaniment. We go to one particular food seller for this favourite, aptly named by us as Moo Klob shop.
The thing is with living in ‘real' Thailand is that menus are written in Thai script so unless you can read Thai you have to use your spoken Thai and knowledge of what that particular place have on offer. This place is owned by what I assume is a husband and wife pairing, and they are really lovely. The first few times we went in they excitedly showed us which sauce went with which dish, and they took much enjoyment in offering Tom a bowl of tiny raw garlic cloves, "For spice!!" and watching him munch them down. Safe to say our home was vampire free for the next three days!
4. Khao Yum Gai Sap - breaded chicken with raw cabbage, carrot and onion, with a spicy and sour sauce, on top of rice
Another restaurant specific dish, this time brought to you by P.Noi, the lady whose food place (I suppose you can't really call it a restaurant as it has no walls and bare earth as the floor) is right across the street from my school. This is a one-woman-one-wok establishment and she cooks anything she has the ingredients for. This lady is responsible for my first-tastes of many a Thai dish, including this one.
Actually, the first time I tried this I had seen a student with it on her plate and used what is probably my most useful Thai phrase to date - "...nee arrai ka?" - What is this? - I had never heard of this dish but I could see it was spicy, and the fact that it was mixed with lots of yummy raw veg instantly attracted me to it; it's hard to get my salad kick out here without going to S&P and spending 150 THB (which admittedly is little over £3.00!). You can order this dish without the rice by leaving the khao off the beginning as you order.
5. Kai Teow Son Kruen - omelette stuffed with minced chicken/pork, vegetables and chili sauce
Compiling this list I almost forgot this beauty of a dish, mostly because I didn't know the Thai name for it (I do now, thanks to Teacher Oh) and so only order it when (you guessed it) I go to one particular restaurant (a really good Muslim place opposite Lee Gardens in Hat Yai - they have a menu in English which is a rarity) or when I am with Thai people. Some places don't do this because I guess it's a little fiddly. It's something that is definitely on my learn to cook list especially now I have a fully operational kitchen (even with a sink now that The Man has installed one!).
This is a thin omelette which has minced meat and veg (usually carrots, onions, maybe peppers - all diced nice and small) in a yummy, mildly spicy sauce placed in the middle. The sides of the omelette are folded over the tasty filling and the whole thing is presented folded side down on a bed of rice so you have the pleasure of cutting it open and watching the tastiness ooze out. (I need to get myself back to that Muslim restaurant ASAP!)
I'm not much of a food photographer (it is hilarious to see a table of young Thai people getting their food - they are so into social media that immediately iPhones and iPads come out to capture a picture of dinner, soon to appear on Instagram) but maybe for this post I will take a few pictures soon - watch this space.
For more of my musings on adjusting to life in Thailand visit my personal blog