At the table, Thai rice is served much hotter than other Asian countries, and usually kept warm, covered, spoonfuls served out onto the plate only when needed.
Sticky rice is traditionally served in a bamboo basket to keep it warm and moist, and is always eaten with the fingers, rolled up into a ball and dipped into sauces or consumed with dishes. Sticky rice is also transformed into sweets, usually combined with coconut, as in the banana leaf parcels of sticky rice sold on the streets.
Despite the majority of Thais being Buddhists, very few Thais are vegetarian. Instead most observe a distinction between killing an animal themselves and eating it, with fishing deemed perfectly acceptable. Thais have never been great meat-eaters or hunters. In such a fertile environment food is easily foraged from the land, river and sea, so protein is more likely to come in the form of fish, tofu, and nuts.
Thailand's long southern tail offers kilometers of seafood-rich water, relatively inexpensive and eaten at almost every meal, especially in the south. Even in the landlocked north, the country is endowed with plentiful fresh-water fish, in its extensive network of streams, rivers, ponds, even rice paddy fields, especially during the monsoon season.
Fish tends to be served whole in Thailand, simply steamed or grilled with chili, lime juice or ginger. It is also roasted, wrapped in banana leaves, or deep-fried and smothered with a sauce. Seafood is also notably used in Thailand's hot and sour salads (yum). Thai dishes also have their distinctive taste from the sea in the form of seasoning like shrimp paste and fish sauce.
The versatile coconut
As the Thais eat almost no dairy products, the creaminess of their savory dishes, rich sweets comes instead from the coconut, a fruit available and scattered with abundance across the whole country.
The coconut is one of the most versatile foods in the world. Unusually, Thai cooking doesn't make much use of animal fats so coconut cream, the main source of fat in the Thai diet, also replaces oil or butter in many recipes. Curry pastes and fresh seasonings are cooked in the oil that separates out from the heated coconut cream, then meat, poultry, seafood or vegetables are added to the soup.
Fresh coconut cream isn't in fact the liquid found inside the nut, but is made from grated coconut meat steeped in hot water and ‘milked ‘to produce a liquid with a rich, thick consistency. This cream contains little water so that it can be cooked to a high temperature. Its thinner relation, coconut milk, is taken from a second soaking. The coconut meat is also grated for cooking some dishes.
One of the most distinctive aspects of Thai cooking is its use of fresh herbs. Herbs certainly contribute flavor, handfuls tossed into dishes to give a pungent essence.
In most Thai recipes, coriander is the essential herb. Unusually it is the roots that are prized for their aroma and heady taste, pounded with garlic, salt and peppercorns as a foundation for many dishes. The refreshing leaves and stems are added to almost all soups, salads and fish dishes.
Thai cooks also use three varieties of basil, all quite different from European basil. Thai sweet basil has a basic flavor, its aniseed pungency sweetening soups and red yellow curries. The strong aroma of holy basil, sometimes called ‘hot basil ‘because of its peppery spiciness, is accentuated when cooked and used only in strong dishes. There is also delicate lemon basil thrown into soups and seafood. Spearmint is added fresh to seafood or minced meat salads, it's cool fragrance and taste a contrast to the chili-heat of these dishes.
Thai soups are not quite what you might expect from the name. A unique component of most meals, they are neither the individual bowls of chicken noodle or minestrone soup found in western cooking nor the digestive broths of Chinese and Japanese cuisine. Instead, a Thai soup (tom), is brought to the table with all the other dishes, to form a harmonious, balanced meal. Ladled into small bowls, the occasional spoonful is sipped during a dinner to counterbalance the other flavors. Thought of only as part of the whole, never as a dish that stands alone. Thai soups can vary enormously, some bursting with spicy, strong flavors, others almost delicate, balancing the sharp tastes or cutting the richness of other dishes.
To many people outside of Thailand, Tom Yum is one of the best known Thai dishes, a hot prawn soup (Tom Yum Kung) aromatic with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. To the Thais (tom) which literally means to ‘boil ‘and (yum) to ‘mix'. A Tom Yum, with its intense combination of heat, astringency and a sweet fragrance, is a liquid version of the most essential elements of Thai cooking and appear to have originated in China.
Thai food is renowned as one of the hottest cuisines; its use of chilies is world renowned and feared by the uninitiated. With so much use of chilies in Thai cooking it's hard to believe that chilies are not indigenous, but introduced to Thailand by the Portuguese in the 16th century.
There is lots of chili varieties used in Thai cooking and they use different ones to match different dishes. The much used tiny bird's eye chili (phrik kee ngoo; mouse droppings) is famous for its heat, the Thais say it gives them power and strength. Long, or sky-pointing, red, green or yellow chilies are milder and are used in salads, stir-fries and curries, especially in northern Thailand were dishes are less scorching.
Dried chilies are also used to gives a more mellow taste to dishes, they are soaked in hot water to soften and used in Thai curry pastes, very similar to some Indian techniques. While dishes containing fresh green chilies tend to be cooked for a shorter time to keep flavors fresh, red curries made with dried red chilies are cooked a little longer to give a nutty, spicy taste and fragrance.
Influence of Thai royalty
The contribution of the royal court to the cooking of Thai food is perhaps more significant than in any other nation. Thai royalty, by using food as a status symbol to set themselves apart from their agricultural society, elevated the art of cooking to high culture and encouraged immense creativity among Thai cooks. It was thus the aristocracy who mainly recorded Thai recipes, with even kings penning their own cook books.
Royal cuisine has, despite this, always been surprisingly similar to the food eaten by the majority of the population, the biggest difference being the quality of produce and exquisite presentation. Elegant, subtle and refined, this Thai cuisine tends to be served as part of a multi-course affair, the emphasis on smaller portions and beautiful fruit and vegetable carving, an art form passed down from the royal court to the humblest Thai in a village.
Tom yum kung as a whole dish is hard to trace. The origin of adding prawns, there is no evidence where a Thai spicy soup with prawns originates from.
We can write about many aspects of tom yum, including its medical properties, written historical evidence from poems and songs and some of the first Thai cook books, Thai royal court, religion, and the Sukhothai to Ratthanakosia periods (1157 to present)
In the case of Thai cuisine, the formation of the culinary form came about in a landscape dominated by the culture of the central Thais, and led by their aristocratic elites. Two factors played an important part in this formulation; first, the social dynamic of Thai settlement, and secondly, the emergence of Bangkok as a political and cultural center of Siam following the fall of Ayutthaya (Old Thai capital) in 1767.
Thai cuisine has been influenced by Indian curry and Chinese stir- frying techniques. In fact traditional curry pastes and Thai cuisine has its own culinary style and the most complex and refined in Asia. Thai cuisine today can be divided into seven subsidiary variations. Six of these are distinguishable regional variations, Northern or (Lanna), North-Eastern or (Isan), Eastern, Sothern, Central Plains and Bangkok. The seventh variation is the Royal Court Cuisine.
The culture of food responds to major political happenings, changes in the territorial order of regimes, great discoveries, the outcome of wars, and the triumphs and defeats of countries.
I hope you enjoyed the read. Please pay a visit to my 'History of Asian Food' website for a great selection of Asian recipes. Kind regards, Paul Muir.