THAI DISHES: FAMOUS DISHES, REGIONAL FAVORITES, DESSERTS AND SNACKS

THAI DISHES

According to the book The Thai Kitchen:A full traditional Thai meal is composed of several kinds of food cooked in different ways. There would very likely be a clear soup ( tom chuet), a salty soup ( tom khem), a spicy shrimp soup ( tom yam kung), a green curry ( kaeng khiao wan), a spicy chicken curry in coconut milk ( tom kha kai), and a curry without coconut milk ( kaeng pa), which taken all together have a balanced composition of meat and vegetables, as well as special ingredients to add taste, color, and aroma to the food. Some of the ingredients help digestion, get rid of flatulence, and drive away gas in the abdomen.[Source: thailand.prd.go.th/ebook/kitchen ]

“Apart from soup and curry, there are at least one or two other kinds of food in a meal. There is steamed and grilled food, as well as Thai paste sauce for dipping vegetables, such as shrimp paste sauce ( nam phrik kapi), salted soya beans ( lon tao jiao), northern Thai spicy pork tomato paste ( nam phrik ong), northern Thai spicy paste sauce ( nam phrik num), grilled shrimp paste sauce ( nam phrik kung siab), and grilled fish paste sauce ( nam phrik pla yang). These Thai paste sauces can be eaten with fresh, steamed, and boiled vegetables, and with meats, such as grilled, steamed, or roasted fish and roasted shrimps or even the small fried fish called "pla thu," full of protein and calcium. [Ibid]

Thai dishes include pad tai (fried noodle, bean sprouts, peanuts, eggs, chilies and prawns sometimes seafood, lime, tamarind, and peanuts), som tom (papaya salad), khow pat (fried rice with garlic, peppers and fish sauce), khow pat kai (khow pat with chicken), khow pad (khow pat with crab meat), khow pat moo (khow pat with pork), khow pat kung (khow pat with prawns), tom yam gun (spicy lemon grass soup with prawns, chicken or fish), yam (spicy Thai salad), kaeng kari (Indian-style curry) and gaeng ped (Thai-style curry with beef or chicken with coconut milk, chilies and spices).

Among the other popular dishes are hommok (fish steamed with coconut milk) mii grob (crisp fried noodles), pat prii oh wahn (sweet and sour vegetables), nua pat nammun hoy (beef in oyster sauce), tom kha khai (chicken with ginger and coconut milk), kai yang (barbecued chicken with grated coconut), poo cha (crab meat with vegetables), and pla pad khing (fried rice with ginger); tom kar gai (chicken and coconut milk soup), gai hao bai toey (chicken in pandanus leaf), green curry, and som tam malagor (papaya salad).

Also try kuay toaw name (rice noodles with meat, vegetables or fish in broth), bami nam (egg noodles with meat or vegetables in broth), kaeng kari kae (curried chicken), pla dook (catfish), pla pow haw bai ong (grilled fish in banana leaves), tom kha gao sai hua plee-pao (chicken with banana flower in coconut milk soup), yum won sen (clear fine noodle salad), kaeng jeud (pork, chicken or prawn soup), khai dao (fried eggs), scrambled eggs (khai khon ), and omelette (khai jii oh ).

Famous Thai Dishes

Pad thai is probably the most well known Thai dish. It is found in almost every Thai restaurant outside Thailand. Originally it was a Chinese dish brought to Thailand in the 19th century. The pad thai served in Thailand tends to be much less sweet than the pad thai found in the United States. See Recipes for ingredients and How to Make it.

A Thai curry or soup is usually served with a meal. The consistency of each Thai curry varies widely, with some curries arguably classifiable as soups. However, most Thai curries are coconut milk-based and some are spicier than others. Gaeng massaman , is a mild, peanut and potato curry; gaeng kiaw wan (Thai green curry) is a curry of medium thickness and spiciness, while gaeng daeng (red curry), otherwise known as gaeng pet (spicy curry), is a thinner, obviously spicier option. Tom kha, a mild coconut soup, blurs the lines between soup and curry, while Tom Yam Kung, a quintessential Thai soup, is often blisteringly hot. Although some curries and soups can be served without meat for vegetarians, many Thai cooks put fish sauce in all dishes as it’s the Thai substitute for salt.

Thais like salads that are sour and hot. The sourness is often provided by lime or pomelo juice and the hotness comes from chilies. Some feature seafood such as mussels crabs, jellyfish, squid or shrimp. Other use fruit as a prime ingredient. Many are unique to specific areas.

Papaya salads known as som tom are very popular in Northeast Thailand and among non-Thai lovers of Thai food. They are usually made with shredded green papaya pounded with a wooden pestle in a ceramic mortar and along with chillies, garlic, lime juice shallots, green beans, peanuts, small tomatoes and other ingredients. The shredded papaya provides a sweet flavor and crunchy texture. The chilies give it some fire and the lime juice gives it a desired tartness. In some places it is made with small land crabs and fermented fish sauce. Mango salads and catfish salads are also popular.

Thai salad is generally made of raw vegetables mixed with chili, lime, and fish sauce, though some, such as yam neua (Thai beef salad) contain meat. The most internationally recognized Thai salad, som tam is technically a dish of Lao origin, and is most popular in Northeastern Thailand, where it is prepared in a manner that would wreak havoc on the stomach of an unsuspecting visitor unaccustomed to real spicy Thai food. Som Tam consists primarily of shredded papaya and is often served with grilled chicken (gai yang).

Yam som-o, is a more mild salad that is based on the pomelo, a fruit similar to, but less sour than, a grapefruit. Yam som-o is usually served with shredded chicken. Other salads include Yam Neua, a Thai beef salad served with tomato and onion, and Yam Wonsan, a glass noodle and shrimp salad. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Bangkok is famed of its curry crab. Kazuo Nagata wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “The popular Bangkok restaurant Somboon Seafood is famed for its “Original Poo Patpong Fried Curry Crab”. Stir-fried crab with curry powder has been standard fare since olden times in Thailand, but the restaurant claims its dish is “original” because the sauce is thickened with eggs, said Warach Ruengsri, 43, Somboon’s general manager. Duck eggs, which are said to create a more savory smell than chicken eggs, are used in the dish. The curried crab is not as spicy as other items on the menu, and a pinch of sugar and other ingredients are added to the sauce to make the taste of the crabmeat stand out—a perfect match for steamed rice. The dish is priced from 320 baht to 1,200 baht (US$10 to $38) depending on the size of crab. [Source: Kazuo Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun, August 22, 2013]

Desserts and Snacks in Thailand

Common desserts include foi tong (egg yoke and sugar), slaim (sweet noodles in coconut milk and shaved ice), songkaya (pudding made with eggs, palm sugar and coconut mimed and often served in a coconut shell, kow neo mamuang (sticky rice served with mango), khao niao gao (sweetened sticky rice that has been shaped into flower pedals), tago (a coconut flavored treat wrapped in a banana leaf), sweet, nutty taro ice cream, tapioca balls served with coconut syrup and fresh fruit. Fruit is also a common Thai dessert and is usually served plain and sliced, though mango with sticky rice, covered in sweet coconut milk is a popular dessert when mangos are in season.

Also worth trying are sangkha-yaa ma-hrao (coconut custard), maw kaeng (egg custard), kluay buat chil (banana with coco nut milk), kluay khaek (fried Indian-style bananas), luuk taan cheuam (sweet palm kernels), ta-koh (Thai jelly with coconut cream), khao niaw daeng (sticky rice with coconut cream), met kha nun ( balls made from crushed beans and wrapped in egg), Thai custard (khanom mo kaeng), khanom chan (Thai layer cake), bua loi (rice dumpling in coconut milk soup), fak thong kaeng buat (pumpkin boiled in coconut milk and sugar), kluai chueam (candied banana), luk chup (crushed beans in fruit shapes and dipped in Thai jelly) and thapthim krop (crisp water chestnut in coconut milk).

You wouldn’t think it, looking at slim waist lines of many Thais, but Thai people love to eat desserts—both traditional Thai desserts as well as western fare such as cakes and ice cream. Traditional Thai desserts are quite sweet, made predominately from various combinations of rice, coconut milk, and sugar, along with a few seemingly less common dessert ingredients, such as sweet corn or kidney beans. Some egg based Thai desserts trace their history back to the influence of Portuguese missionaries (who also introduced the chili!). While these desserts are not prominently featured on menus in Thai restaurants and infrequently ordered at the conclusion of a meal, they are occasionally served complimentarily or can be found at street stalls that specialize in particular desserts. [Source: Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department]

Thai desserts and sweetmeats come in diverse forms and are served both heated and chilled. Most are in pleasant shapes and forms, in bright colors.Thai desserts are based on fruits and produce such as banana, sugar palm nut, coconut, young rice, maize, sweet potato, taro, rice flour, and tapioca flour, made into puree over a fire, steamed, boiled in syrup, fried, and baked. Egg yolk is added for desserts like golden thread and golden drop. Some are boiled in coconut milk, or eaten with fruit, such as creamy steamed sticky rice with ripe mango, and several others. [Ibid]

According to the study "Finding Thailand's Place in World Cuisine in the Next Ten Years," the Thai desserts most popular with foreigners were banana in coconut milk (kluai buat chi), sweet glutinous rice jam (khao niao kaeo), sweet rice noodles in coconut milk (lotchong nam kathi), Thai pudding with coconut topping (tako), Thai custard with coconut (maphrao sangkhaya), Gold Thread (foi thong), Thai custard ( sangkhaya), Gold Touch (thong yip), and Gold Drop (thong yot). The researcher observed that, when it came to desserts, the Asians differed from the Europeans and Americans, many of whom said that they usually did not eat dessert. Along with the desserts mentioned above, Asian people enjoy sweet glutinous rice with durian in coconut milk (khao niao turian), thick vermicelli in coconut milk syrup (pla krim khai tao), and sweet glutinous rice with mango (khao niao mamuang).

Vegetarian Food in Thailand

Reporting initially from the Phuket Vegetarian Festival, Gregory Dicum wrote in the New York Times: “In Thailand, food made without animal ingredients is called jeh, a term generally used interchangeably with the Western idea of vegetarian food, particularly at restaurants frequented by foreigners. But it also has a deeper dimension of religious purity: at the festival, only food made at the ornate, bustling shrines is sanctified and thus technically jeh. Devout participants come each evening to collect their jeh meals in steel tiffin carriers. The food, prepared by cheerful volunteers in cauldrons as big as bathtubs, is free. If it has a certain overcooked institutional quality, it is from an institution that knows its way around herbs and spices: flavors are assertive and complex. [Source: Gregory Dicum, New York Times, February 23, 2009]

“The combined influence of newly strict interpretations of Buddhist principles, Western notions of vegetarianism and prominent Thai vegetarians like Chamlong Srimuang (he led last year’s antigovernment protests and started Suan Pai, a chain of indifferent vegetarian restaurants) has resulted in a growing contingent of restaurants serving vegetarian Thai food — a welcome addition to one of the greatest eating countries on Earth. It fits in well with Thailand’s culinary sophistication, a tradition that prizes freshness and bold, but balanced, flavors. [Ibid]

Among the goodies found at the Phuket Vegetarian Festival are roasted plantains, fried bananas, curry fritters, spring rolls, noodle rolls, hunks of jackfruit and durian, mangoes and rose apples, and sticky rice wrapped in pandanus leaves, mango with sticky rice and salty coconut sauce, grilled corn, boiled peanuts, steamed buns, fruit-flavored mochi rolled in coconut, dark cubes of grass jelly, and roasted purple-skinned sweet potatoes, wheat noodles in a rich brown broth topped with wood ears and white fungus, crisp tofu chunks, fried wonton wrappers, fresh juices, soy chicarrones ad curries made with long beans, greens, bitter melon, water mimosa and small green eggplants. [Ibid]

Dicum wrote:” I ducked into the shade of an awning shared by a number of stalls for a sliced cutlet of faux chicken (crispy skin, succulent flesh — so convincing it’s impossible to guess what it might have been made of) served on rice with a hot, sweet barbecue sauce redolent of peanuts and coconut. In a droll play on globalization, the stall was called “JFC”. Two dishes of “chicken” and rice, some noodles and a couple of Cokes cost the equivalent of about $4. As we ate, a medium in a yellow apron, his head shaking from side to side in trance and his bare arms covered in tattoos, came through the dining area. 1b4

“After the festival, I headed to the northern city of Chiang Mai to taste how the country’s vegetarian currents come together most completely. I visited Khun Churn, a pioneer vegetarian restaurant...for painstakingly crafted vegetarian versions of classic Thai dishes. I tried mieang ta krai bai cha pla, bundles of fresh herbs (including lemon grass, mint and cilantro) mixed with roasted sesame, peanuts, coconut and chili paste set atop a pretty flower of dark green betel leaves. I wrapped one into a zingy little bundle and popped it into my mouth, marveling at the peppery bite that demonstrated the incomparable qualities of Thai food in Thailand: rare ingredients, sublimely fresh and prepared by masters. [Ibid]

Larb “Esarn, a northern dish in which the ground pork was replaced by steamed chopped tofu with dried chilies, ground roasted rice, shallots, mint, green onions and coriander root, was just one of 14 spicy salads on the menu. It was vibrant and peppery; salty spice carried a high note of lime juice in an explosive bouquet. I can’t help judging a Thai restaurant by its green curry, and Khun Churn’s gaeng keaw wan yod ma prow was alive with delightfully succulent white coconut sprouts, chewy soy protein, crisp baby corn, soft green eggplant and tiny eggplants the size of blueberries that popped in my mouth with a soft crunch. I thought the curry was a little light on coconut milk, but it made my nose run in short order, just the way I like. [Ibid]

“The menu at Pun Pun was the least traditional, but most playful and delicate, at the restaurants I visited. Salad dok mai was a mound of vibrant fried flowers: fuchsia bougainvilleas, little green buds and pink blossoms like crepe paper that carried a note of bitterness under a lush garlicky dressing. Khao Soi, a classic northern dish of egg noodles in yellow curry sauce, was spicy and rich. The crispy-soft noodles fell like elegant ribbons from the tips of my chopsticks. Pad pak good was a stir fry of fiddleheads, which I had never before encountered in Thailand. The unfurling fern leaves were crunchy and just slightly succulent, offset by delicate cubes of tofu and shiitake buttons. This artistry emboldened me to try Pun Pun’s gaang massaman. It was creamy and rich, just as it should be; tawny with cashews and angular cubes of potato jostling on my spoon with silky oyster mushrooms. I visited on a hot day, when the shade of the tree and an ice cold glass of lemon grass juice, with simple syrup on the side, made for the ideal refuge.” [Ibid]

Regional Thai Foods

While “Thai food” has gained international recognition, Thai cuisine can actually be broken down by the region from which it originated. Each of Thailand’s different regions has developed its own style and is responsible for dishes that are quite different from those of other regions. Each region of the country has its specific dishes and dining methods, depending on the culture and weather conditions that prevail. Such regional specialties reflect the local wisdom of the region, with recipes thought up and improved in accordance with available resources and the region’s unique cultural traits. For example, people in the central and the southern regions eat white rice, while their counterparts in the North and Northeast enjoy plenty of sticky rice, conveniently conveyed to the mouth by the fingers, along with selected food from shared dishes.

Local Thai foods offer many varieties and flavors depending on the regional culture and the region's natural condition, as well as the cultural exchange with its neighboring countries such as China, Laos, Burma, and Malaysia; then the foods are modified to please the Thai palate in that region. While some Thai restaurants specialize in specific dishes, most have a huge menu of Thai and western fare and prepare Thai food from throughout the kingdom.

Thai foods can be categorized by the four regions: North, Northeast, Central, and South. Thai food from Issarn, in the northeast of Thailand, shares many similarities with cuisine from neighboring Laos, though the Thai versions of the dishes, such as Som Tam, are a lot heavier on the chili. Southern curries on the other hand, are less spicy, with a greater Malaysian influence, and feature more coconut and turmeric. And while Thai people love fish, whether from the river or the sea, Thailand’s beaches are the prime destinations to sample the best Thai seafood dishes.

Thai Food from the Central Plains

Thai dishes from the Central Plains are renowned for their variety and taste. They incorporate the food from the royal court with food from ordinary folk and foreign dishes from China, India, the West and Japan, most of whom first came to Siam during the Ayutthaya period. Some dishes have been modified and are now included in the daily meals. Food from the Royal Household have been crafted by chefs famous for their skill, their meticulous selection of ingredients and condiments, and their particular cooking method. The dishes are well-balanced in flavor and beautifully presented. If vegetables are used in cooking or dipped in sauces, they are carved and decorated beautifully.

The taste of the Central Plains dishes is distinctive because they combine sour, sweet, salty, and spicy. Most central Thai people prefer well-balanced flavors with a hint of sweetness. Most importantly, they "cut sugar" by adding palm sugar after the food is cooked to enhance the taste. Well-known Thai dishes among foreigners are mostly from the central region. They are modified more than the dishes from other regions are to please consumer's palates.

Some of the Central Plains dishes are complicated to cook and to present. There are various cooking methods' but the most popular ones are boiling, sauteing, and deep-frying. Coconut milk is used in all types of curry. The central region's staple feature is rice, which is eaten mainly with spicy dips and fresh or boiled vegetables. Dishes produced by local people traditionally did not use any special ingredients or condiments. Foreigners introduced many of the spices common in central Thai dishes today. For example, kaeng khiao wan (green curry), the popular spicy coconut milk curry, incorporates spices from India.

Thai desserts from the central region are elaborately made and beautifully garnished, as most recipes are brought from the royal palace. The region is also home to sugar palm plantations, apart from being the hub for foreign trade. Several desserts were introduced in the Ayutthaya period by the Japanese wife of Constantin Phaulcon, a Greek adventurer who became the First Minister at the court of King Narai. They also carry auspicious names and are now served in celebrations and festivals.

Thai Dishes of the Central Region

Regular rice is the staple food in this region. There are varieties of dishes that the people here eat with their rice, and a meal often includes some form of spicy dip for vegetables, a hot and sour vegetable soup, a type of curry, and a plate of fried vegetables, or a soup and a spicy fried meat dish. They also have seasonal dishes, such as cold rice soup, or sticky rice topped with ripe mangoes in the hot season. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

A meal in the central region may typically consist of steamed white rice, preferably the aromatic jasmine rice, with about 3-5 shared dishes on the table, depending on the number of diners. Shared dishes may be a side dish of fried fish cakes, a dip or a spicy salad of winged beans, a spicy fried dish, and a spicy soup. The dip comes with finely carved and arranged vegetables, while the spicy soup invariably contains coconut milk. Moreover, a meal in the central region almost always comes with condiments, such as a fried shrimp paste dip with carved vegetables and sweetened pork. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Many dishes of the central region are widely known and favored all over the world, especially tom yam kung – spicy prawn soup; tom kha kai – chicken in galangal soup with coconut milk; kaeng khiao wan – spicy green soup; and phat thai – fried rice noodles. Also, ho mok pla – Thai fish paté – represents local wisdom and refinement, with the mixture of fish flesh with herbs and coconut milk, wrapped in banana leaf and steamed.

Northern Thai Food and Eating Customs

Food in Northern Thailand includes both dishes handed down over the generations from the Lanna kingdom and those influenced by its neighbors, especially Myanmar (Burma), and various minority groups that have been living in the area for many years: Tai Yai, Haw Chinese and Tai Lue. The ingredients are found primarily in the local areas, and the varieties depend on the season. One popular meat is pork, because it is easy to find and inexpensive; others are beef, chicken, and duck. Seafood is not popular because of its high price, since the area is far from the sea.

Northerners serve their meals on a raised vessel called "tok." Parties and functions are called "khan tok,” where several small dishes of food are placed on a round, low tray with legs, surrounded by diners who share the food while conversing among themselves. There are various kinds of food on a tok, which come in three different sizes: "khan tok luang" (large tok) is used in northern royal palaces and principal temples; "khan tok ham" (medium-sized tok) is used by large families, and "khan tok noi" (small tok) by small families. Lannastyle khan tok parties have become a very popular tour program that educates tourists about one of the most enjoyable cultural features of the North. A khan tok dinner is a distinctive way to offer a warm welcome to guests, and it is popular at functions to preserve local culture, with participants dressed in local style, as well as demonstrations of local food cooking, and folk entertainment for guests.

Most dishes are eaten with glutinous rice. The flavors are neutral, so none is strongly distinctive but they have a hint of salty, spicy hot, tangy, and sweet notes. They do not use coconut cream or sugar. The dishes are cooked until well done, and fresh vegetables are boiled until tender. Fried dishes are saturated with cooking oil and the most popular condiment used for adding flavor is field crab juice. The spicy curries of Lan Na are made without coconut milk, similar to those in India and Myanmar. If coconut milk is added they call it kaeng kathi (coconut milk soup), which is different from the curry from the central region. The one without coconut milk is called kaeng phet (spicy hot soup).

Food in the northern region is also under the influence of the weather. On chilly days, people warm up with oily dishes like kaeng ong, kaeng hang-le, and fried spicy sausage, sai ua. Ingredients are mostly herbal plants from the valleys and the forests, making up famous dishes like kaeng khae or kaeng yuak, utilizing the inner part of a banana trunk as the main ingredient, or khanom chin nam ngiao, with dried flowers of Bombax ceiba L., or the red silk cotton tree, as the main ingredient. Also famous among northern food is naem, sour preserved pork, a forerunner of food preservation techniques developed from local wisdom.

Northern Thai Dishes

Chiang Mai specialties include spicy sausage and khan toke, an entire dinner comprised of several small dishes, such as curries, crispy fried pork skin, and northern style chili sauces, served with sticky rice on a small round table. Northern Thai dishes often feature nam phrik (a pungent paste with a strong smell made from fermented shrimp paste). Among the some of the popular northern dishes are khao soy (noodles with milky curry sauce, turmeric and nam phrik), khanom jeen (fresh vegetables minced with spices and chilies) and curries such as namya Kati , namya pa , and nam ngiao .

Khao soy resembles fettuccine alfredo. It is made of milky curry sauce, turmeric, and egg noodles, and nam phrik, a pungent mix of fermented shrimp paste and vegetables, was consumed by spreading it onto boiled vegetables. Some visitors detest the dish, which emits a strong, fishy odor. Khan khanoon (spicy jackfruit curry) is served with sticky rice and sai ooa (spicy pork sausages).

Dishes arranged on a tok usually include glutinous rice, spicy dips, like green pepper dip, red pepper dip, and spicy tomato and minced pork dip, and curries, such as Burmese-style bacon curry, mixed vegetable curry, and curry made from kasalong or peep. Other local dishes include fermented pork, northern-style sausages, steamed beef, deep-fried pork rinds, and sauteed pork and vegetables. The cool northern weather is the rationale behind fatty dishes, for they provide plenty of energy to keep people warm; some favorites are spicy tomato and minced pork dip, Burmese-style bacon curry, and northern-style sausages. Vitamins and minerals are obtained from pork sauteed with many types of vegetables.

The Northerners consume sticky rice with various kinds of dips and fresh vegetables. Their spicy soups – not as spicy as those of the Northeast and the South – are made up primarily of local herbs, easily found in the mountainous terrain of the North. A well-known one-dish meal of the North is khao soi, made of yellow noodles, in spicy coconut milk soup, with preserved lettuce and red onion as condiments, yielding a piquant but harmonious taste. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Desserts of the North are normally made of sticky rice, both white and red. In festivals, they make khao taen, a delicacy composed of sticky rice mixed with watermelon juice and then fried, laced with cane syrup. Other desserts include khao tom hua ngok, made of sticky rice steamed with banana and seasoned with shredded coconut cake and sugar, and khanom pat, from rice flour mixed with cane syrup over a fire, and laced with shredded and salted coconut cake. Dried banana is also a famous dessert of the region, due to the abundance of banana plants.

Northeastern Thai Food

Northeastern dishes are usually eaten with sticky rice and are distinctively spicy-hot, with a tinge of saltiness and a low amount of water. Many of the dishes can be eaten with hands instead of flatware. The salty taste is obtained from fermented fish (pla ra), the spicy-hot taste from fresh and dry chilies, and the tangy taste from lime, olives, and sour tamarind (and in a particularly dry season, red ants are used).

The arid, infertile geographical condition affects the way people eat because it is difficult to find plenty of basic ingredients for food. The sources of ingredients for their dishes are found in forests and rivers, and in overgrown bushes near their homes, such as fish, some types of insects, and vegetables and plants. The region borders the Mekong and is fed by its numerous tributaries, the sources of fish. Condiments and the culture of consumption are influenced by the neighboring countries: Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. Northeasteners have also devised ways to preserve foods to keep for future's use.

Most northeastern dishes are spiced with herbs for appealing aromas and flavors, in particular Laotian parsley, lemon grass, and kaffir lime, so they are not only tasty but also filled with vitamins and minerals that are high in nutrition and improve digestion. The three balanced flavors - salty, tangy, and sweet - are appetizing and they help reduce stomach discomfort and improve digestion; dishes like spicy bamboo soup, papaya salad, and hot and spicy fermented fish dip include a variety of herbs.

The Northeasterners served their meals in two different types of vessels, either on a glossy round tray with bright printed designs or on a woven rattan stool tray similar to the northern tok. Northeasterners like to roll the sticky rice into balls and eat it with their hands.

Northeastern Thai Dishes

As is true in Laos, sticky rice is also the staple food in the Northeast. It is often eaten with som tam – spicy papaya salad – grilled chicken, spicy Isan salad with meat, and with an indispensable ingredient, pla ra – preserved and fermented wild fish, a product of the Northeasterners’ ingenuity in food preservation. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Northeasterners are familiar with spicy food, especially the hot taste provided by herbs grown in the households, mixed with fish and shrimps caught in the rivers. Such natural foods with herbs are considered health food, as well. Pla ra (fermented fish) is an important condiment in the northeastern kitchen that shows a difference in the people's consumption habit. A northeastern meal almost always contains pla ra.

Northeasterners have several types of dishes: spicy and sour half-cooked minced beef with herbs, ground rice spiced with fermented fish juice, spicy and sour raw minced beef without ground rice, spicy and sour medium-rare grilled beef slices, spicy and sour cooked shallot dip, and spicy and sour vegetable soup with ground rice.

Well-knowm northeastern Thai dishes include kai yaang ( grilled spices chicken) ad som-tam (spicy salad made with grated papaya, lime juice, fish sauce and chiles). Korat noodle (kua mee) is made from rice. The noodle is thin and soft. It is usually eaten with som tum korat. Other popular Isan dishes are spicy bamboo shoot salad (chaeo bong , based on the preserved fish in pla ra, and kaeng om (spicy soup made of various vegetables, spices, and dill, and mixed with pla ra, without coconut milk).

Snack and desserts of the Isan people are similar to those originating in the North, with sticky rice and young rice as the main ingredients. They are simply made, such as khao chi and khao pong , ancient foodstuffs made of sticky rice. Khao chi is sticky rice laced with salt and grilled, while khao pong is steamed sticky rice, pounded and pressed into thin sheets before being grilled. Moreover, there are items made for religious functions, such as khao pradap din, kraya sat, and khao thip.

Tom Sab pork soup is a popular Northeast Thai dish. Kazuo Nagata wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun, “Wow, that’s spicy!” The moment I had a mouthful of the Tom Sab soup at Kum Poon restaurant, which specializes in serving northeastern Thai dishes, I could feel perspiration building up on my brow. One of the most popular items at this Bangkok eatery, the soup is both spicy and salty, with a moderate hint of herbs. In addition to a variety of vegetables including onions and carrots, the soup also contains crispy pork ribs and such herbs as parsley, cicely and lemongrass. The soup tastes irresistibly spicy. Before I knew it, I had poured the soup from a small serving bowl into my cup over and over again. The soup is priced at 155 baht (about ¥490). Restaurant staffer Sau Temsau, 27, said proudly: “Tom Sab is spicy with a rich taste of chili peppers. Such a [spicy] taste is common in northeastern Thai dishes.” [Source: Kazuo Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun, March 4, 2014]

Southern Thai Food

The local food of the South differs markedly from food in other regions, as the region is close to the sea, rich in marine life. Many Southerners are engaged in fishing, and seafood makes up their main dishes, they use spices liberally to moderate the smell of the fish. The region is also rained on most of the year, so residents warm themselves up with spicy soups. Two main supplements of southern dishes are turmeric and capsicum, making the dishes yellowish and hot. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Southern dishes are unique in their flavors thanks to influence from the neighboring country, Malaysia. Several cities in the South served as central trading ports visited by vendors from India, China, and Java (Indonesia), so there are some spices and herbs in some of the dishes influenced by southern India and other countries. Some traditional southern dishes handed down through generations, and so not influenced by other countries' cuisine, are cooked from raw materials found locally. The cooking procedures are simple, and the main condiments are shrimp paste, tamarind sauce, and palm sugar, all made locally. In original recipes, there is no coconut milk or spices.

Southern dishes in general reflect the mixed influences between Thai and southern Indian dishes, particularly in the four major southern provinces. Some new dishes are invented and some were modified to suit the southerners' palate and are considered a valuable feature in their southern heritage.

Southern meals are often arranged on a mat and eaten by hand, which people say enhances the flavor of the meals, though now they use forks and spoons and their meals are arranged on mats or tables, depending on their preferences and the economic status of the families.

The most traditional condiment is budu sauce, made of tiny salted fish that are fermented by exposure to the strong sunlight for a few months. The result is a brownish sauce, the color of shrimp paste, and it can taste either sweet or salty. The sweet type is used to top the above-mentioned dish of rice with vegetables, and the salty one is used as a condiment in spicy dips. Southern dishes are unique because of their sharp salty and sour tastes, as well as strong aromatic spices due to their geographic location. Spices not only add color to their dishes but also override strong meat odors, improve the flavor, and increase the appetite. The habit of eating hot and spicy food helps warm up people's bodies and prevents them from getting a cold in the hot and humid climate.

Dishes from the Southern Thailand

Famous dishes from the South are kaeng tai pla (a thick spicy soup made of turmeric and shrimp paste, containing fish innards, roasted fish, and vegetables); kaeng som or kaeng lueang ( yellow spicy soup, comprising fish, preserved bamboo shoot, and eaten with fresh vegetables); and khua kling (with meat fried in a spicy mixture until dry, and laced with kaffir lime leaf). They are served with fresh vegetables and other dishes such as sardines in salty and sweet gravy. [Source: Tourist Authority of Thailand]

Muslim dishes common in he south including curry dishes made with chicken or beef and boiled eggs in a sweet tamarind sauce. Among the common items found in markets are slices of green mango, chieck fired in plam oil, cocnut cream pastrries, coconut and corn waffles and sweet team with milk on ice with tapioca balls. Pineapples can be purchased for around 25 cents; a water melon, a dollar.

For breakfast, southerners prefer eating out, and the most convenient and popular breakfast is fermented noodles topped with spicy fish bladder curry, green curry, spicy peanut curry, and spicy fish curry. Other meals usually include either of the two staple foods - rice or fermented noodles - with yellow curry or spicy fish bladder curry. Local vegetables, such as "stink beans", luk niang leaves (young cashew nuts), and young rajapreuk (golden shower) leaves are consumed along with the spicy dishes to reduce the hot taste and to improve the appetite. Another popular dish is rice topped with vegetables and southern sweet sauce, or "sweet budu."

People of the South celebrate the tenth lunar month festival with several ritual desserts, such as khanom phong, khanom kong, and khanom la, meant to be shared with the spirits of the festival. They also use sticky rice to make sweetmeats mixed with seasoned coconut meat, or boiled in coconut milk, and khanom kan bua, made of steamed sticky rice, pounded and made into thin sheets, dried and fried, and soaked in syrup.

Phuket dishes are influenced by Chinese food as a result of the large number of Hokkian migrating from British and Dutch colonies in the Malaysian peninsula to settle down in the province in the Rattanakosin era. Phuket dishes are mild with a sweet note in them. The menu on the island of Phuket is a result of the compromise between the southern cuisine and Hokkian cuisine. The dishes are distinctively different from those cooked by the southerners and Muslims. Differences and variety are what differentiate the natives of Phuket Island. People in Phuket like to eat rice noodles as much as everybody else in the country does, but they top theirs with steamed, spicy hotcakes, deep-fried hot and spicy fish patties, and churos or boiled eggs. Other Phuket dishes include Hokkian noodles, similar to Japanese soba, and loba, which is crisp, fried, cinnamon-spiced pork intestine eaten with fried tofu cakes, fried wonton, and sauteed mussels, called o-tao.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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