Thailand's regional dishes reflect the identity of the regional culture and wisdom. Rice, whether regular or glutinous, depending on the region, is the basic staple food. Most dishes are nutritionally balanced and offer a variety of types and quantities.


Characteristics of Thai People's Diet

Curry, soup, salad, or fried dishes are easily prepared, uncomplicated, and don't take much time. Most dishes use a small amount of cooking oil and meat. Protein sources are fish, poultry, eggs, pork, and other animal meats, as well as beans and nuts, seasoned by herbs naturally grown in the different regions. Thai people take their dishes with locally grown vegetables, which they cook or use fresh and then dip in one of the many types of sauce and curry paste.

Local Thai dishes are low in fat, high in fiber, and filled with nutritious substances: vitamins, minerals, and enzymes, although some contain fatty acid. Many are also chemical-free, spiced with herbs rarely found in other countries' dishes. Most dishes from different regions contain vegetables that are cooked similarly.

Local-food is low in animal meat, fat, and sugar. Some are sugarless, such as the southern fish-bladder curry, the northern curry made from kasalong or peep (the Indian cork tree), the northeastern bamboo curry and the central region's hot and spicy star melon soup. All these curies and soups contain no fat. If meat is used, it is fish and in small quantities;
   - Food that does not contain vegetables is usually eaten with vegetables on the side, such as dips, which are eaten with four or five types of vegetables;
   - Local food is cooked by boiling, steaming, grilling, or sauteing. Only a few are deep-fried;
   - Every ingredient provides nutritional and medicinal benefits.


Thai Foods from the Four Regions

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; then the foods are modified to please the Thai palate in that region.

Thai foods can be categorized by the four regions: North, Northeast, Central, and South.

The North

Northern dishes are influenced by the various minority groups that have been living in the area for many years: Tai Yai, Haw Chinese, Tai Lue, and Burmese.

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 Lanna 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).

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.

khan tok
Northerners serve their meals on a raised vessel called "tok." Parties and functions are called "khan tok": tok dinners. 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.

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 Northeast

nam phrik pla ra

Northeastern dishes are a feature of the northeastern heritage that stays true to its traditional style, even though much of society has changed along with the rest of the world and some of the people have moved away to find work in other parts of Thailand.

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. They 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. Condiments and the culture of consumption are influenced by the neighboring countries: Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. They also devised ways to preserve foods to keep for future's use.

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.

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 flavors of northeastern food are an example of a Thai wisdom heritage. 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 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.

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 Central Plains

The dishes that come from the Central Plains are renowned for their variety and delectable tastes, which incorporate the royal and ordinary folk's traditional consumption styles, as well as foreign dishes: Chinese, Indian, Western, and Japanese, most of whom first came to Siam during the Ayutthaya period. Some dishes have been modified and are now included in the daily meals. Besides, all dishes are beautifully and appetizingly presented, thanks to the influence of the Royal Household, whose chefs are famous for their neat handiwork, their meticulous selection of ingredients and condiments, and their particular cooking methods, so the end results 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.

In the past, the local folks' dishes did not need any special ingredients or condiments. Later, when they came into contact with more foreigners, foreign dishes came marching into the Thai kitchen, such as kaeng khiao wan (green curry), the popular spicy coconut milk curry incorporating spices from India.

However, the central region's dishes are also influenced by the royal kitchen, the center of cultural exchange, because of its regular contacts with foreigners who visited the royal heads of state.


Cuisine of the Royal Household - Thailand's Original Recipes

nam phrik pla thu

In the past, the Royal Household served as the primary source for home economics, cooking, needlework, and Thai manners.

The royal ladies in the palaces rigorously trained their ladies-in-waiting; therefore, many upper-class families took their daughters there so that they would learn to cook and to do other household chores, and thus be prepared for marriage and family life. The royal palace's home economics expertise has since proliferated.

After the country's change in 1932 from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, during the reign of King Rama VII, the old and new generations of the Royal Household maids moved out of the palaces. Some modified and applied what they learned to earn money to support themselves or their families.

Some foreign dishes on the royal menu have been modified to please the Thai palate. Sometimes the cooks are inventive and modify dishes from the other regions, too. These days, the food that is made for the Royal Household is not much different from the common folks' dishes; in fact, some of the dishes are even prepared for sale to the general public in various outlets.

 

khao suai

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.


nam phrik ma kham sot
miang kham

The meal is arranged on a table and eaten with fork and spoon (knives are not needed). Most dishes are the typical central region dishes, but people sometimes include their favorites from other regions for variety.

kaeng som dog khae
nam phrik long ruea

kaeng khiao wan luk chin pla krai

People occasionally include beautifully arranged dishes from royal cuisine and dishes from other countries. All dishes, however, offer complete nutrition: protein from meat, vitamins and minerals from vegetables, and medicinal attributes from herbs. For instance, spicy and sour vegetable soup balances the body's physical elements in line with Thai traditional medicine, and the tasty, spicy dips help nourish the four elements and strengthen the body.


The South

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.

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.

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.


Phuket Dishes

The southern cuisine and customs of eating are categorized by the nations influencing their dishes. Some dishes are influenced by the traditional local culture, and those that came later are developed with new cooking styles. They are all eventually included in the southerners' meals.

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.

They 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.


Southern Meals

The 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.

khanom chin nam phrik
khao yam

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."

kaeng lueang & kaeng tai pla
khanom chin nam ya

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.

Moreover, being close to the sea, they have an abundant supply of seafood.


Thai Cuisine - Mastering the Art of Versatility

The generic name for cooked items or dishes from a Thai kitchen is "kap khao" - "in addition to rice" or "to be taken with rice." Such dishes vary in accordance with the geophysical makeup of the land it originated in. Because the people have resided along the country's waterways since ancient times, fishbased dishes make up the Thai people's daily diet, complemented by fresh vegetables found in abundance near their homes. As time passed and the society developed, conventional Thai dishes also underwent changes and became more versatile, in terms of ingredients, cooking methods, and tastes. International trade that the country engaged in through the ages also brought foreign food cultures that the Thais embraced and adapted to suit their tastes.

Thai dishes can therefore be roughly categorized into two types: genuine and adapted.

khao chae

Genuine Thai dishes are those that have been cooked by the Thais since time immemorial. They include such dishes as "summer rice" - khao chae - rice in ice-cold water, served with various condiments; spicy clear soup - tom khlong and tom yam - with herbs, meat and vegetables; hot curry or goulash - kaeng pa, kaeng khae, and kaeng om - curry with no coconut milk but with meat and vegetables; and spicy dips - nam phrik and lon, for instance. Thai desserts and sweetmeats, meanwhile, are made mainly of rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk, such as khanom piak pun, khanom chan, tako, and lotchong, for example. Those with egg yolk and egg white mixed in are adapted from other food cultures.

But alongside the genuine dishes, a large number of Thai dishes resulted from the adaptation of foreign food to Thai taste, so masterfully done that the Thais themselves adopted them as their own. They are dishes like kaeng kari (curry), kaeng massaman (from "Mussulman," that is, Muslim), both adapted from Indian food, while stir-fried and steamed dishes and vegetable soups are adapted from Chinese food. Several desserts and sweetmeats have been introduced by Europeans since the Ayutthaya Period, such as thong yip (gold cup), thong yot (gold drop), thong prong (gold nest), foi thong (gold thread) and sangkhaya (egg custard), for example.

With the wise blending of foreign cuisines into Thai cookery, the versatile Thai master chefs (normally female) invented new recipes that are now well-known all over the world. Cooking methods used in the Thai kitchens are diverse. Apart from boiling, grilling, and frying the food, there are specific methods that are characteristic of Thai food, as described below.

Tam - as in som tam, the world-famous spicy papaya salad - refers to the pounding of one or more food items in a mortar, as ingredients or as the main dishes, such as pla pon (pounded fish), kung pon (pounded shrimp), nam phrik sot (fresh spicy dip), nam phrik haeng (dry spicy dip), nam phrik phao (sambal, from Indonesia), and phrik kap klua (pounded and seasoned roasted coconut meat).

Yam is a form of spicy salad, in which vegetables, cooked meat and seasoning sauce are mixed. The sauce combines saltiness and sourness, laced with the hot taste of capsicum. Popular ingredients for yam include mimosa, wing bean, rose apple stamen, grilled meat, seafood, and sausages of all sorts.

Kaeng is the general term for a type of curry that does not use curry powder. Thai herbs and spices such as shallot, garlic, lemon grass, galangal, and turmeric root are pounded into a paste and dissolved over a fire in water or coconut milk as soup, with meat and vegetables added. Hot chilies or capsicum are indispensable, with varying seasoning and spices used to make such dishes as kaeng som, kaeng phet, and kaeng khua.

Lon is the term for spicy dip with coconut milk, which is meant to be eaten with fresh vegetables. It has three main tastes - sour, salty, and sweet - and can be made with soy bean paste or preserved fish as ingredients.

Kuan is a method of cooking liquefied food over a medium fire, usually done to preserve ripe fruits. Large wooden spoons are used to turn the ingredients thoroughly in a quick and forceful motion. Such sweetmeats as palm sugar caramel, khanom piak pun, tako, and thua (bean) kuan, are made in this manner.

Ji involves cooking in a frying pan with some oil, as in the case of paeng ji and khanom ba bin, for instance.

Lam is a way of cooking food by putting ingredients in a section of bamboo and smoking it, as with khao lam, glutinous rice flavored with coconut milk and other ingredients, smoked in bamboo sections.