The Top Flavors Of Thailand
The lone country in Southeast Asia left uncolonized, Thailand developed cultural and culinary traditions rich in flavor, seeped in the influence of its neighbors; to the north, China (specifically Southern China) and India, and to the south, Malaysia and Indonesia.
The five tastes of the Thai kitchen are taken from the Chinese: sweet, sour, salty, hot (spicy) and bitter. While there is a strong likeness to the foods of China, recipes that may appear identical are in fact different. These differences are reflected by the subtle changes of ingredients: adaptations rather than adoptions. Thai dishes do not include the use of cornstarch or sesame oil, and often times will be sweetened slightly with brown palm sugar. The Indian influence on Thai cooking is far less obvious. While there is definite connection to the curries and the use of coconut milk to subdue the fiery effects of the mixed spices in the curry pastes, the distinction of these styles are clear-cut.
Ingredients, no matter how flavorful, never work in isolation; they interact with one another to produce a complex and often, unexpected result. The perfect example is a fundamental of Thai cooking which is the pounding and preparation of chili paste. This process is accomplished with a simple mortar and pestle; the combination of ingredients changes by region and dish, but the repetitive motion releases aromatics and produces flavorful curries and sauces.
Herbs and spices in the Thai kitchen include: bai ga-pao and bai horopa (Thai basils used as aromatics in curries), cardamom, cassia (used in Thailand for curries, not the same as what is used in the West), cinnamon, cloves, coriander, cumin, galangal, ginger root, gra-shai (a type of ginger with no English name, added to fish curries, and sometimes used as a raw vegetable), mace, mint, nutmeg, pandanus leaf (used as a flavoring and as green food coloring), peppercorns (black, white and green), and turmeric.
Essential Thai kitchen ingredients include: garlic (ka-tiem), coconut, coconut milk, fish sauce, shrimp paste, chiles (more than ten types are used), chili water (namm prikk), traditional limes, kaffir limes (both the juice and peel of the knobby dark green fruit are used in cooking), white turmeric (resembles ginger, used as a raw vegetable), citron (a round green fruit with an aroma similar to an orange), lemon grass (lower part of the peeled stalk is used for flavoring), shallots, green onions, cilantro roots, Thai white peppercorns (prikk Thai), rice noodles and sesame seeds.
No longer called the Kingdom of Siam, Thailand is called The Rice Bowl. The importance of rice goes far beyond the country's export; the staple plays a part of daily life and religion. Of the different types of rice grown throughout Thailand, some grains produce light and fluffy rice; some aromatic; and others, a sticky, glutinous rice. In the north and northeast, glutinous rice is popular and eaten with various side dishes such as curries (keang), chili sauces (namm prikk), spicy chopped or minced meat and hot-and-sour salads (yumm). In Central Thailand, fragrant long-grain rice is preferred with all foods. Pad Thai which are stir-fried noodles usually accented with tofu, crushed peanuts, fish sauce (nam pla), bean sprouts, eggs, garlic and chiles is probably one of the most well-recognized dishes.