Thai food is popular worldwide for its aromatic and spicy qualities. Chili peppers were first imported to Thailand from the New World in the 16th century by European traders. They were adopted into Thai cuisine (especially the small, fiery ones) with great enthusiasm, but mildly spiced dishes are also widely available. Although influences from China and India can be detected in stir-fries and curries, Thai inventiveness has resulted in a dizzying range of dishes unique to the country. The cuisine is full of distinctive flavors and complementary textures, nutritionally balanced and delightfully presented.
Rice and Noodles
In common with those of all its Southeast Asian neighbours, the Thai diet is based on the staples of rice and noodles. The most popular type of rice is the long-grained khao hom mali, or fragrant jasmine rice, which is usually steamed. However, in the north and northeast, locals prefer khao niaw, or sticky rice, which is eaten with the fingers rolled into little balls, and dipped in sauces. Rice porridge (jok) is a typical breakfast dish, often with egg, chilies, and rice vinegar stirred in. Noodles, made of rice (kuaytiaw), wheat and egg (bami), or mung beans (wun sen), are usually served fried or in a soup. The most wellknown Thai noodle dish among foreigners is phad thai (literally “Thai fry”). An irresistible mix of noodles fried with fresh or dried shrimp, egg, beancurd (tofu), and beansprouts, it vies with tom yam kung for the title of Thai national dish.
The Four Flavors All
Thai dishes strike a balance between the “four flavors” – sweet, sour, salty, and hot – although the balance varies from dish to dish. While Thai cuisine has a reputation for being liberal with its use of chilies, it also features a wide range of subtly flavoured dishes that make use of aromatic herbs and spices such as galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, basil, and coriander (cilantro) to enhance aroma and taste. Pastes using these ingredients are pounded by hand in a mortar to ensure the freshest flavor. However, the real key to Thai cuisine is fish sauce (nam pla), which adds its piquancy to the vast majority of dishes. Mixed with chilies, garlic, and lemon, it becomes the popular condiment nam pla phrik.
The Thai Meal
A typical Thai meal consists of a soup, a curry, a stir-fry, and a spicy Thai salad, as well as side dishes of raw or steamed vegetables, served with a big bowl of rice. The meal is rarely divided into formal courses. Westerners who do not realize this often order a soup or a salad as a starter whereas, in fact, the spiciness of these dishes is intended to be toned down by eating them with rice. However, Thai restaurant staff are very likely to serve all dishes ordered at the same time anyway. The only concession that Thais make to courses is with dessert, which is usually a plate of mixed fruit intended to clear the palate after the savory dishes. Many foreign visitors also like to indulge in a national favorite – khao niaw mamuang, or mango with sticky coconut rice