Thai Food has become extremely popular in recent years; just look how many of these restaurants there are in Portland – four in just a few blocks of Alberta Street alone. However, in my humble opinion, it is a cuisine that is extremely difficult to make well. Any Thai expatriate may think he can buy a little curry paste and coconut milk and lead us to believe this is authentic Thai food, but very few actually manage to pull it off. There are several reasons for this. One is because early Thai restaurants in America quickly learned they needed to adapt to American palates, much like the “egg foo young” and “moo-go-gai-pan” in the Chinese-American restaurants of our parents and grandparents generation. This meant toning down the spices, removing many of the woody traditional herbs that are not meant to be chewed, from certain dishes, peeling shrimp and beheading fish in order to not to freak out already skittish diners, and only serving a select few “standard” Thai offerings. Second, many of the ingredients used in traditional cooking were unavailable in the United States. T. The combination of these factors resulted in food that was overly bland and uninteresting, or just far too unbalanced and spicy, and results in only serving a few of the many hundreds, if not thousands, of Thai dishes found in Thailand. Finally there is the question of balance. Most dishes have many ingredients, all with strong flavors and characteristics of their own. Add too much of any one, and the entire dish is thrown off. Like a Bach fugue, each line on its own can be rather boring. Put all the different lines together and you have a wonderful balance of sound: sweet, sour, spicy, and salty; all the notes work together to harmonize. Thai cooking is much the same way, but unlike Thailand where many vendors just specialize in one dish, American restaurants have to come up with entire menus of foods that the Thai owners and cooks themselves may not be that familiar with. It’s not easy to do the intricacies of this food justice on such a large scale.
Thai food is further complicated by influences from different regions, just like other cuisines such as Italian or French. Everything from sauces to accompaniments tend to be in northern and southern versions, with many variations between provinces, villages, and even between the cooks themselves. Take Thai curry for example. There are many variations on this theme, and someone raised in the South may use coconut milk, while someone from the North (where coconuts do not grow), may think these type of curries are disgusting and have a cooking style that omits coconut milk entirely. Finally, there is also a very ancient tradition of “royal cuisine” that is very complicated in both technique and presentation, and is codified and strictly adhered to, much like haute French food.
History and cultural heterogeneity also plays a huge role in Thai cuisine. There are not just Thais – there are Lanna Thais, Isaan Thais, Muslim Thais, and a whole slew of hill tribes, and even roaming sea gypsy cultures, etc. that have and continue to play a huge part in shaping the cuisine. Early Chinese brought the introduction of stir frying and dishes with wheat noodles, as well as regional specialties such as filtered coffee in Trang province. Border countries such as Laos, Mynmar (Burma), Shezwan Provence in China, and Malaysia all add their distinct influences. For example, Muslims from the south near Malaysia have contributed lamb dishes, roti and other bread products, and satay with peanut sauces. Furthermore, recent refugees from Vietnam are adding their own influences, such as “salad rolls,” which are still pretty much unheard of in many parts of the country.
Thailand has also been a major juncture on the historic Spice Trail route and beginning in about the 17th century, Dutch, Japanese, and Portuguese cuisine also influenced Thai cooking. Due to British influences in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s and due to the upper classes unique interest and take on all things Victorian, Thais to this day would never think of using chopsticks for most dishes, and consider it somewhat uncouth. Instead food is pushed from a fork held in the left hand into a spoon held in the right hand, and then taken into the mouth. The other main method for eating, mostly in Isaan and the North, is to use the right hand to scoop up food with a ball of sticky rice. Chopsticks are reserved for noodle dishes, especially noodle soups, and for Chinese food.
However, Thai foods are different from these influencing cultures in the way they use spice mixtures. Pure spices are used and enhanced by herbs such as lemon grass and galangal. While Thai curries can burn intensely at first, they have a short life on the palate, where other curries, such as Indian varieties, tend to have a much longer finish. In addition, most restaurants in Thailand always bring out a set of 4 condiments that includes Nam Pla (fish sauce), Prik Pon (spicy crushed chili pepper), a vinegar with chili peppers, and sugar to allow each diner to season the food to their own tastes.
One should also remember that Thai cuisine is greatly influenced by the country’s Buddhist background. It is rare to find the use of large animals in big pieces. Instead, larger cuts are shredded, and are meant more of an enhancement to a dish, rather than the main focus. You will still find many of these characteristics in Thai dishes today. This is further complicated by fusion restaurants that have come into vogue. There is both “Americanized” Thai food, as well as a fusion where other countries are more strongly influencing dishes than before. Finally, recipes are generally influenced by its originating region. Take for example, pad Thai. A dish with a huge amount of ingredients, there are also a great many different recipes for it. All of this can make it very difficult to review the food, unless you go back to the founding influences from the very beginning. Does it follow the basic principles; is it balanced so all the flavors harmonize? Are the ingredients fresh? Most importantly, does it taste good? By these standards, much of the different variations can be judged equally, even with modern or regional twists on ingredients. Many other Thai dishes are the same way, with each chef having his/her own following, ready to argue that their restaurants preparation is the only ‘real’ way to make a particular dish.
When ordering Thai food, keep in mind that dishes are meant to be shared, and Thais rarely eat alone if they can help it, unless it is for a one of the quick 5 or 6 snack times Thais enjoy throughout the day, or for a fast rice bowl or noodle dish lunch, usually at a canteen type restaurant or street stand. A proper meal should consist of a soup (which you should always find on any Thai menu and which Thais eat not at the beginning of a meal, but throughout), a curry, and some sort of dip with fish and vegetables or other vegetable such as stir-fried greens. If the soup is spicy, non-spiced items should be substituted for the curry. “Salads” as we know them are unheard of, and Thai type salads might be served cold or hot, or contain all vegetables or all meat or seafood. Laab, (sometimes spelled “larb”) for example, is often listed under the salad sections of American Thai restaurants, but is really most often a chopped meat or fish that has been cooked and marinated in spices, lime juice, and chilies.
Thai food must also be a harmony of tastes and textures, both within the individual dishes, but also within the entire meal. For the Thai, the heart of food is the simple, plain rice. Without rice, many Thai will feel that they have not eaten. Rice and food – khao in Thai – are synonymous, and the Thai often refer to plain rice as ‘beautiful rice’ or ‘noble rice’. The dishes that provide the nutrients and flavors which complement the rice are referred as kap khao, meaning “with rice”. As with everything else, the way rice is prepared tends to vary between the northern and southern regions, with meals in the northern areas such as Chaing Mai, more likely to serve sticky rice in small straw baskets (frequently in a wrapping, which may even be saran wrap, to keep it moist). In southern areas you are more likely to get the fluffy jasmine rice generally found in Thai restaurants around Portland. One must also remember, noodles are also a huge part of Asian cuisine, dating back many thousands of years, and are found in many regional dishes.
Understanding the history, regions, and traditional approaches to Thai food opens up a whole new world of tastes and pleasant discoveries for the diner. If you have been fortunate to travel to Thailand, you will understand that most American Thai food is but a mere shadow of all the different things Thai food can be. But most Thai restaurants in the States won’t offer more authentic or regional dishes and approach to the food until diners start to take chances and start demanding it. Restaurants like Pok-Pok, Siam Society, and a few others both in Portland and in other cities are challenging us to see Thai food anew. Luckily, the results are mostly delicious.
If you are interested in learning more about Thai cooking and food culture there are a few definitive and excellent books out on the subject worth checking out: Thai Cooking by David Thompson (which weighs in at a whopping 672 pages), It Rains Fishes – Legends, Traditions, and the Joy of Thai Cooking, by Kasma Loha-unchit, and Vatch’s Thai Cooking which has a great description of Thai cooking regions. Lonely Planet also has a nice little companion book on Thai food that is worth checking out.