Every self-respecting city in the world has a Thai restaurant. Happily, this is the extent of how international and pervasive Thai food has become. Therefore, no trip to Thailand is complete without an appreciation of this great eating experience and this short article hopes to introduce the newcomer to it.
Long before the term ‘fusion cuisine’ appeared in the vocabulary of food lovers, such a culture had already been well established in Thailand. Thai food incorporates other Indochinese food styles. Its larger neighbours especially China and the Indian subcontinent contributed significantly to the evolution of Thai food. Chinese cuisine introduced stir fried dishes and deep fried dishes. Rice noodles, a prominent component of Thai cuisine, is distinctly Chinese. Curries are certainly evidence of Indian influence. The Portuguese are thought to have introduced the use of chilli. There are also regional differences in Thai food, though this may not be immediately apparent.
A simple dish such as a soupy noodle with meat and vegetable slices is commonly eaten as a no frills and quick meal by individuals. Families or groups are more likely to enjoy a more elaborate meal whereby several dishes are ordered and portions shared out. This is ideal when trying out different categories of food e.g. meat, soup and vegetable dishes. Diners have a serving of rice or noodles which act as an anchor dish to which portions from the several dishes are added and eaten.
Unlike Western cuisine where food is served in courses, Thai food is served simultaneously. Shortly after placing your orders, the selected dishes would make their appearance, a colourful and aromatic display. The presence of multiple dishes allows a myriad of tastes and textures, mild or overpowering, to assault the senses all at the same time. Interestingly, as in many eastern cultures, soup is consumed concurrently with the rest of the food.
The culinary experience should be a treat for all the senses. From the colourful and perhaps curious mix of a papaya salad to the pungence of kapi, to the ultimate assault on the tastebuds from a tom yam and concluding with the pretty, dainty dessert snacks, eating Thai food ought to be a sensory experience. An ideal meal should achieve a blend of subtle, spicy, bland and sweet and sour.
The concept of ying and yang (simplistically, hot versus cold, warm versus cool, strong versus mild) is clearly featured in Thai cooking. Some dishes are ‘cool’ e.g. salads. They represent refreshment to the palate and the rest of the body. The use of strong chilli or spices, which make the dish fiery and ‘hot’ (in abstract terms, create a burning sensation to the gastrointestinal system) would represent the ‘yang’ component. Soups, traditionally ‘ying’ or ‘cooling’ (since water, even when warm, is considered a ‘cooling’ agent), can be subverted by the strong spices added to it as illustrated in tom yam or curried soups. A ‘ying’ salad may be garnished with strong, fiery spices, hence having a ‘yang’ component and consumed with a mild soup or a curried dish. Hence, Thai food creations exercise a concept of compatibility and harmonization individually and between dishes.
Nick Lie – Singapore