Although popularly considered a single cuisine, Thai cuisine is more accurately described as four regional cuisines.
They correspond to the four main regions of the country:
- Northeastern (or Isan);
Central Thai Cuisine of the flat and wet central rice-growing plains and of Bangkok, site of the former Thai kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, and the Dvaravati culture of the Mon people from before the arrival of Tai groups in the area.
Isan or northeastern Thai Cuisine of the more arid Khorat Plateau, similar inculture to Laos and also influenced by Khmer cuisine to its south, as evidenced by the temple ruins from the time of the Khmer Empire.
Northern Thai Cuisine of the verdant valleys and cool, forested mountains of theThai highlands, once ruled by the former Lanna Kingdom and home to the majority of the ethnic groups of Thailand.
Southern Thai Cuisine of the Kra Isthmus which is bordered on two sides by tropical seas, with its many islands and including the ethnic Malay, formerSultanate of Pattani in the deep south.
Each cuisine sharing similar foods or foods derived from those of neighboring countries and regions:
- Burma to the northwest;
- The Chinese province of Yunnan and Laos to the north;
- Vietnam and Cambodia to the east;
- Malaysia to the south of Thailand.
Regional Cuisines and Historical Influences
In addition to these four regional cuisines, there is also the Thai Royal Cuisine which can trace its history back to the cosmopolitan palace cuisine of the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351–1767 CE).
Its refinement, cooking techniques and use of ingredients were of great influence to the cuisine of the Central Thai plains.
The art of vegetable carving is said to have originated in the Sukhothai Kingdom nearly 700 years ago. Kaeng phet pet yang (Roast Duck Curry), is also a legacy of the palace cuisine of Ayutthaya.
Chili peppers, originally from the Americas, were introduced to Thailand by the Portuguese and Spanish.
Thai cuisine and the culinary traditions and cuisines of Thailand’s neighbors have mutually influenced one another over the course of many centuries.
Regional variations tend to correlate to neighboring states (often sharing the same cultural background and ethnicity on both sides of the border) as well as climate and geography.
Northern Thai Cuisine shares dishes with Shan State in Burma, northern Laos, and also with Yunnan Province in China, whereas the Cuisine of Isan (northeastern Thailand) is similar to that of southern Laos, and is also influenced by Khmer cuisine from Cambodia to its south, and by Vietnamese cuisine to its east.
Southern Thailand Cuisine, with many dishes that contain liberal amounts of coconut milkand fresh turmeric, has that in common with Indian, Malaysian, and Indonesian cuisine.
In addition to these four regional cuisines, there is also the Thai Royal Cuisine which can trace its history back to the cosmopolitan palace cuisine of the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351–1767 CE).
Its refinement, cooking techniques, presentation, and use of ingredients were of great influence to the cuisine of the Central Thai Plains Cuisine.
Many dishes that are now popular in Thailand were originally Chinese dishes.
They were introduced to Thailand by the Hokkien people starting in the 15th century, and by the Teochew people who started settling in larger numbers from the late 18th century CE onward, mainly in the towns and cities, and now form the majority of theThai Chinese.
Such dishes include chok Thai:
- โจ๊ก (rice porridge),
- salapao(steamed buns),
- kuaitiao rat na (fried rice-noodles)
- khao kha mu (stewed pork with rice).
The Chinese also introduced the use of a wok for cooking, the technique of deep-frying and stir frying dishes, several types of noodles, taochiao (fermented bean paste), soy sauces, and tofu.
The cuisines of India and Persia, brought first by traders, and later settlers from these regions, with their use of dried spices, gave rise to Thai adaptations and dishes such as kaeng kari (yellow curry) and kaeng matsaman (massaman curry).
Western influences, starting in 1511 CE when the first diplomatic mission from the Portuguese arrived at the court of Ayutthaya, have created dishes such as foi thong, the Thai adaptation of the Portuguese fios de ovos, and sangkhaya, where coconut milk replaces unavailable cow’s milk in making a custard.
These dishes were said to have been brought to Thailand in the 17th century by Maria Guyomar de Pinha, a woman of mixed Japanese-Portuguese-Bengali ancestry who was born in Ayutthaya, and became the wife of Constantine Phaulkon, the Greek adviser of King Narai.
The most notable influence from the West must be the introduction of the chili pepper from the Americas in the 16th or 17th century.
It, and rice, are now two of the most important ingredients in Thai cuisine.
During the Columbian Exchange, Portugueseand Spanish ships brought new crops from the Americas including tomatoes, corn, papaya, pea eggplants, pineapple, pumpkins, culantro, cashews, and peanuts.
Thai food was traditionally eaten with the right hand while seated on mats or carpets on the floor, customs still found in the more traditional households.
Today, however, most Thais eat with a fork and spoon. Tables and chairs were introduced as part of a broader Westernization drive during the reign of King Mongkut, Rama IV.
The fork and spoon were introduced by King Chulalongkorn after his return from a tour of Europe in 1897 CE.
Important to Thai dining is the practice of khluk, mixing the flavors and textures of different dishes with the rice from one’s plate.
The food is pushed by the fork, held in the left hand, into the spoon held in the right hand, which is then brought to the mouth.
A traditional ceramic spoon is sometimes used for soup, and knives are not generally used at the table.
It is common practice for both the Thais and the hill tribe peoples who live in Lanna and Isan to use sticky rice as an edible implement by shaping it into small, and sometimes flattened, balls by hand (and only the right hand by custom) which are then dipped into side dishes and eaten.
Chopsticks were foreign utensils to most ethnic groups in Thailand with the exception of the Thai Chinese, and a few other cultures such as the Akha people, who are recent arrivals from Yunnan Province, China.
Traditionally, the majority of ethnic Thai people ate with their hands like the people of India.
Chopsticks are mainly used in Thailand for eating Chinese-style noodle soups, or at Chinese, Japanese, or Korean restaurants.
Stir fried noodle dishes such as pad Thai, and curry-noodle dishes such as khanom chin nam ngiao, are also eaten with a fork and spoon in the Thai fashion.
Thai meals typically consist of rice (khao in Thai) with many complementary dishes shared by all. The dishes are all served at the same time, including the soups, and it is also customary to provide more dishes than there are guests at a table.
A Thai family meal would normally consist of rice with several dishes which should form a harmonious contrast of flavors and textures as well as preparation methods.
Traditionally, a meal would have at least five elements:
1. A dip or relish for raw or cooked vegetables (khrueang chim) is the most crucial component of any Thai meal. Khrueang chim, considered a building block of Thai food by Chef McDang, may come in the form of a spicy chili sauce or relish called nam phrik (made of raw or cooked chilies and other ingredients, which are then mashed together), or a type of dip enriched with coconut milk called lon.
2. The other elements would include a clear soup (perhaps a spicy tom yam or a mellow tom chuet).
3. A curry or stew (essentially any dish identified with the kaeng prefix).
4. A deep-fried dish.
5. A stir fried dish of meat, fish, seafood, or vegetables.
In most Thai restaurants, diners will have access to a selection of Thai sauces (nam chim) and condiments, either brought to the table by wait staff or present at the table in small containers.
These may include:
- Phrik nam pla/nam pla phrik (fish sauce, lime juice, chopped chilies and garlic);
- Dried chili flakes;
- Sweet chili sauce;
- Sliced chili peppers in rice vinegar;
- Sriracha sauce;
With certain dishes, such as khao kha mu (pork trotter stewed in soy sauce and served with rice), whole Thai peppers and raw garlic are served in addition to the sour chili sauce.
Cucumber is sometimes eaten to cool the mouth with particularly spicy dishes.
They often feature as a garnish, especially with one-dish meals.
The plain rice, sticky rice or the khanom chin (Thai rice noodles) served alongside a spicy Thai curry or stir fry, tends to counteract the spiciness.
When time is limited or when eating alone, single dishes, such as fried rice or noodle soups, are quick and filling.
An alternative is to have one or smaller helpings of curry, stir fries and other dishes served together on one plate with a portion of rice.
This style of serving food is called ‘khao rat kaeng’ (lit., “rice covered with curry“), or for short ‘khao kaeng’ (lit., “rice curry“).
Eateries and shops that specialize in pre-made food are the usual place to go to for having a meal this way. These venues have a large display showing the different dishes one can choose.
When placing their order at these places, Thais will state if they want their food served as separate dishes, or together on one plate with rice (rat khao).
Very often, regular restaurants will also feature a selection of freshly made “rice curry” dishes on their menu for single customers.
Thailand has about the same land area as Spain and a length of approximately 1,650 kilometers or 1,025 miles (Italy, in comparison, is about 1,250 kilometers or 775 miles long), with foothills of the Himalayas in the north, a high plateau in the northeast, a verdant river basin in the center, and tropical rainforests and islands in the south.
With over 40 distinct ethnic groups each with its own culture and even more languages, it comes as no surprise that Thai cuisine, as a whole, features many different ingredients (suan phasom; Thai: ส่วนผสม), and ways of preparing food.
Thai food is known for its enthusiastic use of fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices.
Common flavors in Thai food come from garlic, galangal, coriander/cilantro, lemon grass, shallots, pepper, kaffir lime leaves, shrimp paste, fish sauce, and chilies.
Palm sugar, made from the sap of certain Borassus palms, is used to sweeten dishes while lime and tamarind contribute sour notes.
Meats used in Thai cuisine are usually pork and chicken, and also duck, beef, and water buffalo.
Goat and mutton are rarely eaten except by Muslim Thais.
Game, such as wild boar, deerand wild birds, are now less common due to loss of habitat, the introduction of modern methods of intensive animal farming in the 1960s, and the rise ofagribusinesses, such as Thai Charoen Pokphand Foods, in the 1980s.
Traditionally, fish, crustaceans, and shellfish play an important role in the diet of Thai people.
Anna Leonowens (of The King and I fame) observed in her book The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870):
“The stream is rich in fish of excellent quality and flavour, such as is found in most of the great rivers of Asia; and is especially noted for its platoo, a kind of sardine, so abundant and cheap that it forms a common seasoning to the labourer’s bowl of rice.”
Freshwater varieties come from the many rivers, lakes, ponds, and paddy fields inland, and seafood from the tropical seas of the southern half of the country.
Some species, such as the giant river prawn, need brackish water as juveniles but live out their lives in freshwater once mature.
Aquaculture of species such as Nile tilapia, catfish, tiger prawns, and blood cockles, now generates a large portion of the seafood sold in, and exported from Thailand.
Rice, Noodles and Starches
Like most other Asian cuisines, rice is the staple grain of Thai cuisine.
According to Thai food expert McDang, rice is the first and most important part of any meal, and the words for rice and food are the same: khao.
As in many other rice eating cultures, to say “eat rice” (in Thai “gin khao“; pronounced as “geen cow“) means to eat food.
Rice is such an integral part of the diet that a common Thai greeting is “gin khao reu yang?” which literally translates as “Have you eaten rice yet?“.
Thai farmers historically have cultivated tens of thousands of rice varieties.
The traditional recipe for a rice dish could include as many as 30 varieties of rice.
That number has been drastically reduced due to genetic modifications.
Non-glutinous rice (Oryza sativa) is called khao chao (lit., “princely rice“).
One type, which is indigenous to Thailand, is the highly prized, sweet-smelling jasmine rice (khao hom Mali).
This naturally aromatic long-grained rice grows in abundance in the patchwork of paddy fields that blanket Thailand’s central plains.
Once the rice is steamed or cooked, it is called khao suai (lit., “beautiful rice“).
Non-glutinous rice is used for making fried rice dishes, and for congee, of which there are three main varieties:
- Khao tom (a thin rice soup, most often with minced pork or fish),
- Khao tom kui (a thick, unflavored rice porridge that is served with side dishes),
- Chok (a thick rice porridge that is flavored with broth and minced meat).
Other varieties of rice eaten in Thailand include:
Sticky Rice (khao niao), a unique variety of rice which contains an unusual balance of the starches present in all rice, causing it to cook up to a sticky texture. Sticky rice, not jasmine rice, is a staple food in the local cuisines of northern Thailand and of Isan (northeastern Thailand), both regions of Thailand directly adjacent to Laos with which they share many cultural traits.
Thai Red Cargo Rice, an unpolished long grain rice with an outer deep reddish-brown color and a white center, has a nutty taste and slightly chewy compared to the soft and gummy texture of jasmine rice. Only the husks of the red rice grains are removed which allows it to retain all its nutrients and vitamins, but unlike brown rice, its red color comes from antioxidants in the bran.
Black Sticky Rice is a type of sticky rice with a deep purple-red color that may appear black. Another unpolished grain, black sticky rice has a rich nutty flavor that is most often used in desserts.
Noodles are usually made from either rice flour, wheat flour or mung bean flour.
Khanom chin is fresh rice vermicelli made from fermented rice, and eaten with spicy curries such as green chicken curry (khanom chin kaeng khiao wan kai) or with salads such as som tam.
Other rice noodles, adapted from Chinese cuisine to suit Thai taste, are called kuaitiao in Thailand and come in three varieties:
- Sen yai are wide flat noodles,
- Sen lek are thin flat rice noodles,
- Sen mi (also known as rice vermicelli in the West) are round and thin.
Bami is made from egg and wheat flour and usually sold fresh. They are similar to the Teochew mee pok.
Wun sen, called cellophane noodles in English, are extremely thin noodles made from mung beanflour which are sold dried.
Thai noodle dishes, whether stir fried like phat Thai or in the form of a noodle soup, usually come as an individual serving and are not meant to be shared and eaten communally.
Rice flour (paeng khao chao) and tapioca flour (paeng man sampalang) are often used in desserts or as thickening agents.
Pastes and Sauces
An ingredient found in many Thai dishes and used in every region of the country is nam pla, a clear fish sauce that is very aromatic.
Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Thai cuisine and imparts a unique character to Thai food.
Fish sauce is prepared with fermented fish that is made into a fragrant condiment and provides a salty flavor. There are many varieties of fish sauce and many variations in the way it is prepared.
Some fish may be fermented with shrimp or spices. Another type of sauce made from fermented fish is pla ra.
It is more pungent than nam pla, and, in contrast to nam pla, which is a clear liquid, pla ra is opaque and often contains pieces of fish.
To add this sauce to a som tam (spicy papaya salad) is a matter of choice.
Kapi, Thaishrimp paste, is a combination of fermented ground shrimp and salt.
It is used in the famous chili paste called nam phrik kapi, in rice dishes such as khao khluk kapi and it is indispensable for making Thai currypastes.
Tai pla is a pungent sauce used in the southern Thai cuisine, that is made from the fermented innards of theshortbodied mackerel (pla thu).
It is one of the main condiments of kaeng tai pla curry and is also used to make nam phrik tai pla.
Far removed from the nearest sea, from northern Thailand comes nam pu, a thick, black paste made by boiling mashed rice-paddy crabs for hours. It is used as an ingredient for certain northern Thai salads, curries, and chili pastes. It too has a strong and pungent flavor.
Nam phrik are Thai chili pastes, similar to the Indonesian and Malaysian sambals.
Each region has its own special versions. The words “nam phrik” are used by Thais to describe many pastes containing chilies used for dipping, although the more watery versions tend to be called nam chim.
Thai curry pastes are normally called phrik kaeng or khrueang kaeng (lit. curry ingredients), but some people also use the word nam phrik to designate a curry paste.
Red curry paste, for instance, could be called phrik kaeng phet or khrueang kaeng phet in Thai, but also nam phrik kaeng phet. Both nam phrik and phrik kaengare prepared by crushing together chilies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle.
Some nam phrik are served as a dip with vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and yard-long beans, either raw or blanched.
One such paste is nam phrik num, a paste of pounded fresh green chilies, shallots, garlic and coriander leaves. The sweet roasted chili paste called nam phrik phao is often used as an ingredient in tom yam or when frying meat or seafood, and it is also popular as a spicy “jam” on bread, or served as a dip with prawn crackers.
The dry nam phrik kung, made with pounded dried shrimp (kung haeng), is often eaten plain with rice and a few slices of cucumber.
French diplomat Simon de la Loubère observed that chili pastes were vital for the way Thai people eat. He provides us with a recipe for nam phrik with pla ra and onions in Du Royaume de Siam, an account of his mission to Thailand published in 1691.
The soy sauces which are used in Thai cuisine are of Chinese origin, and the Thai names for them are (wholly or partially)loanwords from the Teochew dialect:
- Si-io dam (dark soy sauce);
- Si-io khao (light soy sauce);
- Si-io wan (sweet soy sauce);
- Taochiao (fermented whole soy beans).
Namman hoi (oyster sauce) is also of Chinese origin. It is used extensively in vegetable and meat stir fries.
Vegetables, Herbs and Spices
Thai dishes use a wide variety of herbs, spices and leaves rarely found in the West.
The characteristic flavor of kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut) appears in many Thai soups (e.g., the hot and sour tom yam) or curry from the southern and central areas of Thailand.
The Thai lime (manao) is smaller, darker and sweeter than the kaffir lime, which has a rough looking skin with a stronger lime flavor.
Kaffir lime leaves or rind is frequently combined with galangal (kha) and lemongrass (takhrai), either kept whole in simmered dishes or blended together with liberal amounts of chilies and other aromatics to make curry paste.
Fresh Thai basil, redolent with a distinctive scent reminiscent of cloves and stems which are often tinged with a purple color, are used to add fragrance in certain dishes such as green curry.
Other commonly used herbs in Thai cuisine include:
- Phak chi (coriander or cilantro leaves);
- Rak phak chi (cilantro/coriander roots);
- Spearmint (saranae);
- Holy basil (kraphao);
- Ginger (khing);
- Turmeric (khamin);
- Fingerroot (krachai);
- Culantro (phak chi farang);
- Pandanus leaves (bai toei);
- Thai lemon basil (maenglak).
Spices and spice mixtures used in Thai cuisine include:
- Phong phalo (five-spice powder);
- Phong kari(curry powder);
- Fresh and dried peppercorns (phrik thai).
Northern Thai larbuses a very elaborate spice mix, called phrik lap, which includes ingredients such as:
- Long pepper;
- Star anise;
- Prickly ash seeds;
Besides kaffir lime leaves, several other tree leaves are used in Thai cuisine such as:
- Cha-om, the young feathery leaves of the Acacia pennata tree. These leaves can be cooked in omelettes, soups and curries or eaten raw in northern Thai salads.
- Banana leaves are often used as packaging for ready-made food or as steamer cups such as in ho mok pla, a spicy steamed pâté or soufflé made with fish and coconut milk. Banana flowers are also used in Thai salads or as a vegetable ingredient for certain curries.
- The leaves and flowers of the neem tree (sadao) are also eaten blanched.
- Phak lueat (leaves from the Ficus virens) are cooked in curries,
- Bai makok (from the Spondias mombin) can be eaten raw with a chili paste.
Five main chilies are generally used as ingredients in Thai food:
- One chili is very small (about 1.25 centimetres (0.49 in)) and is known as the hottest chili: phrik khi nu suan (“garden mouse-dropping chili“).
- The slightly larger chili phrik khi nu(“mouse-dropping chili“) is the next hottest.
- The green or red phrik chi fa (“sky pointing chili“) is slightly less spicy than the smaller chilies.
- The very large phrik yuak, which is pale green in color, is the least spicy and used more as a vegetable.
- Lastly, the dried chilies: phrik haeng are spicier than the two largest chilies and dried to a dark red color.
Other typical ingredients are the several types of eggplant (makhuea) used in Thai cuisine, such as:
- Pea-sized makhuea phuang
- Egg-sized makhuea suai, often also eaten raw.
Although broccoli is often used in Asian restaurants in the west in phat phak ruam (stir fried mixed vegetables) and rat na (rice noodles served in gravy), it was never used in any traditional Thai food in Thailand and is still rarely seen in Thailand.
Usually in Thailand, khana is used, for which broccoli is a substitute.
Other vegetables which are often eaten in Thailand are:
- Thua fak yao (yardlong beans);
- Thua ngok (bean sprouts);
- No mai (bamboo shoots);
- Tomatoes, cucumbers;
- Phak tam lueng (Coccinia grandis);
- Phak kha na (Chinese kale);
- Phak kwangtung (choy sum);
- Sweet potatoes (both the tuber and leaves);
- A few types of squash;
- Phak krathin (Leucaena leucocephala);
- Sato (Parkia speciosa);
- Tua phū (winged beans);
- Khaophot (corn).
Among the green, leafy vegetables and herbs that are usually eaten raw in a meal or as a side dish in Thailand, the most important are:
- Phak bung (morning glory);
- Horapha (Thai basil);
- Bai bua bok (Asian pennywort);
- Phak kachet (water mimosa);
- Phak kat khao (Chinese cabbage);
- Phak phai (praew leaves);
- Phak kayang (rice paddy herb);
- Phak chi farang(culantro);
- Phak tiu (Cratoxylum formosum);
- Phak “phaai” (yellow burr head);
- Kalamplī (cabbage).
Some of these leaves are highly perishable and must be used within a couple of days.
Several types of mushroom (het) also feature in Thai cuisine such as:
- Straw mushrooms (het fang);
- Shiitake (het hom);
- White jelly fungus (het hu nu khao).
Flowers are also commonly used ingredients in many Thai dishes, either as a vegetable, such as dok khae (Sesbania grandiflora) and huapli (the flower bud of the banana), or as a food coloring, such as with the blue-colored dok anchan (the flowers of the Clitoria ternatea, which can also be eaten raw or fried).
Fresh fruit forms a large part of the Thai diet, and are customarily served after a meal as dessert.
The Scottish author John Crawfurd, sent on an embassy to Bangkok in 1822, writes in his account of the journey:
“The fruits of Siam, or at least of the neighbourhood of Bangkok, are excellent and various, surpassing, according to the experience of our party (…) those of all other parts of India.”
The Siamese themselves consume great quantities of fruit, and the whole neighbourhood of Bangkok is one forest of fruit trees.
Fruit is not only eaten on its own, but often served with spicy dips made from sugar, salt, and chilies.
Fruits feature in spicy salads such as:
- Som tam (green papaya salad);
- Yam som-o (pomelo salad).
In soups with tamarind juice such as:
- Tom khlong and kaeng som.
In Thai curries such as:
- Kaeng kanun (jackfruit curry);
- Kaeng pet phet yang (grilled duck curry with pineapple or grapes);
- Kaeng pla sapparot (fish and pineapple curry).
Fruits are also used in certain Thai chili pastes, such as in nam phrik long rue made with madan (a close relative of themangosteen), and nam phrik luk nam liap, made with the fruit of the Chinese olive.
Although many of the exotic fruits of Thailand may have been sometimes unavailable in Western countries, Asian markets now import such fruits as rambutan and lychees.
In Thailand one can find:
- Rose apples,
- Burmese grapes
- and many other native fruits.
Chantaburi in Thailand each year holds the World Durian Festival in early May. This single province is responsible for half of the durian production of Thailand and a quarter of the world production.
The Langsat Festival is held each year in Uttaradit on weekends in September. The langsat (Lansium parasiticum), for which Uttaradit is famous, is a fruit that is similar in taste to thelongan.
From the coconut comes coconut milk, used both in curries and desserts, and coconut oil. The juice of a green coconut can be served as a drink and the young flesh is eaten in either sweet or savory dishes.
The grated flesh of a mature coconut is used raw or toasted in sweets, salads and snacks such as miang kham.
Thais not only consume products derived from the nut (actually a drupe), but they also make use of the growth bud of the palm tree as a vegetable.
From the stalk of the flowers comes a sap that can be used to make coconut vinegar, alcoholic beverages, and sugar.
Coconut milk and other coconut-derived ingredients feature heavily in the cuisines of central and southern Thailand.
In contrast to these regions, coconut palms do not grow as well in northern and northeastern Thailand, where in wintertime the temperatures are lower and where there is a dry season that can last five to six months.
In northern Thai cuisine, only a few dishes, most notably the noodle soup khao soi, use coconut milk.
In the southern parts of northeastern Thailand, where the region borders Cambodia, one can again find dishes containing coconut.
It is also here that the people eat non-glutinous rice, just as in central and southern Thailand, and not glutinous rice as they do in northern Thailand and in the rest of northeastern Thailand.]
Apples, pears, peaches, grapes, and strawberries, which do not traditionally grow in Thailand and in the past had to be imported, have become increasingly popular in the last few decades since they were introduced to Thai farmers by the Thai Royal Projects, starting in 1969, and the Doi Tung Project since 1988.
These temperate fruit grow especially well in the cooler, northern Thai highlands, where they were initially introduced as a replacement for the cultivation of opium, together with other crops such as cabbages, tea, and aribica coffee.