If you mentioned Thailand to a westerner say 30 years or so ago, more than likely they would confuse the country with the Chinese Republic on Taiwan. Or, if they even knew the name at all, all it was probably through Hollywood’s slightly libelous version of Thai “history” as portrayed in Anna and the King of Siam. Nowadays, of course, Thailand is known throughout the world, and the reason is the kingdom’s fabulous Thai cuisine. Thai restaurants and foods can be found in almost every nation and are patronized by people who may never have set foot in Southeast Asia or possibly never even left their own.
So just what is it that makes Thai cuisine special? Most likely it is the combination in each dish of the four basic flavors – sweet, sour, salty and spicy. Over the centuries, Thai cooking has borrowed freely from the culinary arts of China, India and Malaya, blending these different influences to create something that is truly unique. And while Thai food has a reputation for being spicy, in reality most dishes are not. The spiciness varies by region, and central Thai cuisine – the most commonly encountered variety – is probably the least spicy of all.
Recommended dishes for someone new to Thai food might be gai tawt met mamuang himapan (chicken fried with onions, cashews and mild red peppers), gai haw bai toey (seasoned chicken roasted in pandan leaves), nuea paht nam man hoi (slices of beef cooked in oyster sauce), the famous tom yam goong (a mildly spicy shrimp soup) and mee grawp (crisply fried noodles with a light coating of sugar). These favorites should be available in any proper Thai restaurant anywhere in the world.
For lunch, a light one dish meal might be preferred, say khao paht goong (fried rice with shrimp) or kweitiou paht Thai (rice noodles stir fried with an egg, tofu and dried shrimp, and garnished with ground peanuts).
A proper meal when friends gather in Thailand, however, will always include many selections. The more people present, the more the different dishes that will be ordered. Unlike a western dinner, a Thai meal will not be served in courses. There may be a light appetizer, such as baw bia tawt (fried Chinese spring rolls). But the main dishes will probably all arrive at nearly the same time. Diners help themselves by using a large serving spoon to take as much of whatever they want. There will invariably be a soup – like as not tom yang goong, possibly a mild curry made with coconut milk (not ghee as in India), and one or more chicken or fish dishes. A spicy salad may also be included, provided there are enough people to warrant it. Every effort is made to try to balance the meal, both in respect to taste and to visual appearance. (The Thais are great lovers of beauty.) At large gatherings, a common practice is to finish the meal by ordering a huge plate of fried rice to ensure that no one goes away hungry. Soft drinks or fruit juices will probably ordered for the women and children, with the men opting for the ice cold and potent Thai beer.
Sweets may follow, but desserts are not as commonly ordered in Thailand as in the west. Thai sweets are generally made from some combination of rice and coconut, but the variety is nothing short of amazing. Unfortunately, Thai sweets all do tend to taste a bit alike, and a better choice is a platter of fresh fruit. With its semi-tropical climate, Thailand has some kind of fruit always in season. Oranges are available year round, and Thai pineapples are noted for being among the best in the world. Papayas, oranges and pomelos (sort of a sweet grapefruit) will also be available most of the year, along with more exotic and seasonal fruit such as rambutan, mangosteen and durian.