Eating Thailand (Part I)

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

There are notable quirks and variations in dining culture upon moving from America to the UK, but Southeast Asia is another culinary universe altogether. Growing up in a society where many achieve a “balanced” meal by ordering a pseudo-sugary diet soft drink with their salty extra-large fries, Thailand is a lesson in flavour harmony.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Trendy tom yum soups (ต้มยำ) and veggie pad thais (ผัดไทย) are increasingly popular on Western menus these days, but travel to their country of origin and you’ll find a complex balance of salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and even bitter that permeates through not only each individual dish, but also each meal as a whole.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

When you strip that thesis down to bare bones, you get the exemplary miang kham (เมี่ยงคำ), a traditional snack consisting of minced pick-and-choose ingredients bundled into one bite. Wrapped in a slightly bitter wild betel leaf (ชะพลู), each filling occupies a distinctly different territory on the flavour spectrum. My first daintily tailored bite consists of an umami dried prawn, nutty peanut half, tangy kaffir lime rind, roasted coconut shaving, astringent shallot bit, aromatic raw ginger, fiery chili sliver, and a few drops of sweet palm syrup and salty fermented fish sauce. It seems like a rather brash way to experience such individually overpowering flavours but, against all odds, it works. It works really well, and it tastes like a mouthful of Thailand.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Similarly, khanom chin sao nam (ขนมจีนซาวน้ำ) starts with coils of fermented rice noodles which are then served with a selection of fish balls, savoury coconut milk, shredded pineapple, minced dried prawn, salty fish sauce, and raw garlic and ginger topped with a sprinkle of sugar or squeeze of lime. As we each lunge for the toppings that most appeal to us, my Thai friend excitedly explains that no two bowls will end up tasting the same—neither your neighbour’s nor your own second helping.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Asian food culture is about sharing; much like when I eat out with family in Taiwan, dishes in Thailand are ordered for the entire table to share—so the more the merrier! Each dish that comes to the table is therefore just as balanced in and of itself as the spread of all dishes that arrive throughout the meal in a macrocosm-microcosm way… because no single person is ordering a dish exclusive to their personal preferences, the range of preparations, ingredients, and flavours is variable enough to suit every diner in one way or another—this thankfully holds true when our traveling gang of five flatmates brings all sorts of choosiness to the table: vegetarianism, sustainability snobbishness (guilty), mushroom contempt, and general skepticism.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

As much as we dearly miss the flatmate who couldn’t make it, her aversion to any and all seafood is one type of choosiness that we’re particularly glad to be free of. Unrestricted, we eat enough fresh seafood throughout the trip to feed about a dozen absent flatmates. The huge lobster-like river prawns of Ayutthaya, painted ostentatiously and experienced while practically floating atop the Chao Phraya, is a formidable competitor for most memorable seafood experience. In the end, though, it’s our road trip south to Hua Hin and the meal on a sea-swept dock strung with lights.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

A dizzying feast of seafood ensues, fresh from the Gulf of Thailand and undoubtedly caught within the day, prepared within the hour. The meal is rightfully dominated by a monstrous sea crab, served whole in a mess of curried egg; it’s almost appallingly indulgent for a single leg segment to provide more meat than the whole claw of any normal-sized crab. When it comes to the dirty work of cracking and extracting, it seems that the bigger the catch, the easier AND more bountiful the harvest—and this is surely as big as they can get before the world implodes with debauchery. We wince as we discuss how much this kind of meal would cost in London, and I nearly lose my appetite (okay, not that nearly).

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

I’m not usually a beer girl, but the Leo goes down like water and I’m soon as flushed as the shell of that giant crab we conquer. We pause between mouthfuls to peer over the edge of the dock as a server fishes up a daft sand crab for his little boy to chase around. Even as the frenzied pace slows and I am decidedly stuffed to the brim with claypot prawn vermicelli (กุ้งอบวุ้นเส้น), I can’t resist prodding around in the plate of sweet chili paste, hunting for the little leftover jewels of clam, stir-fried with holy basil (เผ็ดหอยลาย) and hidden amongst the mostly-empty shells. As we finally admit defeat and waddle off to explore a nearby night market, I can still hear the crunch of soft shell crab (ปูนิ่ม), deep-fried with garlic to crispy perfection.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

As a notorious market junkie, I practically trip over myself trying to capture Thailand’s market culture. Rows of suspiciously colourful and curiously textured dessert condiments compete for my attention with shiny spreads of Buddhist trinkets.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

The deft-handed vendors are always my favourite, flipping their impossibly thin doughs and handing over the correct change with your piping-hot street snack without missing a beat. Tourists happily haggle over Thai silk scarves and fisherman pants while locals perch nearby on plastic stools, enjoying a bowl of steaming noodles.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

I spot some of the unfamiliar produce that I’d discovered in dinner the other day, like feathery acacia leaves of omelette fame (ไข่เจียวชะอม) along with the Thai eggplant (มะเขือ) and pea eggplant (มะเขือพวง) found in our green curry (แกงเขียวหวาน), which our friend charmingly describes as “aubergine cousins.” Broadening my culinary bean horizons, there are beautiful ribbons of pungent sato “stink bean” (สะตอ), the literal “yardlong beans” often used in a dry curry stir-fry (หมูผัดพริกขิง), and the peculiar “winged bean” (ถั่วพู). Deep-fried insects, notoriously consumed like popcorn here, are one famous Thai snack that I regrettably don’t spot or sample. Insects as food make perfect sense nutritionally, sustainably, and even gastronomically—but for the time being in most of Europe and the USA, it’s a resounding “no” psychologically.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Fresh fruits are stacked precariously high, peeled and cut to order by smiling ladies. I spot some exotic varieties that I’ve only had in Taiwan, China, Indonesia, Ecuador, and other tropical countries, like bouquets of misleadingly spiny rambutan and the ever-bullied durian, banned in some public buildings for its odour. The adorable and admittedly delicious mangosteen, “Queen of Fruits,” captures the heart of my flatmates, but it’s a more familiar fruit that wins my affection. Mangoes are infinitely sweeter and juicier here, and I get my fix by gnawing on countless mango pits and downing pureed mango juices at lunch, pickled unripe mangoes (มะม่วงดอง) as a surprisingly addictive snack, and of course mango with coconut sticky rice (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง) for dessert.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

The tropics are blessed with exceptional fruit selections, meaning that things like coconuts are utilised for much more than Hawaiian luau-themed parties. Nutrient-packed coconut water is sipped directly from strategically split young Thai coconuts, and the meat can be toasted as a crispy condiment. Coconut milk is used in countless preparations—sometimes sweet, like the coconut-rice hotcakes (ขนมครก) that disappear too quickly, and sometimes savoury, like the coconut chicken galangal soup (ต้มข่าไก่) that eventually makes itself a welcome staple at every meal.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

It’s perhaps most famously used in curries, but again Thailand surprises me with its geographical sprawl; curries differ greatly from region to region, and in the North they’re prepared often with lime juice but almost always without coconut milk. As I sop up some sour jungle curry (แกงป่า) with a spongey utensil of sticky rice in my right hand, I learn that Northern Thailand shares this and many other cultural practices with neighbouring Laos; otherwise, Thais hold forks and spoons like the Brits hold knives and forks, using the former to push food into the latter.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Creamier curries originated in Central and Southern regions. The yellow curry (แกงกะหรี่) of Western fame and the strikingly rich massaman curry (แกงมัสมั่น) were popularised by Thai-Muslim populations, originating respectively from India and Persia. Unlike their Indian counterparts, Thai curries evolved to replace pungent dry spices with fresh Southeast Asian aromatics and herbs like holy basil, lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves. I’m taken aback by the liquorice-laced punch of anise as I bite off the tip of a raw Thai sweet basil leaf (โหระพา), but this is the herbaceous kick that lends distinctive freshness, flavour, and complexity to Thai cuisine.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

I also begin to understand the extent of Teochew influence as we drive through the city and I realise that Bangkok’s Chinatown that could serve up London’s Chinatown in a dim sum bamboo steamer. It turns out Han Chinese introduced things like the now-prolific noodles, oyster sauce, and the wok stir-fry method. My first morning, I sit down to a surprisingly familiar spread of congee rice porridge on our gracious hosts’ breakfast table. Though they call it by the name of chok (โจ๊ก), nothing could have been more comforting in that moment of airtravel-induced exhaustion; it’s the same kind of food that I remember eating during particularly chilly winters throughout childhood and I immediately feel more chummy with Thailand.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

It seems appropriate (and merciful, if you’ve managed to read through all that!) to end with the simplest of representative staple recipes and a promise of a narrative-based ‘Part II,’ with more stories and less history lessons.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

Nam Pla Prik (น้ำปลาพริก)

  • ½ cup (120ml) fish sauce
  • 6 birds eye chiles, sliced
  • splash of fresh lime juice
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced

Present at nearly every Thai meal, a humble saucer of nam pla prik (literally “fish sauce with chili”) is used like table salt. Combine all ingredients and serve with any Thai meal, spooning over food to season as desired.

Wandercrush Eating Thailand

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48 Responses to Eating Thailand (Part I)

  1. Kelly says:

    What gorgeous photos of your trip! I visited Bangkok about 10 years ago but your wonderful photos make me feel like I am actually in Thailand again :) You captured the culture and food so beautifully in this post. Thank you so much for sharing Irina!

  2. Your pictures are beyond beautiful, it’s like a tour book I’m looking at – makes me want to go there right away!

  3. Monica says:

    These pictures are simply stunning, Irina. They should be in a food magazine. Honest. The food looks amazing, full of depth and flavor. You really captured a taste of Thailand for us.

  4. laurasmess says:

    Oh WOW. I can’t believe how vibrant and colourful Thailand is. Your pictures definitely do it justice, though I’m sure the country must be so spectacular in real life. Love seeing the world through your eyes. I am enamored with your blog… you’re making me want to travel again!! xx

  5. Irina this is as a tour book, however, a hundred times better than any tour book you can find. Your photographs and prose really made me feel your experience. Beautiful.

  6. The food looks so vibrant and fresh! I would love it for sure. Your photos are gorgeous! You are a very talented photographer.

  7. Sissi says:

    Thank you for the virtual Thai feast! Beautiful photos and amazing, detailed descriptions. A real culinary guide to Thailand. I wish I could visit this country one day too… I love Thai cuisine and cook it quite often. Since I discovered a bit of regional Thai cuisine I am starting also to discover that there is more to Thailand than just coconut-based curries… We are lucky here to have lots of Thai products here, such as the winged beans, mini-aubergines or herbs sold all year, so it’s easier to experiment.
    I would love to travel like you with several people sharing our meals, so that I can discover more in a shorter time. I think I would eliminate from the trip everyone who is afraid of chili and seafood haters too ;-) I would definitely taste some grilled insects (not all, but I would try; a friend told me some grilled insects in Thailand were delicious). Thank you for the sauce recipe. I love this one! I’m looking forward to reading more about your food inspirations from Thailand.

    • wandercrush says:

      It was my pleasure, Sissi! I’m so glad you enjoyed it (and impressed that you made it through all the detailed descriptions, heh).
      It’s so nice that you have a wider range of produce available where you are—that becomes quite a barrier for me when attempting “authentic” recipes, but I guess overcoming this with local substitutes is the whole point of my blog ;)
      Definitely travel to Thailand with a group of hungry and brave people if you want to experience all the food at its most glorious quantities! Maybe next time we can meet up there and hunt for some insects.

  8. These pictures make me feel as if I am right there in the thick of things. Six years ago, I went to Vietnam and this post reminds me of how I missed it. Next stop Thailand.

  9. Natalie says:

    These photos are so amazing!! Looks like a great time.

  10. Stunning photography. I especially love that third photo of the leaves and the one with the dripping candles. Sounds like it was a fulfilling trip.

  11. Gosh, such a pretty place. And such great food! Your pictures are wonderful – thanks for taking us along, virtually, with you on the trip!

  12. What a delicious-looking trip! Your photos are gorgeous. I’ve never traveled to Thailand, but love Thai flavors – it’s definitely on my bucket list!

  13. Oh wow, your photos are absolutely divine! We’re heading off to Bali later this year and it will be our first ever trip to an Asian country – and I can’t wait to photograph all of the different things we see!

    • wandercrush says:

      Thank you, Kristy! Bali is amazing as well, although I was too young to fully appreciate the cuisine when I was there… surely that won’t be an issue for you :) Can’t wait to see and hear about your trip.

  14. I think I love too much your pictures

  15. Joanne says:

    All of these photos are insanely gorgeous! All that color! Wow. Just wow.

  16. Oh. My. Goodness. This post…so well written, and such incredibly beautiful images. I can’t wait for Part II!

    I’m planning a trip to Thailand in February for my honeymoon, and will be extracting potential places to stop from these Thailand posts. I’m getting so excited looking at all these pictures! Thai food is *so* delicious.

    • wandercrush says:

      Infinite thanks, Eva! I’m so pleased (and impressed, given the length!) that you took the time to read the prose. Part II will be significantly lighter to read, I promise ;)
      Wow, Thailand would be an amazing honeymoon destination for so many reasons. Don’t hesitate to contact me when February draws closer! I would be more than happy to give you more specific recommendations for eateries, beaches, markets, and whatnot.

  17. Absolutely amazing Irina! You are such a wonderful photographer! What a fabulous experience. I’m really going to have to get out and see the world some day!

  18. shuhan says:

    Shit this is only part one?! I’m starving already.

  19. The photos and eateries are just so stunning. And so so drool-worthy! You’ve captured the essence of Thailand so well :)

  20. Rachel says:

    What amazing photos, Irina!! I also love your explanations of the various Thai dishes – you’ve certainly made me super excited for my next visit :)

  21. Elizabeth says:

    Your photography first off is stunning and really captures the essence here in Thailand, especially the food! You are so right a about the food varying greatly here in Thailand compared to that which is found on a foreign Thai restaurant. Just like Indian food, things get so Westernized. I happy to love gang som, a spicy ( well here in Phuket it it spicy) fish curry loaded with nam pla.

  22. These photos are so beautiful and bring back so many wonderful memories of my visits to Thailand (and the delicious food!). So lovely!!

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