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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.