In the third of our four-part Eat Thailand series, we introduce you to some of the staples of Thai cuisine.
The colours and presentation of the most common local dish tell us more about the essence of a nation than any stripes on its flag or insignia of officialdom. No national cuisine is at once so full of influences borne by trade and the tropics, yet so utterly distinct in its combined flavours as Thai food. So Thailand itself, with its temple architecture of flying buttresses, its colourful billboards and panoply of orchids, its deep attachments to King and reclining Buddhas, seems eternally to exhibit some indefinable “Thainess.”
That’s what you’ll experience in every bite, from noodles to hor mok (fish mousse) to laab (spicy ground meat or fish salads). Showcased internationally as one of the country’s leading lures, ‘Aharn Thai’ (Thai food) may be the world’s biggest small cuisine. As standard in foreign places as chow mein or tacos, almost everyone knows tom yam soup and pad thai, which was named, along with Thailand itself, at the end of World War II.
Here’s a sampling of dishes found nearly everywhere – 'musts' one shouldn’t leave Thailand without trying at least once:
1. Tom Kha Gai
A gentle chicken soup of spice-laced coconut milk.
2. Banana flower salad
A surprisingly soft and delectable mélange, sometimes served with shrimp.
3. Mango sticky rice
Thailand’s top contribution to the world of desserts: fresh mango slices combined with glutinous rice and plenty of coconut milk.
4. Catfish with mango salad
The candied skin of the Mekong River staple, topped with shredded green mangoes – an amazing combo.
5. Chicken chilli basil
As Thai as hamburgers are American, and peddled everywhere – finely ground bits of chicken are spiced up to blend with rice and often topped with an egg for added protein.
6. Fish cakes (Tod Mun)
The Thai version of gefilte fish, a pounded flour of fish meat, often informed with basil or long beans, is fried up into succulent patties served with cucumbers and sweet sauce.
7. Green curry
A relatively mild mix of chicken, pork or tofu with baby eggplants, basil, bamboo shoots, and of course, more coconut. The red curry is hotter, and often features Thailand’s exceptionally meaty duck.
8. Bass fillets with fresh pepper buds
When Thais tire of chillies, they use the fresh green sprigs of pepper plants to add excitement to seared seafood slices. A good option when you don’t feel like a whole steamed snakefish.
9. Pad Thai
Arguably the country’s most iconic – and most exported – dish, pad thai (or phat thai) is quick to prepare and ubiquitous on the streets and in restaurants. The base ingredient is rice-noodles, cooked with a tamarind and fish sauce, before dried shrimp diced tofu proteins are added. A little spicy, a little sweet, since its creation in the 1940s it has become part of the Thai national identity.