In the final installment of our four-part Eat Thailand series, we bring you the one dish you can't leave without trying, plus a few hints and tips on how to look like a native while you plough your way through the local cuisine.
It only takes one humble street-side creation to tell you all you need to know about the Thai way with cooking. A staple of the country’s flat, canal-laden Central Region, yam som-o (pomelo salad, among many cold starter mélanges) can be sampled in dozens of variations around the Thai capital, Bangkok.
After a single spoon’s scoop of delectability, try to answer the following: what other place on earth would think, or dare, to combine in one plate the lusciously tangy buds of a giant equatorial grapefruit with ground peanuts, dried baby shrimp, candied strands of roasted coconut, dashes of intensely salty fish sauce, mellowing palm sugar, and, of course, tart lime juice?
Isolate those basic ingredients if you can, because they will appear over and over as the building blocks of the cuisine – to which are added the infamous bird’s eye chillies, spices like galangal (a larger ginger root), kaffir lime (usually just its knobby skin and leaves), and stalks of fragrant lemongrass.
Often, just to fancy up the pyramid of transformed pomelo, Thai chefs top it all with a few just-grilled specimens of the world’s freshest and plumpest tiger shrimp. Drawing on Thailand’s two richest resources – phenomenal tropical fruit and warm-water seafood – a good yam som-o seems to condense on the palate everything you need to know about the sweetness and sourness of life in the overpoweringly intense and exotic East... and make you emboldened to come back for more.
THAI WAY OR THE HIGHWAY: a guide to etiquette
Some local dos and don'ts, and even more ways to know true Thai taste:
1. Noodles are served with a tray of condiments – commonly including canisters of sugar, ground peanut, yellow chillies in vinegar, ground red chillies and fish sauce. Every Thai will douse their portions as they like to customise each bowlful.
2. Thais tend to drink beer – dominated in the local market by competing monoliths Singha and Chang, plus Heineken – with plenty of ice in their mugs. With hot weather all year round, it’s vital that drinks, including smoothies and juices, are ice-cold!
3. Jasmine rice comes with everything, often brought round in traditional silver serving bowls for second helpings in the better establishments.
4. Satay (skewers of barbecue, marinated chicken or pork) are just made to be dipped in a luscious peanut sauce.
5. Green mangoes are also meant to be slathered in pungent shrimp paste. They are commonly doled out with packets mixing sugar and ground chilli as well, similar to the same method of enjoying the deliciously sweet fruit in Mexico.
6. Royal restaurants often feature edible flowers stirred into the mix, but be aware that the orchids on the side of many platters are strictly ornamental. Regal or otherwise, all Thai food is fit for a King.