If you are bewildered by the strange sounding names on your local Thai restaurant’s menu and you are not sure whether to order yellow, green or red curry, which is the hottest? – don’t stress! Everyone has to start somewhere and here is a guide to get you up to speed.
Thai cuisine is known across the globe and is extremely popular in the Western world. More Thai dishes feature on ‘Readers Choice Lists’ than any other country, so get out your chop sticks and get eating!
FUN SPRING ROLLS
The simplest dish to order and eat is a plate of piping hot Spring Rolls. These are usually served before you even open the menu – so this is easy.
Spring rolls date way back to the Jin dynasty which began in the year 265 AD. After the long, hard winter months of surviving on dried products, the coming of spring called for special celebrations. People made small cakes filled with fresh vegetables and they became known as the Spring Dish. During the Qing and Ming dynasties, the small cakes gradually became flatter and became known as Spring Rolls.
Spring Rolls are made with a thin pastry that is shaped into a small package and filled with a choice of vegetables, seafood, pork, beef or chicken. The rolls are then deep fried and served with little dishes of sauces. Take your pick from sweet chilli sauce, spicy sauce, peanut sauce or classic soy sauce.
THE FAMOUS TOM YUM – HOT AND SOUR SOUP
If soup is your thing, you need to wrap your head around the famous Tom Yum or Tom Yam soup. The basic recipe is made of a stock and fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed chilli peppers. Tom means to boil and Yam refers to a spicy and hot salad. If you want to add prawns, ask for Tom Yum Goong.
SO MANY CONFUSING CURRIES
Once we are done with the Spring Rolls and soup, a curry is next! Thai curries are named after the color of the chillies used in the mix and not after the strength. So beware – red is milder than green!
Curry has an ancient history. The first traces were found as far back as 2500 BC in India. Indian curry was made using garlic, ginger and turmeric. When the spice routes were established, the famous curry recipes of India were transported to Japan, China, Thailand and as far as Portugal.
Thai curries contain a combination of base ingredients consisting of shrimp paste, garlic, shallots coconut milk, coriander, lime peel, lemongrass, peppercorns, galangal and cumin seeds and are then differentiated by the chillies and their colour. Green curry contains green chilli peppers and red curry contains dried red chilli peppers. Just to make things more complicated there is also a yellow curry made with – yes – you guessed it – yellow chillies.
Add to the mix the most famous curry of all – Massaman curry, with a Persian name. The joy of this curry was captured in a poem written for the Prince of Siam, so if you find yourself writing poetic lines on your paper napkin after eating it, don’t panic.
A DISH CREATED BY A PRIME MINISTER
Historians will tell you that the ancient Thai culture dates back to the 11th century but food lovers will be more intrigued to learn that the famous Pad Thai dish has only been around for 70 years. Very few dishes in the world can claim to have been created by a Prime Minister in the interests of national health, but Pad Thai is one of them.
Plaek Phibunsongkhram or Phibun, renamed Siam to Thailand in 1939 and set out to westernize the new country. Local dialects and traditions were banned and a dish called Pad Thai was created to add a healthy element to the diet of the population. Filling, bursting with nutrition and very economical, it was a great way to feed the nation! The base of the dish is stir-friend dried rice noodles. Scrambled egg, crushed peanuts and bean sprouts are then added and topped with a sweet tamarind sauce. Other variations include crab, shrimp or chicken. Don’t stress if you see locals sprinkling sugar on top – that is cool too.
DUCK FOR SPECIAL OCCASIONS
Special occasions in Thailand call for duck and Thai dishes set the scene. Red Curry Duck is frequently served at grand events such as weddings or dinner parties. This classic dish is intricate and elegant in both taste and texture. The recipe calls for succulent duck with red curry paste blended with coconut milk, tomatoes, vegetables and the main feature, pineapple.
THE CORRECT WAY TO EAT ….…. EVERYTHING AT ONCE
Looking the part always helps even if you are putting on a great act. Use the chopsticks to pick up noodles, carefully, when no one is watching, you will hopefully soon get the hang of it. When it comes to the smaller bits, chopsticks may become too much of a challenge. You can use a fork to push the pieces onto a spoon – it is the traditional way.
Don’t expect a formal three course meal. Thai dishes get served up as they are prepared, so you will probably end up with dozens of plates piling up on the table. It makes for great sharing, bonding and experimenting as everyone can sample a bit of each.
END OFF WITH FABULOUS DESSERTS AND TEA
Thai desserts will enchant those with a sweet tooth. How about sticky rice and mango, baked coconut rice pudding, red rubies, orange blossom, oranges in syrup, banana rice pudding or jelly set in a coconut shell? Try one of each.
Thai teas are well known in the Western world and the iced version is probably the most famous. Due to the extremely hot weather in Thailand, teas are served ice cold to cool one down. Thai tea has a spicy and sweet flavor and often contains orange blossom water, crushed tamarind seed, orange blossom and other spices. It is then sweetened with sugar or condensed milk. Pour it over crushed ice and enjoy!
Images: Shutterstock. Wat Non Kum temple/Petch A Ratana, Spring Rolls/Kittikorn Wanjai; Massaman curry/Nanthasiri Sangthong; Tom Yum Goong/Bangkokhappiness; Pad Thai/Pichamon S; Duck curry/Chatchai Phojjanaporn, Mango Sticky Rice/Scott Biales