If you are ready this blog then you probably know that Thai food is undoubtedly one of the most popular cuisines in the world. That’s no surprise to any of us that have tried this distinctive cuisine.
Thai food is delicious, deeply engaging, and an incredible balance of common everyday ingredients combined with exotic Thai spices to create incredibly unique flavors. Even though the dishes vary depending on the region, they are all fascinating.
From the sweet coconut soups to spicy curries to the fresh desserts, each meal will leave you satiated yet still craving for more.
Let’s take a closer look at Thai food culture..
The History of Thai Food Culture – Origins, Influences and Traditions
Thai food culture is influenced by its neighbors. When people from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and China migrated to this region almost 1400 years ago, they brought their different cuisines.
For instance, the migration of the Chinese came with deep-frying, stir-frying, and frying. That’s why Khao Pad and Pad Thai are popular classic dishes in Thailand.
Besides that, the local culinary techniques were also influenced by the Dutch, Japanese, French, and Portuguese traders who were around this region in the 17th century.
History indicates that ancient Thais loved to feed on plants, herbs, and seafood. The natives avoided large meat quantities due to Buddhism. Religion also played a role in how and what they ate. But with the heavy external influence, large quantities of meat have now become important components of most Thai meals.
Regional Thai Food Culture Influences
The Thai cooking style is considered a form of art. It’s expressive as well as engaging. Most of the meals will deeply engage all five of your senses due to their delicious and stimulating nature. However, different parts of Thailand have different cuisines, and below is an overview of what the four main regions offer.
Central Thai Food Culture
Central Thai foods are the most commonly served in restaurants. If you are a fan of Thai food, then you have most likely eaten Central Thai Cuisine, especially if you have visited Bangkok. This cuisine forms the core of what many foreigners tend to describe as Thai cuisine.
What makes food from this region unique is the locals tend to sample meals from the surrounding regions. This includes North and South and then they tweak it. However, you will notice that the flavor is generally milder. The most common dishes from Central Thai food include:
It’s also known as Phad Thai. The intricate blend of various food products was first made around 1932, during Thailand’s nationalism period. This is a stir-fried type of rice noodle that’s normally served in most restaurants and streets in Bangkok and Thailand as a whole. Pad Thai is considered as the country’s most popular dish. Here’s a recipe.
The flavorful meal not only features rice noodles but also eggs, dried shrimp, tofu, and bean sprouts. It consists of a mix of flavors ranging between salty and sour taste. Pad Thai also has a well-defined range of texture, deeply engaging your taste buds while leaving you craving for more.
Tom Yum Soup
This is a spicy and aromatic soup that’s featuring a slightly sour lingering taste. It’s another renowned dish from the central region which is traditionally served with rice. Tom Yum is mostly served as an appetizer, to prepare your taste buds for the main meal.
The central Thai Food is made by using minced fresh ginger, minced Thai chili pepper, mushrooms, lime juice, shrimps, and kaffir lime leaves. It’s highly versatile and sometimes people make it with pork. Tom Yum Soup’s popularity led to the creation of multiple versions including tom yum talay plus mixed seafood and tom yum gai plus added chicken.
Green Curry Chicken
It’s known locally as Gaeng Keow Wan Gai. Green curry chicken is a signature dish in Thailand and nearly everyone, locals and foreigners, love it. It features an amazing blend of green curry paste in combination with coconut cream.
Other core ingredients used to make it include sweet basil, fish sauce, coriander, palm sugar, sizable chicken pieces, and of course green apple eggplants. The delicious curry dish usually has a green color and it’s usually served with Thai rice. Here’s a recipe.
Pad Krapow Gai
It’s also known as simply Pad Gaprao. It’s popular among locals and foreigners. As a result, Pad Gaprao has many English variations including Pa Ka-Pow, Pad Ka Prao, or Pad Krapow among others.
The glorious dish is normally made with ingredients such as coarsely ground chicken, spur chilies, Thai chilies, soy sauce, green beans, holy basil leaves, and some sugar. To enhance its flavor, the dish is normally topped off with edibles such as fried eggs.
Pad Kra Pow is spicy, tasty, engaging, and at the same time tongue-numbing. Its versatility means that you can consume it with any type of meal. So, you can take it for breakfast, dinner, or even lunch.
Northern Thai Food Culture
Northern Thai cuisine isn’t so popular. Foreigners or tourists sometimes find it strange because this is something they probably have never heard or seen before. It’s worth noting that the Northern region dishes are not easily available throughout the country like the rest.
Northern Thailand borders Myanmar and Laos. So, you will find that most dishes here have been influenced by external factors. There are also meals that reflect Chinese culture. Some of the top dishes from Northern Thai include:
It’s a popular coconut curry noodle creamy soup. It forms the basis of the Northern Thai dishes thanks to its spicy kick. Khao Soi means cut rice, a term that’s corrupted from its Burmese origins. It’s normally referred to as the Food of the Gods by Thai soup lovers.
It’s available in multiple variations of pork, beef, and chicken. Besides that, you can also find it in the vegetarian form. Khao Soi is made with a dense coconut curry base in addition to boiled egg noodles. It also consists of lime, shallots, and mustard greens. If you are visiting northern Thailand, then this creamy coconut soup should be on your “must-eat” list.
It’s a Northern Thai sausage that delivers spicy and glorious punches every time you bite. Sai Oua is a term that refers to “packed intestine edibles”. Sai means intestines while Oua means “to stuff”. It normally involves a combination of meat and spices.
This includes minced pork meat that’s seasoned with chili, paste, herbs, garlic, and red curry paste. You can enjoy it anywhere at any time as an entree or treat. Note that Sai Oua has to be grilled very slowly over hot coals to create something that’s deeply delicious.
Khao Niao is sticky rice and it is often used in meals in the Northern part of Thailand. However, this extends to more than just the main course as this is one of the main ingredients of mango sticky rice. Mango sticky rice is known as the traditional Thai dessert for those in the north.
Khao Niao is widely used and that’s why it’s very easy to find it in daily food combinations. Even so, making this dish takes a while. First, you need to soak the rice overnight and then steam it in the morning.
The sticky rice is ideal for mopping a wide range of local dips and curries. Its solid-state as well as the ability to blend with most liquid meals make it ideal for consumption at different times. Khao Niao is normally eaten by bare hands.
Note: generally, food from this region is influenced by various external cultures. So, there are deep variations in how the meals look and taste like. Some have sour flavors, others are mild or hot, while most are salty.
We love the fact that the warm sticky rice as well as the spicy soups add justice to most servings. Even in the midst of the mountain valleys, Northern Thai dishes will still captivate you.
Northeastern Thai (Isan) Food Culture
It’s also known as Isan and it’s one of the regions in Thailand that has distinct cuisine. Northeastern Thai food is heavily influenced by the exotic Laos cuisine as well as Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine. It features a wide range of dips, curries, soups, and meats.
Much of these dishes are dense in proteins and carbohydrates. So, it’s not surprising to find insects, ant eggs, and frogs in some of the meals. Popular dishes from this region include:
Gaeng Naw Mai
This roughly translates to bamboo shoot curry. The traditional Lao stew has earthy green flavors with a taste that’s heavily influenced by the fresh bamboo shoots. The Laotian curry managed to find itself on this side of the country due to its amazing taste as well as nutritional benefits.
Apart from the bamboo shoots, other ingredients used to make it include orange pumpkin and oyster mushrooms. Gaeng Naw Mai is a cloudy broth with a thin curry that’s easy to distinguish. It’s mildly sour and to enhance its taste, fish sauce is sometimes added.
It’s a type of hot and sour soup and it’s dubbed as the Tom Yum version of Northern Thai soup. The spicy and sour soup has a tasty broth that’s infused with kaffir lime to enhance its flavor. Although you can make it by using chunky pieces of meat, Tom Saep is highly versatile. So, you can get vegetarian options that are made with wild mushrooms.
To make Tom Saep you need water or a pork broth, pork spareribs, and kaffir lime leaves. Additionally, galangal, lemongrass, and garlic are important while seasonings such as fish sauce and Thai basil can be added to taste.
Tom Saep is normally served in a family-style way. This involves a large pot where everyone can easily scoop a portion and serve themselves in a small bowl of soup. Note that the herbs in this soup (lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves) shouldn’t be eaten.
Laab is a minced meat salad and one of the traditional dishes from the Isan region. Its history goes back to Laos but because Isan is close to the border, there is no doubt that Laab could easily find its way here.
It’s a tasty meal that’s made using a combination of ground pork meat, scallions, dried red chili, and lime juice. Besides that, it features mint leaves and ground-toasted rice. This results in a colorful dish that has variations of greens, white, and red thanks to the meat, herbs, and spices.
Laab is highly versatile. Apart from pork, you can also make it with liver, fish, or chicken. There are also vegetarian options that are made with mushrooms and minced tofu. If you are daring enough, you can also sample the raw version of laab!
Southern Thai Food Culture
The southern side of Thailand has an amazing landscape. It’s popular for its stunning beaches in addition to a rich culture. But if you are looking for an inviting Thai food that will captivate your taste buds, then this is the best place to sample various dishes.
Even though southern Thai food is usually overlooked, the dishes feature delicious salads, soups, and curries. There are fish and other seafood varieties in abundance. As a matter of fact, this region is the reason why Thailand is one of the biggest seafood exporters in the world. Popular Thai food from this region include:
Kaeng Tai Pla
This is aromatic thick curry fish that’s used as the base dish. Kaeng Tai Pla is a legendary curry that was developed by the local fishing communities. Because it’s normally made with fermented fish entrails, the curry normally has a strong smell.
Its curry paste usually consists of chili pepper, shrimp paste, lemongrass, galangal, shallots, and turmeric. Several additions are also incorporated to enhance the flavor. This may include string beans, dry fish, bamboo shoots, or any other type of preferred vegetable.
Kaeng Tai Pla is the best base for steamed rice. Even though the curry is mostly prepared with fish, you can still find several varieties.
It’s considered the main dish from the south. Khua Kling isn’t well-known just in the south but also in other parts of Thailand. Its spicy taste and ease of preparation are some of the reasons why it’s considered the king of the south.
Khua Kling’s primary food components include meat and curry paste. These are then roasted alongside a fragrant blend of paste that consists of shrimp paste, turmeric, lemongrass, cilantro, and garlic among others.
It should be noted that Khua Kling isn’t made with liquid curry but rather a paste. This is to allow for the ground pork meat to be effectively coated with the curry paste. Ideally, this is the best way to attain a dry stir-fry dish.
The dish is normally served with rice or vegetables on the side. It’s a colorful culinary delight that consists of green, brown, and white portions.
Its origins can be traced back to China. The specialty from the Phuket region has become a common street food in the southern Thailand region. It’s normally served in wrapped banana leaves by street food vendors.
There is a beautiful tradition surrounding the consumption of Oh Tao. People in Thailand normally consume it on the Chinese New Year because they believe that it will bring them good luck.
Besides that, it’s traditionally taken during funerals to ease pain and enhance bonding between family members.
Oh Tao is made using a combination of pork rind, taro root, garlic, eggs, and flour. Besides that, it features soy sauce and bean sprouts. It’s a fried dish that’s cooked slowly till all the ingredients blend.
This specialty is normally served accompanied by extra additions of deep-fried pork rinds and bean sprouts as toppings. For a savory experience, you should take it with some spicy dipping sauce on the side.
25 Quick Facts About Thai Food Culture
- Local Thai cuisine borrows a lot of its neighbors including Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Burma, India, and Laos.
- Locals prefer to use frying pans, woks, and grills to prepare food rather than using an oven to bake.
- The formal presentation of food is important during meals and festivals. This is why Thai food is considered the most exquisite globally.
- Dining areas are not fixed places since seating involves the use of carpets or mats on the floor.
- In Thai culture, eating food is a sacred activity that should be done in a group. Eating alone is considered a sign of bad luck.
- Age and social status are considered during meal times. As a child, you have to wait for a “go ahead” from the eldest person. If it’s in a gathering, the highest-ranking individual will signal everyone to commence eating.
- Thai food is highly prioritized and that’s why the first thing you will hear a local say is “have you eaten?” (“Gin Khao Yung” )
- Breakfast is still considered an important meal of the day. Rice porridge is one of the most consumed types of wholesome breakfast.
- Vegetables, meats, herbs, and spices form the bases of most Thai dishes.
- The country has hundreds of chili varieties used to prepare different meals.
- The locals prefer to mostly eat with spoons, forks, and sometimes bare hands.
- The deserts are mainly made with fresh fruits and vegetables. Note that the desserts are important meal servings and this is evident in how they are served.
- Thailand is a tropical country hence it has lots of fresh fruits including pineapples, mangoes, watermelon, and papaya.
- Thai desserts are very unique because they not made with wheat flour or cream but rather rice flour and coconut cream/flesh.
- Rice has become an indispensable part of most dishes. The grain is an important part of the local dish culture.
- Thai food consists of four main flavors: spicy, sour, salty, and sweet.
- Thai food is very tasty because the balance in ingredients is usually highly regarded to ensure that the food engages all your taste buds.
- Locals turn to vegetarian meals during the spiritual cleansing festival for luck and merit-making.
- Thai cuisine is very popular in other parts of the world, especially the western world. You can easily find Tom Yum and Pad Thai in most Thai restaurants because they are the most popular.
- Noodles are very popular additions in most Thai foods but they are considered new arrivals. They were mainly introduced to curb rice shortage during World War II.
- Thai food is affordable and there are numerous food stalls in Thailand that sell cheap street foods.
- Southern Thailand is known to serve plenty of seafood and coconut-rich meals. Besides that, the meals are usually rich in flavor thanks to the fish pastes and roasted spices.
- Central Thai food (Ahab Phak Klang) mostly features a harmonious combination of sour, salty, and sweet flavors. Most soups are normally eaten alongside jasmine rice.
- The Northeastern Thailand region (Isan) features traditional food mainly made with a hot and salty flavor. Most foods are normally eaten on Pa Kap, a type of bamboo table.
- The mountainous region of Northern Thailand consists of foods with mildly hot soups and curries as well as sour sausages.
Ok…Let’s “Thai” Things Up!
You can see that Thai food culture has a rich history. That’s because cooking in Thailand is a form of expression and that’s why all the meals are usually well-balanced. A simple soup can effectively satiate your taste buds while a meal such as Khua Kling will leave you craving for more.
You can never get enough of Thai food even though it’s varied and highly diverse. Each region has its specialties that are prepared based on tradition as well as external influences. So, if you want to discover what tantalizes your taste buds, go ahead, and sample this cuisine.