Restaurants and cookbooks featuring diverse ethnic foods have become increasingly popular in the last several decades. Recipes from Southeast Asia have gained notoriety due to the strong flavors and spicy heat in many dishes. One very popular style of food from this region is Thai food, which contains elements and spices from Thailand, India, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
There are generally four main types of dishes in Thai cooking: boiled dishes (known as “tom”), spicy salads (“yam”), pounded foods (“tam”), and curries (“gaeng”). Some of the most well-known, popular dishes are pad Thai, sticky rice, Thai fried rice, and various Thai curries. Noodles are often used as a base for dishes and in soups, and are primarily from rice. Thai farmers are responsible for cultivating thousands of varieties of rice. One popular type that originated in Thailand is Jasmine rice, known for its sweet flavor and non-glutinous texture.
Thai cuisine utilizes many fresh herbs and spices to achieve unique flavor palettes in each dish. Curry dishes such as panang and massaman use coriander seeds to achieve an earthy flavor with an essence of biting heat at the end. Cumin seed is also used in many curries. The seeds are roasted and ground down into a paste for red, green, and yellow curries.
Another popular ingredient in Thai food is lime. Some dishes call for kaffir lime leaves and others for Thai lime, known as the “manao.” The leaves of the kaffir lime are used in several soups, including tom yam and the popular panang curry. Lemongrass and Thai basil are also popular as main ingredients or toppings for soups and curries. One more ingredient unique to Thai food is “galanga,” which is a root plant related to ginger, but with a slightly less pungent flavor profile. Galanga is used in the famous “tom kha gai” soup, which features chicken, coconut milk, and vegetables, in addition to the flavorful root.
Many Thai dishes are known for their spicy heat, with restaurants often using a rating system of one through five for patrons to select the spiciness of a dish. Zero typically involves little to no spice at all, while five is extremely spicy and generally not suggested for those new to Thai food. The spice level of a dish is often achieved through fresh or dried Thai chilies. There are five types of chilies in Thai cooking. Typically, the smaller the chili, the spicier it is. The hottest chili is the phrik khi nu suan, which is only 1.25 centimeters long. In contrast, the least spicy chili is the phrik yuak, which is very large and green in color. It is often used more as a vegetable than a spicy element.
Some Thai food dishes also feature various parts of the coconut fruit. Coconut milk is popular in curries and soups, as well as desserts. The juice from the coconut can be a drink itself, and the fruit’s flesh can be used as a main ingredient or topping for both sweet and savory dishes. Coconut oil is also used to flavor dishes or simply to sauté ingredients.
Many dishes in Thailand also use spices and ingredients from traditional Chinese cuisine. Garlic, ginger, and soy sauce are present in many Thai dishes as both main ingredients and separate toppings. Thai chefs have also added more dishes with stir-fried or deep-fried ingredients, a method thought to be traditionally from China.