Although it seems customary when talking about regional Thai cuisine to begin with the central region, really this doesn’t make the most sense. Certainly it’s the area where over the years the seat of government and the Royal Thai Court have become established and, as such, has accrued a more luscious, varied, and on the whole richer cuisine than other regions. But it’s the northern and southern parts of the nation where the influences of other cultures are more-readily apparent, with the effects of the proximity of Burma, India, and then, towards the east, the influences of Khmer cooking, and China too, being pronounced towards the north, and with the Muslim and Indian influences of Malaysia and Indonesia in the south.
Many dishes that are now popular in Thailand emerged originally from China, and were gradually introduced to Thailand in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Hokkien people as they migrated southwards. But in addition to this there was also the huge cultural knock-on as European traders began to establish trade routes across the world towards the end of this period. Not only were many new herbs, spices and vegetables introduced into Thailand at this time, but probably the most characteristic ingredient of all appeared; the chilli plant in its numerous varieties. These were enjoyed solely by the nobility to begin with, but within a couple of generations had been absorbed into the merchant classes and then filtered down to the ordinary Thai working people. Thus, over a period of 30 years or so, the entire character of food in Thailand changed quite dramatically, and came to more-closely resemble that which we are familiar with today.
In the northern region, because of the cooler mountain climate, there’s a larger variety of vegetables than in other regional Thai cuisines, and roots and herbs have a stronger presence. There are many sour and bitter dishes in these parts, especially evident in soups such as ‘kaeng ho’, made with pickled bamboo shoot. The north is noodle heaven, the ethnic mix of Yunnanese, Shan and Burmese having produced a seemingly endless range of ‘kuay tiaw’ (noodle soups) and ‘khanom jeen’ dishes (soft rice noodles, often curried). Another significant element of northern cuisine – and one that’s now spread all across the nation – is the ‘khantoke’ dinner. The name derives form a ‘khan’, or bowl, and a ‘toke’, a low table or tray, and the characteristic here is that six or seven different dishes are served in small bowls, like a sampler set.
Not surprisingly there’s an overlap into the north east region, but this is that part of Thailand that’s traditionally been the least affluent, consisting almost entirely of the nation’s farming community. The influence of neighbouring Laos is dominant, and the traditional blandness of the basic cuisine has characteristically been enhanced with lashings of chillies, most notably in the fiery ‘laab’; essentially a minced chicken or pork dish. Also the north is famous for its preference for sticky rice (rather than white rice) where it’s rolled into balls and dipped into dishes and sauces. ‘Som tam’, the spicy green papaya salad is another traditional dish throughout the north and northeast. This is an area where there’s a lot more culinary ingenuity, with intestines, organs, the bony parts of the neck and even whole chicken and pigs’ feet finding their way onto the tables – to some extent dining on Lao and Issan food is an acquired taste for the tourist, and it is not often promoted abroad!
Southern Thailand consists of a slender peninsula stretching down to Malaysia and is dramatically different from the rest of the country in both scenery and culture. Lush jungle, rocky limestone outcrops and long stretches of beach are the most familiar features, emphasised by a higher rainfall and equatorial sunshine. Southern cuisine has absorbed the influences of this environment, enhanced by the cultural interchange of traders from India, China and Java. Every part of the coconut tree (even the leaves) are employed in local dishes, its milk thickening soups and curries, its oil for frying and its grated flesh as a condiment. Cashew nuts and pineapples are used extensively. And the Malaysian influence is apparent in curries such as ‘massaman’ curry where you’ll find potatoes being used; a rarity in Thailand.
However, this region’s constant proximity to the sea has not surprisingly resulted in it having become renowned for its seafood dishes. Many sorts of fish, lobsters, crabs, mussels, squid, prawns and scallops are prepared simply by steaming or frying, or more elaborately by cooking in a clay pot with noodles, and presented on the table with the usual assortment of sour, sweet, salty and bitter dishes to go with them. If the north is the home of noodle, then down south it’s all about seafood and curries.
And so to the central plain of Thailand, usually known as ‘the central region’. With Bangkok and the enormous sprawling provinces around, here’s where you find the most cosmopolitan groupings and a little bit of everything mixed in together. The best rice is grown here, and there are several indigenous curries: green curry, ‘kaeng khieo’, a hot curry known as ‘kaeng phet’, and’ a milder version called ‘kaeng phanaeng’. However, simply because of this region’s density and concentration of people, even local regional specialities have spawned-off and developed into sub-categories of their own. In Nakhon Pathom and Chonburi you’ll find sticky rice and coconut steamed in a length of bamboo (‘khao lam’). Chanthaburi has its own special noodles fried with crab meat. There is a chilli paste dip from the coastal area made from crab, egg, and yellow chilli, and even a baked custard (‘khanom maw kaeng’) which is not found elsewhere in Thailand.
You have to bear in mind that the food the Thai people eat isn’t often enjoyed in restaurants as we know them. It’s a warm country. The vast majority of the Thai people eat out – including whole family groups – but it’s at the street stalls and the food markets where they congregate. This is where the authentic Thai cuisine is to be found, not in air-conditioned comfort. So keep this in mind. Venture out around the streets. And that way you’ll actually get a lot more than ‘four for the price of one’!
Rob De Wet