THAILAND REGIONAL CUISINES
by Kevin Cain
If you were to ask somebody in London or New York to name an authentic Thai dish they probably would utter Tom Yam or Green Curry, the same could probably be said of some expats living in Pattaya or Phuket. However, whilst those two dishes do appear on many menus in Thailand, they do not truly represent the diverse range of the country's epic culinary cuisine.
Thailand, geographically speaking is a very diverse country, and many Thais generally divide it into four distinct regions. The Central region is largely dominated by the Chao Phraya River and its delta with its rich and fertile soil, whereas Southern Thailand is a thin peninsula with the Andaman Sea on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. Further North the terrain is mountainous and the climate cool, while the Northeast Plateau is a vast area flanked by the Mekong river.Each of the four areas has its own distinct ethnic peoples, dialects, customs and cuisines. Therefore you can expect to have very regional variances in the types of food you will be offered as you travel around.
Bangkok is the heart of the Central Region and boasts the finest rice in the country, notably hom mali and jasmine. The three curries famous from this region are Kaeng Khieo Wan (the familiar green curry) normally with poultry or fish, Kaeng Phet which is a spicy hot curry and Kaeng Phanaeng a little milder, all three are based on coconut milk.
TITLE KHIEO WAN - GREEN CURRY
Tom Yam another famous dish also originates from the Central Region, as do the tangy and spicy salads popular in Thailand. Most meals in this area will include an omelet of some kind, either plainly served with a spicy chilli dip, or perhaps stuffed with ground pork, tomato and onion called Khai Yat Sai.
The food of the Central Region is heavily influenced by Chinese techniques and ingredients such as tofu, ground pork, squashes and noodle dishes as Kuay Tiaw. A famous dish of the region is Nam Prik which is a fiery, pungent chilli dip served with fresh vegetables which are in season; cucumber, morning glory, makok leaves, cha-om and gratin.
TITLE NAM PRIK - CHILLI DIP
Southwest of Bangkok is Phetchaburi, where you will find Khanom Maw Kaeng a sweet baked custard. There are many variations but all based on mung bean, egg and coconut milk.
The North Region has a cooler climate and therefore a larger selection of vegetables are used along with roots and herbs. The most common flavours are sour and bitter especially prevalent in the soups such as Kaeng Ho made with pickled bamboo shoot.
Myanmar and Laos have strongly influence the cuisine here, favouring glutinous rice rolled into balls in the hand and then dipped into dips and sauces. The highly original Somtam, which is a spiced green papaya salad is also popular here.
TITLE SOMTAM - PAPAYA SALAD
Originating in Myanmar comes Khao Soi, which is a sort of curry broth with egg noodles and chicken or beef. And Kaeng Hang Lay which is a pork curry seasoned with ginger, tamarind and tumeric, the curries of the region are thinner with the two most popular being Kaeng Yuak, made from banana palm hearts, and Kaeng Khanoon with aromatic jackfruit. Sausages are a favourite in the North Region with Sai Ua being the most famous, filled with pork, dried chillies, garlic, shallots and lemongrass. One of the more unusual sausages is Naem Maw, mixed in a clay pot containing ground pork, pork rind, sticky rice, garlic and chilli. The sausage is fermented and is eaten raw giving a highly strong and sour taste.
In the Northeast methods of cooking favour roasting and grilling and the cuisine has strong, bold flavours utilising herbs and pickles. Somtam is also very popular here with the addition of dried shrimp and cherry tomatoes, some variations use pickled field crab which make the dish highly salty.Kai Yang or grilled chicken is an Isan special, where the preparation of the meat in garlic, coriander root, black pepper and fish sauce is essential before it is slowly cooked over hot charcoal.
TITLE KAI YANG - GRILLED CHICKEN
Lap or Laab is a sort of salad using ground pork, beef, poultry or freshwater fish together with fresh mint, spring onions, dried chillies and uncooked ground rice. Often this dish is very spicy and cuts of offal and rind may be supplemented to the dish.An Isan meal will normally include a spicy soup sometimes made out of tripe or offal, flavoured deeply with tamarind. The hotpot known as Chaew Hawn is prevalent everywhere, where an individual heated pot is delivered to the table and ingredients are cooked either in the boiling broth or fried on a metal cone.
Southern cuisine is based on being hot and spicy, reflected in a typical dish called Kaeng Tai Pla an extremely hot curry made with fish stomach, green beans, pickled bamboo and potato. The Southern Region has many Malaysian, Javanese and Indian influences and curries are a favourite staple popular with fish, lobsters, crabs, mussels, squid and scallops thickened with coconut, nuts and pineapple.
Southern people love their food chilli hot with a bitter taste imparted by a native flat bean called Sataw.There is also an extensive use of turmeric in many of the regions dishes making them yellow in colour, Gaeng Lueng a spicy coconut soup and Khao Mok Gai, chicken in turmeric are fine examples of this.
Massaman is another uniquely flavoured curry featuring, galangal, lemongrass, coriander root, kaffir lime leaves and shrimp paste and unusually for Thai cuisine the addition of five-spice powder. Locals would customarily add roasted peanuts to their Massaman curry as a garnish which often occurs in other dishes.
TITLE MASSAMAN CURRY
The four culinary regions of Thailand offer a cornucopia of different tastes and experiences and the local dishes differ immensely not just by region but by town.
Every place you visit seems to have their own special version of a regional favourite, slightly enhanced by a mystery ingredient or two or prepared and cooked in a different manner.Next time you are perusing a Thai menu, take time out to study, if they are offering something different, why not choose a variation of your normal selection. You never know, you might be pleasantly surprised.