Thai Flavour Wheel: SALTY: fish sauce, shrimp paste; SPICY: chillies, pepper; SOUR: lime, tamarind, vinegar; SWEET: palm sugar, fruits
Thailand has something for everyone, and I'm not just talking about food! But the food is our focus, and for good reason: Thailand arguably cooks up some of the tastiest food in the world, from its famous pad Thai, to its massaman curry, khao soi (a rich noodle soup curry originating in Chiang Mai), mango sticky rice, and more. It's impossible to deliver an exhaustive list on the best Thai food!
In this blog, I'm going to share some of the food highlights in Thailand as well as a recipe for one of my favorite Thai dishes--it wasn't an easy choice! Got your fork and spoon ready? Let's dig in!
Tasty Travels In Thailand
Throughout my journeys in Thailand, I've had the pleasure--and displeasure in some cases!--of trying many different foods. Foods not found anywhere in the West outside of Asian supermarkets. Food that lights a veritable torch in my mouth and my belly. Food that leaves me begging for more. Food that's fresh, light, and clean, even though it came out of the back of a wonky-wheel, rusted-out pick-up truck. There is no shortage of food options in Thailand, no matter if you're in the country's cosmopolitan capital, Bangkok, or tucked away in a rural village.
My first visit to a Thai night market left me wondering what the heck I was going to eat for the next four months I'd planned to travel the country. All I saw were heaps of raw meat, cauldrons of sugary soup crawling with flies, and dehydrated fish hung like sweat socks on a line. Piles of grasshoppers, cicadas, and in some cases, scorpions, fried with garlic and chili. My first impressions weren't favorable, to say the least!
Then over the subsequent four months, as I opened my mind to a different kind of cuisine than I was used to (and the hunger pangs increased), something shifted. As I neared the end of my 120-day trip, I found myself having to "eenie-meenie-miney-mo" my way through the night market because I simply couldn't choose from the smattering of sensational snacks, luscious curries, fried meats, fresh fruits, grilled fish, stir-fried morning glory, and all the other delicious edible sundries on offer.
There are two sides to Thai food: the street food/night market side and the more upscale Thai cuisine. If I have to choose between one or the other, I will usually always choose streetfood. It's cheaper, more authentic in many cases, and just damn tasty. Besides, I adore the night market experience. The whole atmosphere is alive with lights and billows of campy smoke and sizzles. That doesn't mean that the more posh restaurant style food is to be ignored. Indeed, if it's done right, it's delicious. Even if it's subpar, it's still pretty good. Most Thai food is!
The pork buns deserve a special mention here because there is nothing quite like them. I imagine they're like the tea + toast comfort combo of my culture. Pork buns look like a standard dinner roll, but inside hides a two-bite serving of pork floss. That's right--pork floss, like candy floss, but meat. If that sounds somewhat unappetizing to you, it all depends on your state of mind as you bite into one. Expecting something sweet and ending up with a mouthful of meat creates a bit of sensory confusion, precisely because it is slightly sweet. This combination will make more sense as you continue reading.
Key takeaway? Don't travel to Thailand without an open mind and a good appetite!
Have You Eaten Yet?
In Thailand, food and eating are serious business. Indeed, the standard greeting between people is not "hey what's up?" or "how are you?", but "have you eaten yet?" And quite literally, "have you eaten rice yet?" Rice, of course, is the overarching term for food. If the answer is no, then a follow up question is "where will you eat?"
I love this unadorned path in conversation to what's really important. Cut the small talk and get right down to business, shall we? In the West, we might interpret this greeting to mean that if we're fed, we're likely more pleasant to talk to. After all, how many of us have that hangry gene?!
The Thai Flavour Wheel
Have you heard of the Thai flavour wheel? It's the secret to delicious, authentic tasting Thai food. It's a secret in the West, that is. In Thailand, everyone knows!
The local people take pride in even the most casual dining arrangements, even street food. Flavor and taste are important considerations, and no food is served without a smattering of garnishes, which are meant to balance the flavor profile to your individual liking.
These are the flavor wheel spokes:
SALTY: fish sauce, shrimp paste
SPICY: chillies, pepper
SOUR: lime, tamarind, vinegar
SWEET: palm sugar, fruits
Learn to properly balance these in your Thai food recipes and you'll pretty much nail authentic Thai food. Speaking of recipes, the winner is… Khao Soi! Originally I would've chosen pad Thai, but since I live in Chiang Mai, its signature noodle dish has developed a special place in my heart--and belly! Here it is:
Authentic Khao Soi Recipe (Chiang Mai Noodle)
This recipe has a few parts to it: the curry paste base, the soup, the noodle, and the meat and vegetables.
Khao Soi Paste
4 dried chilies, stemmed, halved & seeded
2 medium shallots, halved
8 garlic cloves
2" piece ginger, peeled & sliced
¼ cup chopped cilantro stems
1 tbsp ground coriander
1 tbsp ground turmeric
1 tsp curry powder
2 tbsp vegetable oil
2 14-oz. cans unsweetened organic coconut milk
2 cups chicken broth
1½ lb skinless, boneless chicken thighs, halved lengthwise
1 lb Chinese egg noodles
3 tbsp (or more) fish sauce
1 tbsp (packed) palm sugar or light brown sugar
Good quality salt
Sliced red onion, bean sprouts, cilantro sprigs, crispy fried onions or shallots, chili oil, and lime wedges.
Khao Soi Paste
Submerge chilies in boiled water and soak for about 30 minutes, until soft. Drain, and set leftover liquid aside. Using a food processor, puree the chilies, shallots, garlic, ginger, cilantro stems, coriander, turmeric, curry powder, and 2 tablespoons of the chili liquid or more if needed to produce a smooth consistency.
In a large pot, heat oil over medium heat. Add the paste and cook until slightly dark, about 5 minutes, while stirring constantly. Add coconut milk and broth and bring to a boil. Add the chicken. Reduce the heat and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 25 minutes. Remove the chicken, allow it to cool slightly, and shred the meat.
Cook the noodles according to the instructions on the package.
Add the shredded chicken, plus the fish sauce and sugar to the soup. Season with salt or more fish sauce (the salty spoke on the Thai flavour wheel), if needed. Divide the soup and noodles between 4-6 bowls and garnish with toppings.
Enjoy hot, with chopsticks, and a large soup spoon!
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