Samui Wining & Dining
Why Thai?

Thai cuisine is loved the world over. And it has an interesting background.


12If eating was an Olympic sport then I suspect that Thailand would grace the medal-winners’ podium on every occasion. And I don’t mean consumption by volume, the USA has that covered, I mean for the sheer joy that is derived from cooking and, most importantly, sharing a meal.


Thai food is famous all over the world. In the UK alone, there’re about 2,000 Thai restaurants, with 335 of those in and around London. Whether chili-hot or comparatively neutral, harmony and contrast are the guiding principles behind each dish. Thai cuisine is essentially a marriage of centuries-old Eastern and Western influences combined into something uniquely Thai. And appreciating how Thai people came to be is also a study of their cuisine.


The ‘Tai’ people migrated from valley settlements in the mountainous region of Southwest China (now Yunnan province) between the sixth and thirteenth centuries, into what is now known as Thailand, Laos, the Shan States of upper Myanmar, and northwest Vietnam. Influenced by Chinese cooking techniques, Thai cuisine flourished with the rich biodiversity of the Thai peninsula. As a result, Thai dishes today have some similarities to Szechwan Chinese dishes. Originally, Thai cooking reflected the characteristics of a waterborne lifestyle. Aquatic animals, plants and herbs were major ingredients. And later, with their Buddhist background, Thais tended to shun the use of large animals in big chunks; instead cuts of meat were shredded and blended with herbs and spices.


Traditional Thai cooking methods were stewing, baking and grilling. Chinese influences saw the introduction of frying, stir-frying and deep-frying. Culinary influences from the 17th century onwards included Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese techniques. And chilies were introduced to Thai cooking during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries who had acquired a taste for them whilst serving in South America (chilies weren’t indigenous to the region). Thais were also very adept at adapting foreign cooking methods and substituting ingredients. The ghee used in Indian cooking, for example, was replaced by coconut oil, and coconut milk substituted for other dairy products. Overpowering pure spices were toned down and enhanced by fresh herbs, such as lemon-grass and galangal. Eventually, fewer and fewer spices were used in Thai curries, whilst the use of fresh herbs increased. It’s generally acknowledged that Thai curries burn intensely but briefly, whereas other curries, with strong spices, burn for longer periods.


In terms of size, Thailand has about the same surface area as Spain and a length of approximately 1,650 kilometres (Italy, in comparison, is about 1,250 kilometres long), with a high plateau in the northeast, a verdant river basin in the centre and tropical rainforests and islands in the south. And with over 40 distinct ethnic groups, each with their own culture and even more languages, it doesn't come as a surprise that Thai cuisine, as a whole, is extremely varied and features many different ingredients and ways of preparing food. It’s known for its enthusiastic use of fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices. Common ones include cilantro, lemon-grass, Thai basils and mint. And other familiar flavours in Thai food come from ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, soy beans, shallots, white and black peppercorn, kaffir lime and, of course, chilies.


There’s a balance of the five fundamental taste senses in each dish or the overall meal which are hot (spicy), sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. And although popularly considered a single cuisine, Thai food would be more accurately described as four regional cuisines corresponding to the four main regions of the country: Northern Thailand, North-eastern (or Issan), Central and Southern. In addition to these four regional cuisines, there’s also Royal Thai Cuisine which can trace its history back to the palaces of the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351–1767 CE). Once reserved solely for royal palates there’re a number of restaurants on Samui today that serve Royal Thai dishes.


Likewise, many restaurants on the island will have menus comprising dishes from all around the country. And there’re those that specialize in one specific region, particularly North-eastern cuisine as many of the people who work in the tourism sector come from there. It’s not usual for the menus here to be sectioned into regional dishes but most have distinct origins. From the Northern region you should try gaeng hang-le, gaeng khae and gaep mu. The first one is a Burmese influenced stewed pork curry which uses peanuts, dried chilies and tamarind juice in the recipe but doesn’t contain coconut milk. And nor does the second dish which is a curry made with herbs, vegetables, the leaves of the acacia tree and meat (chicken, water buffalo, pork or frog). Often eaten with nam phrik num, a spicy chili paste, the third dish is deep-fried pork rinds, a popular street stall food eaten as a snack.


There’s a good chance that you’ve already tried some of Issan’s most notable fare. Som tam is a staple and many people from the region can barely go 24 hours without some before getting withdrawal symptoms. It’s grated papaya salad, pounded with a mortar and pestle, similar to the Laotian tam mak hoong. There are three main variations: som tam pu with salted black crab, som tam thai with peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar and som tam pla ra with salted gourami fish, white eggplants, fish sauce and long beans. Som tam is usually eaten with sticky rice but a popular variation is to serve it with khanom chin (rice noodles) instead. Larb is another wonderfully spicy salad containing minced pork, onions, chilies, roasted rice powder and garnished with mint.


Central Thailand is the source of many visitors favourite meal – green curry. Gaeng khiao wan is a coconut curry made with fresh green chilies and flavoured with Thai basil, and chicken or fish meatballs. And phad kraphao made with beef, pork, prawns or chicken and stir fried with Thai holy basil, chilies and garlic is another that you’ll find on most menus. The Southern region has its own specialities. Gaeng lueang is a sour spicy yellow curry that doesn’t contain coconut milk and is often served with fish and vegetables. And perhaps the most famous dish is gaeng matsaman, also known in English as massaman curry. It’s an Indian-style curry, usually made by Thai-Muslims, of stewed beef and contains roasted dried spices such as coriander seed that are rarely found in other Thai curries.


Simply eating here is an adventure and joining Thai people for a meal is an education. I don’t think people from the West have forgotten how to enjoy food, just how to derive pleasure from the simple everyday act of sharing time and a meal with others. In Thailand, that’s what makes the people gold-medal winners.


Johnny Paterson


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