Samui Wining & Dining

The history of Thai cuisine and its influences.


Page-16Until 1939, the country we call Thailand was known as Siam. It was the only Southeast Asian country never colonised by the West, which helped it to maintain its own special cuisine. But that’s not to say that Thailand hadn’t already been influenced by its Asian neighbours. The Thai people migrated to their present homeland from southern China about 2,000 years ago, bringing with them the cooking of their native Yunnan province, as well as its dietary staple, rice. Other Chinese influences on Thai cooking included the use of noodles, dumplings, soy sauce, and other soy products. It’s from their Chinese heritage that the Thais based their recipes on blending five basic flavours: salty, sweet, sour, bitter, and hot.

      From nearby India came not only Buddhism, but also fragrant seasonings such as cumin, cardamom, and coriander, as well as curry dishes. The Malays, to the south, further imparted their knowledge of spices, as well as their love of coconuts and the satay (small kebabs of meat, slowly grilled).

       The impact of foreign trade through the ‘Silk Road’ and various sea spice routes on Thai food was substantial, as these trade routes linked Asia with Europe and vice versa. Ultimately many European nations, including the British and French had a major economic and military presence in Asia as a

direct result of the spice trade. Thailand was the exception to European rule.

      Traditional Thai cooking methods were stewing, baking, or grilling, however, Chinese influences saw the introduction of stir-frying and deep-frying. Culinary influences from the 17th century onwards included Portuguese, Dutch, French and Japanese. Chillies, now a major part of Thai cooking, were introduced to Thailand during the late 1600s by Portuguese missionaries, who had acquired a taste for them while serving in South America. Thais were good at making these foreign cooking styles and ingredients their own, as well as substituting local products where necessary. The ghee used in Indian cooking was replaced by coconut oil, and coconut milk was a perfect alternative for other dairy products. Overpowering pure spices were toned down and enhanced by fresh herbs such as lemon grass and galangal. Over time, fewer spices were used in Thai curries, while more fresh herbs were used instead. It’s generally agreed that Thai curries burn intensely, but briefly, while other curries with strong spices burn for longer periods.

      Thai food has several variations, depending on the region. These regions include the north, northeast, south and central. Each region’s cuisine was influenced by its neighbours, settlers and visitors, yet has continued to adapt through time. The north-eastern part of Thailand was heavily influenced by the Khmer, who were from the area now known as Cambodia. The Burmese influence northern Thailand, as do the Chinese to a lesser extent. In the southern region, the Malay people had a major impact on the food. Central Thailand was influenced by the ‘Royal Cuisine’ of the Ayutthaya Kingdom.

      The area of north-eastern Thailand to this day has a heavy Khmer and Lao influence. In fact, many Thais in this area, which is also known as ‘Issan’, often speak Khmer as well as Thai. Families also have relatives that live in Cambodia and Laos and travel across the border is relatively easy. When travelling in Issan, you’ll find many historical sites which attest to the heavy Khmer influence. The food is similar as well, both as far as preparation is concerned as well as the use of almost everything to make a meal. Issan is one of the poorest regions in Thailand, explaining why everything that is edible is used – insects, lizards, snakes, and all parts of the pig. Chicken feet soup, which is literally what it says, with the addition of a variety of herbs and spices, is a popular dish. People from Issan have migrated to other parts of the country for better work opportunities, so their food is found everywhere in Thailand, and especially in Bangkok where many people have moved to work in the various industrial estates, and even here on Samui where vendors offering traditional Issan food always have a steady flow of customers.

       The southern provinces of Thailand to this day have a heavy influence from Malaysia. In this part of Thailand you find a majority of Thailand’s Muslim population. As a result, the food found in this part of Thailand is very similar to the food found in Malaysia, however with a unique Thai taste, due to the combination of herbs and spices. The ties to Persian and other Middle-Eastern foods are evident as well.

         The food from the central provinces, which is traced back to the Royal Cuisine of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, is a more refined version of the Thai food found in other provinces, and is the closest style to Thai food found in the West. It’s also what’s on the menu in most four and five star restaurants in Thailand, and it’s not likely that you’ll find any chicken feet or pig’s intestine soup in any of these restaurants!

         With Thailand’s growth as a tourist and expat hotspot, more and more international restaurants are being introduced as well as Western products being available in the supermarkets. It’s not only farang (Westerners) eating this foreign food, but Thais are indulging in it too. Restaurants are using Thai chefs to assist in preparation of Western food, meaning that the styles of cooking and introduction to the ingredients are being passed on to the locals.

         Just as Thai food was influenced in the past, it’s still continuing to evolve – hopefully not with a negative impact. It would be a shame if Thai food were toned down to the extent that it is in Thai restaurants abroad to satisfy the Western palate. Thai food lovers can only hope is that real Thai food will never lose its unique sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy taste in an effort to appeal to the masses.


Rosanne Turner


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