Samui Wining & Dining
North, South, East and West

Thai cuisine varies from region to region.

 

8-01Everybody knows what clouds are. They’re the big white fluffy things that float about in the sky. Oh yes…really? Well what about the black ones that rain on you? Or the little feathery ones that are so high and pale you can hardly see them? Clouds come in all shapes and sizes. And colours too, especially at sunset. But they’re all clouds. And it’s just the same with Thai food.

      It’s an instinctive response to assume that Thai cuisine is…er…Thai food - food from Thailand. And, of course, it is. But in the same way that clouds are different and have different reasons for being, so Thai food is quite distinct from region to region.

      Geographically, Thailand is quite unusual, looking vaguely like a squashed mushroom with a long, bent stalk! The northern part is cooler, with forests and elephants, and it borders onto Myanmar and Laos. The southern part is a long, thin strip running down to Malaysia, with the Andaman Sea on one side, and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. And in-between the north and the south is the central plains area; rich and fertile. So it’s hardly surprising that in a country with such diverse environments and influences (not to mention climatic and geographic variations) that differing styles of cuisine should have evolved.

      Another thing to keep in mind is the comparative isolation of each of these areas. The seat of Thai government, politics and economics has always been in the central area. It wasn’t until 1921, that a railway link was made to Chiang Mai, in the north. And usable roads are a relatively recent addition.

     And so it was, that for many hundreds of years each region of Thailand grew and developed, evolving its own cultural identity, dialect, customs, traditions and…food!

      However, there are two elements in the various cuisines that are common to all regions. The first is the use of rice as a staple food. It’s extremely easy and cheap to produce. The second thing is the universal use of curry. Whatever the regional variations, curry pastes made from a base of garlic, onions, chillies and lemongrass are to be found everywhere.

       The northern part of Thailand actually splits itself into two separate areas – the north and the northeast. The north is wild and densely forested, and is cooler, wetter and more mountainous than its neighbours. It’s a region of temple-filled towns such as Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai. And up there, sticky (glutinous) rice is the thing. The idea is that you roll the rice into a ball, and then use it to press into the food, wrapping it in the ball, in order to get it into your mouth. The curries in this area are generally milder than other parts of Thailand, being influenced by nearby Myanmar. This is seen in traditional dishes such as gaeng hang le (‘gaeng’ means curry) – pork curry with ginger, turmeric and tamarind. Another dish particular to this area is khao soi – curry soup with egg noodles.

         Over to the right a bit – more to the east, that is – and you’ll come into the northeastern region of Isaan, also bordering onto Laos. Unsuspecting diners beware! This is where you’ll find the hottest, spiciest and most eye-watering of all Thai cuisine! This area is renowned for its strong flavourings, and the dishes tend to be salty and sour – one of the reasons being the widespread use of fermented fish (pla ra). Keep a wary eye out for the laab – a blisteringly spicy dish made from minced pork or chicken. The famous som tam (green papaya salad) also comes from this area.

         The central region (which contains Bangkok) is lush, green and fertile. Watered by the river Chao Phraya – the same river that runs through Bangkok – this is the source of most of Thailand’s rice crops. The rice eaten here is either steamed or fried, but not ‘sticky’. This is where you’ll find the style of cooking that most people consider typically ‘Thai’. Chicken, meat or fish dishes, blended with fish sauce, garlic, and black pepper. And it was here that chillies first became used – introduced by Portuguese traders in the 17th century.

         Down here in the south, things are different again. This is the laid-back part of Thailand, with lots of white beaches, coconuts and seafood. The food is distinctive due to the widespread use of coconuts in its preparation. Coconut milk to calm the temper of the chillies and coconut oil to cook it all in. Here you’ll find pineapple and cashew nuts creeping into recipes. And a Muslim and Chinese influence, too. Nearby Malaysia is responsible for typical southern dishes such as gaeng massaman (massaman curry) – of Indian origin – mild and seasoned with cardamom, cloves and cinnamon.

         So the next time you’re eating Thai food, take a look up at the clouds. The different varieties of Thai cuisine are just like them, except that each one has a silver lining!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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