If your palate’s affair with Thai food has been limited to red and green curry or tom yum soup and pad thai, then you have barely scratched the surface of a complex cuisine that has jumped the popularity charts across the world
Even though Thailand may not be a large country, the flavours change from region to region while its street food has acquired near legendary status. Delving into the many shades of Thai food (literally for some dishes), we found that it has absorbed influences from countries as far as China and Malaysia to its east and Portugal to its west, but evolved into its own distinct blend of sweet, spicy, salty, bitter and sour.
Little wonder then that a Thai dish, massaman curry, ranked as “the king of all curries and perhaps the king of all foods” in CNN Travel’s 2021 list of the world’s 50 favourite foods, while two other dishes from Thailand also made it to the list. All proof that the ‘Land of Smiles’ is now firmly perched on global plates.
Flavours and ingredients that rule
Those who have walked down Bangkok’s streets would be familiar with the heady sounds and aromas of stir-frying meat and noodles, roasting duck, steaming dumplings, bubbling curries and a pungent smell of fish sauce hanging in the air. It is a spicy mix for sure, and it is sometimes said that if you do not sweat while eating and your nose does not flow, the food is not tasty.
Actually Thai cuisine is not about pungent food alone. It is also a fine balance of a host of local herbs and ingredients that give it the delicate sweet and sour tones, so distinct from other East Asian cuisines. In this tropical land, the fresh flavours come from the generous splashes of lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal and basil which go hand in hand with the red and green chillies that add the sharpness. Coconut milk lends the creaminess, tamarind paste a touch of sour while palm sugar adds the sweet tones.
“Thai spice quotient varies a lot across the country. In Bangkok the food is milder, while in North and South Thailand it is very spicy and a bit sweet as well,” says Chef Veena Arora, Chef De Cuisine at The Spice Route at The Imperial New Delhi.
Let us start with the most basic but much-loved bowl of rice without which any Thai meal is incomplete. While the fragrant jasmine rice (it has nothing do with the jasmine flower) is a favourite, sticky rice rules in North Thailand. Traditionally, many Thais start their meal with a spoonful of plain rice—a homage to its importance on the table. Thai fried rice, known as khao pad—flavoured with herbs, oyster and fish sauces and replete with shrimp, crab or meat and fresh vegetables—is a favourite and quite distinct from Chinese fried rice.
But thanks to the influence that crept in from China, noodles have become a quintessential part of Thai cuisine. In fact, it is believed that a rice shortage during World War II opened the door to noodles.
Ironically, however, it is the pad thai noodle dish that gave the world its Thai food cravings and rules the roost in restaurants from New York to New Delhi. The chewy, flat variation of noodles are believed to have been created in the 1930s amid a burst of nationalism in the country when even its name was changed. Stir fried with a savoury-sour sauce, and tossed with fresh beansprouts, eggs, peanuts, and proteins like fish and chicken, it is a dish oh so easy to fall in love with.
Pad see ew, the wide noodles that are tossed with soy sauce and the coconut curry-based khao soi stir-fried noodle dishes are also so popular that many pick them up on street carts and have them on the go.
The bowl of rice goes hand in hand with some Thai favourites—red curry and green curry that unsurprisingly derive their name from the red and green chillies used in the gravy, while turmeric influences the colour of the lesser-known yellow curry.
But Thai cooks bring to the table a range of curries known not just for their distinct colours but also flavours and characteristics.
While relatively lesser known in India, it was massaman curry that CNN Travel voted as “the king of all curries and perhaps the king of all foods.” Milder, sweeter and thicker, Muslim influences that came from its south persuaded Thai cooks to include dry spices like cumin, coriander and cinnamon to the curry paste along with local ingredients like coconut milk, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves to turn out a delicious, creamy gravy.
Both massaman and panang curry, which is nuttier with a heavy use of peanuts, derive their name from regions in the south of the country. Unlike popular perception, coconut milk is not a constant in curries and traditional Thais make a much thinner gravy to accompany the rice.
“In South Thailand where I grew up, we mostly have fish curry which is made without coconut milk or oil. It is just boiled with turmeric, onion, chillies and either lemon or tamarind,” says Chef Veena. “Unlike Indian curries, there is no tomato used either.”
Many locals pick up this thin curry from a street food vendor and cook jasmine rice at home, so it is a quick and economical meal.
The stir fries came in from China but while the ubiquitous wok never changed, the dishes have adapted to local tastes. Fish sauce is an important ingredient bringing a rich taste and so is the use of meats, whether seafood, chicken, pork or duck.
Pad kra pao, or Thai basil chicken as it is more commonly known as, is a dish now relished across the world—minced pork or chicken are stir fried with Thai basil and chillies and served with jasmine rice. But perhaps nowhere will it taste as fresh or authentic as when picked up from the street vendors of Bangkok.
“I learnt that actual Thai food was out there, on the streets of Bangkok,” says Chef Ananda Solomon, who started his ground work to launch India’s first Thai restaurant—Thai Pavilion at the President in Mumbai—by going to Thailand in 1991, attending Thai cooking classes, working at a restaurant and then cooking on the streets of Bangkok. “Then I got back and we did trials of about 3,300 dishes for one and a half years before launching the restaurant,” he adds.
Soups and salads
The most famous Thai soup, tom yum goong soup is a hearty, flavourful dish on its own that can suffice for a meal. The shrimp or prawn soup teems with everything quintessentially Thai—lemongrass, Thai chillies, galangal and kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce. These perfectly balance the sweet, sour and spicy notes that define Thai cuisine. A favourite worldwide, it won the eighth rank in CNN Travel’s list of the world’s 50 favourite foods.
For those who have sometimes pondered over the not-so-Thai name when they ordered this soup, here is a quick guide: ‘tom’ is the Thai word for the boiling process, ‘yum’ means mixing things together and ‘goong’ means prawns.
Another popular Thai soup that has made its way to restaurants worldwide is tom kha. Its key ingredients are galangal and coconut milk, making it creamier.
Anyone who has visited a Thai supermarket or taken a trip down the floating market in Bangkok has seen the abundance of fresh fruits and vegetables, mango, dragonfruit and papaya being just a few of them. Inevitably these have found their way into tempting salads and desserts besides the main dishes.
The som tam or green papaya salad is, of course, another mouth-watering star that now counts among the most popular dishes worldwide. Tossed with palm sugar, roasted peanuts and soy or fish sauce and lime juice, it is quintessentially Thai—sweet, spicy and tangy. It won the 46th spot in the CNN Travel list.
Thai food traditions
Unlike Western food, there are no set courses in Thai food. Be it a soup, salad or main course, everything comes on the table and is eaten together. Typically, a Thai meal is eaten sitting on the floor although, of course, the dining table has taken over in many homes. Most of the houses cook fish, which is abundant, every evening for dinner, dunking it in their curry along with vegetables or having it fried. Also, there are no traditional breakfast items. Whatever is left over from the previous day is usually eaten with rice the next morning.
Some lesser-known Thai winners
Undoubtedly the best Thai food is had in Thailand itself, where the ingredients are the freshest. But on a visit to the country, do sample some dishes outside the well-known ones, whether in street stalls or while having a fine-dining experience in a restaurant.
While the list is long, some lesser-known Thai dishes worth noting are guay tiew reua or noodle soup simmered in a meat broth, the aromatic khao pad sapparod or pineapple fried rice, pla nueng or steamed fish (usually snapper) with spicy lime sauce. Then there are the appetisers—tod mun pla or Thai fish cakes, served with a sweet Thai dipping sauce and mah hor, a royal snack made with mandarin orange or pineapple and topped with pork or chicken, a delicious combination of sweet and savoury. And do not forget to try mango sticky rice, a combination of mangoes, coconut milk and sticky rice that gives this unusual dessert such a refreshing taste.
Gurmehar Sethi, who has opened a standalone Thai restaurant in Delhi says, “I realised that there is so much more to Thai food than curries and pad thai after studying it and roaming around the villages of Thailand. I opened Ziu with that in mind.”
Michelin-starred restaurants and celebrity chefs
Many chefs have done their bit in putting this cuisine on the global map. The trailblazer was Chef David Thompson who in 2001 opened Nahm in London, which within just six months went onto become the first Thai restaurant to win a Michelin star. Then, of course, there is the 76-year-old food vendor in Bangkok, Jai Fai, who also won a Michelin star and has featured in a Netflix show; among her most famous offerings is an outsized omelette stuffed with crab.
Thai food in India
Way back in 1993 when people were not so well travelled and unfamiliar with Thai cuisine, the Taj Group, always the first to introduce the country to international flavours, opened Thai Pavilion at the President hotel in Mumbai. It picked up slowly and every dish had to be explained to the diners.
Then Chef Solomon came up with his gamechanger—Thai Pavilion became the first restaurant in the country to offer a set price for all the starters and another for all main courses. “People loved that,” he recalls. Thai Pavilion went onto become a favourite since it was one of the most affordable restaurants in a five-star hotel.
After Indians started travelling more overseas and Thailand emerged as one of the most popular holiday destinations, they got a first-hand taste of Thai food. Since then, many restaurants have successfully offered authentic Thai food, including many five-star hotels. Spice Route opened doors at The Imperial New Delhi in 1998 and went onto become one of the most popular restaurants in the city and country. Chef Veena Arora’s skill and knowledge of the cuisine made all the difference to this restaurant. Oberoi Hotels opened Rim Naam in Bengaluru and Baan Thai in Kolkata.
Outside the five-stars, many Oriental restaurants would include a few Thai dishes on the menu but there were not too many stand-alone Thai restaurants in Delhi until Gurmehar Sethi opened Ziu in December 2015.
But as the popularity of this cuisine just grows, a number of Thai restaurants have opened across the country, sometimes combining it with other Southeast Asian dishes, but widening their menus to more than red and green curries and pad thai. So if you cannot travel overseas for the time being, head out to get a taste of authentic Thailand right here in India.