Thailand is a land of great cuisine. Each region has its own signature dishes and styles which they adapted to the local taste. Some ingredients are more dominant than others throughout the country’s famous dishes which I will talk about in this blog, so stay tuned!
Thailand can be divided into four main regions, the north, the northeast, central plains (including Bangkok) and the south. I’m going to take you on a culinary journey through Thailand, giving you a sense of Thai cuisine as a whole by introducing the type of dishes from these various regions.
Northern Thai Food
The northern region is our first stop on our journey. As you may know, Thai cuisine is all about the 4S of flavour - Salty, Sweet, Sour and Spicy (with bitter being a special fifth flavour). You can read more about the 4S in our ‘4 essential flavours of Thai Cuisine’ blog post here. Northern Thai food is known to be spicy and salty, with their dishes consisting of water/broth and grilled food.
The landscape in the north is mountains, valleys and farmland with the climate being comfortable and cool. Making it ideal to grow herbs and vegetables, ingredients like coconuts are not commonly used in northern Thai cuisine as they are grown in the south, but there is one signature dish that has coconut as the main ingredient… Khao Soi.
Khao Soi is a creamy coconut curry noodle soup that has some Burmese influence. The dish is boiled egg noodles in a rich coconut milk base soup garnished with crispy deep-fried egg noodles. Pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime and chilli are all fried in oil and added to the dish. Chicken, beef, pork are all popular meats to be cooked in Khao Soi and I'm working on bringing out a recipe for you to try as Mae Jum's Thai Yellow curry paste makes a great base.
In the meantime, I highly recommend checking out Thai Apron, which does a variety of Thai meal kits that are perfectly portioned for you to cook at home. This Khao Soi image above is just one of the many delicious meals that have to offer. In the box are the fresh and high-quality ingredients, as well as an easy to follow recipe and QR code for a video for guidance.
Another popular Northern Thai dish is, of course, Kaeng Pa (Jungle curry). Traditionally it was made with ingredients found in the jungles of Thailand, usually made with wild meats such as wild boar. Now it’s more commonly prepared with meat like pork or chicken.
Kaeng Pa is a highly spicy and watery curry that has a distinctive full flavour! Some of the ingredients in the curry paste are lemongrass, peppercorn, galangal, kaffir lime and chilli. Made yourself a Jungle curry using Mae Jum Jungle curry paste here. The image above is from our traditional Jungle curry recipe using Thai ingredients such as Thai eggplant and pea aubergines, you can find the recipe here!
No dish is complete without rice! Khao niaw (sticky rice) is preferred to boil Jasmine rice in the north of Thailand. Its stickiness is ideal for mopping up the plates leaving no trace of curry sauce!
Northeastern Thai Food
Now travelling a little east to the northeast region, also known as Isan. The climate in this area is tough, droughts are common and the heat can be unbearable during the day. Just like the north, fish and coconuts are not readily available for everyday cooking.
Utilising each ingredient is important, nothing goes to waste. Beef is a popular meat, eating every part including the tongue, stomach, intestines and heart. This also goes for other meats such as pork and chicken.
Sai Krok Isan is fermented sausages made from ground pork and fat with garlic, sticky rice, salt and pepper. The sausages are put outside in the scorching heat to dry and ferment for several hours or even days, a method that provides the sausages with a unique sourness. The sausages are then grilled or fried before serving with raw chillies, a typical breakfast meal or snack!
A more familiar meal from northeast Thailand is Som Tum, spicy green papaya salad… my favourite! Its freshness from lime juice and sweetness from palm sugar makes som tum an additive meal to eat, but no need to feel bad as it's low in calories and fat!
Long beans and tomatoes are added for a fresher taste and sometimes grated carrot for an extra pop of colour with roasted peanuts and dried shrimp for added texture. You can also add other things for a more complex taste such as salted egg or crab.
Another spicy salad from the northeast region is Laab which is a spicy meat salad. Minced meat such as pork or beef is seasoned with fish sauce, dried chilli flakes, lime juice and toasted sticky rice which is grounded to give it a crunchy texture and thicken the sauce. Fresh mint and shallots are also added for a fresher flavour and sweetness.
I love laab, but there is another spicy meat salad that tops it and that is Nam Tok! It’s essentially laab, however, the sauce is wetter and this dish uses sliced pork or beef instead of mince. As such, you're able to get a stronger meat flavour and sauce and is delicious when eaten in lettuce cups and sticky rice. We will be bringing out a recipe for Nam Tok soon, so make sure you subscribe for updates.
Central Thai food
The central Thai cuisine has influence from its surrounding regions as well as international influence. Vendors and chefs often tweak as they please as ingredients are readily available and dishes in central Thailand are usually milder.
Pad Thai is a well-known dish of Thailand, sweet and nutty flat noodles. Pad Thai has tofu, fresh and dried shrimp and eggs in this dish, which is then cooked together with fresh bean sprouts and spring onions, giving it a nice crunchy texture. Lime, chilli flakes and ground peanuts can be given as a side for a stronger taste (highly recommend!). Thai Apron has this dish as a meal kit too!
One of Thailand’s most loved spicy soups is Tom Yum. There are two types of Tom Yum, a clear broth and cloudy which has coconut milk added to the broth. A clearer broth is recommended for those who are wanting a clean flavour whilst the coconut milk base is great for those wanting a richer flavour. Lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give the dish a fragrant smell, lime juice adds a refreshing taste while prawns and mushrooms add some bite.
Royal Thai cuisine is also part of the central region of Thailand. Thai desserts, thong yip, thong yod and foi thong were introduced by head chef Marie Guimar (Thao Thong Kip Ma) during the 1600s which had Portuguese cuisine influence as she had mixed Japanese-Portuguese ancestry.
Egg yolks were added to an ancient dessert made of rice flour, palm sugar and coconut. Now it is popular to bring this dessert to special occasions and ceremonies. Thong means 'gold' in Thai and this dessert is a nice gesture to wish wealth and success to the receiver.
Southern Thai Food
Lastly, we arrive in the southern region of Thailand where it's known for its beautiful beaches, fresh seafood and spicy curries! Coconuts are grown in the south and it’s reflected in many dishes as a core ingredient and it’s common for Thais to use coconut oil instead of regular cooking oil. Pineapples also flourish in southern Thailand and are incorporated in dishes and desserts.
My Mum (“Mae” Jum) grew up in the southern region and one of her favourite dishes is Gaeng Som which is a hot and sour curry. It has a thin sauce and is usually cooked with fish, prawns or pork (Mum’s favourite is sour curry with fish).
Pineapple, bamboo shoots and papaya are commonly added to the dish. Gaeng Som has a yellow-orangery colour which is the turmeric in the curry paste. Here is a gaeng som recipe for you to try, this is using salmon fillets.
Dry curries (Khua Kling) are also a signature dish of southern Thai cuisine. Khau Kling Moo (pork) is a spicy dry curry and is made by stir-frying diced pork with A LOT of chillies - a bit of a hazard if you can’t handle spice too well! Lemongrass, garlic, turmeric, galangal and shrimp paste are also in the curry paste and this dish is also delicious with beef and chicken.
Nam Prik Kapi is a variation of Nam Prik that is only available in Southern Thailand. Nam Prik Kapi has a salty, sour and sweet flavour and it is made of shrimp paste, chilli, red onions, lemon juice, palm sugar and garlic. All ingredients are pounded in a pestle and mortar into a thick paste and are used as a dipping sauce for vegetables, fish and rice. Despite the strong smell, it can turn a boring bland meal into one that is exciting and full of flavour!
And that's the end of our culinary journey through Thailand, I hope you enjoyed reading about Thai cuisine and the different signatures dishes in each region. Perhaps it has given you some new cooking ideas or maybe a better sense of Thailand and where you would like to travel to and experience the amazing food and culture first hand.
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