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Thai cuisine is the national cuisine of Thailand. Blending elements of several Southeast Asian traditions, Thai cooking places emphasis on lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components. The spiciness of Thai cuisine is well known. As with other Asian cuisines, balance, detail and variety are of great significance to Thai chefs. Thai food is known for its balance of three to four fundamental taste senses in each dish or the overall meal: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.
As an acknowledged expert of Thai cuisine, Australian chef David Thompson explains Thai food to a Western audience: "Thai food ain't about simplicity. It's about the juggling of disparate elements to create a harmonious finish. Like a complex musical chord it's got to have a smooth surface but it doesn't matter what's happening underneath. Simplicity isn't the dictum here, at all. Some westerners think it's a jumble of flavours, but to a Thai that's important, it's the complexity they delight in."
Thai cuisine is more accurately described as four regional cuisines corresponding to the four main regions of the country: Northern, Northeastern (or Isan), Central, and Southern, each cuisine sharing similar foods or foods derived from those of neighboring countries and regions: Burma to the northwest, the Chinese province of Yunnan and Laos to the north, Vietnam and Cambodia to the east, Indonesia and Malaysia to the south of Thailand. In addition to these four regional cuisines, there is also the Thai Royal Cuisine which can trace its history back to the cosmopolitan palace cuisine of the Ayutthaya kingdom (1351–1767 CE). Its refinement, cooking techniques and use of ingredients were of great influence to the cuisine of the Central Thai plains. Western influences from the 17th century CE onwards have also led to dishes such as foi thong and sangkhaya.
Thai cuisine and the culinary traditions and cuisines of Thailand's neighbors have mutually influenced one another over the course of many centuries. Regional variations tend to correlate to neighboring states (often sharing the same cultural background and ethnicity on both sides of the border) as well as climate and geography. Southern Thai curry tend to contain coconut milk and fresh turmeric, while northeastern dishes often include lime juice. The cuisine of Northeastern (or Isan) Thailand is similar to southern Lao cuisine whereas northern Thai cuisine shares many dishes with northern Lao cuisine and the cuisine of Shan state in Burma. Many popular dishes eaten in Thailand were originally Chinese dishes which were introduced to Thailand mainly by the Teochew people who make up the majority of the Thai Chinese. Such dishes include chok (rice porridge), kuai-tiao rat na (fried rice-noodles) and khao kha mu (stewed pork with rice). The Chinese also introduced the use of a wok for cooking, the technique of deep-frying and stir-frying dishes, and noodles, oyster sauce and soybean products. Dishes such as kaeng kari (yellow curry) and kaeng matsaman (massaman curry) are Thai adaptations of dishes originating in the cuisine of India and the cuisine of Persia.
Thai cuisine only became well-known worldwide from the 1960s onwards, when Thailand became a destination for international tourism and American troops arrived in large numbers during the Vietnam War period. The number of Thai restaurants went up from four in 1970s London to between two and three hundred in less than 25 years. The Thaksin administration of Thailand (2001-2006) launched the "Kitchen of the World" campaign to promote Thai cuisine internationally, with a yearly budget of 500 million baht. It provided loans and training for restaurateurs seeking to establish Thai restaurants overseas; established the "Thai Select" certification program which encouraged the use of ingredients imported from Thailand; and promoted integration between Thai investors, Thai Airways, and the Tourism Authority of Thailand with Thai restaurants overseas.
One survey held in 2003 by the Kellogg School of Management and Sasin Institute showed that Thai cuisine ranked 4th when people were asked to name an ethnic cuisine, after Italian, French and Chinese cuisine. When asked "what is your favourite cuisine?", Thailand's cuisine came in at 6th place, behind the three aforementioned cuisines, and Indian and Japanese cuisine.
In the list of the "World's 50 most delicious foods", compiled by CNN in 2011, som tam stands at place 46, nam tok mu at 19, tom yam kung on 8, and massaman curry stands on first place as most delicious food in the world. In a reader's poll held a few months later by CNN, mu nam tok came in on place 36, Thai fried rice at 24, green curry stands on 19, massaman curry on place 10, and Thai som tam, pad Thai and tom yam kung hold places 6, 5 and 4.
Thai chefs in the name of Thailand Culinary Academy achieve second place in the Gourmet Team Challenge (Practical) of the FHC China International Culinary Arts Competition 14 at Shanghai, China in 14–16 November 2012.
Thai chefs in the name of Thailand Culinary Academy win in the competition of IKA Culinary Olympic 2012 which was held in Erfurt, Germany between 5–10 October 2012. They received 4 golden medals and 1 silver medal.
Two restaurants that are specialised in Thai cuisine, but owned by non-Thai chefs, have received Michelin stars: "Nahm" in London, run by David Thompson received its star in 2002, and "Kiin Kiin" in Copenhagen, run by chef Henrik Yde-Andersen and Lertchai Treetawatchaiwong, received its in 2009. Currently, "Kiin Kiin" is the only Thai restaurant with a Michelin star.
In 2011, the prestigious James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef in Northwestern United States, was presented to Andy Ricker of restaurant "Pok Pok" in Portland, Oregon, and for Best Chef in Southwestern United States to Saipin Chutima of restaurant "Lotus of Siam" in Winchester, Nevada.
Thai meals typically consist of a single dish if eating alone, or rice (khao in Thai) with many complementary dishes served concurrently and shared by all. It is customary to serve more dishes than there are guests at a table.
Thai food was traditionally eaten with the right hand while seated on mats or carpets on the floor as still happens in the more traditional households. It is now generally eaten with a fork and a spoon. Tables and chairs were introduced as part of the Westernization during the reign of King Mongkut, Rama IV. The use of fork and spoon were introduced by King Chulalongkorn after his return from a tour of Europe in 1897 CE. The fork, held in the left hand, is used to push food into the spoon. The spoon is then brought to the mouth. A traditional ceramic spoon is sometimes used for soup. Knives are not generally used at the table. Chopsticks are foreign utensils to Thailand, as traditionally Thai people ate with their hands like the people of India, and are sometimes used for eating noodle soups of Chinese origin, but are not otherwise used at all. Stir fried noodle dishes, such as Pad Thai, although noodles themselves are of Chinese origin, are eaten with a fork and spoon in the Thai fashion, as they have been adapted to local tastes, and most likely because Thais in the past were not proficient in using chopsticks to eat food.
It is common practice for Thais and hill tribe peoples in north and northeast Thailand to use sticky rice as an edible implement by shaping it into small, and sometimes flattened, balls by hand which are then dipped into side dishes and eaten. Thais touch food only with their right hands.
Thai food is often served with a variety of sauces (nam chim) and condiments. These may include phrik nam pla/nam pla phrik (consisting of fish sauce, lime juice, chopped chilies and garlic), dried chili flakes, sweet chili sauce, sliced chili peppers in rice vinegar, sriracha sauce, or a spicy chili sauce or paste called nam phrik. In most Thai restaurants, diners can find a selection of Thai condiments, often including sugar, available on the dining table in small containers with tiny spoons. With certain dishes, such as khao kha mu (pork trotter stewed in soy sauce and served with rice), whole Thai peppers and raw garlic are served in addition. Cucumber is sometimes eaten to cool the mouth after particularly spicy dishes. They often also feature as a garnish, especially with one-dish meals. The plain rice, sticky rice or the khanom chin (Thai rice noodles) served alongside a spicy Thai curry or stir-fry, tends to counteract the spiciness.
A Thai family meal will normally consist of rice with several dishes which form a harmonious contrast of ingredients and preparation methods. The dishes, also soups, are all served at the same time. A meal at a restaurant for four people could, for instance, consist of fish in dry red curry (chuchi pla), a spicy green papaya salad with dried prawns, tomatoes, yardlong beans and peanuts (som tam thai), deep fried stuffed chicken wings (pik kai sot sai thot), a salad of grilled beef, shallots and celery or mint (yam nuea yang), spicy stir fried century eggs with crispy-fried holy basil (khai yiao ma phat kraphao krop), and a non-spicy vegetable soup with tofu and seaweed (tom chuet taohu kap sarai) to temper it all.
Thailand has about the same surface area as Spain and a length of approximately 1650 kilometers or 1025 miles (Italy, in comparison, is about 1250 kilometers or 775 miles long), with foothills of the Himalayas in the north, 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 with each their own culture and even more languages, it does not come as a surprise that Thai cuisine, as a whole, is extremely varied and features many different ingredients and ways of preparing food. Thai food is known for its enthusiastic use of fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices. Common herbs include cilantro, lemongrass, Thai basils and mint. Some other common flavors in Thai food come from ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, soy beans, shallots, white and black peppercorn, kaffir lime and, of course, chilies.
The ingredients found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce. Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Thai cuisine and imparts a unique character to Thai food. Fish sauce is prepared with fermented fish that is made into a fragrant condiment and provides a salty flavor. There are many varieties of fish sauce and many variations in the way it is prepared. Some fish may be fermented with shrimp and/or spices. Pla ra is also a sauce made from fermented fish. It is more pungent than nam pla, and, in contrast to nam pla which is a clear liquid, it is opaque and often contains pieces of fish. To use it in som tam (spicy papaya salad) is a matter of choice. Kapi, Thai shrimp paste, is a combination of fermented ground shrimp and salt. It is used, for instance, in red curry paste, in the famous chili paste called nam phrik kapi and in rice dishes such as khao khluk kapi. Tai pla is a sauce used in the Southern Thai cuisine made with the fermented innards of the short-bodied mackerel. It is one of the main condiments of kaeng tai pla curry and is also used to make nam phrik tai pla.
Nam phrik are Thai chilli pastes, similar to the Indonesian and Malaysian sambals. Each region has its own special versions. The words "nam phrik" are used by Thais to describe many pastes containing chilies used for dipping, although the more watery version tend to be called nam chim. Thai curry pastes are normally called phrik kaeng or khrueang kaeng (lit. curry ingredients) but some people also use the word nam phrik to designate a curry paste. Red curry paste, for instance, could be called phrik kaeng phet or khrueang kaeng phet in Thai, but also nam phrik kaeng phet. Both nam phrik and phrik kaeng are prepared by crushing together chillies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle. Some nam phrik are served as a dip with vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and yard-long beans, either raw or blanched. One such paste is nam phrik num, a paste of pounded fresh green chilies, shallots, garlic and coriander leaves. The sweet roasted chili paste called nam phrik phao is often used as an ingredient in Tom yam or when frying meat or seafood, and it is also popular as a spicy "jam" on bread. The dry nam phrik kung, made with pounded dried prawns (kung haeng, Thai: กุ้งแห้ง), is often eaten with rice and a few slices of cucumber.
The soy sauces which are used in Thai cuisine are of Chinese origin and the Thai names for them are (wholly or partially) loanwords from the Teochew dialect: si-io dam (dark soy sauce), si-io khao (light soy sauce), and taochiao (fermented whole soy beans). Namman hoi (oyster sauce) is also of Chinese origin. It is used extensively in vegetable and meat stir-fries.
Rice is a staple grain of Thai cuisine, as in most Asian cuisines. Highly prized, sweet-smelling jasmine rice is indigenous to Thailand. This naturally aromatic long-grained rice grows in abundance in the verdant patchwork of paddy fields that blanket Thailand's central plains. Steamed rice is accompanied by highly aromatic curries, stir-fries and other dishes, sometimes incorporating large quantities of chili peppers, lime juice and lemongrass/maenglak. Curries, stir-fries and others may be poured onto the rice creating a single dish called khao rat kaeng (Thai: ข้าวราดแกง), a popular meal when time is limited. Sticky rice (khao niao) is a unique variety of rice that contains an unusual balance of the starches present in all rice, causing it to cook up to a sticky texture. Sticky rice, not jasmine rice, is the staple food in the local cuisines of Northern Thailand and of Isan (Northeastern Thailand), both regions of Thailand directly adjacent to Laos with which they share this, and many other cultural traits.
Noodles are popular as well but usually come as a single dish, like the stir-fried phat thai or in the form of a noodle soup. Many Chinese dishes have been adapted to suit Thai taste, such as kuai-tiao ruea (a sour and spicy rice noodle soup). In Northern Thailand, khao soi, a curry soup with bami (egg noodles), is extremely popular in Chiang Mai.
Noodles are usually made from either rice flour, wheat flour or mung bean flour and include six main types. Rice noodles are called kuai tiao in Thailand and come in three varieties: sen yai are wide flat noodles, sen lek are thin flat rice noodles, and sen mi (also known as rice vermicelli in the West) is round and thin. Bami is made from egg and wheat flour and usually sold fresh. It is similar to the Chinese mee pok and lamian. Wun sen are extremely thin noodles made from mung bean flour which are sold dried. They are called cellophane noodles in English. Khanom chin is fresh Thai rice vermicelli made from fermented rice, well-known from dishes such as khanom chin kaeng khiao wan kai (rice noodles with green chicken curry).
Rice flour (paeng khao chao) and tapioca flour (paeng man sampalang) are often used in desserts and as thickening.
Thai dishes use a wide variety of herbs, spices and leaves rarely found in the West, such as kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut). The characteristic flavor of kaffir lime leaves appears in nearly every Thai soup (e.g., the hot and sour Tom yam) or curry from the southern and central areas of Thailand. The Thai lime (manao) is smaller, darker and sweeter than the kaffir lime, which has a rough looking skin with a stronger lime flavor. Kaffir lime leaves are frequently combined with garlic (krathiam), galangal (kha), lemongrass (takhrai) and/or Thai lemon basil (maenglak), turmeric (khamin) and/or fingerroot (krachai), blended together with liberal amounts of various chillies to make curry paste. Fresh Thai basils are also used to add spice and fragrance in certain dishes such as Green curry, of which kraphao has a distinctive scent of clove and leaves which are often tipped with a maroon color. Further often used herbs in Thai cuisine include phak chi, (cilantro or coriander), rak phak chi (cilantro/coriander roots), culantro (phak chi farang), spearmint (saranae), and pandanus leaves (bai toei). Other spices and spice mixtures in Thai cuisine include phong phalo (five-spice powder), phong kari (curry powder), and fresh and dried peppercorns (phrik thai)
Besides kaffir lime leaves, several other tree leaves are used in Thai cuisine such as cha-om, the young feathery leaves of the Acacia pennata tree, which cooked in omelettes, soups and curries and raw in salads of the Northern Thai cuisine. Banana leaves are often used as packaging for ready-made food or as steamer cups such as in ho mok pla, a spicy steamed pâté or soufflé made with fish and coconut milk. Banana flowers are also used in Thai salads or minced and deep fried into patties. The leaves and flowers of the neem tree (sadao) are also eaten blanched.
Five main chilies are generally used as ingredients in Thai food. One chili is very small (about 1.25 centimetres (0.49 in)) and is known as the hottest chili: phrik khi nu suan ("garden mouse-dropping chili"). The slightly larger chili phrik khi nu ("mouse-dropping chili") is the next hottest. The green or red phrik chi fa ("sky pointing chili") is slightly less spicy than the smaller chilies. The very large phrik yuak, which is pale green in color, is the least spicy and used more as a vegetable. Lastly, the dried chilies: phrik haeng are spicier than the two largest chilies and dried to a dark red color.
Other typical ingredients are the several types of eggplant (makhuea) used in Thai cuisine, such as the pea-sized makhuea phuang and the egg-sized makhuea suai, often also eaten raw. Although broccoli is often used in Asian restaurants in the west in phat thai and rat na, it was never actually used in any traditional Thai food in Thailand and is still rarely seen in Thailand. Usually in Thailand, khana is used, for which broccoli is a substitute. Other vegetables which are often eaten in Thailand are thua fak yao (yardlong beans), thua ngok (bean sprouts), no mai (bamboo shoots), tomatoes, cucumbers, phak tam leung (Coccinia grandis), kha na (Chinese kale), phak kwangtung (choy sum), cha om (tender Acacia pennata leaves), sweet potatoes (used more as a vegetable), a few types of squash, phakatin (Leucaena leucocephala), sataw (Parkia speciosa), tua phū (Winged beans) and kapōt corn.
Among the green leafy vegetables that are usually eaten raw in the meal or as a side dish in Thailand, the most important are: Phak bung (morning-glory), hōrapha (Thai basil), bai bua bok (Asian pennywort), phak kachēt (water mimosa), phak kat khao (Chinese cabbage), kra thin Thai (ipil-ipil), phak phai (Praew leaves), phak kayang (Rice Paddy Herb), phak chī farang (Eryngium foetidum), phak tiu (Cratoxylum formosum), phak "phaai" (Yellow Burr Head) and kalamplī (cabbage). Some of these leaves are highly perishable and must be used within a couple of days.
Fruit forms a large part of the Thai diet and are customarily served after a meal. Although many of the exotic fruits of Thailand may have been sometimes unavailable in Western countries, many Asian markets import such fruits as rambutan and lychees. In Thailand one can find papaya, jackfruit, mango, mangosteen, langsat, longan, pomelo, pineapple, rose apples, durian, Burmese grapes and other native fruits. Chantaburi in Thailand each year holds the World Durian Festival in early May. This single province is responsible for half of the durian production of Thailand and a quarter of the world production. The Langsat festival is held each year in Uttaradit province around the middle to end of September. The langsat (Lansium domesticum), for which Uttaradit is famous, is a fruit that is similar in taste to the longan.
The fruit of the tamarind is used to make sour dishes, and palm sugar, made from the sap of certain Borassus palms, is used to sweeten dishes. From the coconut palm comes coconut sugar, coconut vinegar, and coconut milk. The juice of a green coconut can be served as a drink and the young flesh can be eaten.
Apples, grapes, pears and strawberries, which do not traditionally grow in Thailand, have become increasingly popular in recent years.[when?] They are being grown locally in the cooler highlands and mountains of Thailand, mainly in the North, but now most are imported from China.
Many Thai dishes are familiar in the West. In the many dishes below, different kinds of protein, or combinations of protein, can be chosen as ingredients, such as beef (nuea, Thai: เนื้อ), chicken (kai, Thai: ไก่), pork (mu, Thai: หมู), duck (pet, Thai: เป็ด), tofu (taohu, Thai: เต้าหู้) or seafood (ahan thale, Thai: อาหารทะเล).
Thai cuisine does not have very specific breakfast dishes. Very often, a Thai breakfast can consist of the same dishes which are also eaten for lunch or dinner. Fried rice, noodle soups and steamed rice with something simple such as an omelette, fried pork or chicken, are commonly sold from street stalls as a quick take-out. The following dishes are viewed as being specific breakfast dishes but they can also be eaten at any other moment of the day:
The cuisine of Northeastern Thailand generally feature dishes similar to those found in Laos, as Isan people historically have close ties with Lao culture and speak a language that is generally mutually intelligible with the Lao language.
Most Thai meals finish with fresh fruit but sometimes a sweet snack will be served as a dessert.
Certain insects are also eaten in Thailand, especially in Isan and in the North. Many markets in Thailand feature stalls which sell deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets (ching rit, Thai: จิ้งหรีด), bee larvae, silkworm (non mai, Thai: หนอนไหม), ant eggs (khai mot, Thai: ไข่มด) and termites. The culinary creativity even extends to naming: one tasty larva, which is also known under the name "bamboo worm" (non mai phai, Thai: หนอนไม้ไผ่, Omphisa fuscidentalis), is colloquially called "express train" (rot duan; Thai: รถด่วน) due to its appearance.
Most of the insects taste fairly bland when deep-fried, somewhat like popcorn and prawns. But when deep-fried together with kaffir lime leaves, chilies and garlic, the insects become an excellent snack to go with a drink. In contrast to the bland taste of most of these insects, the maeng da or maelong da na (Thai: แมลงดานา, Lethocerus indicus) has been described as having a very penetrating taste, similar to that of a very ripe gorgonzola cheese. This giant water bug is famously used in a chili dip called nam phrik maengda. Some insects, such as ant eggs and silk worms, are also eaten boiled in a soup in Isan, or used in omelets in northern Thailand.
Although a vegetarian festival is celebrated each year by a portion of Thailand's population, and many restaurants in Thailand will offer vegetarian food during this festival period, pure vegetarian food is normally difficult to find in Thailand. All traditionally made Thai curries, for instance, contain shrimp paste, and fish sauce is used as salt in nearly all Thai dishes. Meat dishes are also commonly part of the alms offered to Buddhist monks in Thailand as vegetarianism is not considered obligatory in Theravada Buddhism; but having an animal killed specifically to feed Buddhist monks is prohibited.
Traditional Buddhist vegetarian fare, without any meat or seafood products of any kind and also excluding certain strong tasting vegetables and spices, is sold at specialised vegetarian restaurants which can be recognised by a yellow sign with the word che (Thai: เจ; IPA: [tɕeː]; lit. "vegetarian") written on it in red. These restaurants serve what can be regarded as vegan food. Many Indian restaurants of the sizeable Thai-Indian community will also have vegetarian dishes on offer, due to the fact that vegetarianism is held as an ideal by many followers of the Hindu faith. Indian vegetarian cuisine can incorporate dairy products and honey. Due to the increased demand for vegetarian food from foreign tourists, many hotels, guesthouses and restaurants that cater to foreign tourists, will now also have vegetarian versions of Thai dishes on their menu. Pescatarians would have very few problems with Thai cuisine due to the abundance of Thai dishes which only contain fish and seafood.
Culinary tours of Thailand have gained popularity in recent years. Alongside other forms of tourism in Thailand, food tours have carved a niche for themselves. Many companies offer culinary and cooking tours of Thailand and many tourists visiting Thailand attend cooking courses offered by hotels, guesthouses and cooking schools.
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