In Thailand, the pearly white rice is produced in abundance and remains the yardstick by which well being is measured.
The government has set up an efficient irrigation network which gives a second harvest in most areas. Moreover, among the many varieties of rice, Thailand boasts a fine, long grain type, called "khao hom mali", so delicious that it can become a meal in itself.
The produce of the sea and rivers comes only second in importance to rice, as a saying goes "There is rice in the fields and fish in the water".
It sums up how the Thais appreciate their natural good fortune, Stroll in any open air market and you encounter an infinite array of sea and river fish, as well as all sorts of shellfish including prawns, shrimp, crab, squid, mussels, cockles and perhaps a few unknown shellfish. There, too, your eyes will be attracted by a wide variety of the freshest of vegetables. Some are unknown to westerners; for example, lotus stems. Others may be slightly familiar, such as bamboo shoots and bean sprouts, available in some large cities. Still others are very familiar indeed, such as the crispest of lettuce, pure white cauliflower and yellow pumpkins. These grow on the fertile land around Bangkok, as well as on the high semimountainous slopes in the northern part of Thailand, where new varieties are introduced frequently.
Meat is not nearly so popular as seafood particularly in the southern part of the country, with its enormous catches from the surrounding waters. Thais almost never eat a piece of plain meat, such as a steak or roast beef, although these are readily obtainable in every hotel. Pork is surely the most popular meat, followed closely by beef; the meat is typically cut into slices and combined with rice or vegetables.
More and more, Thailand is turning towards beef, and prize cattle can be seen grazing on the high slopes of the north and northeast of the country. Lamp and veal are seldom seen in Thai restaurants, but may be found in western places.
With its more or less even warm weather, Thailand has three seasons, rather than the usual four. As a result, there is an enormous selection of tropical fruits available all year round, although certain fruits, of course, have their particular season. Some of the most interesting ones include mangos, durians, longans, rambutans, mangosteens, and guavas. Although many of these are unknown to most tourists, be certain to order some fresh fruit as a dessert at the end of a Thai dinner. Although some of these fruits are occasionally shipped to the west, to taste them on the spot, during the right season, is one of the highlights of a trip to this country.
In the old days, Thai meals were often simple and consisted generally of rice accompanied by two or three side dishes. The food, lightly cooked, remained crunchy, with all the nutritional value and original flavour intact. Moreover, it was served in measured quantities, prepared with very little fat, with an emphasis upon seafood rather than meat Thai food could therefore claim to be the forerunner of "nouvelle cuisine," which theoretically is lower in calories.
Gradually, however, people to cook with spices and flavors, and ultimately as the centuries passed, became an extremely sophisticated cuisine.
There was rarely any formal protocol at meal times, and eating was delightful for its simplicity. Heavy etiquette-bound entertaining so frequent in the West, was unknown. Tables and chairs were absent and everyone gathered around a mat on the floor. The men sat cross-legged, the women with their legs tucked behind them, so that feet were always poiting away from the group. Plates, bowls, forks and spoons were placed at random. Because the food is cut in the kitchen, knives are seldom served.
Today , in some informal Thai restaurants, silverware is placed in a large container on each table. No chopsticks are used in eating (except in Chinese restaurants of course), although for some reason, Thai restaurants in western countries after them; but it is not authentic.
The dishes arrive in any order at all often all at once. Dishes are shared.
Nowadays, well-to-do Bangkokians would not dream of eating on the floor. Tables, chairs and even knives are in. There are many more new dishes and new ways of cooking.
In the old days, food was grilled on a wood fire or boiled in a clay pot. Today the Thais use more and more gas or eletric stoves and ovens, in addition to charcoal stoves. Food can therefore be bakes or barbecued broiled or boiled, fried or sauteed dried or steamed.
Thai cooking can be readily envisioned as a work of art. The people have a natural and creative sense of beauty, and express it in many ways. Both men and women learn to create beautifully shaped fruits and vegetables, carving them with all of the skill of a talented artisan. It brings to mind the expert precision with which craftsmen cut and polish rough stones. There seems to be no end to the forms and shapes in which fruits and vegetables are carved, all intended to delight the eye of the diner. When lovely dishes are served on china plates, they are remniscent of large pieces of jewelry, embellished with eamel and patterned with floral designs.
As previously mentioned, the appeal of much of the Thai cuisine owes much of the spices, herbs and seasonings grown under the brilliant skies of Thailand. Also, in some cases, they were brought from China, India and Java, but the final art of the country's cuisine comes from the skill and sophistication of Thai cooks and chefs.
Some visitors have heard, erroneously in point of fact, that all Thai food is hot, hotter, or extremely hot. Although some Thai dishes are quite spicy, far more dishes are completely mild, and require no adjustment whatsoever. Much of the heat of the spicy dishes comes from red or green peppers, commonly referred to as chles. The Thais call them "phrik" and have many amusing names for the hottest of them. There are no less than a dozen of these, ranging from quite mild, almost innicuous, all the way to searingly strong and burning.
However, important as they are, chilis constitute only one of the many ingredients combined to give a unique blend of flavors. When properly used, they should never overshadow the delicate citron taste of the lemon grass (a common ingredient in Thai cooking), or the somewhat different kariff lime, or the elusive flavor of turmeric.
Moreover, each cook will vary the recipe according to taste, and the blending will differ from one cook to another, and from one province to another. These ingredients come in different forms; rhizomes (much like plant bulbs) for ginger, leaves for coriander, stalks for bamboo shoots, and seeds for sesame, and so forth. The use of coriander ground with garlic and peppercorns is, for example, a typical flavoring combination. Various garden produce is used to enhance the taste of many dishes. Limes are squeezed on salads, soups and curries, where coconut milk is used in soups and meat and fish preparations.
A wide range of dried spices, such as cumin, nutmegm cloves or bayleaf are always found in Thai kitchens. The proper use of these ingredients, together with others, is regarded as culinary art in Thailand. Many herbs and spices may be purchased in western countries, but many, where fresh leaves are necessary, are not quite the same. This perhaps may explain why even an excillent Thai dinner in one's country can never match the exciting experience of a perfectly-prepared meal in Thailand.
For any fine cuisine, there is apparently nothing like home.
Another skill lies in the selection and preparation of the ingredients. Thai cooks are expert in the handling of cutting tools and are unbeatable in the art of slicing, cutting and carving vegetables, fruits and meat. An unwritten rule requires that each morsel of meat and fish, when eaten with half a spoonful of rice, makes just one mouthful. The origin of this rule lies in the absence of knives, a symbol of aggression, at meal times.
Well- sharpened knives are obviously vital to the Thai cook, as well as the pestle and mortar used for pounding and crushing the spices and other herbs. Most of the cooking is done in a "wok" or "katha", a deep cone-shaped pan, placed over gas or charcoal.
Thai food becomes a form of art, particularly in the preparation and presentation of fresh fruits, and fruit-based desserts. As much skill as the preparer can muster is placed in the appearance of all fruits, often being carved into the shape of flowers. These skills are an art form passed from mother to daughter, and this has been true for many centuries. The result is fruit, carved to perfection, and intended to make it more appealing; sometimes the fruit is carved to make it easier to eat. The peeling itself requires so much care that a special bronze knife with a very thin blade has been devised. Some fruits are totally peeled and cut in segments, with the seeds removed. Many fruits are artistically carved into a seemingly endless variety of shapes and forms, in addition to flowers, such as leaves, wheels, stars and the like.
A never ending pleasure Thai food comes in many forms-soups and curries, relishes and salads, dips or sauces, fries meat or fish. For a quick meal, villagers enjoy lightly-cooked or even raw vegetables served with nam phrik, a chili and fish sauce, typically served with fish. Such dishes are easy to prepare because ingredients are never far away; vegetables come from the garden, and fish are plentiful in the nearby rivers.
In larger communities, when breakfast is not eaten at home, it is often bought from roadside stands and outdoor snack restaurants.
Lunch is typically a quick affair of noodles with meat or vegetables, kuai thiao, or dish of rice and curried foods.
Dinner is usually eaten at home with the family gathered about. Special evenings may be spent in one of the huge open-air restaurants, lively and diverting, perhaps a trifle noisy, but with delicious food. Dish after dish accumulates on the table, accompanied by plenty of local beer, soft drinks or whisky.
Soup can be a full meal A Thai meal is not regarded as complete without soup. In fact, soup is eaten from dawn to dusk. Pavements are crowded with soup stalls, and boats meander along canals and the river, dispensing soups to eager patrons. Soups are generally served throughout the meal; the diners frequently take a spoon or two of soup to refresh their palates.
There are three main types of Thai soups. KAENG CHUT is a mild Chinese-style broth with meat and vegetables. As it is gentle to the taste, it makes a pleasant contrast to spicier dishes. Thai sometimes vary the flavor by adding coriander, but this is a matter of personal taste. KHAO TOM, a clear rice soup, is a sort of universal healer, comparable to chicken soup in the western cuisine. It is a favorite morning-after remedy for those with hangovers or upset stomachs. It is claimed that this soup can cure fevers, colds and just about anything else; it helps to believe in its curative powers.
The rice is well-cooked in a large quantity of water. Before serving, it may be seasoned with nam pla, vinegar and chilis, accordingly to the preparer 's taste, and typically has bits of meat or poultry added.
The queen (possibly the king) of all Thai soups is surely TOM YAM KUNG, a delicious shrimp soup, flavored by lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, chilis, and coriander leaves, finished off with a fish sauce and lemon juice. This appealing soup is sometimes served in a charcoal-heated bowl; it continues to simmer during the meal. No other soup can be compared to this delicious preparation, a combination of spice and fresh ingredients, with an extraordinarily subtle taste.
Other regional delicacies Chicken is extremely popular, more so than duck or goose, possibly because it is so plentiful. Because chicken is naturally smooth to the palate and quite bland, it goes well with a variety of Thai spices and sauces.
From central Thailand, a favorite preparation is green chicken curry, typically served with an egg, plus a side dish of yam, a generic term for salads. Salads are particularly refreshing in the warm climate, and people tend to nibbler on them when eating spicy dishes, as a contrasting taste and texture.
Thai salads may contain fruit, meat, shrimp and squid, making them quite unusual to those who anticipate only salad greens. The most common dressings include lemon juice, chilis, fish sauce and shallots. Oil is not used in Thai salads.
From the northeastern part of the country comes SOM TAM, made with green (unripe) papaya, mixed with sliced tomatoes, chopped garlic and chilis, to which are added finely pounded dried shrimp, plus lemon juice. It is best when served with sticky rice and salted beef; the meat is prepared by seasoning it with pepper, then marinating it in garlic and soy sauce, and drying it in the sun for a few hours.
Vegetables play an important part in the Thai cuisine; they grow well in this climate and are almost always available. Vegetables are cut into pieces or slices shile raw, or only slightly cooked, and dipped into NAM PHRIK ONG, a thick sauce made of tomatoes, ground pork, garlic and chili, plus soy sauce and a tiny dash of sugar.
In the south of Thailand, there is an entire range of curries, prepared with all sorts of green, yellow or red curry pastes. But beware! In this part of the country, hot curries can be really burning, so it's best to choose a milder curry, the type made with coconut cream.
Another favorite preparation of this region is fried fish, covered with a mixture of herbs and spices, then deep-fried and served with an aromatic sauce.
A tupical meal concludes with fresh fruit, beautifully carved as previously mentioned, or alternatively of desserts chiefly based upon fruits. Once peeled and unseeded, fruits can also be served with ingredients that enhance their sweetness: sugar syrup or a mixture of coconut sugar, salt and chili.
A wonderfully refreshing way of serving fruits as a dessert, is LOI KAEO or cool float. Fruits are cut in pieces, served in a syrup with crushed ice, scented with rose petals or jasmine flowers.
Owing to the abundance of fruit harvest, many fruits are preserved in salt water or in a syrup. The mango appears to be one of the most versatile of all fruits. When underripe and somewhat firm, slices of "green" mango, dipped insalted water, becomes an appetizing sort of pickle or relishl. Cooked in a sugar syrup, it becomes almost candylike, with a delicious flavor. Dried in the sun, it turns golden brown, and is an excellent sweet snack. When ripe, the mango reaches its peak of perfection, mellow and aromatic. It is particularly good served on glutinous rice topped with thick, rich coconut cream.
The banana, popular in all parts of the world is eaten out of hand, as the expression goes, but the sizes and varying colors of Thai bananas is sure to come as something of a surprise. While still unripe, slices are seasoned with sugar and salt, then fried crisp, to become KLUAI CHAP. When ripe, the fruit can be made into a wide assortment of desserts. KLUAI PING is grilled banana, soaked in a thick syrup; KLUAI BUAT CHI is a dessert made of pieces of banana boiled in coconut milk and flavored with sugar and a dash of salt. KLUAI KHAEK, often seen in sidewalk food stalls, is simply another version of banana fritters. The use of bananas does not stop there. The leaves are converted into wrappings for food, and in the countryside, meals are often transported in banana leaves. The flowers are cut into some salads, and occasionally added to soups.
Thailand's continuous seasons of fruit From January of April, grapes, jackfruit, java apples, tangerines, watermelons and pomegranates are at their best. Next come mangos, litchis (also spelled leeches), pineapple, mangosteens and durians. Just a few thoughts about durians: they are a sort of large melon with the most delicious taste imaginable. Unfortunately, as the melon is cut, it emits a rather strong aroma. From July on, longans ripen,and also langsats, jujubes, passion fruit, pomelo, rambutan, and sugar apples. During the entire year, bananas, coconuts, guavas and papayas are always available. In some communities, particularly in rural areas, as a particular fruit comes into the height of its season, there are elaborate festivals, usually featured by local beauty queens.
In early April, the Paet Riu Mango Festival is held in the small town of Chacheongsao. Then in May, Songkhla holds a special fruit bazzar, with elaborate demonstrations of fruit carving, plus a Miss Southern Thailand beauty pageant.
In June, Chanthaburi shows off an assortment of fruit raised in the province; the feature is the durian, with its exquisite taste and foul smell, as mentioned before.
In September, to honor the pomelo, a fruit and floral procession, consisting of elaborate floats, is held in Nakhon Pathom, near Bangkok. The pomelo is much like grapefruit, but some what sweet, and segments readily. A rainbow of swets..
Although most Thai desserts are based upon fruits, there are some interesting exceptions. One thread that holds them together is color, and combinations of shades and hues. This may be noted quite easily by walking past sidewalk vendors specializing in sweet and desserts. There is the saffron color of "thong yip", or the opalescent pinks, blues and greens seen in the "wun", or agar cakes, made with gelatin. Some of the colorful desserts include flavored crushed ice, sweetened water chestnuts, coconut meat combined with milk, gelatin strips, palm sugar cooked with egg yolks. Some sweet preparations, such as "foi thong", are like golden hairs, and are quite sugary. Others, like "ruam mit", are served in a bowl of crushed ice with thick syrup, and are very refreshing. Some are miniaturized reproductions of various fruits, and are almost works of art.
Thais used to eat mostly at home. Women were mainly involved in the household chores and cooking meals, even elaborate ones, was never a problem. Today more and more women are working outside. Moreover, a growing number of farmers come to the big city in the hope of finding a job. They are usually single and have no way to cook. It is more practical to eat outside or buy the meal on the sidewalk. The number of eating-places has multiplied and, at night, Bangkok has become an incredibly huge open-air restaurant.
As a matter of fact, Thais seem to eat out all the time and everywhere. A favourite past-time for them is "pai thiao", an aimless stroll from one place to another, to see what's going on. Unlike most westerners, the average Thai goes not seem to need a particular purpose. He is never happier than in a crowd where he gets a feeling of companionship and of belonging. While drifting around, he might sample some tasty sweetmeats and will probably take some home since Thais like nothing better than a spontaneous and casual meal.
Near commercial districts and entertainment areas, you will find countless stalls and makeshift counters where charcoal burners are used for steaming and babecuing. These kitchenettes on wheels are now and then surrounded by tables and chairs and dimly lighted by a single electric bulb or a kerosene lamp. These places are quite cheap, surprisingly clean and absolutely worth a try.
A handy choice might be one of many coffee shops in town. Usually spic and span and giving forth wonderful aromas of cakes and other sweets, they serve Thai and international meals.
Food parks are one of the most colorful of Thai food experiences. They are generally located in a large shopping mall, and can cover an entire floor. Countless restaurants offer just about every imaginable type of Asian cuisine. The procedure involves buying a coupon and then sitting at any available table. Huge color pictures of the dishes available assist in making your choice.
Most eating-places nowadays have good hygienic standards. Nevertheless, in its efforts to improve the quality of Thai restaurants, the Tourism Authority of Thailand has developed a symbol of excellence in every restaurant it recommends. Patrons of these establishments can be assured that food and services are of the highest quality. A list of these restaurant is available by the Authority.
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