Thai cuisine. Known around the world, right? Since moving here I’ve been searching for what makes Thailand so famous with foodies. Luckily I have plenty of time on my hands, food abounds and eating is a favorite past-time of Thais. Even in the sweltering heat. Even though the spicy food induces a torrential downpour of sweat.
Before I moved to Thailand, I ate quite a bit of Thai food. I thought I had the Thai culinary corner pinned. Tom Kah Gai- a coconut soup with chicken; Phad Thai- stir fried noodles with meat/tofu, bean spouts, and peanuts; Curries- Vegetables cooked in a savory and spicy thick soup. (Best green curry in Seattle used to be from a neighborhood Thai joint in Queen Anne. Believe me.)
Well, last week at lunch a fellow Thai co-worker put me in my place. She grinned and chuckled from across the table, “Green curry?! Only foreigners love green curry!”
Hmmm. Alright. So what’s the makes Thai food Thai? Let’s explore…
First thing to know about Thai food– you can find it anywhere.
Stop by a roadside pickup truck that’s ready to sell mounds of pomelos for half a buck a kilo right from their truck bed.
Plop yourself on the banks of a river for some (CAUTION: SPICY!) northern Thai food.
Meander through a crowded street festival (festivals are frequent and chalk full of food stalls), you’ll find meat-on-a-stick, mysterious fruit and vegetables (often preserved), stir-fried insects, plump cakes and the gamut of Thai snack food.
So, let’s look at two categories. Restaurants and Street Food.
What can you expect? A little more culinary exploration and some creativity in ingredient combinations. Established restaurants also have more resources than street vendors, so you’re likely to find more spices, more vegetables and a variety in styles of Thai food– northern and southern Thai dishes mixed together, Chinese-Thai dishes like noodles mixed with curries and, of course, the perfect-for-sharing-on-a-lazy-Saturday-morning Dim Sum. Thai restaurants aren’t much fancier or more expensive than street food but you’re guaranteed a place to sit–not so with street food.
The street food.
It’s ubiquitous. Faster than McDonald’s could ever hope to be. Usually healthier. A creative solution for savvy business owners. Most street carts are simple and mobile, ie they’re actually motorcycles lassoed with a massive covered sidecar outfitted with a cooking surface and a propane burner. Behind the glass window are piles of freshly made noodles, bowls stacked precariously on a rickety shelf and a cadre of other ingredients necessary to make their specialty dish.
Some food carts park in the same sidewalk slot day after day. Some migrate from one street to another, in hopes of barking up more business from a variety of locations. Sometimes you can even flag them down in the middle of the road if your craving is so powerful that you just can’t wait for the sweet chocolatey ice cream to cool your tropical perspiration.
Occasionally, if you’re lucky, street carts are fully outfitted with squat plastic stools and tables for your midday bowl of spicy pork soup, or, in Isan style, have thin mats splayed on the sidewalk or riverside for sitting cross-legged while enjoying sweat-inducing green papaya salad (Somtam).
The USDA would have a field day with street vendors in Thailand. The rules here regarding health and safety of local restaurants seem relaxed. I think street vendors operate on the rule of community trust. If a street vendor makes someone sick, word gets around quickly. They’ll soon be spending lonely evenings on the street. So operations are well-stocked and relatively streamlined. No frills.
Lime-cooked meat. Finely chopped chicken or pork, cooked only in lime juice and generously spicy. Best eaten with your hands using sticky rice as a vehicle. (Lap Gai or Lap Moo, chicken and pork, respectively).
Rice salad. A few variations make this a crispy and refreshing dish. One–rice mixed with just a tad of shrimp paste, then mixed with a myriad of fresh veggies and meat. Two–rice mixed with curry and topped with shredded carrot, shredded green papaya, dried coconut, chopped beans, chilies and a bit of sweet sauce on top. (Khao khu kapit and Khao Yum, respectively.)
Fish, usually snapper. Whole. Grilled. Stuffed with herbs. Not much more needs to be said. (Blah yang).
Crispy pork with sautéed kale. A guilty pleasure. (Moo grop).
Spicy Papaya Salad. This could be the official dish of our little town. Stemming from the northern part of Thailand, it’s made in a large wooden vessel resembling a mortar and pestle. Shredded green papaya, mixed with fresh long beans, peanuts, spices and fresh basil. (Som Tam).
Aaand the Award for the Most Unusual Meal goes to our 8am Saturday morning breakfast: Spicy Wild Boar on a bed of rice. By spicy I mean it was hotter than standing in front of a bonfire on a hundred-degree Fourth of July at 2 o’clock in the afternoon at a Texas chili cook-off in your grandma’s favorite wool sweater. And all the extra cucumbers to cool your tongue are not going to save you from its wrath.
Six months ago this was not quite what I envisioned of Thai food. (Boar for breakfast?!)
Sorry Seattle, but real Thai food rocks the socks off your green curry.