Thai restaurants have become the local “go to” place everywhere across America, from small towns like Carpentaria, CA to Lafayette, LA; from Tucker, GA to Bangor, ME. Cities with larger ethnic populations offer plenty of Thai options. How did this little country make such a big impact on the American palette? Why are so many of us making the switch from french fries to pad thai?
We are clearly becoming a more health-conscious nation, not afraid to experiment with diverse cuisines for healthier alternatives. Thai food suits the bill as it is light, flavorful, and, best of all, has a range of dishes for vegetarians. A wholesome Thai meal need not put a dent in your wallet. Thai cuisine also uses herbs and spices with medicinal attributes. Most importantly, it is simply delicious!
Origins of Thai Cuisine
Throughout the numerous invasions of their land by the French, Dutch, English, and Chinese, Thai people adapted and adopted different ways of cooking while keeping the authenticity of their cuisine intact. The cuisine dates back to 3500 B.C., which is when archeologists have found evidence of rice cultivation. This makes Thai cuisine older than even its Chinese and Indian counterparts.
Thai cuisine is as varied as its regions. The Mountainous North, which is less inhabited, has evolved its own way, with simple foods that can last through hard winters. It’s the home of clear soups (Tom Yum) and mushroom dishes with Burmese and Laotian influences. The North Eastern Mekong River region boasts of the famous green papaya salad (som tam). The fertile Central Chao Praya region has a bounty of vegetables and fruits, and an abundance of spices. Hot peppers were introduced into Thai cuisine by the Portuguese. The Central region also boasts of a variety of curries, peppers, and galangal(Siamese ginger), and the fragrant jasmine rice. Most curries are made with coconut milk, unlike the Northern region. The Southern region is well known for its seafood and fruits, grilled satays, and mussaman curry, which were influenced by Indonesian and Indian cuisines respectively.
It’s only in the last decade or so that Thai cuisine has evolved from local street fare to well-developed menus, restaurants, and a cuisine of importance in Europe and the Americas.
An Amalgamation of Flavors
Thai cuisine is an artistic amalgamation of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter, and an amazingly aromatic mix of flavors. The most distinctive quality is the harmony of these flavors in each and every dish. The most important ingredients in this cuisine are lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, and dark soy sauce. Thai people salt their food with fish sauce, instead of regular table salt.
India has also made its impact on Thai cuisine because of its migrants to Thailand. Thai people adopted the curries from India with the inclusion of turmeric and coriander. Mussaman curry has cloves, bay leaf, cinnamon, potatoes, and turmeric. There are many similarities between Thailand and India in their culture and cuisine. Just like Indians, Thais are a warm hospitable people. Guests in a Thai home are treated with high respect and regard. Food is an integral part of the Thai lifestyle. A Thai meal consists of the staple, rice, that is eaten with a variety of dishes, cold salads and condiments, and concludes with a variety of desserts.
Here are some quick and easy Thai recipes. Enjoy!
Praba Iyer teaches custom cooking classes around the SF Bay Area. She also blogs about cooking at www.rocketbites.com.
Thai Summer Rolls
For the Roll
Hot water in a large flat bowl
For the Filling
6 firm tofu cut into thick matchsticks
1 pack bean thread noodles, cooked by steeping in hot water until soft and drained.
1 bunch green onions, sliced small
Roasted peanuts, chopped fine
6 Mint leaves
Assemble all the ingredients in order—tofu, bean thread noodles, carrots, green onions, peanuts and mint leaves.
Place the hot water in a flat large bowl. Carefully slide the dry rice paper into the water. Let it soak for 30 seconds and once it is soft, remove with care and place it on a plate. Now add a little of all the ingredients, except mint leaves, about 2 inches away from the bottom. Cover the ingredients with the end closest to you and tuck it under the ingredients. Now fold in both the sides towards the center. Place a mint leaf in the center and roll the wrap. Press the ends tightly to adhere.
Slice the roll in two and serve with peanut sauce.
Spicy Peanut Sauce
This needs to be made a few hours ahead for the flavors to mix well. Can be refrigerated.
1 cup coconut milk
2 tablespoons Thai Time red curry paste (less to reduce spiciness)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
½ cup unsalted peanut butter
2 tablespoons palm sugar (or brown sugar)
Salt to taste
1 lime juice
Place the peanut butter in a sauce pan along with the red curry paste, mix it with the coconut milk, and slowly heat it on low heat. Add the soy sauce, palm sugar, and salt and mix well until the sauce is smooth. Remove from heat and add the lime juice. Let it cool and serve as a dip with fresh spring rolls.