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Thailand’s Regional Cuisines
Central Thai Food is Justly Celebrated World-Wide - But The Kingdom’s Less Well-Known Regional Cuisines Are Equally Delicious!
Just twenty years ago Thai cuisine was relatively unknown beyond the frontiers of the Kingdom and a few small ethnic enclaves, such as the Thai district of Los Angeles. The past two decades have seen a dramatic change, with Thai restaurants springing up all over the world, from Paris to Sydney, Seoul to Johannesburg. Thai has become the ‘in' cuisine, as much on account of its healthy, low cholesterol and low fat content as for its spicy taste and elegant presentation. In a recent accolade the up-market UK provisioners Marks & Spencer introduced a series of prepared Thai dishes for the take-away customer. In London the delicatessen at Fortnum & Mason is stacked high with Thai delicacies, whilst formerly little-known herbs and spices like kha (galingale), makrut (kaffir lime) and takrai (lemon grass) have appeared on supermarket shelves across Europe and America.
Yet the Thai food we now know and have come to appreciate only tells part of the story. Thai people divide their country into four major regions – the North, Northeast, South, and Centre. Bangkok, the national capital, dominates the central plains, and the tastes and mores of this great metropolis have definitively come to represent "Thailand" in the international community. Educated Thais all speak Central Thai, whether in the capital or up-country. Most visitors to Thailand enter the country via Bangkok, and then travel to resorts like Phuket, Pattaya or Hua Hin where Bangkok cultural values are the norm, and Central cuisine is on the menu – together with a wide array of international dishes from China, Korea, Japan and the West. Even in Chiang Mai, the capital of the culturally distinctive North, most visitors will eat central Thai food, and if dining out are far more likely to select a French or Italian establishment than a Northern Thai restaurant.
Almost without exception, knowledge of Thai food outside Thailand is restricted to the cuisine of Bangkok and the central plains – yet each of the other three regions has its own distinctive, and often delicious, style of cooking, just as it has its own style of dress, dialect and traditions. Now that Central Thai cuisine has made it – and made it big – in the outside world, the next step should be an exploration of the delights and differences available in Thai regional cuisine.
A Taste of the South
Southern Thai food makes more use of coconut milk than elsewhere in the country. Curries are richer, creamier, and more influenced by the tastes of nearby Malaysia – spices such as cumin, cloves, turmeric and aniseed, which are not used elsewhere in Thailand, are common here. Perhaps the most characteristic Southern dish is kaeng matsaman – a mouth-watering beef curry cooked with peanuts, potatoes and chopped red onions in a thick coconut cream sauce. Other Southern specialities include: kaeng phanaeng kai – savoury chicken and coconut curry. Kaeng som nom mai dong – hot and sour fish ragout with pickled bamboo. Pla see siad haeng thawt – deep fried semi-dried pla see fish. Khao yam pak tai – an intriguing breakfast salad. The presentation is exquisite. A small pile of fragrant boiled rice, accompanied by finely chopped heaps of lemon grass, peanuts, bean sprouts, green beans, sour mango and chopped makrut or kaffir lime is served with spicy chilli pepper, fresh lime and a piquant sweet-sour sauce. It's unusual, elegant, and very typical of southern Thailand. Southern Thai dishes, like Central Thai, are usually accompanied by generous helpings of khao suay, or "beautiful rice" – the best of which, khao hawm mali, or jasmine-fragrance rice, is steamed until each grain is tender but separate. As in Bangkok, dishes are generally eaten with a spoon and fork, or – in the case of most noodle dishes – takiap or chopsticks.
Northeastern Thai food is generally of the simple, spicy, peasant variety enjoyed by the inhabitants of this relatively poor region. The most famous dishes include somtam – papaya salad with fish sauce, garlic, chilli peppers, peanuts and puu na field crab added to taste. This is often eaten with kai yang – grilled chicken, the best of which is said to come from Sisaket, close to the Lao frontier. Perhaps the most classic of Isaan dishes is larb – spiced minced meat generally served with salad and a side plate of raw vegetables. Other delicacies unlikely to appeal to any but the most adventurous visitor include: nam phrik mot som – red ant egg dip, noo naa yang – barbecued field rat, and kaeng tookay – gecko curry. Unlike Bangkok and the South, khao niaw, or "sticky rice" – a glutinous variant served in small woven bamboo baskets and eaten with the hand – is the main accompaniment to every meal.
The Neglected North
Northern Thailand has inherited the culinary legacy of the once powerful Lan Na Kingdom, with ties to neighbouring Burma and the Chinese province of Yunnan. One noteworthy feature is the widespread use of tomatoes in curries and other cooked dishes – elsewhere in Thailand the tomato is usually seen as a salad vegetable. Distinctive dishes include khao soy – a succulent noodle dish introduced by Muslim caravaneers from China. Wheat noodles are served in a chicken or beef broth with an accompaniment of chopped red onions, pickled cabbage, fresh lime and soy sauce. Nam phrik ong – minced pork with tomatoes and chillies, almost like a Bolognese sauce. Not to be missed is kaeng hang lay – curried pork with ginger and peanuts, often served at weddings and other celebrations. Another favourite is the spicy Chiang Mai sausage, made with naem, or preserved pork. Served with a tray of peanuts, fresh ginger and chilli peppers, Northerners consider this to be an ideal kap klaem, or accompaniment to drinks – usually whisky and soda with plenty of ice. Visitors to Chiang Mai can sample local cuisine at a northern Khantoke dinner – elegantly served on a low table, usually to the accompaniment of traditional Lan Na dancing.
Regional Dining in Bangkok
Many visitors to Thailand just visit the capital, or at least have little time to explore more distant regions. Isaan, in particular, is not on most people's itinerary – so how to sample Thai regional cuisine on a business trip or flying visit to Bangkok? Fortunately the Thai capital does have a number of restaurants specialising in regional cuisines, and these are likely to increase in number as central Thais discover the delights of the periphery, whilst increasingly wealthy migrants from the provinces seek the flavour of home. As an indication of this, in recent years a string of Isaan ‘fast-food' outlets have opened, catering mainly to homesick North-eastern workers. So where should the visitor go to sample Thai regional cooking in the heart of the capital?
SOUTHERN: Southern tastes are relatively easily come by in Bangkok. Many upmarket Thai restaurants include Southern delicacies like kaeng matsaman and phanaeng on their menus, and the Southern Thai seafood specialities are widely appreciated. One tastefully decorated and friendly establishment specialising in classical Phuket cuisine is Peppercorn at Sukhumvit Soi 49/9 [392-2057]. The main emphasis is, appropriately enough, on seafood and fish.
ISAAN: Only for the more adventurous and those who like it hot. Isaan food runs a gamut of prices and locations throughout the capital. The misleadingly-named Isn't Classic (the sign should of course read Isaan Classic, as it does in Thai) on downtown Silom Road offers cheap, tasty and authentic Northeastern cooking, and most of the friendly staff seem to be natives of Isaan. More upmarket is Ban Baithong at 2/29 Soi Ari, Pahonyothin Road [279 7692], where specialities include a fine, spicy somtam, grilled kai yang chicken, and excellent larb salads. Friendly and authentically Isaan, Bane Lao at 49 Sukhumvit Soi 36 [256-6096] serves all the usual Northeastern dishes, as well as such unusual specialities as kaeng phak waan khai mot daeng – sweet vegetable curry with red ants eggs – and nguak wua thod – deep fried beef gums.
NORTHERN: Considering how deliciously different Lanna cuisine is, it's surprising how relatively few Northern restaurants there are in Bangkok. Bua Luang at 116 Soi Rambutri, Banglamphu [282-2635] has been serving authentic northern cuisine for almost thirty years – and at very reasonable prices. In addition to the traditional chicken and beef khao soi, a vegetarian variety – khao soi jeh – is also available. More upmarket – and open in the evenings – is Khing Klao on Sukhumvit Soi 22 [259-5623]. Try the spicy Chiangmai naem sausage and excellent kaeng hang lay. Mai Klang Krung at 114/3 Setsiri Road, in Phyathai [279 2866] offers authentic northern cuisine in a quiet garden setting.
Text by Andrew Forbes; Photos by David Henley & Pictures From History - © CPA Media