Explorations in Ethnic Cuisine – Thai

Once again, the goal of this series of weblogs is to share some basic knowledge of various cuisines and encourage the reader to branch out and try something new…or at least make it through dinner without ordering from the kiddy menu…Building on the basic curry knowledge outlined in the previous column on Indian Food, today we’re going to dive deep into a big bowl of spicy Heaven and comment on some of the most popular Thai dishes.

At least the Americanized Thai food you find here on the East Coast seems to be made up of many varieties of a few basic ingredients: coconut milk, peanuts, pineapple, Thai basil, mint, lemongrass, and chili peppers. Of course there are a ton of other herbs and spices used often in Thai cuisine, but I think that unless you’re chowing down with some random fishermen on the Mekong River, there’s a good chance  you’re going to get a few of the ones I mentioned in most meals.

The basic structure of a Thai dish is the curry. Again, curry is a common description that the British gave to the many Southeast Asian dinners consisting of a bowl of meat or veggies in gravy, served over rice. In the case of Thai food usually the “gravy” is richly spiced coconut milk with assorted vegetables and optional chicken, pork, beef, shrimp, or tofu. The food is normally served with chop sticks but interestingly enough, I recently read that the Thai people actually prefer eating with a fork and spoon…so there’s your excuse if you don’t want to drop your food down your shirt in front of your date! My favorite flavor is “Gra Pra” which has a ton of Thai basil and chili along with onions and green peppers. As one can imagine, the meal gets pretty spicy especially if they go heavy on the chili. There are also usually an assortment of other curries available that are differentiated by their color (e.g. red, yellow, green). Each has slightly different ingredients and levels of heat. Really you just have to try them all to see which one suits your own personal tastes. 

If curries aren’t your bag, you can go with the hot dog of Thailand: “Pad Thai Noodles.” These are thin rice noodles sauteed with a mixture of egg, bean sprouts, and crushed peanuts. It’s slightly sweet and savory while being also very mildly spiced. This is the best starter dish for someone trying Thai food for the first time…for veterans, you can usually get a order of “Drunken Noodles” that are much wider rice noodles (similar to Italian pappardelle pasta) served in a very spicy sauce.

To go along with your main dishes there are some good apps/sides that are Thai takes on some of the Chinese food you may be used to. Thai dumplings are either grilled or steamed wanton skins with a tasty mixture of pork and/or shrimp inside. “Paw Pia” spring rolls contain lots of crunchy vegetables with or without meat and are served with a sweet plum sauce. “Sate” is the word for skewers of grilled marinated chicken or shrimp served with peanut sauce.  “Tom Yum” is the Thai version of hot and sour soup with a tangy blend of lemongrass, lime, and crushed chilies…it’ll get you through at least two periods shirtless at Alfond.

Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the stein filling selections best suited to accompany your Thai feast. Singha and Chang are by far the most widely known Thai beers. Both are pale lagers and make a nice thirst quencher when the curry kicks in. For those of you who follow the Footy in England, take note that Singha markets through Everton and Chang has a partnership with Chelsea (and a previous deal with Manchester United)…we Man City fans at Fill the Steins are sadly still waiting for a Thai brewery to make a “pitch” at Etihad…what gives Thailand?!? For now I guess we’ll just have to settle for a little “Cha Yen;” Thai iced tea with sugar, condensed milk, and spices.

Photo Credit: www.maithaifv.com


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