When initially thinking about Thai food, what came to my mind was the Thai curry, a lot of fish, a lot of spices and a lot of rice. Having said this from a view of someone who has never actually been to Thailand. But what actually are the main foods that are eaten on a daily basis in Thailand and what are their origins? Because from what I know I have always thought that Thai people always eat really healthy and nutrient rich food based on my stereotypes that they eat a lot of rice, fish, and greens. In this blog I aimed to explore the variety and origins of the Thai cuisine based on several internet- and personal sources and in the end they will be shortly compared to the German food culture.
Some of my prejudgements prior to writing this blog were similar to the truth but there were a lot of features of the Thai cuisine which were new and surprising to me. Now let me take you with me on a journey to the customs and origins of Thai food. Maybe you might find out something new as well!
Part one: What is typical Thai food?
To name all typical Thai foods, dishes and their origins would go beyond the scope of this blog and would result on a really long list of dishes (in the end we would probably read through the half and then order some Thai food because it sounded so good and then spend the next hour eating). Thus, the focus will be put on the dishes and ingredients which are most representative of the Thai cuisine and reflect its diversity.
Generally, Thai dishes have a Strong aroma and are quite spicy. Regarding the spice it would not be the same to go to a Thai restaurant in some country in comparison to ordering the same spicy dish in Thailand, because in Thailand it is most likely a lot spicier. To counteract the spice or to take away some of it, spicy dishes are mostly served with rice, water, or cold tea to soften the spicy taste. The dishes themselves can be put into four main dishes: boiled ones, spicy salads, pounded foods and curries and some very common ingredients or dishes are eaten often such as Seafood, rice, noodles, curry, soups, or salads (Bachnik, 2018).
Flavours and sides
The flavours which are used whilst preparing the dishes are very varied and contain, among others, Garlic, coriander, pepper, lemon grass, ginger or chili. The way of preparing the foods is very common to either steam, grill or fry it. Next to the spices, the dishes are normally also served with a lot of sauces which could for example be a fish sauce or a siracha sauce.
For dessert there are a lot of local fresh fruit available, or one could eat desserts with sweet rice or coconut. The Thai cuisine really pays attention to the small details such as the texture of the dishes, the appearance, and the smell (Jones & Culture Smart!, 2014).
Nice to know
Taking a little tour to the Thai language it might be helpful to learn these these words: Breakfast in Thai is called Ahaan Chow, lunch is called Khao Thian and dinner is called Khao Yen. Having said that, it is important to add that Thai dishes are not bound to being breakfast, lunch, or dinner dishes (Wiens, n.d.). So, if any reader of this blog plans to cook or order Thai food: feel free to switch them up and have breakfast for dinner!
Having talked already about the main ingredients of Thai cuisine I asked some Thai friends for dishes they find most representative, and these were the outcomes: Probably the most representative dish would be Tom Yum kung soup as it was mentioned several times and consists of some of ‘the prominent’ Thai ingredients like lemongrass, chili, fish sauce, mushrooms and so forth. Besides that, there are a lot of different curries which are mostly served with rice and on the left there is a short list of some very common meals!
Generally Thai food is served at once to combine the tastes: this could be a soup with a curry dish, vegetables, fish and meat. Thai meals usually aim at a harmonious blend of tastes and textures and are also very satisfying to the eye. (Phuket Thai cooking academy, 2015).
- (chicken) pad Thai,
- grilled pork with sticky rice,
- rice porridge,
- stir fried Thai basil with minced pork/chicken,
- fried rice,
- papaya salad,
- chili paste with steamed veggies.
Part two: Thai foods and its cultural origins
Many dishes or variants of dishes can be identified to be either from the North, the Northeast, the middle or the south of Thailand (Taste of Thailand, n.d.). These different regions have different varieties of the dishes which make them very unique. This variety comes not only from the different geographics and landscapes but also from the bordering countries and the international influences. For example, in central Thailand there are a lot of plains whereas in the northern regions there are a lot of valleys and mountains. In the south, there is the sea which opens many opportunities to naval trade and is a crossroad from the east to the west.
The influence from other countries on the Thai cuisine does not only come from the neighbouring countries such as for example China, Cambodia, Vietnam, or Malaysia but for example also from Portugal, the Netherlands or France. These foreign influences can even be traced back centuries and were integrated into the now traditional Thai food.
Centuries of Influence
Going back to the roots of Thai food the first influences came from neighbouring countries when Thai traditional food was combined with influence from Chinese or Indian traditions. In the 15th century the Khmer cooks introduced Indian foods to Ayutthaya’s court and the now very common Fish sauce in Thailand was originally brought to Thailand by the Chinese. During the time of the Ayutthaya kingdom also the Japanese cuisine highly influenced the traditional palace cuisine. Going further, Chilis were introduced in 16th century by the Portuguese stemming from an early contact with Portuguese as well as the French culinary in that century (Sunanta, 2005)
Besides the influences from other nations, also the values coming from Buddhism are taken into consideration in the Thai cuisine and food culture. Thais often go out to eat, celebrate eating together and like to do it in groups or with the family. It also represents the respect for the tradition (Bachnik, 2018).
To this day the Thai cuisine is still under a lot of international influence as a great variety of ingredients and recipes is available nowadays. This makes it easy for Thai people to also try out and immerse into different food cultures or to combine traditional Thai food with other cuisines (Templeofthai.com, n.d.). Nowadays it is a mix of transnational interactions and since the globalization in the midst of the last century the food culture in Thailand has become very international and many different influences can be felt. Still normally the traditional Thai food is cheaper to access in Thailand than the ‘western’ foods (Sunanta, 2005).
Part three: what sparks out compared to the German cuisine
Generally, the Thai cuisine and typical dishes are very different to the ones typically eaten in Germany. What stands out the most is that in Thailand all five senses of salty, spicy, sour, bitter and sweet are commonly mixed in one meal and not kept apart. In Germany it is common to keep the five senses of taste apart in different meals. Also, from my point of view on my own German cuisine understanding, the most used spices in many people’s kitchens are salt and pepper. Not to say that not a lot of spices are available, but they are only used to very limited amounts. Of course, this also varies between different people. Additionally, eating is not that much celebrated in Germany, while a lot of families to like to eat together once or twice a day, it is more seen as a necessity and rather seldomly celebrated as going out to a restaurant together to eat. Nevertheless, just as in Thailand, the international influence in foods that are available can be felt and it would be possible to cook or order traditional Thai meals in Germany.
The German cuisine In Comparison to Thai food and cuisine rather sounds less exciting as the taste buds are less engaged. Nevertheless, Germans also eat quite some rice and a lot of greens similar to the Thai cuisine, but the spices are always kept apart per meal and the different meals of breakfast and lunch or dinner cannot really be switched up a lot. After all the German cuisine is surely varied as well but the Thai cuisine really has a lot to offer!
Bachnik, K. (2018). Contradictions of Slow Food and Fast Food Culture in Thailand and Perils of Sustainability. Konsumpcja i Rozwój, 160(2), 109–118.
Phuket Thai cooking academy (2015). The history of Thai food. Retrieved ont eh 26th of March 2021 from https://phuketthaicookingacademy.com/the-history-of-thai-food/
Roger Jones, & Culture Smart! (2014). Thailand – Culture Smart! : The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture. Kuperard.
Sunanta, S. (2005). The globalization of Thai cuisine. In Canadian Council for Southeast Asian Studies Conference, York University, Toronto (p. 3).
Taste of Thailand (n.d.) The history of Thai food. Retrieved on the 26th of March 2021 from https://www.tasteofthailand.org/the-history-of-thai-food/
Templeofthai.com (n.d.). Quick history of Thai cuisine. Retrieved on the 26th of March 2021 from https://www.templeofthai.com/cooking/history_thai_cuisine.php
Wiens, M. (n.d.). Thai Breakfast: 19 of the most popular dishes. Retrieved on the 26th of March 2021 from https://www.eatingthaifood.com/thai-breakfast-food-dishes/