Look east, and two of the most exotic tourist destinations appear on the horizon- our mesmerizing Myanmar and its immediate neighbor, Thailand. One exudes an old world charm, and the other is cosmopolitan and modern, with tourism as its biggest industry. Both countries have a predominantly Buddhist population, and the tropical climate implies similar agricultural produce is cultivated, both being considered as rice bowls to the world in the past even as they works towards becoming the world’s largest rice producers again. Thailand is also the most popular gateway to Myanmar, offers employment to over 2 million Myanmar nationals who migrated across the border legally and illegally, and is one of the largest foreign investors in the country.
Thai cuisine has become an integral part of life in Myanmar, while also having influenced Myanmar food over centuries. In Yangon, numerous exclusive Thai food restaurants are seen flourishing, frequented by locals, expats and tourists. It is just that Thai food has such a refined taste, with its phenomenal variety and delectable harmony in flavors that tingles the taste buds and leaves everyone clamoring for more. Thai food fans opt for Legacy Restaurant when they want an authentic Thai meal in a simple ambience, Sabai Sabai, Mai Thai, Le Nacha, Bangkok Kitchen, Pattaya, Thai Kitchen and numerous others for flavorsome and completely satisfying meals, close in taste and presentation to similar meals in Thailand. All multi-cuisine restaurants offer popular Thai preparations, which remain amongst their most frequently ordered dishes.
What Makes Thai Cuisine Unique
The Thais have perfected the art of cooking using the abundant, flavorful natural produce of their fertile country. Even certain varieties of the rice grown there are so aromatic, that ‘Thai fragrant rice’ has become the commonly used term. Every fruit is so sweet and juicy, every vegetable so pretty to look at, and the herbs grown are of the best quality, enhancing the flavor of the most bland foods.
Interestingly, Thai food has also evolved over time, with various Asian and European influences, primarily due to its strategic location at the cross roads of the east-west sea route. The distinct Chinese influence is evident, and it started with the first Chinese migrants from Yunnan coming to occupy the Thai Peninsula. Thai cuisine also imbibed from neighboring culinary practices and thus one finds dishes along the Mekong River having a strong influence from Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. In the north, soups and curries display the Myanmar influence, while the Southern part of Thailand displays how Muslim cuisine has impacted Thai food preparations.
Thai cuisine has a comparatively short culinary history, evolving from around the 13th century A.D. The initial, rather rudimentary cooking techniques of boiling and grilling with little beyond salt and pepper, soon added the Chinese style of frying, stir frying and pan frying and adopted the Chinese metal wok as a cooking vessel. Today, food is prepared in numerous ways. Leaves and raw vegetables are pounded to make salads, lighter vegetables and meats are stir fried, some are batter coated and deep fried, while others are steamed, boiled, roasted or grilled. The strong Buddhist influence brought travelling monks from India, who also brought along with them, Indian curries. These were also assimilated with the variation of using coconut milk due to the abundance of this tropical fruit, found to be sweeter in Thailand, than any other part of the world. Dry Indian spices were substituted with aromatic fresh herbs, which toned down the strong taste and balanced out the curries that were now more palatable for local tastes. Milk and milk products like yoghurt, clarified butter, called ghee and cream, which are often used in Indian food, have no place in Thai food.
Thailand is one Asian country that was never colonized, but travelling Dutch, French and Portuguese and long stints by Thai Kings and princes in Europe brought European vegetables and cooking techniques into the country. Vegetables like corn, asparagus, carrots and aubergines, were initially not found in Thailand, but are now used extensively in their meals. The trend towards vegetarianism is fairly recent, and a parallel vegetarian Thai cuisine has emerged, no less flavorful, but without the addition of fish sauce and shrimp paste.
Regional Thai Cuisine
What we find on menu cards is an exotic blend of regional Thai specialties, which are popular all over the country, but have been part of the region’s plate due to the local produce available, suitable for the climatic conditions and local taste preferences. Northeastern Thailand has food dishes which are simple and quick to cook, pungent and spicy. These include the famous Son Tam (papaya salad), grilled chicken, giant catfish and sticky rice as the accompanying staple. Northern cuisine displays the Myanmar influence with its hot curries, dipping sauces, watery soups and numerous noodle based dishes.
Over time, the food of Central Thailand, including Bangkok, has come to be defined as classic Thai cuisine. These include the world famous creamy coconut based red and green curries, Tom Yum soup and the almost sweet Tom Kha Gai. Satay and Mussaman curry come from the south, displaying the strong Muslim influence with the use of turmeric, cardamom, chilies, cumin and cloves, which enhance the taste of the numerous yellow curries offered. The long coastline on the southern side of the country provides ample seafood in the most amazing variety, fresh and delicious.
The trinity of tastes in Thai cuisine is the sweet, sour and salty taste found in most preparations. This can be attributed the seasonings used to balance and achieve a harmonious blend of flavors. A few of the unique ones, not used as much in any other cuisine, are listed below:
- Coconut milk contributes a fragrant and mild sweetness to every preparations, thickens the curry, lightens its color and tones down the chili component.
- Palm sugar is the second ingredient that contributes to the sweet part of the trinity of taste. Brown in color, it enhances the taste of every dish.
- Kaffir lime juice makes up for the sour component of the dish, and kaffir lime leaves with their rich, strong aroma, add to the flavor. The leaves are an important ingredient in the red and green curry pastes as well.
- Soy sauce is used instead of salt. This forms the third, salty component of the dish-it is thin and watery but flavorful.
- Galangal ginger has a strong, subtle yet intense flavor that is distinct from the regular ginger. Added to curries and pastes, it transforms the taste of every preparation.
- Lemon grass adds zing to every food and drink, and is supposed to be very healthy. It is also used to make a healthy, refreshing beverage.
- Herbs like holy basil, sweet basil, mint, coriander, Chinese parsley are added to meats and vegetarian dishes to change their taste completely.
Thai meals include multiple dishes, which are shared, and plated meals not generally served. Salad, soup, rice, meats and vegetables, are all part of a single meal. Every dish is decorated with fresh trimmings, and beautifully carved vegetables, adding an aesthetic appeal to the meal being served, and somehow making it more appetizing. Meals are not hurriedly eaten, but are leisurely affairs lasting over an hour, in the evening especially. This is in keeping with the Thai concept of sanuk (fun). The meal ends with exotic desserts and fruit. Sticky rice and mango is perhaps the most famous Thai dessert, but others like red ruby made out of chestnut and coconut milk, bananas in syrup, pancakes, a multitude of coconut based steamed and baked desserts, and others provide a perfect ending to a deliciously satisfying meal.
Street food specials
Thai street food is world famous. Clean stalls and the hygienically prepared food is safe to eat, besides being extremely fresh due to the high turnover, it is also a feast for the eyes to see the expertise with which it is prepared and dished out at great speed. While everything is available on the streets at these mobile stalls with small counters, some foods are clearly street specials. These include the Thai herbed sausages, spring rolls, fried banana fritters, fish cakes, picnic pork, barbecued and fried chicken, rice balls, barbecued fish, chicken and pork satay, and many more. A beverage worth mentioning is the Thai iced tea. Made out of boiling some special Thai tea leaves, cooled and then diluted with condensed milk, sugar syrup, and crushed ice, it gets an interesting taste with flavors like vanilla, cinnamon.
One finds a lot of these foods in Myanmar cuisine as well, and both cuisines use rice and noodles extensively. In fact, there is a striking similarity between northern Thai food and the cuisine of Shan state. As countries open up, borders are no longer barriers and dividing lines fade, gradually cuisines will also lose their distinctiveness and become part of global cuisine with local variations.