Friday, 28 July 2017

A Short Guide to the Peculiarities of Thai Food

Text by Albena Shkodrova   
Before you feel the pleasure of eating the notorious extra-hot prawn soup tom yam khung or green mango salad yam ma muang, you will first have to come to terms with some of the peculiarities of Thai eating habits.

Your acquaintance with Thai cuisine may be rather disconcerting if it starts out at the bugs stall. It is hardly a pleasant experience: casting a hungry look at what seems like familiar nut-selling stand, like the ones in Istanbul or Old Sofia, and suddenly realise that the peanuts have feelers, horns, and wings.

Owing to the tradition of getting their proteins from worms, grasshoppers, scorpions, dragonflies, water beetles, or silkworm moths, the peoples of Southeast Asia are often considered to have, to say the least, extravagant eating habits.

In their everyday lives, however, they routinely and indifferently gobble up meals which would make a European gourmet travel 10,000 kilometres to the east.

Tom Kha Gai, a version of the hot prawn soup with chicken and coconut milk

For the liberally-minded gastronomes, Thailand is one of the greatest experiences in life. The peninsula of Indochina also contains in its name the character of the local cuisine. It blends Indian and Chinese influences in myriads of variations of cooking fresh prawns, oysters, dozens of types of fish and mussels, sophisticated sauces, fine rice, fresh vegetables, and fruit unavailable in Europe.

Naturally, local tradition does not entail only borrowing from neighbouring cultures. In fact, connoisseurs find it dramatically different.

"Traditional Thai stir-frying is not the fierce and furious affair of the Chinese, but gentle frying over radiant heat in an earthenware pot," David Thomas, the author of a culinary study, writes, explaining in technical jargon what the wiser part of mankind is happy to feel only with their palates.

In Europe, Thai food has many fans. Most of them, however, know it from ethnic restaurants in European capitals. However, once in Indochina, they often experience a culture shock.

The real-life enjoyment of the cuisine’s notorious tom yam kung, an extra-hot prawn, mushroom, and lemongrass soup, or the equally popular yam ma muang, a green mango salad, calls for coming to terms with some of the eccentric dietary habits of the Thai.

Food on a stick, juice in a bag

One of the first things that an European notices in the Bangkok urban jungle are the small plastic bags from which people sip through straws schizophrenically coloured mash. Engulfed by clouds of smoke, smells, noise, and strange objects, you take in the bags but your mind refuses for some time to accept what your eyes see.

But they are telling you the truth. The people around you are drinking tea, natural juice, cold coffee, and even Coca-Cola from small transparent pouches. The passion for traditional culture, which in the late 1990s turned into a fashion, has added new brews to the palette of drinks-in-a-bag being prepared of lemongrass, lotus seeds, chrysanthemum, jasmine, saffron, rose buds, or whatever is at hand. But it has not changed the containers they are drunk from. They are suitable enough and, though you can't put them on the ground or on a table, you can always hang them on a hydrant sticking up from the pavement for no apparent reason or on an armrest.

The second shock is that natural fruit juices are usually salty. Thais try to deal with the problems caused by the hot, wet climate with a single sweep, and prefer consuming the necessary doses of vitamin C, salt, water, and glucose all in one. The coconuts, which are sold at 25 cents a piece in the streets and in which nature has packed all these substances, have become a bore.

Another interesting habit is the ubiquitous spits. Thai cuisine is extremely rich in snacks - small bits of food which the Thais chew all the time.

Nibbles of meat, round or oblong, white or pink, smoked or grilled sausages, fish croquettes, slices of salted eggs, bits of breadcrumb-coated fruit and vegetables - small bites of thousands of types, colours, and shapes are impaled on bamboo sticks and sold at mobile smoking grills every few yards in town. For Thais, they provide an escape from ennui and a quick refuge, ready at hand any time the crooked face of hunger looms before them.

Echt Kölnisch Wasser in the soup?

, or Cymbopogon citratus in Latin and lemongrass in English, the pre-eminence of local cuisine, is a spice with strange character. Originally brought in from India, it is used all over Thailand and Vietnam. Its first introduction to the palate is quite stressful. For a few seconds (or days!) after first tasting it, you will feel as if drinking lemon eau de cologne, Kölnisch Wasser in the original. The problem is that after the feeling fades, you start missing it.

Having significant medical and culinary uses, takrai is eaten from bulb to leaves. Due to its strong aroma, it is sparingly used by good cooks, who usually combine it with a number of other spices to achieve the distinctive balance between hot, sour, sweet, and salty.

In milder soups the leaves are added in narrow lengthwise stripes, while for the mightily peppered ones they are cut at 1 centemetre. The base of the stalk, which is rounded and resembles a bulb, is ground in a granite bowl and added to several types of curries and salads.

Besides being popular with the locals, _takrai[ital] often becomes the favourite of farang, as the Thai call foreigners. As a result, probably 80 per cent of ethnic food restaurants worldwide, from San Francisco to Sankt Petersburg, are named Lemon grass, and 40 per cent of the women who have ever visited Indochina grow it in flowerpots in their European and American homes.

The forbidden king

One of the funniest hotel signs, often incomprehensible for farang, is the drawing of something spiky with a handle, crossed out with a red line. The sign does not mean "Chestnuts are not allowed in the rooms". The picture illustrates dhurian, Durio zibethinus.

This is a large green fruit with pulpy core which gives off a terrible smell. The Thais are notoriously inconsistent in their attitude to it.

On the one hand, they give it the highest titles, at times crowning it as the king and at others as the god of all fruit. On the other, they ban not only eating it but also taking it inside hotels, buses, trains – in short, like cigarettes, inside all air-conditioned spaces. In Thailand this means everywhere.

The reason is that, as the Thais themselves say, dhurian has a divine taste but a deadly smell reminding you of decaying pork wrapped in rotten fish. For the European mind this combination is slightly inexplicable. If you close your nose to avoid the stench, it is not clear how you can perceive the divine taste. Some more audacious tasters say that the feeling is like eating vanilla cream in a public toilet.

Anyway, what matters is that if you are set on experimenting, you should do so somewhere in the open air, if possible outside the city limits. To avoid being arrested.

All in all, culinary tourism in Thailand is a thorny road covered with roses. To reach the end, you sometimes need extensive doses of adventurousness and enthusiasm. On the other hand, this is how America was discovered too.


Where to eat in Thailand?

There is a rule of thumb in Thailand: the tastiest food is cooked on the street. Pushcarts and stalls are scattered on the pavements, in squares, ports, railway stations, under and on bridges, and generally everywhere where there have been a few square feet to spare.

They are usually stacked in something resembling an improvised market, surrounded by steaming cauldrons, fridges, gas cookers, and grills. Behind them stand the cooks, narrow specialists who offer one or two dishes at the most, a small but virtuoso performed repertoire.

You may not like the cleanliness of the cutlery and the tables in such places. If this is the case, you have a good alternative. Most shopping centres in larger towns have the so-called food courts. They are similar to the markets, but in a cleaner environment and are nearly all excellent.

You can of course try the "real" restaurants. Even the most touristy ones can usually prepare a very decent meal. In the now-fashionable fish markets you can buy live crabs, squid, octopus, prawns, and oysters as well as the fresh vegetables to go with them from something similar to a supermarket. Then you pay for them and hand them over to a team of brisk cooks who will send them back to you with the waiter prepared in a dozen dishes in a matter of minutes.

Read more about Thaliand from
A Walk Along Indochina's Brown Waters




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