Thailand has introduced Americans to the biggest food trend in decades. Influenced by the cuisine of neighboring India and China, Thai food combines flavors and ingredients in a way that gives it a distinct personality all its own.
Like other Asian and Southeast Asian cuisines where meat is scarce and expensive, Thai cuisine is rice- and noodle-based. Since Thailand is formed around a gulf, there is a large variety of fish dishes. In general, Thai food is light and combinations of herbs and spices yield sour, salty, hot and sweet flavors in every bite. Many of the herbs used are thought to have medicinal benefits, such as aiding digestion, as well. The harmonious blend of flavors and fragrances makes Thai food irresistible to Western palates.
A major element in Thai cuisine is the yam (sometimes spelled yum), a kind of salad. Unlike traditional salad as we know it, a yam can be made of pork, beef or other protein, dressed with ingredients such as nam pla (fermented fish-flavored sauce), salt, lemon or lime juice, garlic or shallots, and chilies. For example, sliced steak soaked in lime juice and mixed with chilies, onion, tomato, cucumber, coriander leaves and lettuce are the ingredients that compose nuur yung namtok, yet the same flavor mix used with a base of sliced squid yields yum pla muk. If you're feeling adventurous, frog legs are a Thai specialty, and are prepared in many different ways.
Thais do not eat in traditional, individual courses the way we do; they enjoy a communal eating experience. All the dishes are placed on the table where diners can sample a little bit of everything, family-style. Some of the most common flavorings you'll find in Thai dishes are coconut milk, lemongrass, tamarind, nam pla, ginger, galangal (a member of the ginger family that tastes like a cross between ginger and pepper), garlic, cilantro, basil, palm sugar, turmeric, cumin, green onions, shallots, peanuts, lime juice and kaffir lime leaves, in addition to chilies in varying degrees of heat.
Know Your Menu
Fish cake: Patties of ground fish and curry paste combined with ground shrimp and usually served over a salad
Steamed dumplings: Ground pork, shrimp and Thai herbs in paper-thin wrappers
Pad thai: The classic and most popular of Thai dishes, a noodle-based dish that incorporates shrimp, green onions, eggs, dried tofu, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts
Curry: Thailand is famous for curries, usually beef, chicken or shrimp simmered in coconut milk with mixtures of different curry pastes (red, yellow, green), and sometimes potatoes, peas, bamboo shoots, basil and hot chilies
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At Thai Restaurants
Choose... tom yum koong (shrimp and mushrooms simmered in hot-and-sour broth with coriander, lime leaves and lemongrass)
Instead of... dumplings or spring rolls
Choose... sauteed shrimp or beef with basil, onion and chilies
Instead of... pad thai
Choose... sauteed scallops and shrimp (or beef or pork) with mushrooms, zucchini and chili paste
Instead of... any curry dish
Choose... sauteed beef, chicken or pork with shrimp paste and green beans
Instead of... sauteed beef, chicken or pork with ginger, black bean sauce and green onion
Choose... sauteed mixed vegetables
Instead of... Thai fried rice with vegetables and eggs
Choose... steamed mussels with Thai herbs and garlic sauce
Instead of... deep-fried whole fish with sweet-and-sour sauce
-- Avoid bean thread, a vermicelli-like noodle that appears in many dishes not specifically listed as such and is high in carbohydrates.
-- Anything listed on the menu as pad will almost certainly be a noodle dish.
-- If you order curry, request one that doesn't contain potatoes.
-- In general, stick to dishes that are quickly sauteed with lemongrass and/or basil, other aromatic Thai herbs and vegetables.
-- Many Thai dishes use sweet ingredients -- pineapple, oyster sauce, sweet-and-sour sauce -- which should be consumed in moderation, to complement more pungent ones.