Lucy Twaite chronicles her experiences of Thai cuisine
When I knew I was going to be teaching English in Thailand on a six week internship, the first thing that struck my mind was the food! I was to live with the Thai people, a people who take pride in ensuring that guests trying something new every hour of every day. Like many other cultures, eating is a ritualistic pleasure.
At the school where I worked, the teachers brought in a wonderful array of food that was shared around the table. You took a spoonful of each dish, sampling different flavours, flavours that kept me going back for thirds, fourths, even fifths, ensuring I experienced everything… it was heavenly! They thoroughly enjoyed watching me (often struggling, but always willing!) to get through mountainous amounts of food. The lunch break lasted for hours, as the Thai teachers chatted; bonding over a selection of gastronomic delights.
I was living in a rural area and we visited the market every day. Fresh, plentiful vats of fragrant curries, pork skewers, and barbequed fish steaks were just a small selection of what was on offer. Meat, especially pork, was frequently seen as street food, and was a staple in the meals I had with my host. I ate pork for breakfast nearly every day! There were only a few foods I didn’t grow accustomed to; I still haven’t gotten my head around roasted scorpions!
It was also hard to comprehend the amount of rice available… sticky, egg fried and coconut rice; rice for breakfast, lunch and dinner! However, rice was just the accompaniment to other dishes. Thailand is known for its strong flavour combinations: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, spicy, sometimes combined into one dish; and always tasting sublime.
If you enjoy eating an overtly sweetened Thai green curry from the local takeaway, then you must taste the real thing! The incredible aromatic flavours from the kaffir lime leaves and ginger, the saltiness of the nam pla (fish sauce) combined with hints of chilli and sweetness from the coconut milk, is just to die for!
Or how about the formidable gaang massaman curry, a rich creamy dish with a peanut based, cardamom infused sauce, added to chicken and potatoes – just glorious! As much as I enjoyed the curries, Thai cuisine definitely has more to offer. Chicken, pork and fish is served as the basis of soup like dishes, often incorporating unusually clear vermicelli-like noodles, which is also served with rice.
A particular favourite of mine was the papaya salad, som tam. The papaya’s perfectly complimented the sharp flavour of the chilli and saltiness of the pork, combined with the crunch of the peanuts and spring onions; a complete explosion of flavour! I struggled with spiciness at the beginning of my stay, breaking out in sweat when trying each food, but coming back to sausage and mash have left me craving chillies!
I was also amazed at the variety of fresh fruits, which were found in an abundance in any Thai’s garden. There is the very interesting durian, which emits a strong pungent odour when cut open. On the other hand, there’s the kiwi-like dragon fruit, which smells and tastes much more appetising!
One ingredient I haven’t touched on is coconut milk! A staple for curry dishes, it’s also a core ingredient in deserts… a particular passion of mine. My host soon realised my penchant for sweet foods, and made sure I tried something new after every meal. I absolutely loved the street food, kanom krop made in a cast iron pan. It has a cakey yet crispy crÍpe-like exterior, filled with luxuriously soft coconut custard. Extremely moreish, I enjoyed these every time we went to the market.
However, beyond the realms of gorgeousness was khao niao mamuan, sticky rice cooked in sweetened thick coconut milk and served with ripe mango. We usually ate it for desert, but I’m salivating thinking about it as a bed-time treat right now! I was so in love with this I even made it for my family at home. It’s such a simple recipe: steam some sticky rice, mix together some coconut milk, salt and sugar and bring to the boil. Set aside to cool and then pour the warm coconut milk over the top. Voila! This won’t disappoint!
Cardiff has many Thai restaurants to offer, iCookthai on Crwys Road and Thai Lounge in Whitchurch being two I would highly recommend. But if this article has and tempted you to discover some of these tantalizing treats for yourself, then the only option is to go there. It’s an experience that can only be encountered when in Thailand, and was one that has transformed my taste buds for good.