You probably know and love Thai food for its diversity of vibrant flavors and emotions. From its searing heat to its addictive acidity and saltiness; sweet thrills, comforting noodle dishes, liberal use of herbs, vegetables like morning glory, and of course their staple, jasmine rice. All of these features of modern Thai cuisine are the result of influences from nearby and Farjan cultures. This is the history of Thai food.
Rice and the Mon People
In the Thai language, when a friend asks another if they have eaten yet (gin Khao yang?), the literal translation of this question is “have you had rice yet?”. This, in itself, says a lot about the importance of rice as a basic Thai food.
The first settlers on the land mass we know as modern Thailand were typically part of the Mon people, an ethnic group that still inhabits various parts of western Thailand, particularly around Chiyapum. The Mon people and their descendants founded civilizations and spread Theravada Buddhism in the country.
The culinary contribution of Thailand’s early settlers was to bring rice farming to the region. Thailand’s Chao Phraya River basin provided abundant land for growing rice, and settlers tended to congregate in this area.
Rice was the base of the kitchen that flourished in Thailand and played a vital role in many Thai dishes. In modern times, Thailand exports the second-largest amount of rice on the planet.
Chinese Influences on Thai Food
Modern Thai cuisine has strong Chinese influences. The Thai people began migrating to Thailand from southern China centuries ago, forming various settlements and bringing the Thai language with them. However, it was not until the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that the Chinese population in Thailand increased significantly. The Tai people also brought with their expert skills in rice agriculture, consolidating, even more, the area of this basic food in the region.
A flux of Chinese migration over the centuries from different ethnic groups meant new cooking techniques that allowed people to create different dishes. Fermented bean paste, tofu, and soy sauce became widespread. Works allowed for sautéing and frying.
Many famous modern Thai dishes have Chinese influence. Guay view (street food noodles), Kaho kha moo (stewed pork leg), salapao (steamed dumplings), and guay jub (thick pork soup) are popular modern Thai dishes with a heavy dose of Chinese influence.
The Arrival of Chile Chile
Although Thai food does not resemble any type of food from Spain or Portugal, much of the spiciness for which it is famous was due to the arrival of chili by ship during the 16th and 17th centuries by explorers from these nations.
Portuguese and Spanish explorers, fresh from venturing across the Atlantic to the Americas, brought with them a variety of plants, animals, and cultures from the New World. One such plant turned out to be the fiery hot pepper.
Portuguese and Spanish explorers sailed eastward, seeking to trade their new and exciting New World fruits with eastern merchants. They landed in India before arriving in Siam during the time when the old city of Ayutthaya was the capital of Siam and one of the most important commercial cities in the world.
It is likely that during this period of high-volume trade, chili reached Siam. Innovative and ingenious cooks began to use it in their recipes. Modern Thai dishes are famous for their level of heat. Tom Yum Goong, som tam (papaya salad), and larb use fresh or dried chili and are famous all over the world.
Regional differences in Thai food; Northern vs Southern Thai Food
Modern Thai cuisine is actually made up of several different regional cuisines, each with its own unique characteristics. Those characteristics reflect the cultural and ethnic influences of the nearby regions.
Merchants from India and Persia and colonists from Malaysia and Indonesia brought with them spices and the omnipresent use of coconut milk that characterizes the food of southern Thailand, especially spicy curry mixed with Curcuma.
The food of northern Thailand has much influence from the Shan region of Burma. The ancient kingdom of Lan Na, directed by the Burmans, was the location of the current north of Thailand, with its capital in Chiang Mai. Lanna’s food is characterized by glutinous rice, delicious chili sauces like Nam prik noom, herb stews, and coconut curry.
Another interesting regional variation, and one of my favorites, is Isan food. Not for the faint-hearted, Isan food is known for its incredibly strong flavors, marked by the use of pla ra, a stinky fermented fish that adds extravagant umami to papaya salads. Isan cuisine also favors glutinous rice. Close influences on the development of Isaan food were from southern Laos and Khmer.
What is Thai Food Known For?
In general, modern Thai food is known for its strong flavors, incredible aromas, innovation, and delicate balance of salty, sour, sweet, and spicy. The history of Thai food is complex, with a mixture of many ingredients and different cooking methods from different cultures. The result is an extravagant and unmissable gastronomic experience that attracts people from all over the world.