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Thailand: Hot and Bold

Cooking and eating (and talking about cooking and eating) are choice pastimes in the Thai culture. You need look no further than to Thailand's prime minister, Samak Sundaravej, who is a celebrity chef, having written a book and hosted a cooking show called “Tasting, Grumbling.”

Like other Southeast Asian countries, Thailand derives its strongest culinary influences from India and China. And unlike surrounding Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia, Thailand (about the size of France) never was ruled by a European power, so European influences are not a part of the cuisine.

Food Fundamentals

“The Thai repertoire is characterized by extreme flavors — fiery hot, puckering sour and syrupy sweet. Curries are laced with coconut milk and are accented with chilies. Soups are perfumed by shredded kaffir lime leaves, lime juice and fish sauce. Satays are marinated in coriander, turmeric and lemon grass, and stir fries are seasoned with chilies and basil almost by the cupsful,” according to Mai Pham, author of The Best of Vietnamese & Thai Cooking (Prima Lifestyles, 1995).

Meals center around rice, and soup is a must, with all the complexities it can house. Thai cuisine balances shades of taste, texture and seasonings and the interplay of the three.

Regional Sway

The climate and terrain dictate many of the culinary nuances among the four main regions of Thailand.

Northern Thailand, a series of upland valleys, is home to the major city Chian Mai. It's a mountainous area with evergreen forests and a gentler climate than the southern regions. With the absence of palm trees, coconut isn't often used, and the food's heat index is more tolerable to the western palate — though hot and salty is the desired flavor characteristic.

The Northeast region rises 650 to 1,000 feet above sea level and is surrounded by mountains to the west and south. It is more poverty stricken; therefore, what the cuisine lacks in complexity and flavor diversity, it makes up for in heat and pungency. Small dried chilies are used to season most dishes.

The Central Plains are one broad plain touching the basins of the Mae Klong and Bang Pa Kong rivers. With the amount of wealth and diversity in this region, the cuisine is the country's most complex.

The South is monsoon territory. This is the area most famous for shrimp paste, multiple chili varieties and heavy use of coconut and its derivatives. Seafood also is most common here, much of it sun-dried.

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