Noodles, Curries, and Rice: The Cuisine of Thailand

Regardless of where I have traveled on my voyage to date, for better or worse, one thing I can always count on finding in every city I visit (besides a deplorable Irish Pub) is the ever-present Thai Restaurant.  Thai food is certainly one of the world’s most recognizable and popular cuisines, with the balancing of the 4 major tastes (sweet, sour, salty, and bitter – though some will say 5 in this case, with spicy being the latter) as the fundamental guideline.  Another strong characteristic is that most cooks place an emphasis on only light preparation of dishes, allowing the base ingredients to shine through, often with a focus on the dishes’ aromatic qualities.

Much like I’ve discovered in a few of my previous food-only posts, trying to classify all of the dishes that encompass “Thai Food” is like trying to count the stars in the sky.  Besides the endless varieties of rice and noodle dishes that are offered, the flavors differ by region, each of the 76 different provinces seem to have their own specialties and variations, the remaining hill tribes and native communities — along with the influences of neighboring countries — adds yet another wrinkle, and then everything is magnified again by the unique twists that each individual cook or chef likes to throw into the mix.  Regardless of the infinite number of dishes available, however, I’ll still try to do my best at giving you a good representation of at least the general categories and “major” dishes, or those that are the most recognizable to visitors.

Before diving into the dishes themselves (recipes included — taboot, taboot!), we have to start where every chef starts: the purchase of the raw ingredients at the market each day.  Though I’ve been visiting the local markets in each town I’ve stopped in, the easy standout is that of the Khlong Toey Market in Bangkok, both for the size and the absolute honesty of the market itself (there is nothing “touristy” about it).  If you visit, however, be warned that this is a wet market — with a strong emphasis on the “wet” — so be sure to wear shoes.

Every part of the pig (and cow, and goat, and chicken, and…) that you can imagine

A seafood vendor offering up the day’s catch

The picture can’t really do this scene justice, as the chaos created by this tray full of VERY LIVE fish was a spectacle in itself

Herbs and Produce of all sorts. A few of the more important herbs to Thai cuisine are that of Thai Holy Basil (with fur on the stems), Sweet Basil (with no fur), Kaffir Lime Leaves, and Green Onions

Bundles of Lemon Grass, common in many of the countries’ soups, curries, and stir-frys

Tamarind Pods

Limes give a bright, fresh flavor to almost any dish

Piles of Ginger — a commonly used rhizome, along with Galangal and Ginseng

Ah yes, chilies: the fifth of the four major flavors

Rice is available in a smorgasbord of types, sizes, and flavors, but it is the Thai Jasmine rice that is the most coveted here

Not all ingredients are always used fresh, however. Seen here, fillets of fish are being dried (and thus preserved) in the sunlight

All kinds of dried seafood up for sale

Candied Lotus Root (I think…) isn’t used as frequently, but is definitely has an eye-catching appearance

With the ingredients taken care of, it’s time to dive into the more common dishes you’ll find.  In a general sense, the cuisine can be divided into a few main categories: Soups (pretty self-explanatory), Noodles (either served dry or in a soupy broth), Salads (usually cold, and often very spicy), Curries (various herbs and spice blends cooked with coconut milk and served with rice), and stir-frys (various meats, vegetables, and aromatics all flash-cooked together in a wok, also generally served with rice).

Noodles:

Phad Thai, the single most famous dish originating in Thailand. Something about the combination of rice noodles, fresh or dried shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, egg, and various seasonings such as tamarind and lime juice has captured the heart of farangs across the world. Seen here is the version offered by the Thip Samai Noodle Shop in Bangkok

Phad Thai is also often served inside a thin omelette. I wasn’t aware of it before arriving in Thailand, but a restaurant putting Phad Thai on the menu is often looked down upon and seen by locals as “catering to the tourists.” Regardless of the its reputation, it is still delicious!

Phad Si Ew (or Pad See Ew) — defined by the larger noodles used in its preparation

Fried Vermicelli Noodles

Yen Ta Fo (or Yong Tau Foo): Noodles with Red Seasoning, a sweet-and-spicy flavoring with its origins in Chinese cuisine

Noodle Soup in a beef broth

Sitting beside every table where noodle soups are served is the ever-present quadrilogy of condiments: sliced green chilies in vinegar, fish sauce, sugar, and dried red chili flakes). Additionally, the only time you’ll ever be given chop sticks while in Thailand is when ordering a noodle soup — the rest of the time, everyone eats with a spoon and fork

Curries:

The curries come in a rainbow of colors (usually defined by the chilies used to make it), with any type of meat or fish you can think of going into the wok. Seen here is a Red Curry with Squid

Tuna in a Yellow Curry (the yellow color comes from turmeric)

If you’re a bit spice-phobic, Massaman curry is a great way to go (a dish resulting from Muslim influences). It is less heavy-handed with the chilies, but instead adds clover, star anise, and cinnamon, and is cooked with potatoes. Seen here is the famous version offered by Khrua Aroy Aroy in Bangkok

Phuket Style Black Curry (which I had never heard of, so naturally ordered). The waitress was very reluctant to serve this dish to me, claiming that it was only for locals due to its spice level. The first bite was great; after the second bite, I began to get a bit nervous; and by the third bite, I could no longer taste anything beside the mouthful of lava sitting on my tongue. When the server came back to check on me, it took all of my strength to muster a smile and squeak out “It’s great!” but I think she saw through my shallow charade (which was probably due to the pool of sweat that was running down my face, my heavy breathing, and my blood-shot eyes)

Kanon Jeen Narm Phrig — a Northern dish of fermented noodles (instead of rice) served with a mild curry broth and a variety of garnishes

Salads (or Yams):

Som Dam, or Spicy Green Papaya Salad — one of the essentail Thai dishes

Spicy Fruit Salad

Seafood and Glass Noodle Salad

Lard Na – minced beef and onion salad with chilies

Soups:

Tom Yum (or Dom Yam), a spicy soup broth flavored with lemon grass, chilies, tomatoes, and herbs, and usually served with shrimp or chicken

Sorry for only listing one soup, but I’ve always found it difficult to order a steaming-hot bowl of soup when I’m already drowning in sweat from the heat and humidity of the air outside (though strangely enough, I love the noodle soups).

Stir-frys:

Chicken with Holy Basil

Nam-Toke Neur — Sliced grilled beef in a spicy sauce

Cooking Class:

In addition to eating everything placed in front of me, I also found the time to take a Thai Cooking Course here in Chiang Mai (where I’m currently located) to learn how to make a few of these delightful dishes.  And by popular request, I’m also going to post a few recipes for those wanting to experiment in their own home.

The chef (me) in action

Essential Tools of the kitchen

Now on to the recipes:

Green Curry With Chicken:

(recipe courtesy of the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School)

Green Curry is a very common dish found throughout Thailand, and if you should fancy something other than Chicken, feel free to substitute whatever other protein strikes your fancy (e.g. – pork, shrimp, beef, tofu, etc.).  Though many might think that being a green curry (as opposed to say, red), it isn’t as spicy; but actually, it is the other way around.  The green curry is the most tongue-searing — the color only corresponds to the color of chilies used in the preparation.  If you’re not a spicy food fan, however, you can always either cut down on the chilies in the recipe or up the coconut milk.

Additionally, I’ve listed the ingredients for making the curry paste itself, but if you don’t have mortar and pestal around, don’t have the will power to grind away for what seems like a lifetime, you can’t find some of the ingredients, or are just plain lazy, you can certainly buy a prepackaged curry paste.  It’ll turn out just fine.

Green Curry Paste:

  • 20 Fresh Thai Green Chilies (or about 8-10 Serrano chilies or 2-3 jalapenos)
  • 2 Stalks of Sweet Basil
  • 3 Tbsp Chopped Shallots
  • 2 Tbsp Minced Garlic
  • 1 Tbsp Chopped Galangal
  • 1 Tbsp Chopped Lemon Grass
  • 1 Tbsp Thai Ginseng
  • 1 tsp Shrimp Paste
  • 1 tsp Chopped Kaffir Lime Peel
  • 1 tsp Fresh or Dried Coriander

Grind all ingredients in a mortar and pestal or blend in a blender until completely smooth (this will take a lot longer than you think it should)

A few of the ingredients that go into making curry paste

Green Curry with Chicken:

  • 100 g Sliced Chicken Breast
  • 1 Tbsp Green Curry Paste (see recipe above)
  • 50 g mixture of Thai Eggplant (green with white strips, round, and small) and Carrots, sliced
  • 1/2 cup Coconut Cream
  • 1/2 cup Water
  • 1 Tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 2-3 Tbsp Sugar (depending upon your tastes)
  • 2 Tbsp Cooking Oil
  • 2 Kaffir Lime Leaves
  • 2 Stalks Sweet Basil
  • 1-2 Small Red Chillies, sliced

Add cooking oil to a wok (or large saute pan) over low heat.  Add green curry paste and coconut milk, bring to a simmer, and stir continuously for 1-2 minutes.  Add the sliced chicken and stir vigorously until cooked through.  Add additional coconut cream and water to the mixture, as needed, to prevent burning if the mixture begins to cook away too quickly.  Next, add the fish sauce, sugar, and any remaining coconut cream and water, and adjust the heat to high.  Next, add the eggplant, carrots, and kaffir lime leaves — allow to cook until eggplant and carrots are soft enough to cut with a fork.  Stir in the basil leaves and red chilies, turn off the heat, and serve alongside steamed rice.

The ingredients for the curry ready for the wok. And notice that fine-looking curry paste in the middle that only could have been made the old-fashioned way, with a mortar and pestal – though just thinking about it makes my elbow hurt again.

The curry paste and coconut milk boiling away in my wok

The finished product: Green Curry Chicken over Steamed Rice

Phad Thai Noodles with Chicken:

(recipe courtesy of the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School)

I guess I couldn’t go without posting a recipe for this one.  I will state ahead of time, however, that this is a simplified version that is intended to be easier to make at home (most notably, the lack of tamarind pods).  In reality, each cook or chef usually has their own specific recipe that they follow, sometimes containing upwards of 30 or more ingredients.  And as with the curry above, feel free to substitute any other proteins instead of the chicken.

  • 100 g Rice Noodles
  • 50 g Sliced Chicken
  • 2 Tbsp Cooking Oil
  • 3-4 Scallions, sliced on a diagonal
  • 30 g Bean Sprouts
  • 1 Tbsp Minced Garlic
  • 2 Long Beans (or 7-8 normal green beans), sliced diagonally, similar size to scallions
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp dried shrimp (optional)
  • 30 g Hard Tofu (sliced into 2cm wide sticks)
  • 5 Tbsp Water
  • 2 Tbsp Oyster Sauce
  • 1 Tbsp Fish Sauce
  • 2 tsp Sugar
  • 1 tsp Soy Sauce
  • 1 tsp Dark Soy Sauce (if available)

Heat cooking oil in a wok (or large saute pan) over high heat. Add garlic, tofu, and chicken.  Cook, stirring continuously until chicken is almost cooked through.  Then add the egg and stir until the egg has cooked through.  Next, add the water, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and both types of soy sauce.  Once these have heated through (only a few seconds), add the noodles and stir continuously until the noodles have soaked up most of the moisture and are soft.  Finally, add the bean sprouts, long beans, and scallions, cooking for 1 additional minute.  Take off the heat and plate with ground peanuts, chili powder, lime, and sugar as garnishes.

Most of the Phad Thai ingredients, prepped and ready to go

In the wok, where the action happens

The finished dish: not too shabby if I do say so myself

Well, that’s about all I’ve got for now.  I apologize for the exceedingly long post, but again, it’s tough to try to compress an entire country’s cuisine into a few shorts words.  If you get motivated and try out either of the recipes listed above, you’ll have to let me know how they turn out!

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About andrewamiet

I'm a 29 (now 31) year-old former desk jockey who is now making my way around the world, experiencing all of the sights, sounds, tastes, people, and culture that the world has to offer.

15 Responses to “Noodles, Curries, and Rice: The Cuisine of Thailand”

  1. Not that it will compare but we’ve been talking about getting or making some Thai Curry all weekend and you’ve officially pushed me over the edge!! Pictures look fantastic, I want all of it now!

  2. wowoowowow
    thanks for the recipes too!

    • No problem. It was you, in fact, that first gave me the idea for posting recipes (something I plan to incorporate more of in the future) way back in my post on Eating in Istanbul, so thanks for the inspiration!

  3. This is my kind of blog. I too have done some travel and will continue to do it. I am eager to try some of your recipes as we are going to Thailand next January

  4. wow, lovely pictures. Going to Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam next month and I would look forward to checking out the markets!

  5. Awesome post! Thanks so much for the food photos and recipes.

  6. Saw this entry yesterday and got jealous so I ordered a curry from a Thai restaurant. I just tried to imagine I was there with you feasting on the real thing. 😀

    The first pic – It looks like Subway, the Thailand style. Hehe 😀

  7. I hate reading your blog!!! Only because it just makes me want to travel so much more. Thanks for the insightful blog!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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