No where is it more important than here to once again clarify that I am sure the food I ate in Thailand was Westernised versions of their true selves. I can't acertain what it is that true Thai people eat. Perhaps lots of pickled vegetables, fried things and strong, pungent and fiery curries. I base that on what I saw in market vendors and eateries where there were purely Thai customers.
Nevertheless, I am unashamed to admit that I loved the Western Thai food that I tasted on my travels! It was generally a step up (in terms of flavor and aroma) than what is available as Thai food within Australia.
Throughout the holiday, what I mostly ate was variations of the same couple of dishes: fried noodles and spring rolls. Although that may sound monotonous, every eatery/stall/restaurant had different versions so I didn't get sick of it. In fact, I was still craving Thai flavors long after I got back into Australia. I think it's a sign of how much I love a country's cuisine when I can spend weeks eating their food and still want more.
I'll run through a list of what I think are can't-miss food and beverage offerings in Thailand.
1. Pad thai (aka phat thai)
Chicken pad thai
Pad thai is probably the most well-known thai dish out there. It's a generally a stir-fry of flat rice noodles with some kind of protein (chicken and or shrimp is popular), bean sprouts and tofu. The sauce is made savory with a combination of oyster sauce and fish sauce and given a sour tang with either lime or tamarind. My favorite addition is a beaten egg that gets cooked as it's stir-fried with the noodles so that you get tendrils of egg throughout. Garnish is usually a combination of coriander, chopped nuts, dried shrimp and chili paste/jams. Delicious!
2. Thai curry
Red pork curry
I'm being quite unfair by blanketing all Thai curry under one category. There are, after all, a number of variants even within the Westernized version of Thai cuisine. If we're to trace back to genuine Thai curry, I'm sure it gets even more diversified.
The curries frequently seen on menus are: green, red, yellow, penang and massaman.
From what I know, the contents of green, red and yellow Thai curry are similar. There's usually some type of meat, veggies (of particular note were these special baby eggplants I've only seen in Thailand) and the difference is in the curry paste used. The sauce is made fragrant with kafir lime leaves, seasoned with fish sauce and palm sugar and made creamy with a coconut milk and/or coconut cream.
Penang curry was described to us being milder than the other curries. I know massaman curry to typically contain beef, potato and peanut. I read online that massaman is a Thai cury with muslim origin so pork is never featured.
3. Basil chicken/pork
Basil pork with fried egg on rice
This is a dish I love ordering in Australia and I got to try once while I was in Thailand. It was a refreshing change from all the curry and noodle I'd been eating. The idea is simple: stir-fried chicken or pork with Thai basil and sometimes, other veggies. During the tour I did, I participated in a cooking class (post on that to come later) and I learnt about a few different types of Thai basil. Prior to that, I just knew of something generically termed 'Thai basil' and prior to THAT, I only knew of Italian basil. The Thai basil used in stir fry is called holy basil and has a very aromatic, almost aniseed flavor.
4. Tom yam/tom kha
Chicken tom kha
There are 2 popular Thai soups that I know of. Tom yam is an extremely tasty broth with sweet, savory, spicy and sour tones. It can contain chicken or seafood along with a host of vegetables. Tom kha is the creamy version thanks to the addition of coconut milk. I think that both are prime examples of how complex Thai flavors are and the importance of balance.
5. Papaya salad
I love Thai papaya salad, which is why it's a shame I didn't get to try any on my trip. I did attempt to order it from a certain eatery but I read the menu wrong and what I got was a deep fried papaya salad. It ressembled shoe string fries rather than an actual salad. Still tasty but not what I wanted at all.
The true salad is usually a concotion of shredded green papaya or unripe mango (I've also seen cucumber used) mixed with a sour and spicy sauce of chilies, fish sauce and lime juice. Palm sugar is used to add sweetness. The dish is then often garnished with crushed nuts. This salad is a refreshing addition to any Thai meal and the crunchy texture keeps things interesting.
6. Spring rolls
Fried spring rolls
I don't know how authentic spring rolls are as an item of Thai cuisine. I imagine it to be something with Chinese origin but having developed in Thailand to suit the local palate. Moreover, Westerners love spring rolls so I saw it everywhere on menus. The filling in the spring rolls I had in Thailand were similar to that offered in Chinese restaurants - stir-fried veggies and tofu, sometimes with the addition of pork mince.
Gorgeous fresh fruit platter
As with any other South-East Asian country, tropical fruit is available in abundance throughout Thailand. I enjoyed deliciously sweet and juicy pineapple, lush red papaya, lots of mango (they were in season) and all types of melon.
One thing I hadn't tried before was mangosteen. I had heard many things about it so I was eager to give it ago. It was actually part of the welcome fruit platter at the first hotel we stayed at. Mangosteen is a strange-looking fruit with a tough purple shell that you peel apart. Inside lies a few portions of firm, white flesh. I thought it tasted like a sour lolly with a grape-like texture. It was alright but in my opinion, more effort than it was worth.
8. Fruit juice/smoothies
From fresh fruit follows fruit juice and fruit smoothies. I loved the pop up fruit juice stalls around in the markets. I loved the fact that you could see the fruit going in and know it was real fruit, not fake syrup flavors. I had myself quite a few delicious mango and banana smoothies.
9. Thai beer
Thailand is a great place to drink beer. It is hot and humid and most of the time, you're eating spicy food. To me, those are ideal beer-drinking conditions.
There are a number of local brands, of which Singha and Chang are the most popular. Being the tourist that I am, I bought singlets with logos for both. I prefered the Chang beer myself.
Whole lotta beer
Along Khao San Rd in Bangkok, there are plenty of bars that serve huge portable logs of beer. Try if if you like but I recommend sharing with friends (the more the merrier). Between 1-2, that log gets old, fast.
10. Bucket booze
Strawberry daiquiri bucket
Leading on from the topic of beer, I have to give honorable mention to bucket booze. Again, along Khao San Rd, it is common for bars to offer mixed drinks in cheap bucket form. The alcohol contained is not exclusively Thai but I'll personally always think of bucket cocktails as a Thailand quirk. One too many of those became my downfall on a fated night in Bangkok.
But I think I'll end my post there.
What happened in Thailand stays in Thailand...