A Guide for the Gastronomically Timid British Newbie
A surprising number of us Brits are still very wary of "foreign food". Despite claims that curry is now as much an English national dish as roast beef or fish and chips, there are still many people who are missing out on flavours they never dreamed existed. Whether we like it or not, the British palate is not renowned for its sense of adventure. Our indigenous cuisine is universally regarded as bland and, apart from the odd dash of mustard or horseradish sauce, hot and spicy are not qualities easily found in a traditional British meal.
Indian and Chinese foods have gained wide acceptance as recent generations have grown up with their presence. Other spicy foods that have long been popular in the USA, such as Mexican and Thai, have taken longer to become established in the UK. Mexican cuisine is still something of a novelty, but Thai food has enjoyed a veritable explosion of popularity in the last decade.
It is, perhaps, the universal presence of rice that misleads the uninitiated Brit into assuming that all South East Asian food is much the same. This misconception, although typical of the British indifference to, and ignorance of, exotic cultures, could not be further from the truth. The four regional styles that comprise Thai cuisine contain a range of unique and spectacular dishes. While the influence of Thailand's Asian neighbours, particularly China, is present in some recipes, the richly structured native Thai cuisine evolved from a fusion of many influences. Trade routes brought input from Europe as well as other pats of Asia.
Thai cuisine has elements in common with both Indian and Chinese food, but offers advantages over both. The aromatic flavours are more prominent and varied than in Chinese food, and the majority of dishes are lighter and less fatty than Indian foods.
Rice, vegetables, fish and fresh herbs and spices are essential elements. Some common Thai ingredients, such as turmeric, which has anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, are often included in lists of so-called "super foods". When one also considers the relatively small amount of red meat used in Thai recipes, it is not surprising that it is regarded as one of the healthiest cuisines in the world.
But, health considerations aside, the best reason for the timid British diner to try Thai food is its impressive range of flavours. To get the full benefit of the experience, it is a good idea to partake of a meal served in the traditional manner. The company of two or three people is so much nicer than dining alone, so a Thai meal should be a communal occasion. In general, the more people present, the more dishes will be ordered, and the more different things may be tried. As a rough guide, it might be expected that two people would order three dishes in addition to their rice. Three diners might order four, or maybe five, dishes.
When the food arrives, each dinner guest will receive an individual plate of rice, which forms the base upon which she may construct a meal according to taste from the dishes that have been ordered. Each will choose whatever she fancies from the shared dishes and add it to her plate of rice. While eating the meal, soup may be enjoyed as an accompaniment and does not have to be taken as a separate course. This sometimes surprises first-time diners.
Thai food is usually eaten with a fork and spoon; something which greatly reassures those who might have expected to have to master the unfamiliar technique of chopsticks. Chopsticks are actually used rarely, generally only for eating some noodle dishes. As all elements of a Thai meal are usually served in nice, bite-sized pieces, it is easy to eat one's dinner with dignity.
In some part of Thailand, as in many parts of the world, it is common to eat food directly with the right hand instead of using cutlery. Practicality, and the sometimes rather rigid British sense of propriety make this an uncommon technique to use in restaurants, and it probably goes without saying that the spoon and fork option will be seen as preferable by all present!
Amongst the fare, one might find various snacks and side dishes such as rice cakes, satay (a kebab-like meat snack, skewered with bamboo and often served with a peanut sauce) and spring rolls. General dishes might include omelettes and stir fried or sweet and sour dishes. Soups, curries and various dips are all likely to make an appearance, as is a salad. The Thai salad is, however, often a little different from its conventional British counterpart in the use of sweet, sour and salty flavours along with the spiciness of chillies.
Like many Asian cuisines, Thai restaurant cookery has made the occasional adaptation to take advantage of ingredients local to the country in which it operates. Broccoli, for example, is used in many British Thai restaurants, but it is rarely used in Thailand itself.
It is beyond the scope of this article to describe in detail the flavours of individual Thai dishes. Suffice it to say that there is something to suit every palate. Thai cuisine specialises in balancing spicy, sweet, sour, salt and bitter flavours, and as fresh herbs generally take precedence over strong spices, those flavours are perhaps less daunting than those in some of the fierce curries to be found in Indian food. That is not to say that Thai curries lack fire, but the spice-heat is perhaps more fleeting than that from Indian foods, and thus the palate is more quickly free to enjoy the flavours of other dishes. The meal is usually rounded off with a welcome sweet or fruit desert to contrast with the spices and herbs of the main meal.
A Thai meal is a visual experience as well as an olfactory one. The presentation of many dishes is colourful and rich in varied textures. The attractiveness of the food, the richness of the flavours and the emphasis in communal enjoyment of the meal make Thai dining an experience that should not be missed.