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Regional Thai Cuisine
Regional Thai Cuisine - The North Regional Thai Cuisine - The Northeast Regional Thai Cuisine - Central Plains Regional Thai Cuisine - The South

Geographically, Thailand is a diverse country. Thais generally divide it into four distinct regions. The Central region is largely delta country, dominated by the Chao Phraya River, and with rich soil. Southern Thailand is peninsula country, with the Andaman Sea on one side and the Gulf of Thailand on the other. The North is cool and mountainous. Northeastern Thailand is a vast plateau and flanked by the Mekong River. Each region has its own distinct ethnic peoples, speaking their own dialect, and practicing their own customs.

Until the 1920s and the completion of the railway network, travel within Thailand was difficult. Journeys were accomplished by elephant, and it could take several weeks to reach the further provinces from Bangkok. Consequently, the four main regions, left largely to govern themselves, kept their traditions intact. The culinary traditions included.

It is therefore possible to travel throughout the. country and experience very different styles of cooking. Or to visit a Bangkok restaurant owned by people from one of the regions, and specializing in that cuisine. Or to sit in a restaurant and pick out dishes that have originated in the North, Northeast, Central and Southern regions.

All of this diversity has come together under the general heading "Thai food", and helps to explain why there is such a tremendous variety t of foods available in a country whose population, at around sixty million, is not an exceptionally large one. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the menu of a "typical Thai restaurant" is actually a Bangkok menu; for Bangkok is what is termed a "primate city" by sociologists, a city that politically, economically and culturally dominates all the other cities in a country.

When we sit down to a Thai meal, therefore, we are experiencing the many different styles and flavours of the country. The curries and seafood of the South; the courtly dishes of the North; the herby, earthy recipes of the Northeast, with their river fish; the sheer inventiveness of the fertile Central region. Add to this the Chinese influence, which has itself been profound, and the contributions from other ethnic peoples, and you have a most wonderful melting pot.

Central
Central region of Thailand is a delta-like landscape, many rain-fed rivers flowing southwards over the flat terrain to create a fertile soil in which almost any crop can flourish. In appearance, the land is a vast checkerboard of paddy fields, orchards and vegetable gardens, fed by the rivers, by streams, and by a network of canals that supplies farm irrigation and freshwater fisheries, and acts as a means of transport. Food of Central Plains Central Thailand
Food of Central Plains, Central Thailand

Although the presence of Bangkok in f the heart of the Central Region has acted like a magnet to draw in regional influences, there are still many local specialties that mark out the food styles here as distinctively Central. The best rice is grown in this region, notably the hom mali, or jasmine rice, that is so highly rated as a Thai export. There are three curries typical of the region; namely, the familiar green curry (Kaeng khieo wan) to which is usually added poultry or fish; a hot curry known as kaeng phet, and a milder version called kaeng phanaeng. All are based on coconut milk.

Tom yam, the famous hot and sour soup, originates from the Central Region. There is also a creamy coconut milk soup made with chicken called tom kha kai. Yam, the tangy salads, are a Central invention. Haw mok, little banana leaf cups of a soufflé-like mix made from red curry paste, egg and coconut milk, with seafood added, are a popular snack item. Phat phet is a stir-fry with basil and curry paste. Most meals in the Central Region will include an omelets of some kind, either a plain one served with a thick sweet chili sauce, or with oysters added. There is a more substantial omelets filled with ground pork, tomato and onion, called khai yat sai.

The Chinese influence is especially strong in the Central Region. You will find it in the plain soups that usually include tofu, ground pork and green squash, in the clay pot dishes, and of course in the noodle dishes such as kuay tiaw.

Travel a little within the Central Region and you will find some real local specialties. At Nakhon Pathom, to the west of Bangkok, you will find sticky rice and coconut steamed in a length of bamboo. This is known as khao lam. You will also find it at Nong Mon Market in Chon Buri Province, near Pattaya, a roadside market about kilometer in length that is also famed for its dried fish. Chanthaburi, close to the Cambodian border, has its own noodles fried with crab meat. A distinctively flavored leaf, chamuang, grows in the forests here, and is used in curries. There is a chili paste dip from the coastal areas of the eastern Central Region, made from crab, egg, and yellow chili.

Travel southwest of Bangkok to the town of Phetchaburi and you will find khanom maw kaeng, a baked custard. There are many varieties but they are all based on mung bean, egg and coconut milk. Slightly further south, along the coast, Cha-am and Hua Hin are renowned for their seafood. Cha-am has a picturesque harbor where oysters are brought in fresh by the tremendous variety of curries created by the Mon ethnic grouping.

North
Thailand as a kingdom first began to take shape in the mountainous North, with a number of city states that eventually became a loose federation known as lanna, centred around Chiang Mai. Later, the Thais migrated southwards and Sukhothai became the first true capital of Siam. After, Sukhothai came Ayutthaya, even further to the south; and then, of course, Bangkok. The remoteness of the North meant that it functioned more as a vassal state than as and integral part of the country, and consequently kept its own traditions, language, dress, architecture and food. Food of The North Thailand
Food of The North Thailand

Because of the cooler mountain climate, there is a lager variety of vegetables than in other regional Thai cuisines, and roots and herbs have a strong presence. There are many sour and bitter flavoures, especially apparent in the soups, such as Kaeng ho, a soup made with pickled bamboo shoot.

The influence of neighboring Myanmar and Laos is a strong one in the cuisine. People of the North prefer glutinous rice to white rice, rolling it into balls with their hands, and dipping into dishes and sauces. Somtam, the spicy green papaya salad highly popular in the Northeast, is also a familiar dish in the North.

Form Myanmar come Khao soi, a curry broth with egg noodles and chicken pork or beef; and kaeng hang lay, a pork curry seasoned with ginger, tamarind and turmeric. curries are thinner in this region with the two most popular curry dishes being Kaeng yuak, made with banana palm hearts; and kaeng Khanoon, made form the aromatic jackfruit.

Sausages are a specialty. The best known is sai ua, which blends aground pork with dried chilies, garlic, shallots and lemon-grass to produce a spicy red sausage. There is also a sausage called naem maw, prepared in a clay pot with ground pork, pork rind and sticky rice, plus garlic and chili. This is eaten uncooked, the mixture having fermented to create a strong sour taste.

The North is noodle heaven, the ethnic mix of Yunnanese, Shan and Burmese having produced a seemingly endless range of kuay tiaw and khanom chin dishes. In Chiang Mai, the khao soy egg noodles eaten with chicken or beef curry and number of spicy and sour side dishes were brought in by the caravans of Yunnan Moslems. Wunsen noodles are another Chinese import; made form mung bean starch, they are a part of curries, soups and stir-fires. Khanom chin nam ngiew is soft thin rice noodles with pork rib, tomatoes and back bean sauce.

No visit to the North is complete without sampling a Khan toke dinner. The name derives form a khan, or bowl, and a toke, a low round table made of woven bamboo, plain of lacquered. Guests sit on the floor, usually watching a cultural performance, and serve themselves form the assorted dishes of northern specialties placed on the table.
Northeast
Like the North, the Northeast was also long regarded as remote form Bangkok and its direct influence. The Lao kingdoms on the other side of the Mekong River held greater sway over the region until the French drew up their Indochinese boundaries in the late 19th century, forcing the vast plateau that Thais call Isan more firmly into the embrace of Bangkok. Food of The Northeast Thailand
Food of The Northeast Thailand

Even so, the Lao influence remains powerful in that the majority of people in the region are of Lao ethnic grouping, and that the local dialect is Lao. A further strong influence is that the Khmer, from Cambodia, whose kingdom earlier extended into this region; there are many Angkor Wat period moments throughout Isan, and Khmer is the dominant dialect in parts of the lower Northeast.

The rivers that flow through the plateau do not empty into the Gulf of Thailand but veer eastwards into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and on to the South China Sea, thus depriving this region of a rich delta country.

The rivers that flow through the plateau do not empty into the Gulf of Thailand but veer eastwards into Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and on to the South China Sea, thus depriving this region of a rich delta country.

Glutinous rice is preferred to the white variety. Roasting and grilling gives a strong savory flavour to much of the food, as douse the inclusion of herbs and pickled ingredients. Chilies also tend to be used with greater gusto here, to liven up a meal that might otherwise be somewhat impoverished in terms of content.

Somtam is an art here. The green papaya is pounded in a mortar with time juice, garlic, fish sauce and a number of other ingredients. A popular style has dried shrimp, cherry tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Another has pickled field crab and very pungent fish sauce named pla ra. Eating somtam can be and eye-watering experience, and the absorbent properties of sticky rice are greatly appreciated.

Kai yang or grilled chicken, is another Isan special, the art lying in the preparation of garlic, coriander root, black pepper and fish sauce that is rubbed over the chicken before it is cooked slowly over hot charcoal. A variety of dips are served with the chicken, and sometimes a heap of garlic shavings. Lap is a kind of salad made by tossing minced meat, poultry or freshwater fish with fresh mint leaves, spring onion, lime juice, grounded dried chili, and uncooked rice that has been dry-roasted to a brown colour. Neua nam tok is another salad, using lap-like ingredients, with beef that has been charcoal-grilled so that the fat runs out: the Thai name translates as waterfall beef

An Isan meal will include a spicy soup made from lemongrass, galangal, spring onions, kefir lime leaves and chili. There are many variations, with beef tripe and liver, or chicken and tamarind leaves heading up the list of favorites. A hotpot known as chaew hawn is made in individual heated pots, the raw ingredients placed in the boiling broth by the diners.

Peculiar to the region is the giant Mekong catfish named pla beuk that can be caught only a certain time of the year, usually in May, when it is stored frozen for the restaurants that specialize in this delicacy.
South
Southern Thailand consists of a slender peninsula stretching down to Malaysia, and is dramatically different from the rest of the country in both scenery and culture. Lush jungle, craggy limestone mountains and long stretches of beach are the most familiar features of the landscape, rendered fertile by eight months of rain a year and a near-equatorial sun. Cultivated areas tend to be huge rubber and coconut plantations rather than the rice fields and orchards of other parts of Thailand.

The mosque adds its distinctive dome to the landscape, for the South is home to most of Thailand's Muslims, its largest religious minority. They are mostly concentrated in the provinces adjacent to Malaysia, where Malay is spoken as commonly as Thai. In other southern provinces such as Songkhla and Phuket, Chinese predominate.

Southern food reflects all this diversity, together with other aspects of the past when traders form India and Java sailed into the numerous ports of the peninsula. The coconut, so much part of the scenery, is used to the full, its milk thickening soups and curries, its oil for frying, its grated fresh as a condiment. Cashew nuts and pineapple also grow in volume, and form a familiar part of the cuisine.

The warm seas produce an abundance of fish, big lobsters, crabs, mussels squid, prawns and scallops, prepared simply by steaming or frying, or more elaborately by cooking in a clay pot with noodles. Southerners like their food chilli-hot, and are also fond of the bitter taste imparted by a flat, native bean called sataw.

Food of The South Southern Thailand
Food of The South Southern Thailand
A dish very typical of the South is Kaeng tai pla, a very hot curry made with fish stomach, green beans, pickled bamboo shoots and potato. Fresh turmeric turns this and many other southern curries a distinctive yellow. There is even a dish that is called simply "yellow curry (kaeng leuang), made from fish, green squash, pineapple, green beans and green papaya. With its many Malay, Javanese and Indian influences, together with its own creativity and abundance, the South Produces an extraordinary range of curries, made from just about anything.

The Chinese dish of thin rice noodles known as Khanom chin appears here in a spicy Malay style fish curry sauce, served with dishes of cucumber, pineapple, pickled cabbage and other fruits and vegetables. There is a chicken specialty known as kai betong (named after the town of Betong on the Thai-Malaysian border) that consists of steamed chicken seasoned with soy sauce and then stir-fried with green vegetables. Roti, a round flat wheat bread descended from the Indian breads, is a real southern favourite, totally assimilated into the local culture. There is a large range, including some satisfying breakfast rotis.

Coffee, grown in the South, is a popular beverage and coffee shops can be found throughout the region. In some parts, the coffee will be roasted on the premises with a charcoal-fired boiler, and served with a range of snacks that can include steamed buns filled with pork or bean paste, dumplings filled with shrimp or pork, the thick rice soup, and a form of doughnut called pa thong ko.
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