Asian Traditional Food Diary: Tailand

The most important of all Thai crops and principal food is rice. Kin Khao, the Thai expression for “to eat” literally means, “to eat rice”. Sudchai describes his native rice as “flexible and long-lasting” but actually what he means is that anybody who eats Thai rice is able to do all sorts of work and has a long endurance for fatigue!

In the Northeastern part of Thailand near the Mekong River, in the province of Udonthani, lies the village of Ban Nongmek. Here, our friend Sudchai Wanalerd was born fifty-four summers ago. This kind, simple man with an infectious smile remembers his childhood in this rural, quiet village where he grew up in a family of poor farmers.

“When I was a little boy,” recalls Sudchai, “I used to help my grandmother by bringing bundles of leaves to feed the silkworm. We reared the worms and the worms produced fine thread for silk.” The world-famous, gorgeous Thai silk originated in Northeastern Thailand. The village women, like Sudchai’s grandmother rear their own silkworms. They spin and dye the yarn from the silkworm. Then they use primitive handlooms to produce shimmering bolts of silk cloth for sale in far away markets. Thai silk, also called mudmee silk is a specialty of the Northeast.

The Northeast region is an arid region characterized by a rolling surface and undulating hills. The most important of all Thai crops and principal food is rice. Kin Khao, the Thai expression for “to eat” literally means, “to eat rice”. Sudchai describes his native rice as “flexible and long-lasting” but actually what he means is that anybody who eats Thai rice is able to do all sorts of work and has a long endurance for fatigue! Rice is transformed into sweets and noodles and is the central pillar of Thai life.

Other important crops are cassava, corn, coconut, kenaf, cotton, sorghum, groundnuts, soybeans, vegetables and fruits. Traditional breakfast in the village, Sudchai says, consists mainly of rice and any of the fresh garden vegetables they would gather from the field such as Tua Phak Yaaw (long green beans), Ma Kua Ted (tomatoes), Ma Kua (eggplant) Pakkad (squash), Teang Kua (cucumber), green papaya and bamboo shoots. A favorite soup dish is Som Tam, vegetables cooked with garlic, tomato, lemon and chili.

Thai food is a harmonious blend of spicy, sweet and sour. And there are also a variety of sauces and condiments. Sometimes for breakfast, there is Tofu Curry, and Pad-see Ew (flat rice noodles with bean sprouts). “We put plenty of chilies in our food” say Sudchai. True enough, the major portion of a typical Thai meal is highly spiced and burning hot! For a vegetarian, lunch is usually served with rice, clear soup, hot vegetable salad with chilies, onions, mint, lemon and more chilies!! Other favorites are Gaeng Som (hot and sour curry, with tamarind juice and vegetables, Yum Nuah (hot and spicy vegetables with lemon dressing), Poh Taek (exotic tofu dishes blended in lime juice, lemon grass broth for a hot and sour flavor). Other dishes are cooked in coconut milk, potatoes, onions, peanuts and red chilies.

There are also green, red and yellow curry made from coconut milk and spices of different colors and Satay (any entrée cooked in a mixture of spices, peanut sauce or cucumber sauce) “Dinner food is basically the same as lunch – Curries, stir-fried dishes with pepper and garlic and a wide choice of native salads made from vegetables”, says Sudchai. Sweet desserts usually follow a meal. Sudchai names some sweet favorites such as Nun Na Na, Kluay Bhuat Shee, Tom Nam Tal, Buat Man Sampalang and Ron Chong: sweets made from either bananas or cassava, sugar and coconut milk.

And then finally, fresh fruits: mangoes, durian, papaya, jackfruit, watermelon, longans, grapes, bananas, sugar apple, mangosteen, lychees, apples, rambutan and pineapple. Thailand has a history going back to more than 700 years. A constitutional monarch with a parliamentary form of government governs it. At present, Thailand is ruled by His majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej and Her Majesty Queen Sirikit. They are the longest- reigning monarchs in Thai history.

Thais are a tightly knit people with a strong adherence to tradition and a deep respect for the King. Buddhism is the national religion. And Buddhist teachings are at the root of the typical Thai villager’s life. Every village has a Buddhist monastery and temple. Sudchai says, “At the age of 18, every Thai man has to choose whether to become a monk, a soldier or go home and raise a family.”

Buddhism’s vegetarian influence is also strong. (Although many people have adapted the eating of pork, beef, chicken, ox, fish, eggs, prawns etc). Tracing Thai food history into the far past reveals that it focuses mainly on vegetables and the use of spices, aromatic plants such as sweet basil, mint, lemon grass, garlic, ginger, nutmeg, cloves, coriander, turmeric, red and green chilies, other herbs, roots and leaves to enhance the natural flavor. Today, Thai cuisine is becoming more and more popular all over the world because it is truly quite different from anything else in Asia, and the world.

To please the eye, Thai cooks pursue the ancient art of fruit and vegetable carving to transform the tables into visual feasts. Originally an aristocratic art practiced at the royal court, vegetable carving flourished throughout the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). Court ladies created flowers, fishes, vases, bowls and other decorative objects from watermelon, cucumber, tomatoes, onions, etc. Often dubbed as “the most exotic country in Southeast Asia”.

Thailand is also known for the golden-spire temples of Bangkok (capital city), Buddhist temples and monasteries, floating market, Thai classical dance, Thai classical music, earthenware, lacquer ware and pristine vacation beach paradises such as Phuket Island, Krabi and Samui Island. For our friend Sudchai however, the beauty of Thailand still lies in the memory of those pleasant summer evenings in his small forested village where houses made from Ton Mai trees were dimly lit by lamps whose oil comes from the Tom Yang tree.

Today, Sudchai works as a heavy equipment mechanic dealing with loaders, cranes, back hoes and cutters. He is married with three grown-up children. For a poor farmer’s son, Sudchai is extraordinarily well educated. He speaks English, Chinese, Laos, Indonesian, Thai and his local dialect Thai I Saan. He finished 5 years of secondary school in Winchao, Laos. Asked to give a few insights on the health benefits of his native Thai vegetable food, Sudchai simply shrugs his shoulders. He doesn’t even know what health benefit means! All he knows is that “good or not good, we simply follow what our grandmother and grandfather eat!”

Thai food is a harmonious blend of spicy, sweet and sour. And there are also a variety of sauces and condiments.

What you have in your mind?