MasterChef finalist Andy Oliver gives you an insider's guide to the delights of Thailand's different food regions
One of the joys of travelling around Thailand is discovering the depth and sophistication of the cuisine and how much it varies from region to region. Here’s a quick taste:
In the capital Bangkok you can find cooking from all parts of the country, but it’s also the place to sample Thai-Chinese food. Chinese influences in modern Thai food are huge: many techniques (stir frying, steaming, deep frying, making noodles and more) are actually Chinese in origin. In Bangkok’s Chinatown there’s stir fried smoky noodles with egg, chicken and squid, spit-roast suckling pigs with skin shatteringly crisp and all manner of steamed and grilled seafood ready to reward the intrepid diner. There are so many other places to enjoy Thai-Chinese dishes across the city too e.g. grab a street stall bowl of roast duck soup with feather light prawn wontons.
When you travel to In the North the taste of the food tends to be less hot-spicy, sourness comes from small tomatoes and certain fruit or vegetables rather than from lime juice. Curries tend to be without coconut milk and rice is usually of the sticky variety. You’ll find dishes with a Burmese heritage like ‘gaeng hang lay’ made with pork, pickled garlic and lots of ginger. There are lots of relishes some made from roasted long chillies, deep fried stuffed river fish, soups with pork and young jackfruit and grilled sausages fragrant with aromatics. If you find yourself in Chiang Mai then try one of the multitude of cooking courses on offer, but be sure to request a few Northern specialties.
‘Isarn’ as the Northeast plain is known, is a huge part of Thailand not so often visited by tourists. It’s Thailand’s poorest and hardest working area with many of the people working the land, and many others moving to Bangkok or around the country to seek a living. Hence you can find little Isarn restaurants in almost any town in across Thailand.
The food is delicious but at times very spicy and very fishy from a very strong tasting fermented fish sauce called ‘pla ra’ (an acquired taste!). Sticky rice is often eaten and dishes to look out for include the hot and sour minced meat or fish salad ‘larp’, slowly grilled marinated chicken ‘gai yang’, green papaya salads and delicious sour pork sausages. If that all sounds too conventional then you can try some deep-fried insects or a curry of ant larvae!
This area is the heartland of old Siam, famous historical towns like Sukothai, Lopburi and Ayuthyia are here. The food is sophisticated, there’s huge diversity of ingredients and influence in the dishes. Many famous dishes we’ll all know have their origins in the central plains: think hot and sour soups, mussaman and green curries. There are some really spicy dishes, like the lethally hot jungle curry, and some mild ones too, like simmered coconut cream based relishes (known as ‘lons’). Both seafood and fresh water fish are loved here and sourness comes from the use of both from lime juice and tamarind. For something different: try a soup of coconut milk, ‘pla grop’ (crisp fish) and young tamarind leaves.
Once you head south you’ll find lots of coconut milk, lots of seafood and lots of chilli heat! There’s lots of fresh turmeric used, lots of shrimp paste and multiple varieties of chillies. Fruits like mango and papaya are used both ripe (in desserts and sweets) and unripe (in salads, curries and soups). There’s a big Muslim population especially down near the Malaysian border and so you’ll find roti, spiced Muslim curries and oxtail soups. For a taste of the south try a super hot yellow fish curry with big chunks of fresh pineapple or some grilled stuffed squid marinated in fresh turmeric. Preferably while sitting on a plastic chair on a beach somewhere!
Having finished an 18-month stint working at Nahm in London, Andy is currently in Thailand spending time in the kitchen at Nahm Bangkok, travelling around and eating as much interesting local grub as is humanly possible.
You can read about his latest adventures on his blog: The Cook's Broth.
Below is a selection of great Asian recipes for you to try at home.