A bowl of red chicken curry sites on a table representing and answering the question what is thai food.

What is Thai Food? Where does it come from & What does it taste like?

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If there is one thing that makes any Thai proud, it’s their cuisine, and for good reason. Thai food is undoubtedly among the best in the world, which is why Thai restaurants can be found in almost every major city around the globe. Just walk down the streets of New York, London, Madrid, Sydney, or the city you’re in right now, and surely you’ll spot at least one Thai restaurant, where you’ve probably already even enjoyed their signature dishes. But if you’ve never had Thai food before or just want to know a bit more about it and its origins, don’t worry —I’ve got you covered! Let’s start with the very basics: what is Thai food?

What is Thai Food? 

Primarily, Thai food is abundant, colorful, aromatic, and flavorful. Just like Japanese and Chinese food, it’s one of the most diverse, interesting, and popular foods in Asia thanks to its dominant spicy flavor and clever mix of ingredients such as chicken, seafood, noodles, and rice. Basically, it’s a food that looks, smells, and tastes like Asia. But what kind of food exactly is Thai?

What type/kind of food is Thai cuisine?

Answering what kind of food is Thai cuisine is a little tricky as it doesn’t fall under a single label because each region of Thailand has its own characteristic dishes. However, it’s true that traditional Thai cuisine encompasses four “main” categories (a.k.a types of food): tom (boiled dishes), tam (pounded foods), yam (spicy salads), and gaeng (curries).

What is Thai food similar to? 

Many people claim that Thai food is an exotic version of Chinese food, with Vietnamese hints dipped in curry and spicier Laotian elements. And yes, while Thai food has similar elements to Chinese, Vietnamese, and Laotian cuisine, they are all quite different from each other. E.g., Thai food shares rice and noodle dishes with Vietnamese food, but Thai food tends to have much stronger flavors than Vietnamese food due to the heavy use of spices while cooking.

what are thai noodle dishes What is Thai Food? Where does it come from & What does it taste like? Specialty Diets & Cuisine what is thai food

What is the difference between Thai food and Chinese food?

Although it’s true that some features of Thai food originate from Chinese cuisine, like steamed dishes, deep-fried, and stir-fries, that’s pretty much where their similarities begin and end. Both do love rice and noodles, but the key difference between Thai food and Chinese food is that Chinese food is typically far milder than its Thai counterpart.

On one hand, Thai food it’s usually spicy, and it’s cooked with small amounts of oil; on the other hand, Chinese food isn’t spicy, and it’s traditionally prepared with lots of oil. Also, Thai cuisine uses more herbs, spices, and curries than Chinese cuisine.

History and Origins: Influences in Thai Cuisine 

Thai cuisine encompasses dishes from four distinct regions: central, north, northeast, and south, but where does Thai food really come from?

Well, Thailand’s geographical location is the key point for its gastronomic influence. The area that now includes Thailand, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Vietnam was actually settled by the ancient Chinese about 1,400 hundred years ago, so it was inevitable that they would transfer some of their traditions to these territories. As I mentioned earlier, such influence can be seen in some steamed dishes or stir-fries such as pad thai (fried noodles) and Khao pad (fried rice). Even other significant influences from the 10th to the 17th century can be spotted nowadays, such as spices and curries from the Indians or chili peppers from the Portuguese. All these flavors were what laid the foundations of Thai food as we know it today!

However, overseas Thai restaurants didn’t start until the early 70s, mainly establishing in London, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles. That’s when Thai food truly spread outside of its home country, delighting millions of foodies with its flavor.

Why Thai food is so popular?

The main charm of Thai food is that the same dish can be sweet, salty, and spicy at the same time. This, which at first tends to shock those unfamiliar with Thai food, is what makes Thai food enthusiasts fall in love with it and sets it apart from dishes of other Asian cuisines. I mean, the layered flavors just taste really, really good! Plus, Thai food presents itself as a healthy alternative to what one mostly sees on the streets (fast food, full of fat and lacking in beneficial nutrients) thanks to the use of many vegetables and herbs, and spices with beneficial properties.

Can you find authentic Thai Food in the US?

There are about 5,342 Thai restaurants in the US alone, so it’s no surprise that most of them serve American Thai food, not traditional Thai food.

But in the midst of such prominent Americanization that changes flavors and even eliminates them, can you find authentic Thai Food in the US? Absolutely! In order to make your hunt easier, allow me to introduce you to a wonderful tool: the Thai Select Certificate, which is basically a rating system for authenticity, the key to traditional Thai food, designed to help you find authentic and flavorful Thai restaurants. On their website are all the restaurants that meet their standard, so feel free to check it out!

cooking thai food at home in a wok What is Thai Food? Where does it come from & What does it taste like? Specialty Diets & Cuisine what is thai food

Is Thai food hard to cook

Although Thai food involves a significant mix of flavors, don’t let this intimidate you. Quoting the words of internationally acclaimed Thai chef Ian Chalermkittichai, “wok-fried dishes are like making sandwiches in Thailand, and Kao pad (fried rice) is just leftover rice tossed in a hot pan with garlic, onions, fish sauce, and a few slices of meat topped with cilantro, cucumber slices, and a squeeze of lime juice.” So no, Thai food is not thaaaat hard to cook.

That being said, sometimes it can be a bit tedious depending on the dish. That’s why I highly suggest that if you want to get into Thai cooking, first learn about herbs and spices, then practice the art of balancing flavors and finally, learn how and with what utensils the Thais cook. That way, you’ll have a good general idea of how to nail that delicious Thai dish you have in mind!

What Does Thai Food Taste Like?

The flavor of Thai food can be summarized in one general word: rich. Of course, not all Thai restaurants serve rich Thai food. It all depends on how they cook it and how well they balance its 4 true main flavors.

The Main Flavors of Thai Food

If a restaurant really wants to nail traditional Thai recipes —or if you want to do so in the comfort of your own kitchen—, keep in mind that you have to balance its 4 main favors:

  1. Spicy
  2. Salty
  3. Sweet
  4. Sour
  • Bonus “flavor” (it’s actually a texture): Creamy

This is what authentic Thai food is! You’ll find at least two (sometimes all four) of these in every Thai dish, but what makes this cuisine so interesting and unique is the fact that while one flavor may be dominant, the others won’t disappear. Remember: it’s all about balance!

spicy thai shrimp curry What is Thai Food? Where does it come from & What does it taste like? Specialty Diets & Cuisine what is thai food

Popular Ingredients used in Thai Cuisine

At this point, you may be wondering, “I am attracted by its flavors and variety, but… What is Thai food made of?” and the truth is that it’s made of many different ingredients, but its most characteristic and popular ingredients are:

  • Rice, the basis of almost all Thai dishes.
  • Noodles, a must in any Thai pantry.
  • Fish and seafood such as shrimp, prawns and white fish, representative ingredients of Thai cuisine (besides fish paste).
  • Curry paste, a vehicle for flavor.
  • Coconut milk, to balance the flavors of spicy dishes or to enhance flavors.
  • Chili and Galangal (lesser ginger), staples of Thai cuisine.

Plus, it’s well known that Thais love herbs and seasonings, so ground turmeric, curry powder, cumin, lemongrass, and palm sugar will always be present in your dishes.

Why is Thai food so spicy?

Believe it or not, Thai food used to be spicier! But over the course of the years, some dishes have been toned down a bit. However, spiciness still dominates Thai cuisine, and this is due to several possible factors. One is that because Thailand is located in the tropics, parasites and intestinal bacteria tend to be more present, and spice in large quantities helps to reduce them. Another one is that spice helps preserve food longer, especially in humid environments like the tropics. And the last factor, which I believe to be the truest, is that it’s simply the spiciness that makes Thais feel good. Ever since they started experimenting with chili peppers introduced to them by the Portuguese, spice has been present in their dishes, and, well, they love it! We all need to spice up some things in our lives, don’t we?

crispy thai shrimp curry bowl What is Thai Food? Where does it come from & What does it taste like? Specialty Diets & Cuisine what is thai food

What are some popular Thai Dishes?

Among the most popular Thai dishes are Pad Thai, which is stir-fried noodles with prawns, soybeans, tofu, eggs, and peanuts, Tom Yum Goong, which is a soup of juicy prawns, fish sauce, lemongrass, shallots, chili and lime juice, Tom Kha Gai, a chicken-based soup with lemongrass and coconut milk, Gaeng Ped Gai, which is red curry with chicken (Thai food = the curry experience!), and Mango Sticky Rice, which is basically sticky rice with mango.

Authentic Thai food is worth trying! 

Thai food is, without a doubt, a great world of flavors waiting to be discovered, very different from what you may be used to, absolutely special, and 100% delicious. Believe me, once you try it, if you haven’t already, you will be left thinking, “how is it possible that I lived x years of my life without tasting this explosion of flavors?!” Give it a try. It will surprise you for sure!

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