What I learned from living and eating in Thailand
Western Thai food is most commonly considered fast food or takeaway. Having lived and embraced Thai culture, I wanted to challenge that notion.
Thailand, Chiang Mai specifically, feels like a second home to me. I lived there when I was much younger and in adulthood I find myself constantly missing the culture and the organised chaos which fills the large South East Asian country's streets. A large whack of Thailand's culture has merged into western culture as well. In general, this tends to be a subtle reminder of the country's prominence in the western world. But I have found that, in most cases, Thai food in the west is often a negative experience. I wanted to delve into exactly why that may be.
The fondest memory I have of Thai food is also the simplest dish in Thai cuisine. Thai scholars believe Massaman curry originates from the Persians, more specifically Sheik Ahmad Qomi, during the 17th century in Ayutthaya (Thailand's original capital and home to the royal family). There isn't any direct translation of the word Massaman in the Thai language, but the word is commonly associated with the word Muslim, with scholars believing that originally the curry was called Mussulman curry.
The first time I tried Massaman curry was in a village on a mountain, deep in the jungle of northern Thailand and quite close to the Golden Triangle (an area associated originally with the production of opium and smuggling due to its proximity with the Mekong River, which flows through Laos, Cambodia and eventually into the Mekong Delta). I was in the village with friends from school, who had all come to Thailand to participate in an education programme. The programme included much needed aid work in areas which were affected by asylum seekers from neighbouring and war torn countries (such as Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Pakistan). Many of the villagers had been displaced decades prior by the Vietnam war and the subsequent civil upheaval it caused in the area.
The village, while very small, already had a Christian aid group attached to it temporarily (which we were not part of). We were guests of the Buddhist temple. As a result, the Buddhist monks, who were grateful for our help, would cook for us each night. The first night we were there we were served a beef Massaman curry with steamed greens, using local produce which many of the villagers had farmed themselves kilometres away in the valley. That Massaman curry was the single most delicious one I had ever had in my life. It was so much so that I've seldom been able to have it here in Australia and enjoy it.
I tend to feel like the food was so good because we were hungry and exhausted each day from working labour, either with the villagers or building much needed infrastructure. But at the same time, the meat was farmed from livestock which lived in open large spaces with plenty of natural feed, and the vegetables were fresh. The paste was made from crushed local spices, combined with oil. The curry was also cooked over a fire in a large wok.
Thai people cook absolutely everything in a wok. The wok itself isn't a Thai invention. Many Thai families have Chinese heritage because during the early 1900s, China experienced multiple civil wars which drove the Chinese to migrate down the Mekong. The wok is Chinese and was brought to Thailand during that migration. The same goes for dishes which we typically class as either Thai or Vietnamese, such as spring rolls and Khao Man Kai (Hainanese chicken). The Chinese have also imparted many of their cooking techniques on Thai culture, such a deep frying and using chopsticks as a cooking utensil.
The point of using a wok to fry and cook is the even distribution of heat on the bottom of the pan and the cool sides, giving you the ability to move ingredients on and off the heat as required. Thai cooks move ingredients to the cool edge of a wok when they rest them and continue cooking in the centre of the pan where there is a higher amount of heat.
It's probably worth giving a quick lesson on how to identify a Thai curry in comparison to any other curry on earth. It's a lesson that stuck with me for years and allowed me to perfect how I cooked different curries. I was taught to identify against an Indian curry (probably because the Indian curry is the second most popular type of curry on earth). Very basically, there are two main identifiers for a Thai curry.
The first are the spices. Thai curry uses fresh chilli (or peppers if you're in America), along with combinations of lemongrass and other fresh ingredients to achieve its heat. An Indian curry on the other hand will rely on things such as cumin and turmeric.
The second is the how the sauce achieves moisture. With Thai curries, moisture is added after stirring a paste through cooked meat and vegetables, and then adding coconut cream or milk (most classically milk because Thai curry in its original form is quite soupy). An Indian curry however usually has water added to it.
Thai curry will normally have a very creamy and almost dairy quality about it, whereas Indian curries are much more 'gravy'-based. That same coconut sort of taste and quality flows quite commonly through Thai food with Tom Kha Kai (Thai coconut soup) and Miang Kham both relying on coconut for flavour.
There are a couple of surprising things about Thai food. Classic bread served with curry such as Roti is highly unusual in Thailand. Roti is an Indian invention, and is used instead of cutlery. Because Thai food is much more akin to a soup than a stew or gravy, Thai cooks have classically relied on another Chinese import as a utensil, the duck spoon (or the Chinese porcelain spoon).
Another one is the Satay chicken skewer, or Sate as it's known in South East Asia. Satay, while enjoyed in Thailand today, was not originally Thai at all. It was an Indonesian dish that, in much the same way as most Chinese dishes, migrated to Thailand and was sold by merchants.
Thai restaurants in Australia
There are a few restaurants, chefs and eateries in Australia who stay quite true, or better still, have improved on classic Thai dishes. Most recently, Asian Fusion eateries have been extremely popular in Australia and you might find yourself stumbling upon a near perfect Thai dish.
An example of this is the Duck Red Curry at Sum Yung Guys in Noosa, Queensland. I visited Sum Yung Guys for the first time this year, and it has become a favourite. The Duck Red Curry really does exemplify the Thai's true balance between the creamy and sweet (coconut) and heat (chilli).
Melbourne's Chin Chin provides a fantastic Pad Thai which builds on the basics, with incredibly fresh ingredients, perfectly-cooked chicken and a great noodle.
If you really do want a truly Thai experience, go to Thailand. Visit the north, Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai or even further to Chiang Saen. Don't be afraid of eating on the street either. Street food can be daunting, but if fried off properly it tends to be a hidden treasure. There was one specific hidden local food mall in Chiang Mai which I always get to when I'm in town. It's called the Kalare Night Bazaar and it sits adjacent to Chiang Mai's famous night bazaar. Admittedly you do need to search for it, but once you find it you'll understand why it's worth it.
Thai cuisine is so much more than a Friday night takeaway dish. Once you've experienced the real deal, you'll understand Thai cuisine is something really special to the Thai people. It takes technique, skill and in most cases an inherent passion for the food. And having spawned much higher-end western sensations like Asian Fusion, when done properly it can be some of the best food on earth.