Thailand has a unique, well-defined cultural identity. Wandering through Bangkok, one is never far from a wat (temple) or stupa (dome structure containing Buddhist relics). Thailand is exceptional among its southeast Asian neighbours for never having been colonised by a Western power. While others succumbed to Portuguese, Dutch, French and British pressures, Siam played the colonialists against one another, signed trade treaties but remained fiercely independent.
Understanding the Thai people provides much insight into the continuing success of the country and the city. The Thais, who make up about 75% of the total population, are industrious, conscientious and resourceful; many have ancestral ties to the Chinese. Pure Chinese, mainly from the southern provinces of China, compose over 10% of the population. This strong link to China offers many opportunities to gain from the larger country’s phenomenal growth. The solid Buddhist tradition also connects Thais to other Asian countries such as Korea and Japan, both with very strong Buddhist backgrounds. Bangkok, as the most important commercial and political city for Thailand, is the centre stage in which key events and actions take place.
OVERVIEW OF THAI CUISINE
Thai cuisine is generally divided into four regions. First is the Central Plains, which includes Bangkok, a rich and fertile river delta known as the jasmine rice capital of the country. Jasmine rice, the fragrant long-grain variety indigenous to Thailand, is a staple that is typically served at every meal. Fresh seafood is also a prominent feature of the Central Plains’ dining table as most of the region borders the Gulf of Thailand. Eggs are also widely favoured and enjoyed in various ways including omelettes, fried and served on top of rice or within a stir-fried dish. Noodles are extremely popular and a flavourful rendition is ‘boat noodles’ made with rice noodles served in dark beef broth.
The second cuisine is Northern Thai which includes the largely mountainous region of Chiang Mai, and features bitter flavours and root vegetables such as acacia leaf and small eggplants. Sticky rice is often preferred over jasmine rice and flavours are generally robust. With a strong Burmese influence, many of the dishes use a greater quantity of onions, garlic and ginger compared to the south. Northern Thailand is famous for its wide variety of delicious spicy sausages.
The third type of Thai cuisine is Northeastern, also called Isaan. This is the least fertile and the poorest region of Thailand, which historically was more aligned with the Lao rather than the Thai kingdom. With strong Lao and Khmer influences, Isaan cuisine is heartier with more meat dishes. Grilling and roasting are common cooking techniques and the grilled meats are served with a variety of spicy and flavourful dips (naam jim).
Finally, Southern Thai cuisine, covering 14 provinces, is located along the peninsula that is shared with Malaysia. The diverse geography includes flat plains along both coasts, as well as rainforests. This region has abundant natural resources including rubber, tin and coconut. Various influences make its cuisine a hodgepodge of culinary delights combined with local ingredients like coconut. The large Chinese population has incorporated stir-fried dishes, barbecue pork and noodles as mainstays of the diet. In addition, the region blurs the culinary boundaries between Thailand and Malaysia. Fish curry, similar to the style enjoyed in Malaysia, can be found here as well as favourite Malay snacks such as fresh roti and fluffy wheat bread, often consumed with curries or stuffed with savoury or sweet fillings.
FOOD AND DINING CULTURE
While every Asian country can lay claim to being the most food-obsessed, the Thais have incorporated their philosophy in their everyday language. Food is so important that common expressions use food analogies: mai kin sen literally means not eating noodles and is used when two people have fallen out; sen yai means big noodle and refers to a VIP or important person.
Food and eating are important parts of the Thai culture that have evolved over time to reflect the numerous influences from other countries: from China comes a fondness for noodles and quick stir-fry cooking methods; from India, a profusion of spices; from Cambodia and Burma, rich stews and from Portugal, the all-important chilli and other key food ingredients. With a strong love for food, Thais have embraced new ideas over the past several centuries and adopted the best parts into what evolved into Thai cuisine. Although the Thais have liberally borrowed from other food cultures through the centuries, its essence has not changed over the past century. It is a communal, rice-based experience with a focus on fresh, flavourful ingredients and harmony of intense flavours. A typical family meal will include soup, curry, vegetable, fish or seafood and sometimes a meat dish.
Three key components of Thai cuisine place it apart from other Asian cuisines: first, the generous use of fresh, raw vegetables and herbs, the most common of which include kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, coriander and Thai basil. Second, the sheer intensity and sharpness of all the key flavours – sweet, sour, spicy and salty. Nearly all of these essences are incorporated into Thai dishes, whether it is a simple yam (salad), a stir-fried noodle or a curry dish. Third, despite the elevated intensity, each dish retains its own balance and harmony of flavours. Thai salads, for example, can bring together myriad characteristics including a tangy sweetness from unripe fruit, sour flavours from lime, salty tastes from fish sauce, citrusy herbal notes from lemongrass, coriander and mint and spiciness from red hot chillies.
WINE AND CENTRAL THAI CUISINE
Pairing Thai food with wine goes beyond the usual challenge of matching wines in a communal dining setting with intensely flavoured dishes. It has strong flavours and distinct fragrances from the abundant use of fresh herbs and thus, can often overpower the aromatics of wine. Wines with sufficiently vibrant fruit and intense aromatics are optimal. In addition, high levels of tart and sour flavours in the salads, relishes and even soups, which are part of every meal, require wines with very firm acidity.
Chillies are used in nearly every dish or are closely at hand, often found floating in the ubiquitous phrik naam plaa (fish sauce). This intensely salty and spicy combination makes pairing red wines with Thai food especially challenging. Given this and the relative lightness of the dishes, numerous white wines are ideal. However, restaurateurs specialising in Thai food lament the fact that the vast majority of wines ordered are red. There are many light to medium-bodied red wines with fairly high acidity that can pair well with Thai food but the styles favoured by many locals are often full-bodied, tannic red wines.
The sweet flavours in many of the dishes on the table means off-dry and even chilled medium-sweet wines can work well. Rieslings from Germany, off-dry Chenin Blancs from the Loire, late harvest aromatic whites from Alsace all have the essential ingredients to balance Thai food: very firm, crisp acidity, intense fruit characteristics, relative lightness in body and an element of sweetness that can echo the sweet flavours in the food. These wines are served chilled that give them refreshment value and can offer a cooling, balancing effect on a burning tongue.
WINE AND BEVERAGE CULTURE
Given the climate and the spicy cuisine, plain water is the beverage of choice. Fruit juices are delicious, refreshing and quell the heat of the spices and have always been popular – from fresh young coconut to sugar cane to pineapple to mango. With an abundance of fresh fruits, Bangkok has juice vendors in nearly every corner with sweet fruit that are also often sold blended with ice.
The tea and coffee culture is well-established since locally grown tea leaves and coffee beans are traditionally grown in parts of northern and southern Thailand. Coffee beans, mostly Robusta, have long been cultivated in southern Thailand; in addition, the hilly regions in the north are becoming known for their good quality Arabica harvests. Traditionally, local coffee is consumed simply by pouring hot water over a cloth bag filled with ground coffee beans. This strong black coffee is often enjoyed like black tea, with copious amounts of sugar and condensed milk.
As a devoutly Buddhist nation, religion has an influence on the beverage culture of Bangkok and the rest of the country. One of the main reasons for the high alcohol duty is to discourage alcohol consumption, in accordance with the Theravada Buddhist tenets. But in reality, Thailand has a relatively high per capita consumption of alcohol in Asia and there is a wide range of alcoholic beverages to choose from. Bangkok’s cosmopolitan residents, despite being Buddhists, have very litle reservation in enjoying beer, whiskey, spirits and wine on a regular basis.
Locally produced wines such as those from Siam Winery, Granmonte and Château de Loei, can be uncomplicated, refreshing and are good accompaniments to spicy Thai dishes. Domestic red wines take up 60% to 70% market share.
Wines made from grapes grown in these challenging conditions with dual natural harvests every year will often require careful viticultural and winemaking techniques to produce clean, fruity wines. As a result, many opt to plant at high altitudes, use severe pruning techniques to achieve one harvest rather than two and consider cool temperature at every stage of grape and wine handling. Local wineries still need to pay a 200% excise tax on wine, making it far cheaper than the nearly 400% duty on imported wines.
RECOMMENDED WINES FOR THAI CUISINE:
New World Pinot Noir
New World Chardonnay
Austrian Gruner Veltliner