Thailand has enchanted my soul since the first time I set foot there almost twenty years ago. It’s an extraordinary country where my arrival is always greeted with welcoming smiles, beautiful people, and enticing food aromas. Excitement builds as I gaze from the airplane window upon the approaching capitol metropolis, Bangkok. Fertile agricultural land surrounds the hectic city: rich green flooded rice paddies, small farms with neat rows of vegetables still thrive in these developed central plains. The newly built Suvarnabhumi airport funnels me effortlessly onto the streets for yet another culinary journey.
An elevated highway zooms directly from the airport to the city center, a spectacle of ancient city turned wild. My taxi driver lays on the horn as … more can be found within the pages of the Southeast Asian Flavors book.
How one eats can be as important as what one eats in defining a culinary experience. It is not only the utensil that matters, but also how foods are assembled. Traditional styles of service can say a lot about a place.
Westerners often incorrectly assume that Asians eat all their food with chopsticks. In most parts of Southeast Asia, chopsticks are reserved primarily for noodle dishes. Those unfamiliar with Southeast Asian culture are often surprised by the unique use of the spoon and fork together to scoop up food as it’s eaten. Europeans introduced these implements, and the locals created their own style of use. The spoon is held in the dominant hand, and the other holds the fork. Once you’ve tried this ingenious method yourself, it will become quickly apparent how very practical this utensil adaptation is. Asians tend to avoid putting sharp utensils, such as forks, in the mouth. So the spoon is used to convey the food to the palate. Once, most populations in the region ate with their hands and many people still do. Just as with other utensils, there are rules when using your fingers to scoop up food. Only the right hand is used. The left is reserved for other non-sanitary functions. The four longer fingers are used to scoop as the thumb assists and then pushes the food into the mouth. The bottom part of the fingers as well as your palm should stay free of debris. Sinks are a common fixture in the dining rooms of Malay and Indian restaurants as this style of dinning is more prevalent in these two cultures.
Back to the chopsticks: There are rules. Never… more can be found within the pages of the Southeast Asian Flavors book.
Chef Danhi & decorative fruit carving on the streets of Koh Samui
Seven hundred years ago, when the ancient city of Sukhothai was the capital of the kingdom of Thailand, the art of kae sa luk (Thai fruit carving) was developed there. Legend has it that a servant preparing for the Kings celebration of the loi kratong (floating lantern festival), took some creative license to carve a flower and a bird from vegetables. Thus begun the custom of decorative carving in the king’s palace. The art form evolved to become an essential part of the royal era. Women were trained in the art, and competitions were held periodically. Decorative fruits and vegetables carved into ornate flowers and wildlife became identified with the culinary culture, and were often used as serving vessels. In the 1930s, Thai fruit carving became part of a home economics program that helped bring this royal art to all classes of society. At that time, some practitioners of the craft began carving soap also. Now, carvers work in tourist areas, creating a bounty of colorful flowers, which are sold in small decorative boxes as souvenirs. In Thailand today, cucumbers are carved into “leaves” to be dunked in dips or used to garnish food. Elaborate displays of kae sa luk vegetables and fruits still decorate tables for banquets, holidays, and auspicious occasions.
Thai Culture at the Ready
If you want to learn more about Thai culture make sure to first visit my friends at the Tourism Authority of Thailand.
To truly understand a region’s culinary arts, consider all the factors that contribute to its cuisine. Geography, history, ethnic diversity, culinary etiquette, prevailing flavors all converge to become the building blocks of its authentic food world.
Street snacks are part of Southeast Asian culture and Thailand has a category of sweet snacks known as Khanom. Probably my favorite khanom is Khanom Krok, these crusty sweet and salty coconut custards are cooked in a special pan with multiple divots. One batter (salted) is added and begins to cook to form the shell, then a second, sweeter batter is added and cover to cook slowly. Sometimes pieces of taro, corn, pumkin or scallions are use to top them. This is then cooked with the cover of to get a crisp shell with a ever so creamy coconut custard filling.
Sanuk-Thai's have fun
An underlying feeling of happiness and respect. The Thai approach to life exudes a spirit of fun that they call sanuk, not just in their social life, but woven into the fabric of who they are. It warms my heart to see Thais greeting each other with such respect, as they bring both palms together to wai. This warm salutation is accompanied with a smile and a modest bow of the head. The younger person or person of lower social or business status initiates the wai, and it is politely returned. Simultaneously they say, “sawasdee kop” (“sawasdee ka” for women) this is a greeting equivalent to “hello.” Another popular expression is “mai pen rai,” loosely translated as “it is not a problem.” They will politely say this to downplay any awkward situation. At a minimum you can wai and smile and be forgiven for most minor offenses.
I’m always mesmerized by Thailand’s vibrant flavors. They’re uniquely Thai, yet influence from neighboring cultures is unmistakable. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that … more can be found within the pages of the Southeast Asian Flavors book.