Guest post by Elena Stanciu.
I have lived in Thailand for over seven years now in three very different places – Koh Phangan, Khanom and Chiang Mai. I have traveled around tens of thousands of kilometers, I have eaten in hundreds of restaurants, from tiny little stalls on the streets of Bangkok to some of the top fine-dining restaurants. Thus I can pretend to know a thing or two about Thai food and various related subjects. So, here’s a list of the most important learnings I collected through the years. It will help you set your expectations correctly and enjoy the Thai cuisine to the fullest.
1.The traditional Thai cuisine has little to do with what Thai people eat nowadays. Historically speaking Thai food is healthy, mostly based on light cooking and heavily dependent on fresh ingredients – veggies, greens, and spices either from one’s garden or bought from the farmers market. Unfortunately, these kinds of dishes are available mostly in expensive restaurants which regular Thai people cannot afford to visit.
2.The eateries, the stalls, the small restaurants and all the other places where Thais frequently eat follow three basic principles of cooking: speed, price, and taste. Choosing the best ingredients is not always a priority and the most frequently used trick to flavor the food is adding MSG in all the dishes. It is a common practice, people have become dependent on the MSG-boosted taste and restaurants would go out of business if they suddenly decided to stop using the Chinese salt (as some call the MSG powder). I’ve had Thai people admit to me that food has no taste to them without MSG. In case you want to avoid it, ask whoever is preparing the food mai sai choo rot, meaning don’t add MSG.
3.Along with the MSG, cooks use plenty of sugar. Sugar is added even in the fruit juices or smoothies. Don’t be surprised when after only ten days in Thailand you go back home weighing a few extra kilos. Remember to say mai sai naam tan (don’t add sugar), and pray that they don’t.
4.Apart from all the not-so-safe ingredients, it can be fun and rewarding to eat Thai food every day for ten days or two weeks of vacation. If you spend longer here, there are plenty of chances you will end up hating rice, papaya salad, and green curry for the rest of your life. That’s because, at the end of the day, regular Thai food has all the same taste, either sweet or sour with some chili on top.
5.Lots of fresh Western ingredients are now available in Thailand due to the Royal Family projects. At the end of the 1960s, the present King’s grandmother decided to help the hill tribe people living in Northern Thailand. Her wish was to offer them a sustainable cash crop alternative to the infamous poppy fields that were spread across the Golden Triangle. Her Majesty founded The Royal Project Foundation which focused on bringing new vegetables and fruits into the country. They tested to see which ones can grow in the areas where the hill tribes lived and developed education programs for teaching people about the cultivation, conservation and so on. Due to this major project Thailand is now cultivating tea, coffee, bell peppers, zucchini, all sorts of squashes and many other plants unheard of in this country 50 years ago.
6.The fruits in this country are amazing. I am not aware how much of them are grown organically or if people use pesticides or not but I know the taste is great and there is no MSG added. If you get bored with the food, switch to fruits. The must-try ones, in my opinion, are mango, mangosteen, passion fruit and lychee.
7.Fruits smoothies are a good alternative to cooked food, especially if you are vacationing by the sea where heat is at times unbearable. Try mango + banana + passion fruit + coconut. Don’t forget what I said earlier about the added sugar!
8.Thai food is very spicy to extremely spicy. Most locals cannot enjoy food unless it’s topped up by a handful of chilies or chili paste. If you have a problem with spiciness, then try to remember to ask food mai phet. Say it a few times to the waiter, and you might be lucky enough to get something you can eat without a throat burn.
9.If you are into sweets, you won’t be pleased to know traditional Thai desserts are not widely available nowadays. A lot of restaurants serve mango with sticky rice which is a gift from heaven and banana in coconut milk. If you want more, pay a visit to the local markets where chances are to find an old lady who is preparing a traditional sweet dish.
10.The weird foods like snakes or fried crickets you see on the Food Network are not abundantly available either. Since living here, I learned Thais eat a lot of strange things, but they usually do it in the intimacy of their homes. If you dig deep into night markets, you might find a thing or two that your supermarket of choice back home will never consider putting on their shelves.