For the longest time in my life I recall wanting to eat a specific ethnic food by country name only--Chinese, Italian, Mexican. Then I learned about the intricacies of distinct regions and I began to enjoy distinguishing the regional cuisines that together make up these genres as a whole. Chinese food expanded into Hunan, Szechuan, Mandarin and Cantonese styles. I grew fonder of Northern Italian rather than Sicilian cuisines. From my time living in Bali I learned the differences between Javanese and Balinese cooking and grew to enjoy Singapore- and Malay-styled cooking on occasion. But until my research for this article, I was unaware of the four distinct styles of Thai cooking.
Thailand is the largest producer of rice in the world so it's no wonder that rice is the main staple of all Thai dishes. It is also the only South Asian country to never have been colonized so you don't have Western- influenced dishes such as French-inspired Vietnamese dishes or British-inspired Indian curries. Perhaps the greatest influence on Thai cuisine came from the Chinese, who have immigrated to Thailand for centuries and make up about 10 percent of the population.
According to Thailandlife.com, central region Thai food is characterized by smooth tastes with slight sweetness and is highly decorative in presentation. Rice is the staple along with many soups one finds in restaurants like tom yam kung. Other main dishes typical of the central region include Thai style omelettes, platoo (herring), fried beef and roasted pork. The northern style uses mainly locally available produce and a variety of chili sauces and sausages, all leaning more toward the salty end of the taste spectrum. In the northeastern part of the country plates are similar to the north but usually with more fried meats. The southern style of cooking tends to be the hottest in spice with the variety of curries and chiles.
When dining at a Thai restaurant you will encounter some of the same words on the menu. Knowing the basic definition of these will make your dining experience much more fulfilling. Tom refers to soups. Yam is spicy salads. Kung or koong is shrimp. Gai is chicken. Pad or pat is stir-fried or sautéed. Prick or prik is chilies. Pat refers to stir-fried while Neung is steamed. Pla is fish and nam means water or liquid. With this knowledge in hand I went for lunch at Chiang Mai Thai.
The restaurant was pleasantly full for lunch when I darkened its doors. I began my lunch with one of the biggest Thai iced coffees I've ever had and an order of fresh rolls (not fried and aptly named as they were extremely fresh). The menu had quite a few Chinese dishes and a large lunch special selection (served with rice and soup of the day) plus some standard favorites. I wanted something spicy and stir-fried so I ordered the Pad Prik King. I was overwhelmed by the freshness of the dish containing green beans, straw mushrooms, carrots, red and green bell peppers, peas, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and pork. A bite into the ginger will open your eyes wide to the flavor. Since I was eating alone I couldn't try my dining buddy's dish but I observed some fantastic looking dishes on other tables. I want to return to enjoy more of the kaffir lime and lemongrass infused dishes. The service was quick and extremely friendly--you couldn't ask for more. I now have a third Thai restaurant to enjoy in Boise.
--Bingo Barnes owns a hidden library of Chips episodes.