Thai cuisine emphasizes on lightly prepared dishes with strong aroma, colorful to look at and spicy in taste. Balance, variety and detail are of essence in Thai dishes. The five fundamental flavors in these dishes are spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. Thai cuisine has distinct styles based on its geography. Regionally you have the Northern, North Eastern or Isan, Central and Southern styles of cuisine. Traditionally you have a single large dish and rice or a main dish of rice and several smaller dishes.
The Jay Tradition
Vegetarian Thai cuisine has definite roots in Thai culture and is not new or just as an alternative offering to the vegetarians the Jay tradition of vegetarian cooking existed in Thailand for a long time. Thai Jay restaurants can be found in every city and offer an assortment of ingredients like chili, garlic and onion based dishes. During religious and ceremonial traditional times almost all Thais observe Jay style of meals.
Thai cuisine uses sauces and pastes generously to enhance the hot taste of foods generally and also to lend sour and spicy tinge to the food. Fish sauce (Nam pla) is almost universally used in Thai cuisine, but other vegetarian equivalents like sweet chili sauce or the spicy chili sauce (Nam phirk) or the sriracha sauce can be used just as easily. Man phirk is a type of chilie paste or sauce that is used in dipping vegetable. Nam phirk pao is a sweet rasted chili paste that is often spread on bread. Apart from these, a slew of soy sauces are also used like Dark soy sauce (si-io dam), light soy sauce (si-io khao) and fermented soy beans sauce (taochiao).
Thai cuisine acquires it distinct aromas from a blend of herbs used in its cooking. Prime among them is the Kaffir lime leaves, whose typical flavor accompanies almost all thai soups and curries. Others are the Thai lime (Manao), Galangal (Kha), Turmeric (Kha min), garlic and lemon grass.
Among the vegetables are varieties of eggplant (some of them are eaten raw), broccoli, cabbage (Phak kat khao), yard long beans (thua fak yao), bean sprouts (Thua Ngok), bamboo shoots, tomatoes, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and corn. Mushrooms are also used, the most common being straw mushrooms (het fang), angel mushroom (het nang fa).Shi take mushrooms (Het hom) are all the rage recently and are available in dried form or fresh.
Fruits are generally served after a meal. Integral to most meals are papaya, mango, jackfruit, langsat, longan, pineapples, or durian. These are usually added to a salad or dessert.
Pumpkin and coconut milk are often paired to make for excellent soups, curries and sweet desserts. Popular amongst the Thai meals are clears soups with tofu, noodles, cabbage and garlic like Gang jued tofu or a sour and spicey soup like Tom yum puck.
Rice is a foundational food of Thai cuisine. The fragrant jasmine rice, gives the dishes an otherworldly aroma just like that of roasted popcorn or nuts and has a soft texture when eaten alone. Curries, stir fry and other dishes are combined with rice creating a single dish called Khao rat kaeng. In dishes like fragrant curries and stir fried vegetables, rice is often a core element. Another variety commonly used is the sticky rice and that is used in rural northern and northeastern cuisine. Another major food stuff are the noodles made from rice flour (Kuai tiao), wheat flour, or mung bean flour (Wunsen) which is an extremely thin noodle.
The main dishes include Rice dishes, Curries; Stir fried vegetables, salads and desserts. Some of them are, vegetarian khao pat (fried rice, Thai style), Kuai tiao nam (rice noodle soup served spicy condiments and vegetables), Mikrap (deep fried rice vermicelli) and others. The curries from the south region are coconut milk based and with turmeric whereas northern dishes are tinged with lime like Chok (rice porridge) and kuai tiao rat na (fried rice noodles).
A sweet snack or fresh fruit is a fine way of completing an excellent Thai vegan meal. Rice flour and tapioca flour are used for thickening agents in the desserts. Some odd sounding but delightfully tasty desserts are jasmine scented coconut pudding or Tako, grass jelly or Chao kuai ans finally Ruammit which has nuts, fruits and coconut milk added. Iced tea or Cha yen, iced black coffee or Oliang and rice wine or Sato are sometimes served after the meal as a means of easing the evening into conversation.
To the unenlightened, Thai cuisine may appear to be about meat, meat and more meat but the discerning will see that Thai cuisine has a strong vegetarian cooking tradition that goes far beyond western fast food variety of Thai restaurants.