Thai cuisine stands out on the world stage because of its masterful combination of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy flavours – an approach that sets Thai cooking apart from even its Southeast Asian neighbours.
But where does Thai food originate from exactly?
To understand the various forces that have shaped Thai food over the centuries, we need to take a time machine back to Siam (Ancient Thailand) to witness the influence of neighbouring countries and foreign cultures on Thailand.
Many elements in Thai cooking can be traced back to settlers who hailed from Ancient China around 1400 hundred years ago. “Tai” people came from the mountainous regions of southwest China (an area now called Yunnan). They spread their influence to Laos and the northern regions of Thailand, Vietnam and Myanmar – bringing their spices, herbs and traditional cooking techniques with them. Chinese influence can be seen most strongly in Thai dishes that don’t have a strong chili element, such as noodle soups, beef in oyster sauce and pork with young ginger.
Ancient China was not the only element shaping Thai cooking, there were other forces at play too.
Thai cuisine continued to evolve as a result of foreign trade.
Few people realise that Thailand was once a vibrant hub of trade where “east” and “west” intersected along various shipping routes. Early Thai food was influenced by both Persian and Arabian components, in terms of spices. The Portuguese also brought many sweet flavours and red chilli, while Buddhist monks and traders from India contributed with curry.
In fact, most of the herbs and spices used in Thai cooking came from India.
Many believe that Europeans were also behind the introduction of chillies in Thailand, since trade through the Silk Road connected Asia with Europe in major ways.
Although Siam was never colonised by any European nation, it was ruled by various groups located within and outside its borders – including the Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms. The Ayutthaya kingdom was the most recognised and their city served as the nation’s ancient capital – the ruins of which can still be appreciated for those who visit today. Some say that Thai restaurants in Western countries serve dishes that are most similar to the food eaten in the central provinces of Thailand, which have been influenced by the Ayutthaya kingdom.
The Malay people hailed from the area known as Malaysia today and they influenced food in the southern part of Thailand, while the northern provinces were largely shaped by settlers from Burma.
The Khmer and Lao people influenced the Northeastern region of the nation. Their “Issan” food can be found everywhere in Thailand now, with street carts a popular hit among the locals. Since “Issan” provinces tend to be less well off, their ingredients feature everything that is eatable, such as insects and plants.
It seems that Thai food, one of the most popular cuisines in the world, harmoniously blends Eastern and Western influences, just as it does with flavours.