History of Thai Food
What sets Thai food apart from other Southeast Asia cuisines is the combination of sweet, sour, bitter salty and spicy tastes into unique dishes that separate Thai food from the food found in neighboring Asian countries. In addition, Thai food is found to have several different variations, depending upon the area or region of Thailand. These regions include the north, northeast, south and central. To understand the evolution of Thai food it is critical to understand the history of Thailand, as well as how Thai food has been influenced in the different regions by neighboring countries. In addition, with the emergence of Thailand as a regional economic and tourism power, the food will continue to be influenced. As a Thai food lover, all we can hope is that real Thai food will never begin loose its unique sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy taste in an effort to appeal to the masses.
The area that is now Thailand, Laos, Burma or Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam was originally settled by the ancient Chinese approximately 1,400 hundred years ago. With the migration of Chinese people into Southeast Asia, came traditional Chinese cooking techniques. Throughout the centuries, the cooking techniques continued to evolve and further regional influences began to impact the cooking mainly as a result of foreign trade, which brought in Muslim and Indian influences into the food found in Thailand, particularly the introduction of curries into the food. I have not noticed any Vietnamese influence on Thai food even though the two countries are close geographically. There is a heavy French influence on Vietnamese food however, since Vietnam or Indochina was once a French colony.
The impact of foreign trade through the Silk Road and various sea spice routes on Thai food cannot be underestimated. The Silk Road and the various sea trade routes ultimately linked Asia with Europe and vice versa. Interestingly it is thought that the introduction of chilies into Thai food was the result of Europeans. Ultimately many European nations, including the British and French had a major economic and military presence in Asia as a direct result of the spice trade and this presence was in effect until recently. Many countries in Asia were colonies of other European countries. The English presence in Hong Kong is an example. On a side note is interesting top hear a Chinese person with a British accent in Hong Kong!
Although never a colony of any European country, the area of Siam, which is what Thailand was known as in the past, was ruled by various groups within and outside its current boarders. Historically was ruled by the Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms although the area currently recognized as Thailand was ruled by a variety of kingdoms including the Ayutthaya kingdom, which is the most well known kingdom. On a side note if you ever go to Thailand be sure to visit the city of Ayutthaya, which was the ancient capital of Thailand. Here they have a number of absolutely stunning ruins of buildings and temples dating back to the ancient Ayutthaya kingdom. Although some of the structures were heavily damaged in the flooding in 2012, they are being repaired and restored.
The northeast part of Thailand was heavily influenced by the Khmer, which were from the area of what is now know as Cambodia. The northern part of Thailand was heavily influenced by the Burmese, which were from the area that is currently known as Burma or Myanmar. To a lesser extent, the Chinese also had an influence here as well, more so than other parts of Thailand. In the southern part of Thailand, the Malay people had a major impact of food. The Malay people were from the area currently known as Malaysia. In addition, there was the central region, which was influenced by the ”Royal Cuisine” of the Ayutthaya kingdom.
The area of Northeastern Thailand to this day has a heavy Khmer and Lao influence in Thai people’s lives. In fact, many Thais in this area, which is also known as “Issan”, often speak Khmer as well as Thai. Families also have relatives that live in Cambodia and Laos and travel across the border is relatively ease, except in the areas where there are border disputes over cultural sites. When traveling in Issan, the visitor will find many historical Khmer sites, which attest to the heavy Khmer influence. The food is similar as well both as far as preparation is concerned as well as the use of almost everything to make food. I know people from Surin and while they are proud to be Thai, they also consider themselves “Khmer people” as well.
The provinces of “Issan” are some of the poorest in Thailand and historically everything that is eatable is used. Insects, lizards, snakes, various pig parts, plants. One of the striking things about this regional cuisine is how just about anything eatable is used. People love to eat “chicken feet” soup, which is literally chickens feet, in a soup with a variety of herbs and spices. Issan food is found everywhere in Thailand now, especially Bangkok where many people have moved to work in the various industrial estates, where they can earn more money. Street carts offering traditional “Issan” food are very popular. Eat traditional “Issan” food in Cambodia and Laos and you will find it virtually the same.
The northern provinces of Northern Thailand to this day have a heavy Burmese influence as well as a Chinese influence. This influence is found both in the food as well as the people. I find the northern Thai food to be generally more “Chinese” like than other regional cuisines. The people here also have more Chinese like features and tend to be a bit taller as well. Chang Mai, which is near the Myanmar border, is a city not to be missed if you ever get to travel to Thailand.
The southern provinces of Thailand to this day have a heavy influence from Malaysia, which has a major Muslim presence. In this part of Thailand you find a majority of Thailand’s Muslim population as well. As a result, the food found in this part of Thailand is very similar to the food found in Malaysia, however with a unique Thai taste, due to the combination of herbs and spices. The ties to Persian and other Middle Eastern foods are evident as well.
The food from the central provinces, which is traced back to the “Royal Cuisine” of the Ayutthaya kingdom, is a more refined version of the Thai food found in other provinces. In today’s world, I believe that this is the closest thing to Thai food found in the west and is what is offered in most 4 and 5 star restaurants in Thailand. It is doubtful that you are going to find any “chickens foot” soup in one of these restaurants!
Moving forward, I think that the growth of Thailand as a tourist destination and a regional economic power could negatively impact traditional Thai food in the future. In the more popular tourist areas there are people visiting Thailand from literally all over the world. On any day you will meet people from the United States, England, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Korea, China, Russia, various countries in Africa. In short people from just about every continent on earth visit, work and live in Thailand now.
As a result you are seeing more and more restaurants offering other international cuisines pop up everywhere in Thailand to cater to both tourists and expat workers as well. It is common to see restaurants serving Japanese, Korean, Russian, Irish, English, Australian, German and other foods. There is even a Carl Junior’s burger place near where I travel. All of these places are using Thai cooks to cook the food as it would be cooked in the restaurant’s home country.
The growth of fast food restaurants such as KFC, McDonalds, Pizza Hut and other restaurants has exploded, especially in the large cities and tourist areas. Not only are the tourists and expats eating it, but Thai people are as well.
Although everything evolves over time, even food, I think there is a real danger that western food will negatively impact traditional Thai food in Thailand just as it has done to the Thai food found in the United States and other western countries. I hope one day our descendants are not reading about how western countries killed traditional Thai food!
Historically Thai food can trace its roots back to China as well as India. Other influences include its neighbors, including what is now known as Malaysia, Burma, Laos and Cambodia. Other influences were as a result of the spice trade via the Spice Road and various sea spice routes. It is the unique combination of sweet, sour, bitter salty and spicy tastes into unique dishes that separate Thai food from the food found in any other country. Lets hope it stays that way!