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You’d better believe that when I first sat down to write about the epicness that is North East Thailand the first word that leapt out of my fingers was FOOD.
Have we met? My name’s Alice and I’m a food addict.
I went to Thailand with a fairly open mind about what I’d find there food-wise. I’m not that well-versed in the culinary offerings of Thailand save for a slight obsession with chicken satay; my go-to takeaway when I’m at home is Indian and though living on the Kingsland Road in the late 2000s gave me a fairly good Vietnamese food education I hadn’t ventured further through Indochina to Thailand (Banana Tree doesn’t count). I was excited to see what I’d discover.
The very first bit of Thai food to cross my lips was post-massage. It was 9am, I’d arrived at our hotel three hours earlier, had snoozed for 30 minutes and been whisked off to the spa of the amazing Grande Center Point Terminal 21. After the most amazing pummeling I’ve ever had we were greeted back at the reception of the spa area with this plate of deliciousness – fresh mango with rice cooked in coconut milk, served with a cup of jasmine tea. I’ve already tried to re-create it and while it was not quite as pretty it was very very delicious.
The Thais are big fans of nose-to-tail eating, making sure they use each and every part of the animal (quite rightly!). Yet while at home I will happily munch my way through black pudding for breakfast, eat chicken liver pate for lunch and pop bone marrow in my evening stew there were some things here that were just a bit too real for me. Like the delicious beef curry you can see up there with added gelatinous… bits. Deliciously beefy for sure but the texture was something I was quite unused to. Or the green curry in the picture immediately above , which came with cubes of cooked chickens blood that were the texture of liver. Kind of freaked me out. It’s funny, what we’re used to!
You can’t deny this way of cooking brings so much more flavour to the Thai dishes, though. They’re huge fans of using bones and fat in the cooking of their meat recipes, as well as shells and heads in the fish ones. The result is an array of beautiful dishes that surpass anything, literally anything I’ve tasted in this country. Well worth the odd crunch of bone if you ask me ;) If you haven’t picked fish bones out of your teeth mid-chew, you haven’t lived. And you can quote me on that.
Thai cooks do two things exceptionally well in my opinion. Firstly, the deep fried food. Both of my absolute favourite dishes were deep fried and they were all so light and healthy-tasting. Every fried dish comes with a counterpart salad (mostly a spicy green mango salad) which, when paired with the fried meat or fish cuts beautifully through. My absolute favourite was the deep-fried catfish which is kind of ‘spun’ to create an incredibly light batter. Absolutely beautiful, I could eat it for every meal. My second favourite was the Thai ‘chicken nuggets’ (you can take the girl out of England…) which were cooked in a light, almost tempura-like batter and served with a super-spicy sweet chilli sauce.
The second dish we all adored (and ate at almost every meal) were the creamy, spicy broth-based soups. Served at the table bubbling away on a flame they very often still contained prawn shells, lemongrass, herbs or bones, which led to the soup having the most wonderful depth of flavour.
Speaking of flavour, let me tell you a little bit about SPICE. I am not a spice or chilli girl, not at all, and historically anything hotter than a Chicken Tikka Masala would have me making a fuss. But something seemed to happen to my taste buds in Thailand and they did a massive 360 – not only did I eat the food that was so spicy it could blow my head off, I really bloody enjoyed almost having my head blown off. Because the thing is, the food we ate had such depth of flavour that it was so easy to appreciate the spice and chilli as a part of that depth. In my very favourite duck red curry for example (you can see my replication here, for which I gave myself a massive pat on the back ;) there were just about a million flavours. Duck, tomato, lemon grass, kaffir lime, coriander, garlic, galangal, pineapple, coconut, chilli… and you could taste them ALL!
It was a bit of a revelation for me, to have this big flavour door opened by some chilli and herbs. On return to the UK I participated in the traditional UK welcome home ceremony of Fish and Chip Friday at the pub and my food just tasted terribly bland. Which, funnily enough, is something that cropped up over and over again when the Thai people I met who had visited England discussed British food.
The very next day I ran out to my local Asian supermarket, bought a big bottle of Sriracha and have been sticking it on my scrambled eggs ever since.
Another favourite of mine was the ‘sun-dried’ meats. We had pork and beef served this way which almost surprised me – I assumed most meats would come in curries. The meat had been marinated in herbs and spices and then dried for an extended period of time and much like the fried foods served with a light salad. Just awesome.
Oh and FYI the Thais go in for Pork Scratchings as a snack as much as we do but beat us hands-down in a taste test.
I think my favourite meal was the one cooked for us at the Ban Arlue village – a 1000 year old settlement. There they cooked for us dried chicken (YUM!), egg omelette, cauliflower in oyster sauce, chicken broth, mango salad, sticky rice and rice with banana wrapped in banana leaf.
I might be crazy but I loved eating a really spicy curry for breakfast. Nothing wakes you up like getting a chilli sweat on pre-8am with the only downside being that I always inevitably ended up spilling the curry sauce down myself. Other options for breakfast (above) included a wet rice dish with options of toppings like ginger and spring onions and tons of fruit, and western options like toast, ham and cheese for us tourists.
Pudding was pretty much always a beautifully carved platter of fruit: watermelon, pineapple, mango, papaya, guava. We were always so full up on curries and soups that some light fruit was welcome.
Supermarket fast food in Thailand is that little bit cooler than England. It’s so uniformly teeny tiny and colourful! Also – Collon and Big Sheet. LOL.
There was a large supermarket close to our hotel in Bangkok which was gorgeous – a lot like Whole Foods over here. But the real fun came from the 7-11s that can be found absolutely EVERYWHERE. It was so colourful and friendly. Funnily enough Tesco can also be found all over Thailand (it’s ‘Tesco Lotus’ over there) and is Tesco’s second largest international business. You literally can’t escape it.
I have to admit to eating a McDonald’s on my last night in Bangkok with Laura. You know how it goes, you have a few beers, spend the evening putting the world to rights and all of a sudden you’ve ran out of time for dinner. And so we headed for the golden arches and it was AMAZING. My double cheeseburger was so much tastier than in the UK’s version (I put it down to more flavourful beef and an extra slice of cheese) and the chips were tastier, too. Sorry, taste buds.
Needless to say I’ve been totally obsessed with Thai food since I returned home. I’ve cooked a couple of curries from scratch plus a pretty good Pad Thai and though it’s not quite as good, I think I’m nearly there. Speaking to some of our Thai translators on our travels I was wondering why the green and red curries at home taste no-where close to those in Thailand. According to her we just don’t use the right ingredients and there’s definitely something in that – you will never re-create the many layers of flavour using a manufactured curry paste and that where’s the taste lives.
My local Asian supermarket has been amazing in terms of the ingredients they offer and I’ve been researching authentic recipes to get a real handle on how to make Thai curries. My cupboards are now bursting with palm sugar, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and sweet Thai basil. So delicious.
I feel like discovering the food of Thailand has been a real journey for me; it doesn’t end here. Next on my bucket list will be a cookery course somewhere in Thailand so I can come home really knowing how to re-create these incredible dishes.
I travelled to Thailand courtesy of TAT.