Vegetarian Thai Food
Thailand is a small country in Southeast Asia, sharing a peninsula with Burma, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam. Like all local and national cuisines, the food of Thailand reveals a great deal about the country -- it is a palimpsest of its political history, its trade, and its geography. Thailand sits between the cultural and political powers of India and China, and its food is clearly influenced by both. Yet Thailand's food, like her people, has maintained its own distinct identity.
As with meals throughout Southeast Asia, a Thai meal has no courses. And like most cooking of the region, the Thai meal is built around rice. Southern Thai people eat long-grain rice, while the northerners favor short-grain or 'sticky' rice. Noodles, probably introduced from China, also play a role in Thai cooking. Of course, Americans usually don't realize that rice is the main course, not the side dish -- curries and other hot dishes are eaten by the Thai more as sauces than entrees, flavoring the cool rice. Meat is very expensive, and beef- or pork-based recipes often call for much less meat than would satisfy the average American carnivore. It is worth noting that the Thai eat with a spoon, fork and knife. In Southeast Asia, only the Vietnamese eat with chopsticks, so next time you'll know why your waiter in the Thai restaurant coughs when you ask for chopsticks.
Because Thailand forms a crescent around the Gulf of Thailand and the country is etched with hundreds of miles of rivers and canals, fish is a staple of the Thai diet. Fish sauce (nam pla) and/or shrimp paste (kapee) appear in nearly every recipe. The other distinct flavors of Thai cooking come from the indigenous spices and produce: coconut milk, lemon grass, tamarind, ginger, black pepper, galangal, garlic, cilantro, basil, palm sugar, turmeric, cumin, shallots, and green onions. Last but not least is the chile, a late influx into Thai cooking, having arrived with Portuguese traders early in the 16th century. The chile has become a central player and much Thai food is fiery hot.
Thai food is either stir-fried or steamed -- primarily in a wok. Some foods are grilled, but, as in the rest of the region, a lack of fuel precludes baking. Chiles and other spices are ground into powder or paste with mortar and pestle or, for the convenience-oriented cook, with a coffee grinder.
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