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Wednesday, 21 October 2015

What Makes Thai Food, ...well, Thai ? - Pt.1.





Eating Thai food is a wonderful way to spend a mealtime, but, what gives it that unique Thai character? What gives those certain dishes you love, their piquancy, their mind-blowing hotness, their unique spicy flavour?

In most countries in the World, Foods are prepared differently, from suburb to suburb, district to district, province to province, and state to state. This is one reason why, when you come to Asia and ask for, say, Fried Rice, the shopkeeper either gives you a blank stare, a plate full of something you have never seen before, or his/her local version of what he/she thinks you mean. This happened to me. It happens to many people. When I first met my wife, Penny, she asked me what she could cook for me. I said, "Oh, fried rice will be good, if that's OK?" What I got was a Thai fried rice, which had only one thing in common with the 'American fried rice' I was familiar with - rice!

When I was young, in Australia, Fried Rice became popular in the 1960's when many Chinese people migrated to Australia. Asian cooking was frowned upon for many years - "It's not meat and three veg'." People were reticent to even try Asian food. Then, in my opinion, the Chinese started to think. They then called their fried rice, 'American Fried Rice'. They added some Carrot, Peas, Challots a few Prawns, and used cooked and refrigerated rice, which isn't as 'gluggy' when it's re-cooked. They trimmed-down the Chili factors in their foods, and arrived at a range of various foods, like Honeyed Prawns, Chicken Chow mein, Sweet and Sour Pork, and many others. I am even very sure, that some of the dishes you would buy in a Chinese take-away, could not be found anywhere in China! One big factor in this emergence of Asian flavour in the Australian diet, was also the fact, that Australians began to travel to Asia. In the 1960's and 1970's, some were forced to travel - through commitments in Vietnam. These were also frequent visitors to places like Thailand. Do you still remember packets of McCormick's, Rice-a-Riso? Just add a chicken.

These new tastes were favoured by the Aussies, and so the introduction of Asian flavours to these established foods, could now begin - albeit slowly. Then, with the advent of the expansive Policies of the Australian Government, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Malaysian, Indian, Philipina, and many Thai people, started to migrate and bring their flavours and dishes with them. Australia now has, a very eclectic menu, indeed. Nowadays, I am sure there would be an Asian meal, or two, eaten each week, in most households, and rice is not just an 'Asian' food. As one comedian. Steve Wright, said; "Rice is a great food, when you want 2000 of something!"

So, it is with many dishes around the World. Curries from Madras are very different to those from Bombay. Kuay-tiao Rad Na in Khon Kaen, would be, probably, very different to the same soup, in Nakhon Si Thammarat. I am also very sure that climate has something to do with the differences, too. Sourness is favoured in some areas, and sweetness in others. Saltiness in some areas, blandness in others. Vive le différence!

So, could you tell the difference between Khao Manh Gai (Hainanese-style Rice with Chicken) cooked in Bangkok, and Khao Manh Gai, cooked in Hat Yai? Maybe, after five years in the Kingdom, I could. Invariably, its something very minor which is different and which 'gives the game away'.

It's called regionality. Regionality describes that subtle, or slight differences in the 'way' someone in Bangkok prefers their Khao Manh Gai, to the way someone in Hat Yai prefers theirs. Even the way they say it is different, too! It's the same with Countries. I have tasted Thai cooking in Australian Restaurants, and, sometimes, I can't pick that regionality, because the cook has prepared the dish for an 'average' palate. He/she has cooked it for an Australian palate. Naturally, if he/she had known who they were cooking for, it would be different. I suppose, now, that style would be called Australian-Thai?

For instance, my wife Penny would know whether a Thai person would, naturally, prefer a sourness to a curry, or a sweetness, a saltiness, or a particular style of curry, simply based on where they came from - even from their accent. Sure, this is a little presumptuous, but most Asians will attempt to please all palates with their cooking - if they know in advance. I've seen Penny put a little of the main meal aside, to add a special spice 'only' to that serving, not because she was asked to, but because Penny knew her sister liked it that way. Her sister being from the North-East. Another example is, I have a friend, Rajendra, in Suva, Fiji. He was Indian by descent. His mother, Latchmi, always ate a sour-style curry and would never eat the sweeter , northern curry. She liked the lemony flavoured, more sour-style.

...to be continued in ... Pt. 2


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Roberto.