The morning market experience by Maliwan Cooking Class in Bangkok had been eye opening and I had returned to school with bag full of fresh produce and learning. Thai cuisine had revealed its tantalizing secrets to me and I had learned as to what makes the delightful dishes so popular across the world. The answer had lain in the ingenious Thai mixing of very fragrant herbs with chilies and various roots. Among all of them, lemongrass is my favourite and herb lovers can know more about it here. Known for their delicate, yet intense flavour enhancing quaity, the green tips of lemongrass’s woody stalks resemble spring onions and they are used for many medicinal purposes as well. As herbs they make Thai curries and Tom Yum heavenly and medically bring relief to respiratory discomforts. Personally, I love chopping these fragrant herbs because of the aroma they emit and the stalks require snipping off at the woody bases for use.
Later the top skins need to be peeled off to reveal pale creamy interiors and the firm stalks produce pretty pink lemongrass rosettes when sliced. The entire process is very sensually complex and lemongrass form the base of most Thai dishes along with galangal, kaffir lime and garlic. This refreshing cuisine is deceptively layered and each bite of its dishes creates a full bodied flavour explosion on the taste buds. According to food expert and chef, David Thompson, Thai cuisine is not about simplicity. It is a successfully harmonious juggling of varied elements and to a Thai, complexity of their cuisine is a matter of pride. This perfection of balance is observed in nearly every Thai dish and irrespective of the regional differences, their cuisine propagates the standard. Although for most foreigners, Thai food blends into one cornucopia of tingling tastes and mouth watering aromas, the reality is that Thailand cuisine can be divided into 4 main regions.
The flat and rice producing belt of central Thailand is the home to erstwhile kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya and the capital city crowns this region. Marked by a checkerboard landscape of paddy fields, bountiful orchards, rain fed river network and canals, fertility is evident here and freshwater fisheries provide many sweet water fishes. The region has many specialties and jasmine rice produced there is deemed to be of the best quality. Curries mark central Thai cuisine and the famous green curry hails from here. Based on coconut milk, these curries are colour coded depending on their fieriness and the origin of the famous hot and sour soup Tom Yam is also traced back to the fertile plains. In fact, many of the most famous Thai dishes are from the central plains and the region’s creamy coconut milk drenched chicken soup is famously known as tom kha kai.
There are three curries typical of the region; namely, the familiar green curry (Kaeng khieo wan) to which is usually added poultry or fish; a hot curry known as kaeng phet, and a milder version called kaeng phanaeng. All are based on coconut milk. While Isan had rendered Thai cuisine with intriguing “Tams”, Central Plains have given it “Yam” or regional tangy salads. Chinese influence can be strongly felt here and central Thai plains consume many noodles and claypot dishes. Overlapping of flavours with the neighbouring countries do not end there and central plains has its own version of Cambodia’s fish amok. Served in little banana leaf cups, Haw Mok is the local seafood soufflé and it is made from red curry paste, coconut milk, egg etc. They make great on the go snacks and central Thailand is famous for really good quick eats. Omelets are a regional staple and the plains have many variations of it. Most central Thai meals include omelets of some sort and many good stir fries originate from here.
Phat Phet is one of central Thailand’s most famous stir fries and made from curry paste, basil etc, it is delightfully simple, yet delicious. Personally, I had found Thai cooking to be extremely smart and their mixing skills are simply brilliant. Stir fry is my favourite Thai dish and I find it equally easy to cook. Made from tossing in vegetables, meats, various herbs, spices and sauces in quick steps, it is the addition of sprinkling of water in phases which makes it crunchy, yet cooked in texture. Among all the recipes taught at the Maliwan Cooking Class that morning, I remember the recipe of only the stir fry with chicken and basil and coincidentally it comes from my favourite region of Thailand. I love the Central Thai plains for many reasons. It used to be the royal heart of Thailand and is home to the current capital as well. Chao Phraya river blesses it with vast alluvial plains and the Gulf of Thailand has provided it with a lovely coastline. The country’s most important archaeological sites are located here and the region has a balance of naughtiness with sublime.
While ostentatious Pattaya pushes the aesthetic boundary, quaint Kanchanaburi revives poignant World War memories amidst it’s breathtaking hilly landscape. Thailand’s most beautiful national parks (Erawan, Khao Sam Roi Yot, Kaeng Krachan) dot the region and the most touristy spots can also be found here. Lively floating markets, awe inspiring ruins and quiet pockets of rural life radiate away from Bangkok, which literally seems to be the heart of Central Plains. My home away from home, idyllic Hua Hin is also located there and I never fail to visit there on any of my Thailand trips. Family and friends make a place and Central Thailand gives me all of that. The food is famously delicious and it gets better as one goes deeper into its less explored interiors.
Thailand’s most famous dish, Pad Thai is claimed by central Thai plains as its own and Bangkok’s klongs (canal villages) deliver it’s delicious watery version of guayteow reua or boat noodle soup. The region has some very interesting specialties and they are perfect combination of overlapping of foreign and local influences. Khao Lam from Nakhon Pathom is perhaps its most delicious yet difficult to find dish and I had tasted it at Nong Mon Market near Pattaya. Made with sticky rice and coconut steamed inside whole bamboo length, it had been served with a fiery dried fish preparation and the contrast of creaminess with odorous tartiness had brought tears in my eyes. The combination nevertheless had been delicious and in spite of serious looking around, I have not yet been able to find it again. Another rare dish is Chanthaburi’s fried noodles with crab meat and I love the region’s distinct chamuang (locally found intense flavoured wild leaf) flavoured curries. Thailand’s special chili condiment “Nam Prik” finds its origin here and eastern central region mixes it with crab meat. I have explored central plains extensively on my lazy Hua Hin days and my recent visit to Kanchanaburi had helped me penetrate it further. The region has never disappointed me and even at its worst, I have enjoyed its mellow pace.
All these food memories had come rushing back to me as I had followed my trainer’s instructions and delicious smoke of frying mixed herbs had brought back beautiful moments. Green shallots had reminded me of River Kwai plains and scented lime zest had replicated the freshly cut paddy scented breeze which had blown in our hair. Those have been some very beautiful days. And set amidst river, waterfalls, ruins and rice fields, they have been memories from quintessential central plains, the home of great Thai food.
RESPONSIBLE TRAVELING-BECAUSE I CARE