To achieve excellence when preparing traditional Thai food, it is vital to understand it both historically and creatively as a plant-based cuisine. Traditional Thai cooking, on both the royal and provincial/home level, has always been based on incredible access to an enormous diversity of ingredients.
SE Asia is one of the most bio-diverse regions in the world. And when it comes to wild and native edible plants, vegetables, roots and herbs the landscape generates a stunning array of tastes, textures and nutritional value. Our reliance on a wide variety of unique, indigenous plants as the creative core and heart of our dishes pays tribute to their position in the circle of life. Using the biochemical powers to convert light, water and the by-products of life into nutritious vitamins, protein and fiber, these plants even recycle the very air we breath – and often looked rather pretty while they do it.
When combined correctly, the natural reinforcement of complementary ingredients, demonstrates the sublime Thai principles of how to marry dishes of diverse texture and taste together into a unified, shared meal (known in Thai as a ‘sum rup’ สำรับ collection of dishes). Which takes the diner on a journey that traverses an amazing array of flavor and nutritional energy.
The great Thai chefs did not merely smash many ingredients into a blended whole – they worked those diverse components into groups, then into sauces and seasonings, which combine to form dishes, which then combine to form entire meals, and then contribute again to the garnish and choice of those meals. And at each point, the treatment of the tiniest component is respected, while always considering its relation to the whole.
These updated traditional recipes have not just been sourced and created from deep studies of texts, but also via thorough immersion into the environment, traveling to the source, understanding where these ingredients come from, who cultivates and forages them, knowing the smell and feel of the earth and the water and the surrounding vegetation.
It is only through this exploration, motivated by historically adventurous chefs and supported by keen patrons and diners, that hidden resources are found, and hidden treasures brought back to life. This leads to an amazing creative sandbox more diverse than the markets of Bangkok and ChiangMai can possibly offer on their own.
As an example, in an over-simplified world of franchise cuisine, the broad sourness of lime lends essential acidity to SE Asian salads. But to take it further, the revered Thai citruses such as Som Saa, have a sourness that is decidedly more “tart” than sour, and Som Jiid can lend a bright “tang,” which is certainly lacking in the one-dimensional, chemical flatness of citric acid replacements common in mass market processed foods.
It is this experience and exposure which creates an ongoing creative culinary vision with a life of its own, which naturally grows and matures and expands over time, as the best of traditional Thai cuisine has always done.