Articles on Thai Food and Culture

Considered by some to be the most famous, and the most delicious, dish in Thai cooking, the story of Massaman curry is interwoven with trade, politics and religion in 17th-century Siam. The story is filled with mighty kings, legendary explorers and unsolved mysteries, adding an air of magic and power to this already-heavenly perfumed dish, and thickening the plot of this full bodied, coconut-based curry’s birth.

If we could strip away the spices, the seasonings, the vegetables and the herbs from savory dishes we could uncover their naked flavor profile core. There, we would encounter a strong savory-umami, sometimes coupled with other basic elements of smoke and fat. This flavor core is, for us humans, the sought-after taste of protein; our first sip of mother’s milk, and the primal experience of burned game meat on the fire.

Today we would like to highlight a powerhouse for umami creation: the fermentation process. We will focus on fermented fish innards from southern Thailand (dtai bpla ไตปลา), one of about a dozen fermented products used in the country. We will show you how chefs for the capital’s elite, as early as or, before the reign of King Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II, 1767-1824), harnessed its wild nature and created a dish similar to what we present today – a salad with infused fermented fish innards dressing.

Tom kha is a well-known and much-loved Thai soup: a creamy, soothing coconut blend, a warm, silky broth in which chicken, mainly, is simmered with young galangal, mushrooms, and, at times, charred-grilled banana blossoms. In other versions, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves are added, blurring the boundaries between tom kha and the coconut-based tom yam soup (tom yum kati; ต้มยำกะทิ).

However, in the late 19th century, tom kha was not a soup at all: it was a dish of chicken or duck simmered in a light coconut broth with a generous amount of galangal. The coconut broth added sweetness to the meat, and the galangal helped to mellow the meat odor. It was then served with a basic roasted chili jam as a dipping relish seasoned along the salty-sour-sweet spectrum.

Also known as: gaaeng jeen juaan (แกงจีนจ๊วน), or gaaeng juaan (แกงจ๋วน).

Gaaeng jeen juaan is a coconut-based red curry. With primary ingredients of chicken, light green banana chili peppers and peanuts, it is similar to Massaman curry (matsaman); and scented with the sweet aroma of dry Indian spices such as cumin, mace, nutmeg, clove, star anise and cinnamon. Pineapple adds sweetness and a thin layer of tartness. The sweet and sour flavors are echoed by the addition of fresh sugarcane juice and a squeeze of bitter orange juice (sohm saa). To enhance the aroma and texture of the curry, roasted grated coconut is added to the curry paste.

The first reference to sohm choon as a dessert appears in in the early 1800s, in the culinary poetry of King Rama II gaap heh chohm khreuuang khaao waan (กาพย์เห่ชมเครื่องคาว – หวาน). The poetry was sung during the royal barge’s procession, and this verse refers to sohm choon as a dish made of lychees. A closer look at other foods that are mentioned in the verse also reveals other dishes that are clearly of Chinese origin, such as boiled pork spleen (dtohm dtap lek ต้มตับเหล็ก), steamed bird’s nests (rang nohk neung รังนกนึ่ง) and persimmons (luuk phlap ลูกพลับ).

Yam sohm choon is a sour green mango salad served with grilled fermented shrimp paste; roughly chopped shallots; sweet pork condiment, deep-fried fluffy grilled catfish and seasoned with fish sauce, palm sugar and lime juice and topped with deep-fried dry chilies cut into small pieces.

If you follow Thai movies and TV dramas, you probably remember Sohm Choon, the adorable boy ghost character from the period romance movie Reun Mayura (1997), which was a love story between a beautiful woman and a handsome man living in different periods of time.

This salad recipe is adapted from the book “Maae Khruaa Huaa Bpaa” (แม่ครัวหัวป่าก์), published in 1971 as a memorial for Jao Jaawm Phit (เจ้าจอมพิศว์). Jao Jaawm Phit was the daughter of Thanpuying (Lady) Plean Passakornrawong, who was a pioneer of noble Thai cuisine.

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