Southern Cooking – Thai Style
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Also read about Roti in Southern Thailand.
Click pictures to see larger image.
In general, Southern cuisine tends to be heavy, rich, pungent, intense and very hot and spicy.
While ninety percent of Thailand's population is Buddhist, the population of many of the Southern provinces are predominantly Muslim, whose ancestors immigrated into the area from the Indian subcontinent over the past two thousand years. Therefore, of all the regions, the foods here bear closest similarities to Indian food. turmeric (kamin) permeates a majority of Southern dishes, but in Thailand, the fresh rhizome is used instead of the dried powder. Here, too, one can find bread, in the form of Pan-fried Muslim Bread roti, which sometimes is stuffed with a curried meat and vegetable mixture, or comes with a curry sauce to dip in. A rich and fragrant massaman curry is a delicious accompaniment. Unlike mainstream Thai curries in which herbs and pungent roots are the primary ingredients, many Muslim-influenced Southern curries are characterized by the roasted fragrance of dry spices more familiar in Indian cooking. Roti is also made sweet, sprinkled with sugar and sweetened condensed milk, or stuffed with bananas; these sweet versions are now commonplace street foods all over Thailand, though the savory roti served with curry is really to be enjoyed only in Southern Thailand.
Muslim Yellow Rice with Chicken (kao moek gkai), brightly colored and flavored with turmeric, spiced with roasted dried spices and served with a sweet-sour chilli sauce. Fried fish in this region is exquisitely flavored with chopped fresh turmeric, garlic and ground white pepper. There are also soups flavored with turmeric and almost all curries, whether coconut-milk-based or broth-based, are laced with turmeric.
Except for the Muslim curries, Southern curries tend to be intensely hot, pungent and spicy. One such curry is called "chilli curry" for obvious reasons. Another is a sour fish curry – deep orange in color from the combination of red chillies and yellow turmeric. Because of the abundant coconut groves in this region, coconut shoots or hearts of palm frequently are used in this very hot and sour curry, as well as in a host of other dishes, from salads to simple stir-fries. Southerners also eat a variety of large seeds from forest trees and especially prized is sadtaw – a green, beanlike seed that comes in large, bright green and wavy seed pods sold in bunches in just about every Southern market. (See photo to left.) A favorite way to serve these seeds is in a very pungent and spicy stir-fry with shrimp and a red curry sauce (pad ped sadtaw). Another intensely pungent curry, one of the South's best known specialties, is an acquired taste for most people from outside the region – an incendiary fish innards curry (gkaeng dtai bplah).
It is common practice in Southern restaurants to have a large platter of vegetables (fresh, pickled, and cooked in coconut milk), aromatic and pungent herbs and the astringent and bitter leaves, flower buds and seeds of large edible trees placed on each table as part of the table setting. These vegetables are free of charge and make good accompaniments to many of the pungent and spicy sauces in Southern dishes. Among them are the very astringent, young cashew leaves, plentiful in the South since cashews are a major agricultural crop of the region. Fried or roasted cashews can be purchased from most Southern towns, and cashew salads are common in many menus along the Southern peninsula's seacoast.
It Also famous in the South is kanom jeen (white spaghetti-like noodles made with fermented rice paste, spun into small serving-size skeins), which is served either with a spicy, rich, coconut-milk-based, ground fish curry called nahm yah, or a sweeter, also rich coconut-milk-based chilli sauce with ground peanuts called nahm prik. Both are accompanied by the large vegetable and herb platter and are served for breakfast, lunch, supper or any time of day. Yet another well-known Southern specialty is kao yum, a rice salad with various finely shredded vegetables and herbs, toasted coconut and chillies, and a sweet-and-pungent sauce made with the South's unique fermented fish sauce called nahm boodoo. Besides this fish sauce, the South also makes plentiful fermented shrimp paste (or gkabpi, most of it more pungent than that of the Central region), which generously flavor many of the South's pungent dishes.
Because of the extensive coastline on both sides of the Southern peninsula, another category of Southern cooking encompasses seafood. Southern-style tamarind prawns is a popular dish, as is crispy fried fish smothered with a sweet-and-sour chilli sauce. Just about every kind of seafood is tossed on the charcoal grill, fueled with coconut husks, and served with hot-and-sour chilli dipping sauces. Coconuts, another major agricultural crop of the region, provides the rich coconut milk that is used not only for curries, but as a base for stewing various kinds of vegetables, including jungle leaves and vines from the lush rainforests. Many of these vegetables cooked in coconut milk are also flavored with shrimp abundant from the surrounding seas or numerous shrimp farms. (See, for example, Kale Boiled in Coconut Milk with Shrimp (Pak Dtom Gkati).) Also common are mild coconut milk and turmeric broths in which fish and shrimp are cooked. (See Catfish Rounds Simmered in Turmeric-Flavored Coconut Sauce (Dtom Kem Gkati Bplah Doog).) Various kinds of fresh seafood combine with coconut milk to make rich, spicy soups, flavored with galanga, lemon grass and lime juice (Dtom Kah Talay) – popular along both coasts.
Kasma teaches many recipes from Southern Thailand in her Thai Cooking Classes.