Thai cuisine has conquered the world over the last 25 years. In just about every European city you can nowadays find Thai restaurants, but also other continents are more and more captivated by what I believe is the most original and most delicious food in the world. It is a cuisine of a 1000 perfumes, a patchwork of tastes, odors and colors. As Thai cuisine was never influenced by any other culture because Thailand was never colonized. Lately however, there are some new trends. Traditional versus trendy: a difficult choice.   

Thai people eat all day long and their cuisine is so tempting that simply nobody can resist. On every street corner you will be overwhelmed by most delighted smells of lemon grass, coconut and curries. Vegetables and fruit are sculpted into real works of art; I am always hesitant to take a bite. You will not put on weight from it and its taste is so refined that it will never become boring. To understand the complicated Thai culture, you first have to appreciate their way of eating. Believe me, the way to the heart of Thailand is, without a doubt, through your stomach.

Soup out of a plastic bag. You get to know the real Thai cuisine on the streets in ‘raan ahaan’, food stands on the side of the road or at night markets which you can find all around where tiny little plastic tables are set out criss-cross across the sidewalk. Delightful cooking odors merge with exhaust fumes, but strangely enough blend into a delicious perfume. In these street restaurants you wipe your mouth with toilet paper, but the food is the best and you barely pay a few pound for it. Many visitors, like me, consider street food superior to what you are served in a regular restaurant. When the city awakes these hawkers wrap up the whole city in a smell of soup, noodles and fresh spices. In Thailand eating is a social experience: friends, family and business relations gather together at long tables, covered with delicacies. You never eat alone in Thailand. Men drink whisky with their food, the western ones, but also the quite sweet Thai Mekong whisky (lately more and more replaced by Hong Thong). They mix it with beverages like Sprite or lime juice. Strangely enough these cocktails from hell match wonderfully with the strong tastes of Thai food. On the street, in busses and trains, even in tuk-tuks Thai people eat soup and curries out of plastic bags with an astonishing elegancy. Something I tried several times, but I failed indisputably. Bad food is hard to find, it seems as if the talent to cook is rooted in their DNA, like an old vested right. Moreover they love to share it with everybody. In fishing villages, on the market, in simple restaurants as well as in fancy hotels you can follow cooking classes. Something I always did during my many trips through Thailand.

: In Thailand people eat with a fork and a spoon. You never use a knife. The fork is used as a kind of crowbar, the spoon goes into your mouth. If you do not dear to eat with chopsticks, don’t worry; only Chinese noodles dishes are eaten with chopsticks in Thailand. For some dishes you can use your hands, like for sticky rice. It makes it even tastier.

Traditional Thai cuisine: sophisticated fast food with Michelin star attitudes.
The first thing to know before you start is that you need a lot of ingredients to cook Thai food. Some of these ingredients will challenge your sense of smell: fish sauce, which replaces our salt, is used in every dish, but also shrimp pasta and dried fish are used on a daily basis. Once they are mixed, these strong tastes and odors blend perfectly with the rest. During my first Thai cooking class, a long time ago, I learned that I could prepare almost every dish in less then 12 minutes. That is why I call it sophisticated fast-food. During a cooking class in the beautiful Evason Resort in Phuket I can choose what I want to learn to cook. Since I just visited a Cobia farm, I want to prepare something with this tasty but still very unknown fish. According to chef Tawatchai Chuto this is one of the best but most underestimated fish in Thailand. It will not be long before it will conquer Europe and the rest of the world. He calls it the new salmon. I learn to prepare it with a fish stock, a lot of green peppers, garlic, fresh Thai basil and oyster sauce. Delicious. He also teaches me how I can influence tastes in a natural way and according to him that is thé topic in Thai cuisine. He makes me taste a small red, sour berry that in a miraculous way changes the taste of the lemon, which I put in my mouth, right afterwards into a sweet taste. The berry is therefore not without a reason called miraculous fruit. The same thing happens when you combine all these Thai spices: they can totally change the taste of the dish at the end. As a proof Tawatchai prepares 15 different dishes with cobia that evening, ranging from soups and salads to stir-fry and curries. I would never have guessed I was eating the same fish over and over.

Cobia fish:
The cobia fish has since long been caught in the wild, but only since a few years cobia is being cultivated in fish farms. A post Tsunami pilot project in the Laem Hin farm situated in the Andaman Sea is being led by Norwegian biologists and has spectacular results. They build under water cages of 20 foot deep that can resist waves of 33 foot and more. The results are a success. The cobia fish seems to be one of the fastest growing fish comparable with salmon, or even more similar to a meaty fish like tuna. The best advantage is that cobia is a very cheap fish. They call it the fish of the future.

Spa cuisine, a very healthy Thai gourmet cuisine. It is unmistakable that Thai food is healthy, but everything can be done even better. About ten years ago I heard for the first time about spa cuisine. You have to know that I have always been a fan of spas in this country, where the distance between heaven and earth is almost non-existent. As it would be a sin to only treat our outside body, they invented an even healthier form of Thai cuisine that also takes care of our inside. In 2005 the former Marriott hotel (river side) in Bangkok started as one of the first city hotels with a spa treatment where they pampered not only your outside but also your inside. After a very long and excellent massage I took a cooking class in healthy Thai food and most importantly afterwards I could eat it all. I came out reborn. They started off from the principle that it would make little sense to firstly detoxify your body during an expensive massage and immediately afterwards eat a meal full of sugars, salt and grease. Even Thai people have some unhealthy habits according to the young generation of chefs. Thai like to deep-fry as well as use a lot of sugars and oils, which make it very tasty but not always as healthy as it could be. They also like to use condiments. Cooking healthy food is a choice and more and more young chefs in Thailand make this choice. Thai spa cuisine can be as gastronomic as normal Thai food. It is not because it is poor in calories that it is also poor in taste. I am speaking about spa cuisine not spa-rtan cuisine.

The aim is to enjoy the food, being satisfied when you leave the table, knowing that everything you ate was grown organically, balanced perfectly, light and above all exciting. Basically it is an even healthier version of an already very healthy cuisine with some extra fusion elements. It is the better of two worlds. It is the kind of food you get in wellness hotels like Chiva Som (Hua Hin) or Kamalaya (Koh Samui), but it is food that you lately also find in modern Thai restaurants. Sugars are replaced by honey, green tea is used as a base for a lot of sauces because it is healthy, light, it stimulates your digestion and it is helps you keep slim. Chili, used in a moderate way, is good for your heart. In spa cuisine less coconut milk is used, although in the meanwhile it has been proven that it consists mostly of healthy fats, which stimulate the good cholesterol, not the bad one. Coconut even has anti-aging qualities and that makes me a fan. Olive oil became very common in the modern spa cooking and is of course much healthier then all the nut, palm or sesame oils that are used in large quantities. 
Pumpkin is a vegetable that I have seen more and more appearing in Thai food because it has almost no calories, and it is good for your kidneys and skin. I learned how to make pumpkin soup the same way they make tom yam kung (a spicy prawn soup). I loved it. It was more than delicious. Thanks to the royal projects, introduced a long time ago by the mother of king Bhumibol, the former opium producers in the Golden Triangle now mostly grow biological vegetables and fruit. Fancy restaurants, hotels and health centers in Thailand use many of these biological products. Some new crops are also introduced to give the opium producers something to kick off from their illegal business: strawberries, coffee and macadamia nuts. The macadamia nuts are very popular because they can sell them expensively: 1000 Bath (20 pound) for a kilo. The benefits are of course still much lower then for opium, but at least it is legal. Around Chiang Rai they now grow one of the most wanted coffees in the world: Doi Chaang. Their top product is civet coffee, coffee with the droppings of a civet cat, a delicacy. It is produced on a limited scale and Japanese love it, so they can ask a high price for it: 1000 Bath (20 pound) for only 50 grams. I never drunk it, for a good reason: I do not like coffee, neither cats and I am certainly not funned about animal droppings. But in spite of that it became world famous.

Sureerath Organic Prawns (SOP)Biological food is becoming more and more important in Thailand. In Chantaburi a family company cultivates biological black tiger shrimps. Every step in biological prawn farming is eco-friendly. The most important issue is a closed water system. The water that comes from the sea is filtered and cleaned. The tiger prawns are cultivated with algae and seaweed in salt-water reservoirs. Aqua culture is the future and certainly when it is done without any chemical additions. Not only the tiger prawns are much bigger (not 30 but 60 grams a piece), but also the flesh is much firmer and the taste is ten times better.

Trendy Thai cuisine a treat for all your taste buds
The changes and fusion elements in contemporary Thai cooking are not necessarily linked to health. Thai cooking recently started a rejuvenation cure. I attend a cooking demonstration in the garden of one of the most prestigious Chino-Portuguese houses in Phuket city, in one of the 11 Blue Elephant restaurants spread out all over the world. Sandra, who grew up in Belgium and speaks perfectly Dutch besides Thai, English, French and some other languages; runs the Thai cooking school. The Blue Elephant is a splendid restaurant, and the trendy Thai dishes that Sandra’s mother Nooror invented catch on, not only with the jetsetters that visit the restaurant, but also with a much larger public. Nooror and Sandra work mainly with eco products. Today they give a demonstration with biological tiger prawns. The health wave seems to have conquered everybody. There are many ways to prepare these prawns in the traditional cuisine: sweet and sour, raw, in soups, stir-fried or with a green, red or yellow curry. Nooror prepares a salad of blanched prawns with lots of fresh spices. She changes the recipe slightly by adding slices of green apple and drizzling truffle oil on to it. In fact it is only a small wink to our cuisine, but it tastes much lighter then the original recipe and it is absolutely yummy. She still uses sugar, but it is palm sugar, and in a salad like this rice powder is very important for the taste and structure as well as to fully appreciate the many perfumes of this salad. In Bangkok, Blue elephant has also a school where I learn how to prepare another few dishes of the trendy Thai cuisine. And this time I do not only watch, I do it myself. I try a ‘foie gras’ with Thai perfumes and a ‘salmon tartar’ with plenty of Thai herbs. This is one of these new trendy Thai dishes that I love the most. The stir-fried lamb with oyster and soya sauce, Thai basilica, lime zest, garlic and chili is also interesting and a lot more exotic then I am used to eat it. Afterwards, eating everything I prepared is the only thing that can beat the joy of going to a Thai cooking class. During the many years I visited Thailand, I became very kin jai (eat heart), totally absorbed by the Thai food culture.

Recipe of my favorite dish in the trendy Thai cuisine, Thai salmon tartar: Chop lemon grass, Thai ginger, saw cilantro (stinky weed), fresh mint and garlic very fine. Make a dressing of Japanese soya sauce, wasabi, lime juice, fish sauce, olive oil and just a little bit of sugar (not necessary). Cut the raw salmon into small dices and mix everything. Very simple, but really good.

Thai food is spicy and I do not mean hot. Almost every dish includes chilies and they are not always used in a small amount. One of the consequences is: you never get sick of Thai food.

Thai people know how to stay healthy: they will never eat three big meals a day. They eat small portions the whole day round. Restaurants where you can eat as much as you want would be a total failure in Thailand.

 They also eat rice, noodles, soup, meat, fish and vegetables in the morning. They have to eat rice; it is part of life.

Also fruit is part of their daily life. I have never seen people that eat as much fruit as the Thai. For us this is paradise. You can eat fruit nicely cut in pieces, on every corner of the street. And it is ridiculously cheap.

Prepared Thai food is as expensive, or should I say as cheap as food that you buy in a shop but which you still have to prepare at home. That is why Thai often eat in restaurants and in ‘raan ahaan’ street stalls.

You never eat alone in Thailand, therefore the table is always full of plates. Everybody tastes everything, ordering an individual serving is not done. That makes a Thai meal interesting.

Thai love to eat sweets, but you hardly find desserts in the traditional cuisine. They have introduced a few, but Thai people eat a lot of ‘kawng waan’ (sweets) mainly in between meals.

If you are invited for dinner, you do not have to bring a gift, but Thai men love to drink foreign alcohol. A bottle of Scotch whisky is always appreciated. Helping in the kitchen is not done. You can always ask, but most of the time it will be refused.

Insects are very popular in Thailand. It started in the northeastern Isan province, but it conquered the whole country. You have to try at least one grasshopper or some worms, they are tasty and they are good for your health. I personally do not like beetles, but you can eat almost every insect, besides cockroaches.

If you want to do what Thai do, eat on a night market, they love it. The ambiance is typically Thai. If you do not know what to order: look what your neighbours are eating and ask for the same if it looks tasty. 

My favorite street food addresses in Bangkok:

You will find street food all over the city; it is not only cheap, but also very tasty and clean. Most Thai people do not have time to cook at home. Street food is daily business for them. These are 6 places where I think the food is delicious:

Chinatown: For street food lovers this is the place to be. There are hundreds of street stalls. If you want to eat seafood, go to Yaowarat, the main road (also the Thai name for China town). One of the most popular stands in the street is Jake Puey, specialized in Khao Gaeng (rice with curry), but you will have to eat it on your lap as there are no tables. Stick to the soi’s (side streets) for everything else, from fried chicken and noodles to Isan-style salads like somtam. You can eat a Phat Thai (Thai noodles) for 20 Bath (0,5 pound), difficult to say no.

Soi Rambuttri: formerly known as dog shit alley got an uplift and became a hipster cool place with lots of street food. It is a green oasis in Bangkok, parallel to Khao San road (backpacker street).

Lumpini Park: just outside the park at Ratchadamri road a cluster of hawkers sell mostly Isan dishes, all kind of labs (spicy salads) with sticky rice, som tam (the ultimate street food item), but also intestines and insects for the more adventurous amongst us.

Thonglor: At the exit of the sky train station on the corner of Sukhumvit, you will find plenty of vendors with a wide choice of food from Pad Thai, fish cakes, som tam, to all kind of curried dishes and soups and lots of sweets.

Silom road: in soi 20 and soi Convent there is plenty of cheap street food. Silom road is a business center, so people go out to have a quick meal for lunch. But also tourists are daily guests. You will really have to do your best to spend more then 2 or 3 pound.  

Chatutchak (weekend market): everything you can eat in Thailand, you will find it here for a very low price. Happy faces will surround you because the bargains you can buy on this huge market are incredible.

A few of my favorite restaurants in Bangkok:
1.Le Du: is a rising star in the Bangkok culinary scene. It is not French, le du means ‘season’ and is a Thai word. At lunch you can eat a European bistro menu, in the evening it becomes a Thai concept restaurant: the finest Thai ingredients cooked with a contemporary twist. The result is an amazing creative cuisine with Thai roots., 399/3 Silom soi 7 Silom Bangrak.
2.Paste is a restaurant that serves modern Thai food with a strong loyalty to the traditional cuisine and local ingredients, but with a modern twist. 120/6 Soi Song Phi Nong Sukhumvit 49, nearby Thonglor.
3.Blue Elephant: the restaurant owner, who I know very well, started at first in Brussels/Belgium and has now restaurants on 11 places all over the world: in Paris, London, Dubai, … but also in Bangkok: in this very up class restaurant, you can eat traditional royal Thai cuisine, but also very trendy fusion Thai food, like one of the best salmon tartars I have ever eaten, with nothing else then Thai herbs. There is also a very good cooking school on top of the restaurant where you can learn how to cook traditional, but also fusion Thai food at the highest level, for 2800 Bath (60 pound) for half a day. Of course you can eat everything you have prepared. 233 South Sathorn Road.

4. Bo.Lan restaurant: In contrast to the three other restaurants, the two chefs Bo and Dylan want to serve the best possible traditional Thai cuisine. They want to present an alternative to the trendy movement and swear by slow cooking. Their balance menu, consisting of five dishes brings your body and mind in perfect balance. The food looks like art. It is not cheap according to the normal Thai food prices, but it is delicious. , 42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong, Songkram Sukhumvit 26
5. Nahm restaurant: this fine eating place in the contemporary Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok is not only the first Thai restaurant awarded with a Michelin star, but it entered also the list of 50 best restaurants of the world on the 13th position. The chefs David Thompson (Australian) and Prin Polsuk (Thai) give their own twist to century-old Thai recipes. Try it, you will be delighted.                   27 South Sathorn Road
If you can't wait to start cooking Thai yourself: this is your book: ThailandTheCookBook full of traditional and original recipes you'll never find anywhere else. Recommended!
For other addresses, cheap or a bit more expensive, you can have a look at my article: ‘Bangkok trendier then ever.’ (coming soon, exists already in the Dutch version)


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