Thai Food: A Fresh Start?

Thai Food in Chiang Mai

Thai food can help you make a fresh start.  Thai cuisine is a world favorite and for good reason. Their produce and meats are farm-fresh every morning and overall quality is far superior to ours. Add to that an ancient, enormously varied, and subtle cuisine and it’s not hard to see why so many normal, sensible people become rabid foodies once they settle into life here. I eat it three times a day – like 65 million Thais – and I never get tired of it.

Thais hate to eat alone so you’ll find yourself eating lots of meals with new (or soon-to-be) Thai friends. In fact you will receive so many invitations to dine that you may find it a bit overwhelming. That’s a nice problem to have.

Whenever you dine with Thais you’ll find it even more enjoyable if you know a little about ordering, dining, and paying here. In contrast to our dining habits, all Thai dishes are shared, regardless of who ordered them. And there is no set order to the dishes. There is no ‘starter’ for example: everything is served when the chef finishes cooking it, and often everything (except dessert) will come out of the kitchen at once.

There are four seasonings — salty, spicy, sour and sweet — and your party will order dishes that create a meal with a balance of flavors and textures.

A formal dinner includes soup – served at the same time as all other dishes – or a curry. If a curry is served, Thais will put it on top of the rice. There are many different curries, from mild to extremely spicy. If you’re looking for no-so-spicy food, try yellow or green curry, which is usually the mildest of the curries. Red curry – and there are hundreds of red curry variations – are the hottest. You can tell your server if you like your dishes spicy.

Phet Mach means ‘a lot of spice’.
Phet Nit Noi means a little spice.
For ‘no spice’ just say Mai Phet.

Thai beer, served over ice (try it, you’ll be surprised), is a wonderful accompaniment to Thai food. If you’re not in the mood for alcohol, order Thai lime soda. It’s made fresh, with local limes, and it’s cooling and delicious.

Thai Food: My Typical $2 Lunch

Thai Food: My Typical $2 Lunch

There will also be several stir fried dishes, usually vegetables combined with chicken or pork (beef isn’t widely used in Thailand, and I don’t recommend it unless you eat it at a Western restaurant). The showpiece of the meal is usually a dish of grilled fish. Thais are big fish eaters and happily snack on dried fish!.

There is usually a tangy salad, like som tam (spicy papaya salad) and a noodle dish (pad se ew) which often combine vegetables with meat or seafood. Most Thai salads are called yum (yum talay is seafood salad), though yum actually refers to a dressing made up of fish sauce, lime juice, sugar and chilies that serves as a palate cleanser between other courses.

Rice is essential. Thai for “to eat”, gin kao, means “eat rice”. Thais can tell the variety and grade (out of 12 standard grades) of rice at twenty paces, so Thai restaurants serve good quality Jasmine rice which has that unforgettable taste and smell of Thailand. If you’re offered brown, black or red rice – especially when you’re in Northern Thailand – try them. They are remarkably flavorful and interesting.

Desserts are cool, light, and not heavily sweetened. Everyone’s favorite is sticky rice and fresh mango with coconut milk.

Try some of every dish on the table (everyone else will), no matter how doubtful you feel. Thai cuisine has been refined for centuries and there’s not too many dishes that will disappoint you. Wait for the host to invite you to help yourself before reaching for the serving spoons. Try not to leave food on your plate as that suggests you didn’t find the food tasty, a real concern in Thailand.

The check is left to one person, the oldest and richest diner at the table. That’s probably you, but don’t bat an eyelid. Grab the check and pay it discreetly without even looking at it. This is regarded as honorable by Thais and – best of all – it’s cheap! You’ll pay approximately 25% of the cost of a similar meal back home. A 5% tip is considered appropriate in Thai restaurants.

Eating in Thailand, even grazing on street-vendor fare, is always an adventure. Best of all, it’s healthy. You can eat three delicious Thai meals every day and actually lose weight. You’ll also save money. I eat three restaurant meals a day and my total cost is $7.50 for all three.

It’s the question everyone asks so, before we get too carried away with the wonders of Thai culture and the country’s fabulous natural gifts, let’s get practical and answer the first questions on every retiree’s mind: how much will it cost me to eat and how good is the food?

If you plan to eat in – something that few Thais do – your food budget will be negligible. Fresh fruit, vegetables and meat are all available, for literally pennies, at the morning markets every day.

But what about quality? Is Thai produce up to the standards we are accustomed to at our local supermarket? Let me start by raving about where Thailand’s produce comes from: probably the deepest, richest topsoil on the planet. Thailand’s many rivers, like the mighty Mekong, have flooded every year for millions of years and dropped  tons of alluvial soil in Thailand, to be mixed with its bountiful tropical vegetation. Allowed to sit and decompose for a hundred thousand years, the result is a soil so rich and deep that every plant thrives in it – particularly fruit.

I’ve never been a fruit and vegetables person, but coming to Thailand has changed my eating habits. Last year, at the end of the avocado season I found myself driving frantically from farm to farm begging growers to sell me their last, giant, buttery avocados!

The quality and variety of Thailand’s fruits will blow you away. Flavors and textures that you never imagined, and variety beyond your wildest foodie dreams. My favorite dish, as I mentioned above, is the same as everyone else’s: sticky rice with fresh mango drizzled with thick, rich coconut milk.

If Thailand’s fresh, delicious ingredients inspire you, the abundant Thai cooking schools will help your turn it into feasts. They’re fun: you can spend all day on an organic farm with the chef, harvesting the ingredients, making your own spice mixes from local plants, and cooking up a storm. This is one of the activities we include in our workshop. It introduces everyone to Thai fruits, vegetables, herbs and spices and it’s a huge amount of fun.

Eat out, and your range of choices is vast, convenient, and insanely cheap. Meals from street vendors start at 60? and go all the way up to $3.00 for a deluxe spread. A word of warning: these prices are for where live, near Chiang Mai University where goal is to provide as much food as possible for as little money to the cash-strapped teenage students who swarm around the food stands like locusts.

From that starting point, price and decor can go as high as you can afford. I regularly eat at a beautiful Chinese restaurant with highly trained, uniformed serving staff. My favorite dish is roast duck with wok-fried greens and steamed rice. My tab for this feast – always more than I can eat – is $4.65. When I add a large bottle of cold beer the tab jumps to $6.95. A big night out.

My favorite breakfast, which I also eat out, is kok moong sai kai: rice porridge with raw egg, fresh scallions, fresh ginger and pork balls. The portions are enormous. The tab, with 500 ml. bottled water, is $1.10. Yes, one dollar ten cents. So you pay your money and you take your choice as you do anywhere. The difference in Thailand is that you pay very little money… and have an enormous range of choices. That’s why I call it a retiree’s dream.

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