An authentic Thai meal usually includes several dishes served family-style with rice. The meal generally is not divided into separate courses, but all dishes are served simultaneously, with the exception of dessert. Additionally, in traditional Thai culture, no foods are reserved for particular times of the day. “In the past when it was an agrarian society, people would always eat a very hearty breakfast,” Loha-unchit says. “So there is no difference between breakfast, lunch and dinner.”
Thai food began increasing in popularity in the U.S. in the 1980s, she says. She attributes this popularity to the fact that Thai cuisine is light, healthy and full of flavor.
“We open up another element of taste to Americans,” Typhoon’s Kline says. “Once you expose them to the extreme tastes, it is hard to go back.”
A VEGETABLE LOVERS’ PARADISE
Vegetables are more important in Thai cuisine than in most Western food traditions, Loha-unchit says. The vegetable is not considered a separate dish added to the meal. It is an integral part of almost every menu item, whether it’s curry, stir-fry or soup.
Thai cuisine also is more diverse in the kinds of vegetables used than Western cuisine because Thailand does not have mass production in agriculture. “When you go from one town to the next, you get what the local people grow. So there is a lot more variety,” she says.
Common vegetables used in Thai cuisine are Thai and cherry eggplant, mushrooms, chives, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, watercress, Chinese cabbage, Chinese broccoli, spinach, daikon or Asian radish, Chinese long beans, winged beans and water chestnuts.
Thai cuisine also makes use of a wide variety of herbs, especially garlic, lemon grass, chilies, turmeric and galangal ginger, basil and kaffir lime.
The vegetables usually are flash-fried to keep their texture and crispness, or pounded into curries and often are served with seafood or other small chunks of meat, Kline says.
Minh Truong, owner of the Royal Siam in Chelsea, N.Y., serves scallops and shrimp with mushrooms, zucchini and shrimp chili paste. He also offers frog legs in a red curry sauce with onion, chilies and coconut milk.
Rangsan Sutcharit, owner and executive chef at Amarind’s in Chicago, offers diners a spicy curry pork with loin meat, ground chili, peanuts, lime leaves and green beans. Another menu item features deep-fried deboned chicken wings stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, shrimp, and chicken.