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In Thailand, meals are traditionally eaten communally and it is common for there to be more dishes on the table than there are guests. This allows each guest, who is most likely seated on the floor around a table, to share all parts of the meal. Thai food was customarily eaten with the right hand, but today spoons and forks—but not knives—have become the status quo. Flatware was introduced to Thailand during a period known as Westernization in the middle of the 19th Century. Members of Thai royalty began using spoons and forks at their meals, and the trend soon caught on in the rest of the country. Chopsticks are also used, but generally only with noodle soups. In Northern and Northeastern Thailand people sometimes make sticky rice balls and eat their main course without flatware by dipping the rice balls into the main dish. 

Most food in Thailand is served with a range of sauces—sweet, salty, spicy, and sometimes bitter. The most popular herbs and spices are Thai basil, lemongrass, fermented fish sauce, and shrimp paste. Other common sauces and spices are: chili peppers and vinegar, crushed chili sauce, fish sauce with lime juice and garlic, dry chili flakes, sweet chili sauce, and monosodium glutamate. Thai food is famous for being incredibly spicy, and it is common for cucumber slices to be served with meals to help cool the mouth after eating. Rice and rice noodles are also served with spicy dishes to provide a contrast to a perhaps otherwise overwhelming spice.

Although cuisine throughout Thailand generally has many similar characteristics, Thailand’s regional cuisine reflects the country’s brilliant diversity and can be divided into four distinct regions: Northern, Northeastern, Southern, and Central. Thailand is roughly the size of Spain and has more than 40 distinct ethnic groups and many more languages. The geography of Thailand is equally diverse, consisting of tropical rainforests, river basins, high plateaus, and mountains. There are also over 3,219 kilometers of coastline. Cuisines vary depending on traditional agriculture, geography, climate, and influence of neighboring countries. Thailand also has a distinctive Royal Cuisine, which has continued with traditional methods of preparation for nearly 700 years and has thus had a great affect on the country’s food. 

Breakfast, lunch, and dinner are generally composed of similar dishes and all include rice. Rice is a staple in all regions. Jasmine rice is native to Thailand and grows abundantly in the central plains. It goes well with curries and stir-fry, which are also common in Central Thailand. Sticky rice is the main staple in North and Northeastern Thailand. Rice is often served with various curries, which are another staple of the Thai diet.

Northeastern Thai food is heavily influenced by Cambodian and Chinese cuisine. Perhaps most important to note is the introduction of the Chinese wok for cooking, which was first introduced to the Northeast and is now commonly used throughout the country. Popular Chinese dishes that have been adapted in Thai culture include stewed pork with rice, stir fried noodles, and rice porridge. Soups often contain pork blood, and it is common to marinate meat in pork blood as well. Fried lizard, frog, snake, and field rat are staples among the working class whereas wealthy families enjoy pork, chicken and beef.  It is also common for people to eat deep fried insects such as crickets, grasshoppers, bee larvae, silk worms, ant eggs, and giant water bugs.

Chinese and Burmese cuisines have heavily influenced Northern Thai food. For example, ginger and tamarind are incorporated into many dishes due to Burmese influence. Like Northeastern Thailand, it is common for people to eat insects here. Sausage and pork are commonly eaten pickled or in soup with noodles. It is likely that a mid-day meal will include a noodle soup with some kind of meat. Northern curries are not as spicy as those from the Northeast, but they are also served with rice that is heavy in gluten.

Because of the extensive coastline, Southern Thai cuisine contains a lot of seafood. Fish, lobster, shrimp, clams, mussels, squid, crab, and scallops are harvested and eaten throughout the year.  Coconuts act as a staple of the diet in every meal including deserts and beverages. Stir fries and curries made with coconut milk help to balance the dominant spice that is common to the region. Coconut oil is used in many stir fries and coconut meat is incorporated into soups, stir fries, desserts, and many beverages. Cashew nuts are harvested in the region and thus can be found in many soups, stir fries, and sauces. Southern Thai food has a strong Middle-Eastern influence due to the high concentration of Muslims there. Dishes with strong Indian-style curry and noodles are common and saffron rice is popular as well.

Most Thai food eaten internationally originates from or is heavily influenced by the Central region, which is also the most productive agricultural region in Thailand. Thus the native white jasmine rice—which is more fragrant and less glutinous than the sticky rice of the North and Northeast—is served with nearly every meal. Fresh fruits such as mango and papaya are eaten in stir fries, salads, and deserts. Central Thailand is heavily influenced by the Royal Thai cuisine, which focuses as much on preparation and presentation as ingredients and recipes.

Essentially the Royal cuisine is a more elaborately presented version on the Central cuisine as it contains similar ingredients that are native to the region. It is traditionally served on colorful porcelain platters and is always delicately and precisely arranged. It may include hand-carved fruits and vegetables as the centerpiece of the table or particular dish. The Thai royal family continues to eat the traditional cuisine, but it may also be enjoyed at high-end restaurants in Thailand—particularly in Bangkok—and around the world.

Thai cuisine has become popular in the West. For example, the popular drink Red Bull was derived from the Thai drink Krating Daeng. Tom Yum Goong (lemongrass soup), Phad Thai (stir fried noodles with peanuts, meat, and lime), and Tom Kha (coconut milk curry) are the most popular Thai dishes served outside of Thailand.

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