Founded on basic ingredients of excellent quality, the Thai cuisine relies on five primary flavors that are used in subtle proportions to produce a wonderful range of Thai dishes. Ideally, a Thai meal offers a combination of 5 flavors: salty, sweet, sour (tangy), bitter and hot (spicy). Sometimes several of these flavors are present in a single creation, subtly blending, while in other dishes one flavor predominates. The secret to all Thai food lies in the subtle differences in the proportions of ingredients used, which can add layers of flavor and aroma.
Dishes are usually comprised of bite-sized portions and meal service typically includes only a fork and a spoon. Usually there will be a variety of dishes, for it takes more than one or two preparations to achieve the blend of flavors Thais like. An ample supply of rice is always the centerpiece. Traditionally all of the dishes are served at the same time and can be eaten in no particular order. Nor are there any stringent rules about which dish goes with what food: anyone is free to mix dishes according to each individual taste.
Salty – This flavor enhances and brings out the tastes of the other ingredients. It is not usually added in the form of table salt, but through the addition of salty ingredients. One of the most important and widely used of these is nam pla, which is a sauce made from fermented fish, while kapi, a salty shrimp paste, is used to add its own distinctive flavor to dishes. Other condiments that can add the salty element to Thai dishes include Thai oyster sauce (milder and more “oystery” than its Chinese counterpart); light soy sauce; dark or light yellow bean sauce; dried fish or shrimp (which can be ground and added to soups or salads); salted plums; and salted preserved vegetables, such as cabbage or daikon.
Sweet – Thai food often has a subtle sweetness. Sweet ingredients such as palm sugar and coconut sugar are often added to savory dishes to enhance the flavors of spices and herbs. Other commonly used sweetening agents include sweet dark soy sauce, which is made by fermenting soy sauce with treacle (molasses); sweet pickled garlic; and brown rice syrup. Honey is sometimes also used as sweetener.
Sour (tangy) – lime juice in one of the most popular sour flavorings because it not only adds a sour taste but also helps to accentuate other flavors. tamarind, often sold as wet tamarind, is also used as a souring agent. Both ingredients have a tenderizing effect on meats and fish. Various vinegars such as coconut, whiter distilled or the less sharp rice vinegar is also employed.
Bitter – Ingredients such as herbs or dark green vegetables produce the bitter flavor of Thai dishes. These are generally one of the main ingredients of the recipe, so the bitterness must be balanced by adjusting the other four primary flavors.
Hot (spicy) – Despite the fiery reputation of the Thai cuisine, not al dishes are overpowering hot. However, Thais do have a great tolerance to spicy dished, acquired from a lifetime’s experience. The main source of heat is chili, which is sold fresh, dried or in pastes and sauces (priks). Before the chili was introduced to Thailand, heat was obtained from peppercorns, which are still used. Heat can also be introduced through ginger, onions and garlic. Chili-based condiments such as crushed dried red chili and chili paste are usually placed on the table so that diners can season the dish further, adding heat to their own taste.