A festival of Thailand’s regional cuisines

The inaugural Thai Food Festival in Los Angeles showcased Thailand’s four culinary regions.

Chefs prepare dishes from Thailand’s northeast province, one of four regions of the country (photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Chefs prepare dishes from Thailand’s northeast province, one of four regions of the country
(photo credit: YAKIR LEVY)
Thailand’s regional specialties were showcased in the inaugural Thai Food Festival in what some call Thailand’s 78th province: Los Angeles, home to a Thai population of about 80,000 and to the world’s first Thai Town.
Those who love Thai food are familiar with meals such as sweet and spicy pad Thai noodles and beef red curry, which commonly served in restaurants. Yet Thailand has a variety of delicious dishes that have evolved as part of the country’s regional cuisines.
At the festival, we sampled dishes from Thailand’s four culinary regions.
We began with a favorite dish of ours from northern Thailand: Khao Soi, noodles with a luscious coconut curry sauce. Chef Jet Tila, known as the Thai culinary ambassador to the US, prepared it with braised beef and egg noodles topped with chopped green onion, fresh coriander leaves and sliced pickled mustard greens. Another chef made his Khao Soi with chicken.
The cuisine of northern Thailand, writes Andy Ricker, author of Pok Pok, is the mildest in heat level out of the country’s four regions and is “marked by generous use of dried spices, frequent appearance of fresh turmeric and prevalent bitterness” that comes from leaves and shoots. Many northern Thai curries are simple, and are boiled rather than fried.
From northern Thailand we also tasted a minced beef salad. The chef of Lum Ka Naad restaurant pan-fried the minced meat and enlivened it with a mixture of spices, fresh mint and other herbs. For a dish from the region with the mildest cuisine, this salad packed quite a punch.
Next we savored a grilled beef salad from northeast Thailand that was simple and colorful, and had less beef and a higher proportion of vegetables than its name would suggest. The beef strips were moistened with a dressing spiked with red pepper flakes, served on curly lettuce leaves and topped with tomato wedges, cucumber half-slices, slivers of red onion and pieces of green onion.
The cooking of northeastern Thailand, writes Ricker, is “peasant cuisine – simple, pungent and fiery.” Historically cooks favored slow-grilled and boiled foods, as well as raw and cured foods. Fermented fish is a basic seasoning, and “small dried red chiles... are used with abandon.” Some popular foods are grilled skewered meat with tart, spicy dipping sauces, as well as sticky rice.
At the festival, one of our favorite dishes was an improvisation of a dish from central Thailand. The booth of Siam Sunset featured a dish of meat over rice, but when they ran out of meat, they served hard-boiled eggs instead. These special hard-boiled eggs had a brownish hue and reminded us of the brown eggs that cook overnight in hamin (cholent).
The combination of the eggs, the rice, and a spoonful of the restaurant’s fiery sweet and sour chili sauce made this dish delicious. The next time we prepare brown eggs, we will set aside a few to eat this way.
Central Thailand has a wide variety of produce and seafood, and benefits from being near the coconut-rich area of the south. Fish sauce gives its food saltiness, which is balanced with sweet and tart flavorings. According to Ricker, the food is not as fiery as northeastern and southern Thai cuisine. Some of its specialties are rich fried curries such as green curry and roasted duck curry; sweet and sour soups; noodles and stir fries; and lots of bright salads.
Another central Thai dish we tasted was chicken with green beans in red curry sauce, which was flavored with slivered kaffir lime leaves, sugar and fish sauce.
Next we sampled specialties of southern Thailand, known for its seafood, fruit and coconuts, and for being, according to Ricker, “perhaps the spiciest in Thailand, thanks to lots of fresh and dried bird (or ‘Thai’) chiles.” Spices abound, including fresh turmeric and Middle Eastern spices like cumin and cloves, because historically this area was a stop for merchants from India and the Mideast. Many dishes make use of coconut milk, and there are “fiercely spicy dry curries.”
We tasted two of these dry curries, and indeed they were exceedingly spicy. One was made of meat marinated in a paste of fresh turmeric root, Thai chiles and other flavorings, and was pan fried. A chicken dry curry from the Jitlada restaurant was served with cucumber sticks, which were presumably there to balance the heat of the chiles, but for us they couldn’t calm the fire.
What did cool our palates were Thai desserts like tasty coconut jelly cubes, and the refreshing coconut water from young Thai coconuts.
This recipe is from Pok Pok, “named for the sound a wooden pestle makes when it strikes a clay mortar.” Author Andy Ricker notes that in Thailand, this stir-fry is “seasoned aggressively with garlic, chiles, fish sauce, soy sauce and a touch of sugar.”
It’s a common morning food and can also be served for lunch or as a late-afternoon snack.
“Usually it is served with a heap of jasmine rice and perhaps a crisp-edged fried egg, and is a fine example of what Thais call a one-plate meal.... The dish is defined by a last-minute dose of ...holy or hot basil, an ingredient so essential that the dish is named for it,” he writes.
Thai chiles are tiny, slim and very hot; substitute any hot chiles you have. Holy basil has a peppery flavor and distinctive aroma, but you can use other basil. Instead of Thai black soy sauce, you can use another soy sauce; if you don’t have fish sauce, you can replace it, too, with soy sauce. To shorten the preparation, you can use hot red pepper flakes instead of frying and crumbling dried chiles. Ricker uses Asian long beans, but green beans work fine, too. Serve this dish with steaming hot jasmine rice.
The quick dish makes 1 serving. To make more, double or quadruple the ingredients, but cook each batch separately.
   ❖ 2 Tbsp. vegetable oil
   ❖ 1 large egg, at room temperature
   ❖ 1 Tbsp. Thai fish sauce
   ❖ 2 tsp. Thai black soy sauce
   ❖ 1 tsp. sugar
   ❖ 11 gr. (0.4 oz.) peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise and lightly crushed into small pieces in a mortar (about 1 Tbsp.)
   ❖ 140 gr. (5 oz.) ground chicken (preferably thigh meat)
   ❖ 30 gr. (1 oz.) green beans, cut crosswise into 3-mm. (1/8-in.) slices (about ¼ cup)
   ❖ 45 gr. (1 ½ oz.) peeled onion, thinly sliced with the grain (about ¼ cup)
   ❖ 6 gr. (0.2 oz.) fresh Thai chiles (about 4), preferably red, thinly sliced
   ❖ 3 or 4 dried Thai chiles, fried (see Note below) and very coarsely crumbled
   ❖ 6 gr. (0.2 oz.) holy basil leaves
Cook the egg:
Heat a wok over very high heat, add oil, and swirl it in the wok to coat the sides. When it begins to smoke lightly, crack in the egg and cook for about 5 seconds. It should spit and sizzle violently and white should bubble and puff. Decrease heat to medium and cook egg, frequently tipping pan slightly and basting egg with the oil, just until white has set and turned golden at edges and yolk is cooked the way you like it, about 1 minute. Turn off heat. Transfer egg to paper towels to drain, leaving oil in wok.
Stir-fry and serve the dish:
Combine fish sauce, soy sauce and sugar in a small bowl and stir well.
Heat wok again over very high heat. When oil smokes lightly, add garlic, take wok off heat, and let garlic sizzle, stirring often, until it turns light golden brown, about 30 seconds. Put wok back on heat, then add chicken, green beans, onions and fresh chiles. Stir-fry (constantly stirring, scooping and flipping ingredients) and break up chicken as you do until meat is just barely cooked through, about 1 minute.
Add dried chiles and fish sauce mixture (add a splash of water, if necessary, to make sure nothing is left behind in the bowl), and stir-fry until liquid has been absorbed by meat, 30 seconds to 1 minute more. Turn off heat.
Just before you’re ready to serve, turn heat back to high, and once meat is heated through, add basil and stir just until it is wilted and very fragrant, 15 seconds or so. Serve with the fried egg and with jasmine rice.
Note: To fry dried Thai chiles, put them in a wok or pan, add enough vegetable oil to coat chiles well and set pan over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring and tossing almost constantly, until chiles are a deep, dark brown (but not black), about 7 to 10 minutes. Keep in mind that residual heat of oil will continue cooking chiles. Use a slotted spoon to transfer them to a paper towel to drain.
This recipe is from Real Thai: The Best of Thailand’s Regional Cooking. Author Nancie McDermott describes it as a hearty salad in a bracing chili-lime dressing laced with fresh herbs. This kind of salad, known as a yum, is served at room temperature and, unlike most savory Thai dishes, is not eaten with rice. McDermott writes that traditionally, roasted rice powder is added for crunch, but the salad is delicious without it. You can substitute soy sauce for the fish sauce, and lemon juice for the lime juice.
Makes 4 servings
   ❖ 450 gr. (1 lb.) beef, grilled to your taste
   ❖ 1/3 cup chicken stock
   ❖ 2 green onions, coarsely chopped, including some green tops
   ❖ ¼ cup finely chopped shallot
   ❖ A handful of fresh cilantro (fresh coriander) leaves, coarsely chopped
   ❖ 1 tsp. coarsely ground dried red chile
   ❖ 1 tsp. sugar
   ❖ ¼ cup fish sauce
   ❖ ¼ cup freshly squeezed lime juice
   ❖ 3 leaves leaf lettuce
   ❖ 2 small cucumbers, peeled and sliced crosswise on the diagonal into thin ovals
   ❖ 5 cherry tomatoes, halved lengthwise
   ❖ A handful of fresh mint sprigs
Thin slice cooked beef crosswise into 5-cm. (2-in.) strips and set aside. In a small saucepan, bring stock to a gentle boil over medium heat. Add beef and warm it in stock for 1 minute, turning occasionally. Remove pan from heat and set aside.
Add green onions, shallot, cilantro, chile, sugar, fish sauce and lime juice to beef. Toss well. Taste dressing and adjust it to your liking with additional fish sauce, lime juice, sugar or chiles.
Arrange lettuce leaves on a serving platter. With a slotted spoon, transfer beef to platter, mounding it on the lettuce. Drizzle beef with some additional sauce from the pan and garnish with the cucumber, tomatoes and mint. Serve as soon as possible, warm or at room temperature.
The writer is the author of Faye Levy’s International Chicken Cookbook.