Let’s be clear from the start: there’s no such thing as “Thai food.” Thailand is home to a stunning amount of culinary diversity—a place where a villager outside of Chiang Mai, in the North, may not even recognize the dinner of his compatriot near the Malaysian border, in the South. These differences come as a result of an often-complex interaction of geography, wealth, and immigration, factors that have provided this California-sized country with an almost disproportionate spread of ingredients, dishes, influences, and, ultimately, cuisines.
If there’s any single element that can serve as a dividing line among Thailand’s regional cuisines, it’s rice. The wealthier and more urban central and southern parts of the country subsist upon long-grained rice, while the poorer, more rural northern and northeastern regions remain loyal to sticky, or glutinous, rice. Yet within this broad North-South rice divide, there are further distinctions, and it’s generally accepted that Thailand comprises four distinct regional cuisines.
With influences from Chinese and Muslim immigrants, as well as Bangkok’s royal court, the food of central Thailand, which includes Bangkok, is hands-down the most diverse—and sophisticated—of Thailand’s regional cuisines. Part of this is also due to the fertility of the central Thai plains, a region crisscrossed by rivers, which provides the people with fertile soil for planting rice and other crops, as well as freshwater fish. Central Thailand’s cuisine is also the country’s most well-traveled: the dishes you’re likely to encounter in a Thai restaurant abroad are often approximations of the rich curries and Chinese-influenced stir-fries that, for those both in and outside the country, have come to represent Thai food.
Spice level: In central Thailand, there’s often an effort to achieve balance, meaning that any chili heat is typically countered with sweet, salty, tart, and sometimes bitter flavors.
Important ingredients and seasonings: Coconut milk finds its way into a variety of curries. Palm sugar provides dishes with a sweet flavor. These days, pork is the preferred meat in central Thailand, but traditionally fish, both salt and freshwater, was the main protein, and it remains the source of Thailand’s most famous seasoning: fish sauce is made from anchovies caught in the Gulf of Thailand.
Cooking techniques: Curries, soups, chili-based dips, and salads, the latter known as yam, are common in central Thailand. Due to the strong Chinese influence, many central-Thai dishes are wok-fried.
Rice: People in central Thailand eat long-grained rice, except for in sweet snacks, for which sticky rice or sticky-rice flour is often used.