Women unload spices for sale at a floating market in Bangkok. Such “street food” markets can be found in most Thai.

The foods of Thailand are made of exotic ingredients that are prepared easily and quickly. Food stalls (or street food) can be found throughout Thailand’s large cities and small towns. Local vendors advertise their specialty foods by drawing attention to their stalls. They do everything from banging eating utensils on pots to shouting the exotic names of the ingredients used to make their dishes. Some vendors even cook strong-aroma ingredients in their sauces and grilled meats to draw attention.

Eating street food is a way of life in Thailand and many other Asian countries. It is not uncommon to find a typical Thai food stall filled with an assortment of snacks such as coconut chips (thinly sliced coconut pieces, baked and sprinkled with salt); chicken satay (boneless, skinless grilled pieces of chicken breast, marinated in garlic cloves, ginger, Thai fish sauce, soy sauces and honey); Thai spring rolls (deep fried spring rolls made of sliced mushrooms, cooked noodles, garlic, cooked ground pork, fish sauce, grated carrots, bamboo shoots, bean sprouts, green onions, cilantro and black pepper); and cellophane noodle soup (shiitake mushrooms, lily buds, sliced cucumbers, garlic, white cabbage, cellophane noodles, soy sauce, palm sugar and tofu).

Taking Traditional to Mainstream

Sonny Lim, president of Kitchy Koo Gourmet, recently developed a peanut sauce and an orange mandarin sauce with the intention of taking them to mainstream markets throughout America. Lim said, “Some consumers don’t want to always use the same old red and yellow condiments for their hamburgers, hot dogs and French fries. Remarkably, both of our sauces cater to many demographics; they are not limited to one simple ethnic group. Chefs love serving our peanut sauce with fried chicken, and it has become very popular with adults and children. They use our peanut sauce as an alternative condiment for French fries and burgers.”

Kitchy Koo Gourmet takes the time and effort to show their new distributors and brokers how to develop easy, mainstream recipes using their sauces. Recently, a grilled orange mandarin salmon entrée was introduced to the media at a press reception and received rave reviews. Both the peanut and orange mandarin sauces are also great pairings for traditional Thai foods such as spring rolls, Asian salads, kebabs and some noodle dishes. “We want to put our sauces in the mainstream markets across America. Years ago, other companies took salsa and honey mustard to the grocery stores across the nation. So, I think we have a great chance with our peanut and orange mandarin sauces,” says Lim.

These colorful and aromatic dishes help attract diners to the exotic sights and smells to be experienced when eating Thai cuisine.

Royal Thai Cuisine

One of the most successful Thai restaurant chains in the world is called The Blue Elephant. Husband and wife team Karl and Khun Nooror Steppe opened their first Blue Elephant restaurant in Brussels 26 years ago. Now, there are 11 other locations in large international cities such as Paris, London, Bangkok, Moscow and Dubai. The Blue Elephant restaurant chain is known for its authentic Thai taste. A large proportion of the ingredients used to make the restaurants’ signature dishes are flown weekly from Bangkok, so they are fresh. Most recipes used to make the signature dishes on the menus are centuries old. There are a few creative new ones, but they basically show unique variations of traditional cooking techniques.

The Blue Elephant restaurants also offer freshly prepared, ready-cooked Thai meals at take-away counters inside the restaurant. They call this concept “Kitchen Fresh,” and it has reached some of the world’s largest upscale gourmet stores. Galleries Lafayette, Bon Marché, Galerie Gourmande and Rob carry a complete line of meals—Chicken Satay (marinated, grilled chicken served with cucumber and peanut sauce); Chuchi Prawns (king prawns served with a dash of red curry); Lamb Massaman (a typical dish from southern Thailand–slowly braised lamb in a medium-spicy curry sauce); Roasted Duck (roasted duck served in spiced coconut milk with grapes and pineapples); and Fried Rice Blue Elephant (stir-fried jasmine rice with crabmeat, shrimp, eggs and vegetables).

The Blue Elephant operates a cooking school in Bangkok. Located inside a century-old mansion, students begin learning how to prepare traditional Thai recipes by shopping for ingredients with their cooking instructor at the local markets. The school is not just for tourists; their full classes include chefs, cookbook authors and food product developers.

One of the most acclaimed Thai restaurants in America is Arun’s Thai Restaurant, located in Chicago. It has a five-star rating from AAA Motor Club and is recognized by the New York Times as “America’s best Thai restaurant.” Owner Arun Sampanthavivat was born and raised in the southern province of Thailand but has lived in America for over 25 years. He is responsible for all of the restaurant’s recipe creations and menu development.

In 1998, Arun made a bold change by abandoning the typical á la carte menu that is so popular in America and created a 12-course, prix fixé tasting menu. This approach allowed him to display creativity and skill in balancing flavors, rendering texture and showcasing artful forms of Thai cuisine. “Our customers recognize that $85 per person is a bargain for a custom-designed, 12-course menu of dishes that requires such forethought and precision to execute,” he says.

Canadian company President’s Choice has introduced a product line of Thai frozen gourmet entrées. Two popular items are Thai Mango Chicken (cooked jasmine rice, seasoned chicken fillets, red bell peppers, diced mangos, garlic, lime juice, seasoning and spices) and Pad Thai (cooked rice noodles, tofu, onions, eggs, bean sprouts, carrots, red bell peppers, sugar snap peas, tomato paste, peanuts, tamarind, green onions, lime juice and spices).

Importfood.com is a popular website started in Seattle by Jerry and Yaowalak Good. “We specialize in authentic Thai ingredients and products—everything from sauces and condiments to Thai cookware,” says Jerry. There is also a line of fresh Thai produce kits available for cooking as part of a meal; they include lemongrass, Thai chilies, galangal (a member of the ginger family) and limes. Fresh Thai basil, green papaya, whole fresh tamarind, Thai eggplants and shallots are also available. The kits are carefully packaged and shipped quickly to ensure freshness. The company also offers a Thai iced tea product, which has become very popular, thanks to similar iced tea beverages sold in many Thai restaurants across America. The brand sold on the website is called Porkwan, which comes in a 16oz package and is made from Thai tea leaves and spices.

Many Thai restaurants feature curries, such as this massaman lamb, which is a typical dish from southern Thailand. The lamb is braised slowly in a medium-spicy curry sauce.

What Next?

The Cheesecake Factory chain will open a new Southeast Asian concept in Los Angeles this year. It will be an upscale, casual restaurant with foods from Thailand, Vietnam, East India, Malaysia and Indonesia. This restaurant concept will join the company’s two other ventures, the 124-unit Cheesecake Factory and the 9-unit Grand Lux Café.