Thai Talk

Thais place an extraordinary emphasis on food, and a Thai meal is as much a celebration as a time of nourishment. Traditionally, all the dishes are placed in the middle of the table at the same time and shared by all. Rice, central to Thai culture, is always served, accompanied usually by a soup plus a salad, a curry, a stir-fry, a noodle dish, a fish dish, or any combination of these, as well as an assortment of condiments. When hands start flying and cheerful banter ensues, you know you're dining Thai style.

The subtleties of the tonal Thai language lead to widely varying transliterations (phonetic translations) between menus. Certain utterances fall between the sounds of English letters, so "pad Thai" at one restaurant becomes "pud Thai" at another and "paht Thai" at a third. "K" and "G" seem to cause the most trouble, making rice kao or gao and curry kang or gaeng, for instance.

Below are some basic elements of Thai dining in Austin. Where helpful, we've included common transliterations for ingredients and popular dishes. But remember, pronunciation is what's important. So if you don't find what you're looking for in one of our reviews or at a particular restaurant based on what you read below, try saying the words out loud, then search for an alternative spelling.


Appetizers

Besides the well-known Thai soft spring rolls and their deep-fried brethren, popular starters include curry-marinated skewers of meat with peanut dipping sauce (satay) and fish-and-green bean fritters seasoned with red curry accompanied by sweet and sour cucumber sauce (tod mun).


Condiments

A pungent bowl of fish sauce seasoned with chile and lime (nam pla prik) is the Thai equivalent of our salt shaker. Myriad dipping sauces as well as crushed chile may also be found on the table.


Curries (Kang or Gaeng)

Stews of meat or tofu sim-mered in a rich combination of coconut milk or milk and a spicy paste of varying Thai ingredients, e.g., chiles, garlic, lemon grass, galanga, shrimp paste. Explore the five basic curries: red (kang dang), green (kang keow wan), yellow (kang garee or kari), red with lime leaves (kang Panang), and Indian-style (kang Masaman).


Fish (Pla)

Often eaten as chunks simmered in a curry or steamed or fried whole, as in the popular pla lad prik, a whole fried fish topped with chile sauce.


Noodles

The only food Thais eat using chopsticks. Flat fresh rice noodles (kwaytiaow or guey teaw) are usually stir fried with other ingredients, as in pad Thai or lad na - noodles with broccoli in a thick brown gravy. Rice sticks, or vermicelli (sen mee), cellophane noodles, or bean threads (woon sen), and egg noodles (bah mee) are the basis for countless soups, salads, and stir fries.


Rice (Kao, Gao)

The central element of Thai cuisine. Jasmine rice is usually served in Austin's restaurants, but be sure to try the heavenly sticky rice - a glutinous short-grain variety eaten by hand - if it's available. Eat bites of rice with small portions of soup and entrees. Fried rice dishes, e.g., Thai fried rice (kao pad) and pineapple fried rice (kao pad su pra pod), tend to be eaten by themselves as light meals.


Salad (Yum)

A crucial element of Thai cuisine that has a broader definition than the American one of lettuce and stuff. Typical dishes include spicy papaya salad with dried shrimp (som tum), glass noodle salad with meat (yum woon sen), and beef or seafood salad with herbs, spices, and lime juice (yum nua/yum pla).


Soup (Tom)

Almost as essential to a Thai meal as rice. Set a piping tureen of chicken and coconut milk soup (tom kha) or lemon grass soup with shrimp (tom yum goong) in the middle of the table and sample it throughout the meal to adjust the palate and excite the senses between bites of other dishes.


Spoon

As in not chopsticks! Thais eat most of their food using a spoon, often with some assistance from a fork. Use the spoon to ladle sauce over rice and scoop up rice with other morsels; use the back of the fork to push the rice onto the spoon.


Stir-Fried Dishes

These ubiquitous preparations are easily identifiable by the word pad (or pud, paht, pot), which means "stir fried." For example, kra pow (or grawpow) is the word for the aniselike Thai holy basil, so pad kra pow would be "stir-fried with Thai holy basil." Just about every seafood, noodle, meat, and even rice is available stir-fried.

-P.E.

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