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The history of Thai cuisine

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by         : RJ Fisher
last update: December 2020

The History of Thai Cuisine

Spoiler Alert! Some of the most famous dishes that Thai cuisine has to offer do not originate from Thailand at all!

Or to put it more mildly, the Thai have proven to be masters of creative fusion cooking and then making it their own. Throughout history, China, India, Cambodia, Malaysia and even Europe all heavily influenced Thai cooking.

This Article:

– Reveals how Thai cuisine was influenced throughout history;

– Explains the philosophy behind the Thai flavors;

– Tells you about Royal Thai Cuisine and where to get it.


Up to the 15th century Thai cuisine basically consisted of rice, a bit of fish, aromatic herbs and lot’s of vegetables. Meat only represented a small part of the diet, mainly due to Buddhist influence. Only in landlocked regions meat was more popular, because of the limited access to protein from fish and seafood.

Nowadays we regard many stir fried dishes as original Thai cooking. However, in Thailand, the cooking technique of stir frying only came into use after the Chinese immigration got into gear. The Chinese also brought their noodles and hey, what is more Thai than the ever so popular and stir fried Pad Thai noodle dish?

Thai stir fry - History of Thai Cuisine
Thai stir fry cooking

Did you know that Pad Thai was “invented” in the late 1930’s through a competition issued by the Thai government to create a National Dish?

In seventeenth-century Kingdom of Ayutthaya, there were settlements of Chinese, Viet, Cham, Mon, Portuguese, Arab, Indian, Persian, Japanese and various Malay communities. Consequently, this multi cultural mix of settlers influenced Thai cooking immensely, starting with the Ayutthayan court.

Indian influence is clearly visible in the famous spiced Thai curries. In the 17th century the Portuguese introduced sweet desserts, as well as chilies, which are now iconic to Thai cooking. Over time, Thai cuisine also absorbed many flavors and dishes from its neighboring countries Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Think spring rolls, laab and som tam.

Balancing Flavors

Thailand is a large country and it has many regional cuisines each with its own distinctive ingredients and cooking techniques. However, many of the dishes that we consider having those typical Thai flavors are actually from Bangkok.

In any case, the basis of Thai cuisine is balanced by the flavors sweet, salty, sour and heat. Sweet is taken from palm sugar, sweet soy sauce and coconut milk. Salt or fish sauce (nam pla) provide the salty flavors. Sour is derived from lime, lemony herbs or tamarind and the heat is of course from chilies.

Ok, some like to add bitter flavors from herbs and leaves as well. I don’t. Altogether these flavors form the identity of Thai food and any dish should have at least a few or preferably all of them combined. Finding the perfect yin and yang between these flavors is what truly sets the better chefs apart from us hobby cooks.

Chilies and spices - History of Thai Cuisine
Chili ‘n spice

Royal Thai Cuisine

And then there is “Royal Thai Cuisine”, also described as “food fit for royals”. Small portions of varied high-end dishes are served in sets and they are to be eaten in a particular order from mild to complex. All dishes should please the eye with impeccable presentation and all servings including decorations must be edible.

For this reason chefs often prepare elaborate carved vegetables and lavish garnishes to accompany the food. Everything must be bite sized, boneless and original recipes must be followed precisely.

Royal Thai cuisine originated in the 1300’s at the Ayutthaya courts. Nowadays a wide array of restaurants offer Royal Thai cuisine all boasting it to be a special experience. On the other hand, many food bloggers claim it to be just another tourist trap.

Restaurant Baan Suriyasai - History of Thai Cuisine
Royal Thai Cuisine by restaurant Baan Suriyasai in Bangkok

You can try it for yourself at the famous Bangkokian restaurant Baan Suriyasai, located near the Patpong nightmarket. Baan Suriyasai comes highly recommended and although it also attracts foreign visitors it’s anything but a tourist trap.

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Have you ever tried Royal Thai cuisine? If you have, what did you think of it? Let us know in the comments below.

Safe travels,


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