A history of spring rolls and other traditional Thai favourites
Thai food is known for its unusual complexity. Salty, sweet, sour, spicy and even bitter flavours are woven into a symphony of taste that delights the senses. To understand how these seemingly
disparate elements are brought together in harmony, we must take a journey into the history of Thai cuisine, and Thailand itself: to the ancient Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya, Chinese dynasties, Indian empires and Portuguese traders! Along the way, we’ll see how a melting-pot of influences have helped create some of our favourite Thai dishes.
The story of spring rolls (Po-Pia)
Many cultures, dating back to ancient times, have had dishes in which dough or grain is wrapped around meat, seafood and vegetables; anything readily available. These made ideal on-the-go foods that could easily be taken out hunting, fishing or farming. The po-pia or spring rolls we enjoy today began their life in the Jin dynasty in China, around 265 CE. These were small buns filled with the first vegetable crops of the season – eaten to celebrate the arrival of spring. These were initially called “spring dishes”, but over time transformed into thin, rolled pastries – “spring rolls”.
Tai-speaking people migrated from Guangxi in Southern China into South-East Asia (including Thailand) over several hundred years – between the 8 th and 10 th century CE. Much of Thai cooking was influenced by this migration, and it is likely that Chinese spring rolls came with these ancient people and have evolved over time into the po-pia we know and love today.
A tale of Thai green curry (Geang Khew Wan)
Curry, now popular in many forms throughout Asia, originated in India around 2500 BCE. Indian influence on Thai culture is evident as far back as the Dvaravati period in the 6 th century CE – when the now famous Buddha statues originated. Curry first appeared in Thailand in the capital-city of Ayutthaya in the 15 th century. At the time, these curries more closely resembled Indian ones.
So where do the distinct flavours in Thai curry, such as shrimp paste (kapi), garlic, lemongrass, lime leaf, cumin seeds (not to mention chilli) come in? Along with their essential fiery flavour, it is in fact the types of chilli that give Thai curries their distinct colours. Now a staple of Thai cooking, you may be surprised to learn that chillies didn’t exist in Thailand until the 16 th century! Christopher Columbus returned home with chillies from South America, and Portuguese traders – who had established a trade route in Ayutthaya in 1511 – introduced them to Thailand. Needless to say, they spread like wildfire: chilli was introduced to a huge range of dishes, including red and green curry. Royal influence also played a major part in the evolution of Thai cooking – dishes developed in royal kitchens shaped what the population ate. King Narai, a huge fan of spicy dishes like green curry, sealed the deal with his approval.
A tasty tangent – the mystery of tom yum’s origin
Tom yum, a soup with the powerful combination of aromatic galangal, salty fish sauce, sweet coconut milk, spicy chilli and sour lime (among other things) and often served with prawns (tom
yung kung), is among the most famous Thai dishes. It is a perfect representation of the genius of Thai cooking. Yet its origin is a mystery: while there are references to somewhat similar dishes as far back as 12 th century Sukhothai, the first record of fully formed tom yum emerges out of nowhere in 1890 – in the first cookbook printed in Thai. Perhaps it is because Thai food is constantly evolving;perhaps the dish was invented in a back alley, not a royal court where now-famous dishes were often developed and recorded. We may never know… but the intrigue matches the magical essence of tom yum.
The modern masterpiece born of practicality: Phad Thai
As one of Thailand’s favourite dishes, one might think that Phad Thai has a very long history – but it is, in fact, rather modern. During the late 1930s, with the onset of World War II, Thailand was facing severe problems – including rice shortages worsened by flooding; and a crisis of identity. In a bid to reduce eating of rice, Prime Minister Phibun encouraged noodles as an alternative. At the same time, he changed the name of the country from Siam (a name invented by Western traders) to Thailand and started a competition for a national dish.
Phad Thai got its name from winning this competition – and rightfully so! A masterful blend of noodles stir-fried with egg, tofu, tamarind, garlic and other Thai staples, it can be served with various meats, vegetables and toppings. Incredibly versatile but consistently delicious, it is the perfect example of necessity being the mother of invention!