Gaeng som pla
Called “gaeng leung” in Bangkok, gaeng som is the ultimate bigwig of southern Thai comfort, a soup with such potent delicious flavor it’s a culinary wake up call — like a bowl of orange juice set on fire.
In Thai, it means “sour curry,” though it covers a much larger range of tastes. The soup is usually made with a liquid fish base combined with curry paste and turmeric, which turns it into a yellowish orange color.
Gaeng som is commonly cooked with bamboo shoots, green papaya or slices of pineapple.
Gaeng tai pla
Admittedly, this one isn’t a hit the first time most people taste it. But remove a southern Thai from their cuisine for too long and gaeng tai pla is likely the first thing their mouth will demand.
It’s a thick fish soup, more like a multidimensional stew with layers of complex flavor. The ingredients are a combination of fish viscera, grilled fish, fermented shrimp paste, eggplant, pumpkin, string beans and bamboo shoots.
Just like in a lot of southern Thai food, it’s the dried chilies, garlic, red onions, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal and turmeric that give gaeng tai pla that invigorating push.
I’m a sucker for sauce. I often treat Thai sauce as a beverage rather than a condiment. However, kua kling is one dish where extra flavoring is just not essential.
Kua kling is a southern Thai dry curry that is commonly made with pork, beef or chicken. Lacking the liquid coconut sweet curry (like many other Thai curries), the dry meat is like a sponge that absorbs a high concentration of spice.
The meat is injected with curry paste, chilies, garlic and shaved lemongrass before being sprinkled with a handful of thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves, and sometimes full pepper corns. Each bite is a piquant powerhouse that begins with a spicy kick and ends with a trace of lime.
Tom som pla krabok
Another sour fishy soup that is popular in southern Thai cuisine is tom som pla krabok. Overall, it’s not quite as fiery as gaeng som, but it just might be one of the sourest soups that Thailand has to offer.
Every spoonful is a tongue smack of acidity that results in an outward frown, but internal delight.
Along with the delightful sourness, the soup is a fusion of turmeric root, shredded ginger and tamarind juice.
Any combination of food made with sataw, which translates to “stink bean,” is a sure sell-out at any southern restaurant.
The bean, which certainly lives up to its name, is both delicious when cooked and extremely healthy.
Stink beans are often stir-fried with a choice of meat or pre-made in a variety of curries.
One of the qualities that makes southern Thai food so embedded with rich herbal flavor is that spices, roots and herbs are often minced so they can be ingested entirely (instead of boiled to extract flavor and thrown out).
Khao yam is a fragrant rice salad where grated coconut, dry shredded shrimp and a host of herbs are the dominating ingredients.
Micro-sliced kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, pennywort and turmeric leaves are among the blend of herbs that complete khao yam. The rice salad is mixed together and dressed with a slightly sweet fish sauce.
Nam prik goong siap
Nam prik goong siap is one of the more popular nam prik (spicy sauce) variations that originate from the lower portion of Thailand.
The intricate paste is a pestle pounded mixture composed of dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste, fiery chilies, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and a sprinkle of brown sugar to level things off.
Made correctly, all ingredients should even each other out in a harmonious sauce that is not too shrimpy, just sour enough, and perfectly balanced. Nam prik goong siap is served as a dip along with a garden of freshly cut vegetables.
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