For healthy eating, there's no place like home

As concerns increase over diets, it's worth remembering that traditional Thai cuisine has always offered recipes for nutritious dining

Concerns about the connection between physical well-being and the food we eat have been especially strong in Thailand lately. We hear a lot about the idea that diet is an important cause of many conditions, especially obesity.

‘Mee krawp’, an oldfashioned Thai dish. PHOTOS: SUTHON SUKPHISIT

We are constantly reminded that too much fat in one's diet can cause hypertension, heart disease and diabetes. The main transgressor usually cited is junk food, because it is a relatively new entrant to our eating culture, with a constantly expanding menu that has spread to every part of the country.

Young people from the provinces who go to work in Bangkok and return home often like to take their parents or adult relatives, who may be farmers and live far from larger towns and cities, to dine in a modern restaurant in a provincial capital.

The first place they think of will be a pizza or fried chicken restaurant, maybe followed by some imported brand of ice-cream. They want their family to experience the trendy new foods that they have been eating in Bangkok.

Boiled eggs with a spicy sauce, an easy to make dish with high food value.

Today there are any number of inexpensive industrially produced foods that are quick and convenient to eat. They are advertised so effectively that they sell quickly, especially snacks for children packaged in brightly coloured bags so eye-catching that they attract children like magnets. There are so many of these products these days that they seem to take up half of the floor space in supermarkets.

When junk food was seen as a threat to health, a reaction took place in the form of a campaign encouraging people to eat healthy food. "Healthy food" became a term that identified the speaker as a member of a group that was in the know.

New recipes were invented that claimed to answer the requirements of good health, with fruit and vegetables being primary ingredients. Fruit and vegetable drinks were the best choices for beverages, and this corresponded nicely with the advertisements for the electrical food processors used to make them.

‘kaeng lueang’, the southern Thai version of ‘kaeng som’ that is popular all over the country.

The sections of supermarkets where fresh produce was displayed, especially items from temperate zones, were made to look as attractive as possible, complete with salad bars with the ingredients conveniently sliced or chopped so that customers could make their own selection. The salad dressings that were offered had to be accompanied with a notice stating that only olive oil was used to make them, as this was not complicit in causing health problems associated with other types of oil.

In addition to vegetables and fruit, which are the main choices for healthy foods, and the dishes, mostly salads, based on them, there are also recipes for healthy main dishes. Among them are grilled salmon with vegetable sauce, pumpkin steamed with chicken, crackers topped with shrimp and berries and carrot balls.

All of these recipes also have another beneficial property to make them attractive to women - they are supposed to enhance beauty and reduce wrinkles.

While the benefits from eating healthy foods are welcome, there is another way to achieve them that is even better, and it is quite ordinary and available everywhere. Look at Thai food closely and it is clear that it has developed from its roots as a healthy cuisine.

‘Nam prik’ with an assortment of vegetables.

Food preparation in the traditional Thai lifestyle was simple. The ingredients used were close to hand and changed with the seasons, with an emphasis on fish and other animals from rivers and the sea. Traditional folk knowledge provided ways to season them to accent their flavour and enhance the appetite. They were nourishing and strengthened the body. After the end of the era when food was always prepared in the home, food shops and restaurants at all price levels offered a variety of dishes that allowed customers to select their favourites.

One example of an ordinary Thai dish that is very healthy is the sour-spicy salad called a yam. There are many different kinds, all easy to prepare. They can be made with grilled beef or pork, or with the fried kunchieng, or Chinese sausage. Other ingredients include sliced cucumbers and shallots, khuen chai (Chinese celery) and nam yam, a seasoning sauce made from chillies, lime juice, nam pla and sugar.

Yam hua plee is made from sliced banana flower with a nam yam made from tamarind water, lime juice, nam pla, sugar, the chilli paste called nam prik phao and some boiled shrimp to improve the flavour. It can also be enriched by pouring over a little coconut cream and adding pieces of boiled egg.

In the rainy season, the water-loving herb called krathin becomes plentiful. Its tender shoots can be made into a yam similar to the one made with banana flower. Another version of the same dish can be made using chakhram, a brush-like herb that grows near the seashore.

Yam dishes can be seen as Thai salads, but they have an intense flavour that comes from the nam yam used to make them, which is more delicious, and healthier, than most Western-style salad dressings, especially the creamy ones.

Then there is the soup-like curry called kaeng som. In the central region there are many different variants made with vegetables and herbs that are in season. These might include the tree-borne flower called dawk khae and the woody pod called maroom in Thai (called the drumstick plant in Indian cooking). Other ingredients available year-round are unripe papaya, the morning glory-like vine called pak boong, and the herb called pak krachate, with its mimosa-like leaves.

The southern Thai version of kaeng som, also called kaeng lueang (yellow curry), is enjoyed nationwide, and uses hearts of coconut palm, the arum called ton khoon or peanut sprouts. The paste used to make it includes turmeric to mask the odour of the fish it contains while also adding to the flavour.

The Thai vegetable soup-like dish called kaeng lieng can be made with a wide variety of vegetables - banana flowers, pumpkin, loofah gourds and fresh basil. The full flavour of the broth comes from grilled fish or dried shrimp, shallots, pepper, the aromatic rhizome called krachai (fingerroot) and kapi (shrimp paste).

Besides the curries and soups there are also the nam prik, or chilli sauces, usually eaten with vegetables and fish. Nam prik haeng, made with dried chillies, nam prik kapi and nam prik makham, made from fresh tamarind are among the most common, and the foods they are eaten with are fish such as fried mackerel or grilled snakehead, as well as fresh or boiled vegetables. Eaten together, these foods are delicious and balanced in terms of nutrition. These are examples of Thai dishes that can truly be seen as healthy foods. They are not overly fatty or sweet, and are made with fresh local vegetables with a strong emphasis on fish.

Years ago the Health Ministry's Office of Thai Medicine published a cookbook of Thai dishes giving the nutritional value of different foods determined by scientific analysis. Unfortunately there was only one small edition, and the volume itself was produced by staff who were not professional publishers with a sense of how to produce a book that would be interesting to the public. It had little in common with the current books on healthy diets or attractive food presentation that have been designed by professionals and are exciting to read.

But for those who think seriously about the subject, ordinary Thai dishes are a good choice for healthy eating. There are many to choose from, they can be eaten at any time of day and, above all, they're delicious.

About the author

Writer: Suthon Sukphisit
Position: Writer