Deciphering Thai Food Terminology

Few things make me cringe more than overemphasizing or over-hyping food. No food is ever “to die for” and few ever “melt in your mouth”. Pretending they do is little more than lying. Yes, I may be bland and boring, like the Khao Tom (rice soup) of Thai food, but to make things worse I am also a stickler for terminology. With my obsession with Thai Street Food the more I learn the more I find inconsistencies. So to help myself to understand I will share my confusion here, through inane ramblings. Below is my attempt to decipher Thai Food Terminology starting with the most confusing of them all, Thai curries. So ununderstandable that myself and Fanfan were close to blows and I spent a sleepless night with curries and soups pouring through my head (note I do overexaggerate on occasions). I don’t think there is a definitive answer to these questions, no right or wrong, but I am always interested in others’ two cents.

Thai Curry Pastes (Kaeng), Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups Khao Soi Curry Soup, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups

Curries, Soups, or Both

Starting with the obvious, Thai food rarely uses curry powder although there are exceptions. Kaeng Kare (yellow curry) is one curry I can think of which fuses curry powder and it is often referred to in Thailand as an Indian-style curry. In fact Kaeng Kare translates to Curry Curry, a curry which contains curry powder. Confusing? Things get a lot worse. So curry is a generic term for a “variety of spiced dishes” and in Thailand the word Kaeng is a common term for curry… but it also means soup. I’m really opening a can of worms here as I think terminology no doubt gets confused in translation. Anyway, anything named Kaeng is a curry? e.g. Green Curry (Kaeng Kiao Wan) or Red Curry (Kaeng Phed). But there are many non-curry dishes with the same name e.g. Kaeng Som (Sour Soup). To confuse things more, the popular reference of “Tom” as a soup can also be preceded by Kaeng e.g. Hot Sour Soup “Kaeng Tom Yum” or Coconut Soup “Kaeng Tom Kha”. So the words curry and soup are interchangeable with Thai dishes, or at least in parts.

Thai Green Curry, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups Tom Kha Kai Soup, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups

Characteristics of a Curry

So there are two common characteristics with curries, one, they generally use a curry paste over fresh ingredients and two, they more-than-not use a coconut milk base. However, there are curries which have neither e.g. Jungle Curry (Kaeng Pa). The opposite is found as well where I see dishes like Khao Soi Curry, a curry paste and coconut based dish, often described as a noodle soup. So curries can be soups and soups can be curries, but are all curries soups? The Southern Dry Curry (Khua Kling), with no broth, is definitely not a soup. And where does this leave foods cooked similar like the Northern Chilli Dip (Nam Prik Ong)? Are chilli dips in fact curries? To date I have always accepted; if people call it a curry it is a curry, if they call it a soup it is a soup but this is obviously not the case.

Jungle Curry (Kaeng Pa), Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups Khua Kling Dry Curry, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups

Is Thai Food Spicy?

Going slightly off topic now. Is Thai food in fact spicy? A spice is a dried seed, fruit, root, bark, or vegetable. The chilli pepper with internal, edible seeds is a fruit but it is not dried and is therefore not a spice. The same goes for fresh ginger, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves…. If dried or pummeled into a powder then yes they are spices (e.g. chilli powder or dried chilli peppers) but most Thai dishes use fresh ingredients and are therefore not ‘spicy’. If anything they are pungent (the technical term) but this doesn’t sound well. I generally avoid using the word ‘spicy’ (or ‘hot’ which indicates it has been heated) and instead opt for the less ambiguous “fiery” which, while as wrong, feels less confusing (as the food is obviously not on fire). For me spicy food should incorporate a number of spices maybe Star anise, Cloves, Cinnamon and shouldn’t highlight just the use of one spice. If a food only has pepper in it, it makes more sense to say peppery.

Popular Thai Flavours, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups Dry Cooking Spices, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups

Deconstructing Curry Pastes

Back to the simple definition of curries being “a variety of spiced dishes. This can help find a more definitive answer? So which Thai curries in fact fuse spices? Okay, this is a little absurd but fortunately I have a lot of time on my hands. To know if Thai curries are ‘spicy’ or contain spices it means deconstructing the pastes. Of course Thai pastes rarely come dry so in themselves they aren’t spices. Many do however contain spices and for some it will be obvious e.g. the ‘Southern’ influences of cardamom and star anise found in Massaman Curry. Others not so much. To keep it simple I will take the two common curries of Red Curry and Green curry. The red curry paste is in fact pounded from dry red chillies, a spice, so it is no doubt a curry. The green curry is pounded from fresh green chillies and appears to be more dubious. However, when deconstructing the paste the green curry in fact fuses the spices of cumin and white peppercorns and while not prominent in flavour the spices do exist so yes the green curry is a curry (sounds a lot better than green pungent soup). Lastly, the obvious misfit from earlier was the Jungle Curry. The Jungle Curry has no curry paste, no coconut milk and to skim through ingredients finds no spices either. I would therefore classify jungle curry as a jungle soup. Again, not definitive.

Cooking Authentic Curries, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups Spiced Massaman Curry, Thai Food Terminology, Curries and Soups

7 thoughts on “Deciphering Thai Food Terminology”

  1. Can’t argue with a papaya salad 🙂 Out of interest were you ever able to find vegan versions in Thailand. Most would contain nam pla fish sauce or pla ra pickled fish sauce but I’ve tried substituting these with soy sauce in some yum dishes which works… I’m now on a mission for a fish free Papaya salad 🙂

  2. Hi there,
    You got very good review on Thai food. This is a complement from a Thai national.
    To get your confusion solved or worst please let me explain a bit more here.
    First, the language

    1.) Gaeng = it’s typically mean ” a boiled THICK soup and normally with burning sensation on your palate 🙂 ” such as curries, green, red, yellow, orange (sour soup as you called it). But every rule has an exception – Gaeng Pah is not so thick.

    2.) Tom = it normally refer to ” a boiled CLEARER soup with no or less burning sensation than above” i.e. Kao Tom = rice soup, Tom Jued = clear soup with vegetables, Tom Kha also there are some exception here… Tom Yum -> original recipe the soup is clear, no chilli oil, no coconut milk so this is TOM, then you got a new recipe which a thicker soup.

    So the curry paste got nothing to do with the Curry or non curry… it’s the thickness and taste of the soup that matters…

    P/s In Thai Cuisine, our cooking ways are 1. TOM (Clear soup) 2. Phad (Stir-fry) 3. Geang (Thick soup or often called curry) 4. Thod (Fry or deep fry) and may be 5. Nam prig (Chilli dipping)
    Other than that it was influenced by Chinese and Indian cuisine i.e. steam, simming

    Hope this help

      1. Pao may be, but in my opinion, it ‘s just a way of making raw food cooked..nothing seasoned or very minimal as we would like to taste the freshness of the catch then complement with Nam Jim which goes to Nam prig category

        Yang , I can’t think of any food apart from Gai Yang (grilled chicken) and Mooh Yang (grilled pork)…note.. Gai Sateh is influenced by the Indian (guess from the marinating ingredients)

        By the way your blog is very very interesting, even I am Thai.. I am fascinated open twenty-ish tabs

        1. Thanks again Tao. Yeah I’ve often heard Moo Ping referred to as Thai satay. Other than being skewered meat however, there’s not so much resemblance to the Malay or Indonesia Sate.
          I’m actually putting together a Tourist Friendly Food Guide. Would be interested if I could send it over to you. You can correct some of my mistakes 😉

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