Thai food consistently ranks high on the world’s best cuisines; its popularity augmented by the many Thai restaurants that opened in capital cities such as London and New York. While many people associate curries and the unrestrained use of chilies with Thai cooking, it really is more than foods that burn the tongue.

Just as the Kingdom can be separated into different regions, Thai cuisine can be divided into northern, central and southern foods, each in turn influenced by its neighbours such as China, Laos, and Malaysia. In fact, much of what is commonly eaten and hawked by the roadside today were originally Chinese. These were introduced by the Teochews, a people from the eastern Guangdong province of China, who, like their Hokkien neighbours, had sailed south of the South China Sea to trade. They introduced the wok for cooking, and added to traditional Thai cooking techniques of baking, grilling and stewing the characteristic Chinese methods of deep-frying and stir-frying.

Whatever food you’re tucking into, you will be able to discern the mix of flavours typical of Thai cooking. The balance of these flavours—hot, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter—makes or breaks the dish. But balance is also a very personal thing, which explains why most Thai restaurants have a quartet of condiments (usually comprising sugar, fish sauce, chili powder, and pickled chilis), so that diners are able to adjust the flavours to their liking.

Thai food is usually eaten communally. What is served (or ordered) should be a harmony of spicy and mild, sweet and sour, all presented to delight the senses. A meal of shared dishes usually includes a chili-hot salad (yum), a soup or curry (gaeng), a fried meat dish, and dips (nam prik) to go with the fried meat or raw vegetables.