What do Chefs Mean by the Term "Thai Style"?

Posted on 09 Jul 2012 18:40

So, you know a good Thai dish when you taste one and you've even cooked one yourself on occasion. But sometimes, you hear people speak of Thai style food. If it isn't an actual Thai dish but only a Thai style dish, what gives?

What gives depends on who is doing the labeling. To a chef or a home cook, saying that a dish is Thai versus Thai style, is a bit meaningless. That is, when we talk about the cuisine of a particular region, we are not only referring to its traditional dishes, but to the characteristic flavors and cooking techniques that are used. So Thai food and Thai style food, really refer to the same thing. However, unless we are being pretentious, we would not call our own Thai-like creation Thai, but Thai style.

Thai Style Food is Not Always Authentically Thai

When the term Thai style is used on prepared food product labels, however, it takes on a different, more dubious, meaning. For example, one of the most frequently prepared and packaged Thai dishes in the West (U.S and Canada), is Pad Thai. However, many of the products will proclaim Thai style somewhere on the label, even though Pad Thai is obviously a "Thai" dish. Why?

The reason is simple. Using the term "Thai style" allows the company to produce its own version of the dish which may only superficially resemble the traditional dish in Thai cuisine. Ingredients, even non-Thai ones, might be substituted and other ingredients may be added which are not traditionally used.

However, that does not answer the question as to what can actually qualify a dish to be called Thai style. The answer is simple. A dish that is called Thai style will typically contain around 5 or more of the ingredients below.

Thai Cooking Ingredients

  • basil
    • especially holy basil (kaprow), Thai basil (horapa), and lemon basil (manglak) but European sweet is a substitute)
  • chiles (especially red and green prik cheee or bird's eye prik kee noo)
  • chile products (sauce called sas prik)
  • coconut milk
  • coriander
  • cumin
  • fish sauce (Nam Pla)
  • galangeal
  • garlic
  • ginger
  • green onions
  • jasmine rice
  • kaffir lime
  • lemon grass
  • lime leaves (kaffir lime leaves)
  • peanuts
  • rice noodles
  • shallots
  • soy sauce

Keep in mind that this list is not an official one, but a sampling of the more ubiquitous Thai ingredients. Of course there are many other ingredients which may be used, such as:

  • Aubergine (eggplant)
  • bamboo shoots (naw mai)
  • beancurd (tofu)
  • bean sauce (black, yellow, and red)
  • bitter melon
  • cabbage
  • cardamon
  • jicama (mun kaew, bangkuang or yam bean, Daikon radish is a substitute)
  • Krachai (lesser ginger)
  • long bean
  • Moong beans (mung)
  • Morning glory (water spinach)
  • mushrooms (straw, Chinese, button and oyster)
  • oyster sauce
  • palm sugar
  • papaya (pawpaw)
  • preserved turnip (chi po)
  • preserved radish (tang chi)
  • rice flour
  • sago (Sa ku)
  • salted fish (preserved fish called pla haeang)
  • shrimp paste
  • sticky rice
  • tamarind
  • taro
  • turmeric
  • vinegar (esp. rice vinegar)
  • water chestnuts
  • white radish (Mooli)

Thai cooking may often be compared to Chinese cooking but it is really only the stir-frying, some typical meats and vegetables, and the importance of rice that are similar. Fish sauce is more important than soy sauce in Thai cooking and there are many different herbs and spices used in Thai cooking that are not used in Chinese cooking, especially those which originate in Indian cooking. Thai cooking tends to be much more aromatic and bold, and its essence is sweet, sour, spicy and bitter, all balanced in a cohesive dish. For this reason Thai dishes tend to use many ingredients.

Health is bound up in the philosophy of Thai cuisine and it is based on the principle of "food as medicine." Many of the ideas about how particular ingredients and flavors enhance health are of ancient origin.

Cooking Thai food may not be your thing, but eating it probably is. You may be interested in these Thai food terms often found on restaurant menus.

1. Yu, Su-mei. The Elements of Life: A Contemporary Guide to Thai Recipes and Traditions for Healthier Living. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2009.
2. Krauss, Sven, Luca Ganguillet, and Vira Sanguanwong. Authentic Recipes from Thailand. Singapore: Periplus, 2006.
© 2018 by Eric Troy and CulinaryLore. All Rights Reserved. Please contact for permissions.