Thai food is not homogenous, and though I could have centred this feature around Bangkok, where I first opened a noodle shop, I’m choosing to tell you about my home region, because if you don’t know about it, and you love Thai food, you should. Thai people call Phetchabun, where I grew up, ‘little Switzerland’. The mountainous landscape and ‘cold’ (for Thai standards) weather is a welcome respite to the heat elsewhere. The area attracts lots of local visitors, especially around September-October, a season often referred to by the Thais as ‘plai fon ton nao’, which literally translates as ‘end of rain, beginning of cold’.
My family comes from the Khao Kho district in Phetchabun. It’s situated between the north and northeastern regions of Thailand, a two-hour drive from the border of Laos. Because it’s surrounded by mountains and jungles, the food culture here is all about foraging. I grew up sitting around charcoal grills with my mom and aunties, cooking ingredients that we could forage from the jungle or buy from the local Mhong village fresh market. Catfish, ants’ eggs, crabs, frogs, bamboo shoots, quails; you name it, we’ve got it all in Khao Kho. Children here learn how to cook from a very young age. Because most families are farmers, everyone has to pitch in and help with the food throughout the day. I started helping my grandma and my mom around the kitchen when I was only about six or seven. I grew up cooking alongside my aunties or uncles, and I often tagged along to forage or fish with them.
2 No tables
When families and friends sit down to eat, it’s not around a dining table, it’s always on the floor on a bamboo mat with the whole extended family surrounding a large spread of food. There’s no order to who eats first, everyone just digs in. Meals often go on for hours, especially in the evenings and at weekends.
3 Sticky rice
A massive bamboo basket containing sticky rice is always the most important part of the meal, whether that’s breakfast, lunch or dinner. It’s well known in Thailand that sticky rice plays an important part in agriculture – it’s a major source of fuel to keep the farmers going through the day.
4 Breakfast, lunch and dinner
Every place has typical dishes that are eaten at certain times of the day – Phetchabun is no different. This is what you should expect to eat: Breakfast is almost always larb, a type of salad made with minced meat mixed with fresh chillies and herbs like coriander, dill, mint and garnished with toasted rice, served with a bunch of fresh vegetables. Lunch is a variation of papaya salads, kanom jeen, fermented rice noodles with spicy curry sauce, and spicy grilled meat salads. For dinner, we always have grilled meat or whole fish, alongside spicy soups or curries like gaeng nor mai – fermented bamboo shoots curry.
5 Grilled chicken
Although Gai Yang, grilled chicken, is a staple part of Thai cuisine, each region has their own take on the recipe. My favourite is from the sub-district of Wichien Buri. I love their grilled rotisserie chicken so much that I tried to replicate it in my cookbook. What makes it so different from everywhere else in Thailand is lemongrass and turmeric, which give it a distinctly golden yellow colour.
We eat herbs in quantity. Fresh herbs like dill, coriander and vegetables like green aubergine are often eaten alongside chilli dips or larb salad. There often is a whole plate or side dish full of fresh herbs and vegetables to go with every meal.
Phetchabun is well known for its sweet and sour tamarind. When roasted, the tamarind flesh becomes super-juicy and you can snack on it straight from the pods. It’s also the same variety of tamarind that goes into our local pad Thai sauce. It tastes different – sweeter – than tamarind from other parts of the country like the south, which grows the more sour variety used in their regional cooking.
We love nothing more than ice-cold beers to go with our lunches and dinners. Thai-style lager really complements the food because it’s very refreshing, low in alcohol content (4-5 per cent), and is great at cooling down the heat in the food.
9 Rice spirits
Keep an eye out for Nam Khao Mak (fermented rice spirits) – if you see it, order it. It’s a northern Thai speciality made with the water used to steam sticky rice, mixed with yeast, and left to ferment for 20-35 days. The result is something similar to a sake or rice wine with a much higher alcohol percentage. It’s a drink for special occasions, like during Songkran celebrations (Thai New Year every 13-15 April) – it’s super-sweet and delicious, but definitely potent.
10 Cabbages and coffee
Did you know that you can pick strawberries and cabbages in Thailand? The climate in Phetchabun makes it perfect for growing produce that won’t grow elsewhere, and the region is well-known for local farm-stays (you can also go camping and hiking in the cooler months). As well as cabbages, strawberries and other cooler climate produce, you can also enjoy locally grown Arabica coffee. Take a cup up to a high point and watch the stunning local phenomenon of sea mist swirling around the mountains at sunrise.
Saiphin grew up in Khao Kho, northern Thailand, before moving to Bangkok and opening a noodle shop at 20. There are now 19 Rosa’s Thai Cafes in London, Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester, serving Saiphin’s signature dishes, from butternut curry to drunken noodles.