One of the main reasons why Thai food is so delicious is because there’s no other cuisine like it on Earth. Authentic Thai food relies upon the careful balancing of sweet, salty, spicy, and sour. The problem when trying to get people interested in cooking in Thai food is that as soon as you mention the complex flavor profiles and delicate balancing involved, it makes Thai cuisine sound esoteric and difficult to cook. This is a common misinterpretation. What makes Thai food so unique is that it is a tasting cuisine that allows lots of leeway for personal preference.
The more you cook Thai food, the better you become at achieving the ideal balance of flavors that adds authenticity to your food. The great thing is that the ideal balance is completely subjective. Everyone has different ideas for saltiness, sourness and spiciness. The one thing Thai food should never be but often is in Westernized Thai restaurants – is bland and full of indistinct tastes, using way too much coconut milk.
Even just attempting a Thai stir-fried basil dish at home for the first time is often far tastier and more rewarding than any take out Thai green curry that just tastes of coconut milk mixed with some spice. When you chuck the specific ingredients into a wok together required to make authentic Thai food, good things are bound to happen, even if the flavor profile is slightly off.
One of the main aspects that makes Thai food so unique is how the technical skill required to cook each dish varies so much. There are some remarkably simple dishes that taste amazing requiring little more than a hot wok, a few ingredients, and some steamed rice to serve, such as a Thai omelette. Other dishes could take 8-10 hours to prepare and cook, but boy are the flavors worth the effort.
Another unique aspect of Thai cuisine is that it’s a “flowing” cuisine. Eating in many cultures is a communal thing. But what distinguishes Thai food in large gatherings of friends or families is how there is always a constant flow of people putting food on their plates little by little.
Thai cuisine relies on generous use of herbs in its dishes moreso than many other cuisines. Thais love their herbs. They use dill, parsley, culantro, cilantro, lemon basil, sweet basil, holy basil, cha-om, and many more herbs that I don’t even know the name of. This can make Thai cooking a challenge because sourcing all of these herbs in Western countries seems impossible. You’d be surprised how many herbs for Thai cooking you can get from your local Asian or Thai market, though, so don’t knock it until you try it.
Strength. Thai cuisine doesn’t tend to rely on subtleties. The major flavors are influenced by strong, pungent, powerful ingredients. The intricacies come in the combination of these powerful flavors to deliver dishes that blow your mind. Thai chilis are incredibly spicy, lime leaves and lemongrass add intense fragrance and citrus to dishes. Kaffir lime, tamarind, and lime juice add lip-smacking sourness to many dishes. Fish sauce and pla ra add a funky salty taste to dishes that is unlike any other cuisine.
Finally, the last unique aspect of Thai cuisine is the seasonings used to enhance the flavor of the dishes. Often in Western kitchens, chefs add salt and pepper to food before serving it to you, but they also give you the option to add some yourself to taste. The same idea exists in Thai cuisine but the seasonings are a lot more complex. Seasoning allows for an individual touch to each dish so that each diner acts somewhat like a chef.
To expand on the seasoning point, I personally can’t eat a Thai omelette without a good serving of prik nam pla, or fish sauce with chilis and lime. A Thai omelette on its own tastes nice, but add the prik nam pla, and you elevate the flavor to another dimension. Nobody can enjoy Thai noodles without choosing one of the many condiments: sour vinegar spike with chili, chili flakes, sugar, and fish sauce, all representing the unique fundamental blend of flavors that is Thai cuisine.