People often ask me why so many Thais remain thin despite our very obvious passion
for food. In fact, this used to puzzle me, too, until I started researching and writing
my books on Thai cooking. The answer is now clear: it's the ingredients, it's the
preparation, it's the way we cook, and it's the way we eat. Let me explain!
First, I must warn you that my remarks are all about traditional Thai cooking, with
just a few minor variations to accommodate Western taste. I am not referring to any of
the current fads that you'll currently find in Bangkok, where thin teenagers are turning
into plump adults on a diet of hamburgers, Coca Cola and Krispy Kreme doughnuts.
Yes, obesity is becoming more prevalent in Thailand, but it's mainly because the
lifestyle has become more westernised. Fortunately, the majority retain their figures
by eating traditional foods.
It's the ingredients
In Thailand we're fortunate to have a huge variety of fruit and vegetables. This means
we can buy them fresh, rather than eating, say, peaches or pears preserved in syrup.
We also like to choose ingredients carefully - and this often means walking around the
street markets to find the best mangoes, durian, or coconuts. If you walk a mile to buy
fruit, that will help to keep you slim!
The main energy source, the staple of the Thai diet is rice, which "bulks up" during
cooking and so tends to be less dense, and less fattening than potatoes. Thai diners are
more likely to fill up with leafy vegetables and other side dishes, rather than eating
vast quantities of rice.
We make everything palatable by adding fresh herbs, including coriander, basil,
lemon grass and chillies.
Most important of all, we love seafood. Fish should be part of everyone's diet, at least
one a week, but do make sure you choose a sustainable species. Oily fish is the best
source of Omega-3 poly-unsaturated fatty acids which all experts say are vital for
In my various books I've listed the health benefits of just about all typical Thai
ingredients. Here are three examples:
* Ginger, one of the most popular Thai ingredients, is well-known as a digestive aid.
* Water chestnuts contain no fat whatsoever and very few calories.
* The white meat of chicken is lower in calories, lower in fat and higher in protein
than dark meat.
So how about using all the above ingredients to make Chicken with Water Chestnuts
and Ginger? You can find this recipe, which also includes dried black fungus, in my
e-book Ginger & Galangal Secrets (from ThaiFoodSecrets.com).
It's the preparation
Because we like to chop and slice most of the ingredients, Thai food takes quite a
lot of preparation. But this, too, has health benefits. Instead of serving half-chickens
or large steaks of beef we serve finely-sliced meat in bite-sized pieces which can be
savoured individually. Only fish are frequently served whole, often as a communal
dish from which each diner takes small helpings.
It's the way we cook
Long on preparation, but quick to cook: that's the traditional way of food in Thailand.
In all my books I emphasize the importance of pan-frying rather than deep-frying,
whenever possible. In stir-frying, using a wok, the key to success is knowing how
long to cook each ingredient. Be careful not to overcook vegetables. Add light
vegetables at the end: for example, beansprouts take only about 3 minutes when
cooked with other ingredients.
It's the way we eat
Buddhist tradition teaches us to savour our food rather than to wolf it down quickly.
Does this have a health benefit? I think it does. If you take your time to enjoy the
food that you (or someone else) has prepared and cooked, you won't be in danger of
overeating because the body starts to signal "satisfaction" before the end of the meal.
We call it "im" (full). If you hear Thai diners protesting "im!" it means they really
can't eat much more.
British, European or American people will never eat exclusively Thai, except perhaps
on a trip to Thailand, but maybe they can apply some of the principles of traditional
Thai cooking to their own cuisine. The keys are: greater variety of ingredients,
smaller cuts of meat, more fish, avoidance of overcooking, and taking time to enjoy
Oi Cheepchaiissara is author of four books, "The Food of Thailand," "A Little Taste
of Thailand" (Murdoch), "Fresh Thai" and "200 Thai Favourites" (Hamlyn), and 16
e-books in the series "Thai Food Secrets." She teaches Thai cooking at her home in
Colchester and at The Cookery School at Braxted Park, in Essex.