If you’re planning to visit Thailand, prepare your belly and your taste buds for a magnificent, one-of-a-kind treat. Eating in Thailand is unlike eating anywhere else. Simply put, Thais love to eat! There’s no denying locals are passionate about their wonderful cuisine, and they have good reason to be. Since food is such a major part of the Thai culture, myriad unique flavor combinations have been developed, which is largely due to the plethora of fresh ingredients available throughout the country. Since locals are accustomed to eating small meals throughout the day, good food is available at all times, and in most cities, and even some smaller towns, you can't walk more than a few feet without coming across a street vendor selling something delectable, such as a papaya salad, noodle soup, fresh-cut fruit or a host of other dishes. Add to this the influence of its neighboring countries and culinary traditions—noodles and stir fries were integrated into Thai cooking from China—and you get a food culture that truly can't be found anywhere else.
Thai cooking is essentially based on the fundamental quest to achieve balance between the four primary culinary flavors: salty, sour, sweet and spicy. In Thai cooking, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar (usually palm sugar) and chili peppers embody these four flavors, respectively. All these ingredients can be found throughout the country and appear in many regional dishes. That said, these ingredients are almost never found without other elements that provide depth, flavor and subtlety to each dish, and the variety and breadth of Thai food demonstrates there are many different ways to obtain these flavors. Additionally, Thai cooking makes use of local ingredients, which provide unique flavors. These ingredients include lemongrass, galangal, pandan leaf, toasted rice powder, fermented shrimp paste and holy basil, just to name a few.
The Dining Experience in Thailand
The simple rule for enjoying food in Thailand is to open your mind and to be ready for new flavors, textures, ingredients and sensations. Visitors limiting themselves to pad thai, yellow curry or the dishes commonly found in their Western Thai restaurants is doing themselves a great disservice. Eating is one of the best reasons to visit Thailand, and many travelers find themselves coming back in order to explore the country's seemingly endless variety of ingredients and foods.
Normal Thai portion sizes are considerably smaller than average Western meals, allowing eaters in Thailand to continually eat small meals and snacks throughout the day rather than becoming stuffed in a single sitting. Because fresh, delicious, inexpensive food is available just about everywhere, locals eat out for many of their meals. This means the standard of food is generally high. Much of this has to do with the incredible availability and quality of street food, markets stalls and other quick and tasty eating establishments. Unlike in many other countries, price doesn’t always equate to quality. In fact, much of the higher-end food is often just watered-down, Westernized versions of local classics, and it’s often not nearly as good as what’s on offer in a local market or food stall.
Many locals believe the best Thai food comes from local "shophouse" restaurants. These often started as street food stalls, but due to success or progression, they’ve since moved into more permanent facilities. Shophouse restaurants are where many of the best traditional Thai chefs operate, and they’re generally seen as one notch above street food, which is saying a lot!
Other reliable places for authentic, delicious and inexpensive food (especially for those wary of eating from street vendors) are mall food courts. Yes, malls. Very different from mall food courts in the United States, the ones in Thailand offer wonderful food at great prices—with great hygiene and cleanliness, to boot. It's also a great way to escape the heat and humidity!
Typical Thai Dishes
Given the culinary differences throughout the country’s regions, the variety of dishes and ingredients in Thailand is staggering. The list below has the Thai names of dishes in English (spellings can vary slightly) since this is often what visitors will see on menus, especially in many touristy restaurants.
Some typical Thai dishes include the following:
· Tom Yum Goong
Thai shrimp soup is one of the most essential dishes in Thai cuisine. The sour, light, flavorful broth makes it subtler than coconut milk soups. It has countless varieties, but lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, chilies and, in this case, shrimp are mandatory.
· Som Tam
Som tam refers to any variety of green papaya salad. This dish originated in Isan (in northeastern Thailand) and is one of the more common foods served by street vendors all over the country. It's typically made to order in a huge wooden mortar in front of the customer. The vegetables are smashed with a pestle and then tossed with lime juice, sugar, chilies, fish sauce, peanuts and other ingredients.
· Pad Si Eew
Branch out from pad thai, and try this other common stir-fried noodle dish. It's made in a scorching wok with wide rice noodles, broccoli or another vegetable and dark soy sauce. It’s usually not served spicy, so it’s a good option for heat-averse eaters.
· Pad Ka Prao
This is one of the most popular and widely available Thai street food dishes, and it comes with a choice of meat stir fried with lots of garlic, chilies and the all-important holy basil, which has a distinct taste from other basil varieties.
· Kuay Teow Reua
"Boat noodles" (so named because vendors on the river and canal boats in Bangkok sold them) are used in this pork-based Thai noodle soup. It’s a favorite in the capital, but you’ll see it on menus all over the country.
· Nam Prik
Nam prik refers to any type of Thai chili dipping sauce, which is usually flavored with shrimp paste. There are many variations, including with green or red chilies and with or without garlic, shallots and other seasonings. Different regions have their individual spins on it. It’s typically eaten by dipping raw vegetables or rice into the chili sauce—almost like chips and salsa. You'll find it at markets, at street vendors (the chili dip and vegetables are given in separate plastic baggies) and as an appetizer. It's almost always quite spicy, so watch out!
Backroads Pro Tip
Chili peppers and spice are no joke in Thailand, which leads some visitors to think everything they order will be spicy. That's not the case! While some dishes definitely pack a punch, many don’t. Thais like to customize their flavors, which is why most tables have a variety of chili sauces, vinegars, chili flakes, sugar and other seasonings for diners to add at their own discretion. So, don't hold back on trying new things! If you want an extra kick in your food, though, just ask for it by saying, "Pet pet!"
Regional Foods and Specialties
Thailand has a such a rich culinary tradition, with literally thousands of different dishes from all over the country. Since much of the land is fertile and productive, growing rice, vegetables, nuts, spices, herbs and an assortment of fruits, and locals eat all types of meat and many kinds of seafood, there are also countless local specialties. That said, many culinary experts agree the country's food can be split into four general regions: South, North, Northeast (Isan region) and Central (mostly Bangkok and its surroundings areas). Throughout all regions, the influence of Chinese cuisine can be seen (and tasted) in the presence of stir fries and noodles. Both these elements of Chinese cooking have been integrated into Thai cooking and reimagined with local flavors and ingredients.
Southern Thai food is probably the least known to foreigners and is noted for its extensive use of fresh turmeric (giving a beautiful yellow glow to many dishes), galangal, coconut milk and generous amounts of chilies, as well as some ingredients little known outside of Thailand. (Have you ever tasted stink beans?) Southern Thai food is considered the spiciest, but this shouldn’t deter travelers from tasting some of the unique and tasty flavors here.
The food of the Isan region, which borders Cambodia, makes great use of fresh herbs. Laarb (see below) can be found in many varieties, usually consisting of one type of finely diced meat combined with fresh vegetables and herbs. This is also the home of papaya salad, as well as other similar salads.
Northern Thai cuisine is often known for its rich curries, with khao soi (see below) being its most well-known dish. Since it's the only region not bordering the sea, Northern Thai dishes are made more with pork and chicken, as well as some freshwater fish and beef. China and Myanmar exert particular influence on this region’s cuisine.
Central Thai food is what Westerners are most familiar with. This region’s flavors lean less toward sour or spicy and much more toward sweet and salty. Pad thai is a perfect example of an emblematic Central Thai dish. There's also great use of crabs, shrimp and all manner of seafood here.
Some local specialties from each region include the following:
· Khao Soi
A rich and tasty curry soup made with coconut milk, this dish is served with crispy noodles on top, and it’s garnished with a number of chopped herbs and seasonings. This is one of the most well-known dishes of Northern Thailand. If you're visiting Chiang Mai or other cities in the north, try the soup more than once to taste the differences!
Pronounced "laap," this dish is commonly found throughout Thailand, but it originated in the Isan region. It can loosely be thought of as a salad containing a type of meat (most often pork, chicken or duck) that's chopped up very small and is then tossed with fresh herbs, onions, garlic and a tangy dressing. Countless varieties of laarb exist, and it shouldn’t be missed.
· Gaeng Som
Translated as “sour soup,” this dish exists in various versions throughout Thailand. It’s known in the South as much for its taste as for its bright yellow or orange color (from the turmeric). This simple soup is made with ground chilies, fresh turmeric root and lots of garlic. The result is a fiery broth that’ll excite your taste buds with every slurp!
· Tom Kha Gai
Similar to tom yum (see above), this flavorful coconut milk soup made with chicken and mushrooms might be familiar to visitors as it has spread throughout the world. Its mild spice and luscious creaminess make it appealing to most palates.
Thai Dining Terms: Glossary
Words to Know on the Menu
· Gai: Chicken
· Pla: Fish
· Khao: Rice
· Moo/Mu: Pork
· Goong/Gung: Shrimp
· Pak/Phak: Vegetables
Words to Know When Dining Out
While many Thai people (especially in touristy areas) speak at least a few words of English, it’s always appreciated when you try your hand at a few local words and phrases. You’ll see krap/ka in many phrases below. Men should use krap (indicating that the speaker is male) and women should use ka (indicating that the speaker is female). Everything else should stay the same.
Here are a few phrases to get you started at a local restaurant:
· Hello: Sawadee Krap/Ka
· I’m a vegetarian.: Phom/Chan Gin Aa-Haan Mang-sa-wi-rat Krap/Ka
· Thank you: Kap Koon Krap/Ka
· Cheers: Deum!
· Where’s the bathroom?: Awng-nam Yoo Thang Nai Krap/Ka
· Please don't make the food spicy.: Huai Tham Aa-haan Baep Mai Phet Na Krap/Ka
Tipping is not expected or required at street stalls, mall food courts and casual restaurants. Just pay the quoted price and enjoy! At sit-down restaurants, formal establishments and hotel restaurants, tipping 10 percent for good service is common.
Dining in Thailand takes a very different form than in Western countries. Local custom is to eat when you're hungry, not necessarily at set times. In Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and other larger cities, street stalls, markets (including food-specific night markets), roadside stands, cafes and an assortment of eating establishments serve fresh food at all hours of the day. It’s hard to go hungry here since people are seemingly surrounded by food at all times!
Visitors are often surprised to find most eating establishments (aside from the Chinese-influenced ones) don't offer chopsticks. Thais prefer using spoons for most of their eating, which makes sense. Much of the food is based on rice, soups, curries and sauces that need to be scooped up. Forks are always on offer as well, which also makes sense with all the noodle dishes. Thais rarely, if ever, use knives with their food. Knives usually aren’t found on any table, outside of Western restaurants or hotels.