Thai food has surged in popularity around the world in recent decades, and particularly in the US it has now risen to become one of the most popular takeaway foods, even being seen regularly in popular sitcoms. And this is for very good reason, Thai food classically combines spicy, sweet, sour and salty flavours with the freshest ingredients to produce dishes bursting with flavour. A trip to Thailand gives you an incredible chance to taste authentic Thai dishes, and as an added bonus, food in Thailand is cheap, that $10 “Pad Thai” back home will be no more than $1-2 here.
Thai peoples’ relationship with food is an interesting one, indeed sometimes it seems that their lives revolve around food, with most people eating several small meals throughout the day. In the West, you might see an office worker popping out on their lunch break to buy an insipid, 2-day old pre-packaged sandwich for their lunch, something that a Thai would never do, they always want a proper meal and it simply has to be tasty. As you travel around Bangkok, for example, you will note that some of the food vendors are more popular than others, and you will see students, taxi drivers, policemen and office workers sharing tables to eat at the best places.
Also, something to bear in mind is that much like in Western Thai restaurants, if you eat in a heavily tourist-focused area or at a hotel restaurant, there is a very good chance that your food will not be 100% authentic, but will be adapted slightly for Western tastes and preferences. This means that they will not use as much chilli, and the cuts of meat will be different. Thai people eat all kind of meat and in fact many dishes will combine several different meats in one bowl. This could include offal, liver, congealed blood, or tongue, or even the swim bladders of fish, something which no doubt sounds unappetising to the average visitor.
A tourist-oriented place will usually only use the regular meat you are used to. When Thai people eat chicken for example, they like the dark meat, with everything attached, for two reasons. They like meat that has been cooked on the bone, and they like to have a variety of textures from the skin, the meat, the fat, tendons and cartilage. This is why they generally avoid chicken breast meat which they see as dry, bland and flavourless even though that it is what is preferred on the other side of the globe.
So, to get the best, most authentic dishes, you need to be looking for the roadside food stalls, or the small family-run restaurants, you can gauge the food quality by seeing how many locals are eating there. And don’t panic too much about the offal, you can say “mai sai khaya mulfoy” which translates to “don’t use offal please”. Of course, you’re still going to get great food most of the time at the touristy places, but just bear in mind that many Thai people have not yet quite mastered the art of cooking Western food, so don’t expect that pizza or burger to be as good as back home, I would recommend sticking to Thai foods where you can, and here are some of the best.
Tom Yum Goong ต้มยำกุ้ง – (spicy shrimp soup)
Tom Yum literally means boiled salad, and gung means prawns, so this is “boiled salad with prawns”. In reality, it is a fiery soup cooked with galangal, coconut milk, chillies, Thai herbs, mushrooms and tomatoes, and is absolutely delicious. If you’re worried about it being too spicy for you, you can ask them to tone down the chilli by saying “mai pet”.
You can also get it with chicken, but it’s just not quite as good. It really is a taste sensation, and is usually eaten with boiled Thai jasmine rice, and is the one dish that you simply must not miss when visiting Thailand. It is part of Thailand’s national identity, so much so that when the 1997 financial crisis hit Thailand, it was called the “Tom Yum Gung Crisis”.
There is another variety frequently available called “Tom Yum Talay” which includes many kinds of seafood including squid, fish, crab, mussels and prawns.
Pad Krapow Gai / Moo – ผัดกะเพรา (fried Thai basil + chicken/pork)
Krapow, pronounced “ga-pow”, is a common Thai herb which has a unique and delicious flavour, and in this dish, the leaves are fried along with a copious amount of fresh red chilli, garlic and shallots to produce an incredibly addictive taste. Not for the faint-hearted, this can sometimes be extremely spicy, but the heat is tempered by the jasmine rice, and in many cases is served with a fried egg “kai dao” perched on top.
In particular, Pad Krapow Moo is ubiquitous across Thailand and can be found at bus stations, service stations, on trains, and of course, is available at thousands of restaurants and food carts. You’ll kick yourself if you miss this one.
Pad Thai – ผัดไทย (Fried Noodles – Thai Style)
It has very much become a cliché now to see backpackers walking down Khao San Road clutching their container of Pad Thai, but once you have a taste of this remarkably simple dish, you will see that they were on to something. A basic Pad Thai is nothing other than some fried noodles with some seasoning, plus a handful of bean sprouts and veggies thrown in. You can also ask to add egg and/or meat, depending on your preference, but in any case, this dish is seriously good value, starting at only 20 Baht ($0.65) for a portion.
It’s the way they cook it and the seasoning (which includes ginger, peanut oil and Thai soy sauce) which make it so delicious, and it is popular with tourists on a budget and locals alike. Also, Pad Thai is not spicy but you can add chillies if you have developed a taste for them.
Tom Kha Kai – ต้มข่าไก่ (coconut soup with chicken)
You might be relieved to read that this is not a very spicy dish, in fact it is comparatively mild by Thai standards but is still simply sensational. It is a coconut-based soup, cooked with galangal, shallots, lemongrass, lime juice and mushrooms, and the chicken used is usually breast meat. The combination of Thai herbs and spices makes this simply delicious, but even though a few chillies may be used, it is nowhere near as hot as some of the other dishes on this list. It is usually served with steamed rice, and is something which can you can recreate at home fairly easily (and you’ll want to after tasting it).
Thai Noodle Soup (gwai teow)- ก๋วยเตี๋ยว
This is a dish which many Thais eat almost every day, it is absolutely delicious, cheap and can be found anywhere. Indeed when you first arrive in Thailand, your taxi will almost certainly pass dozens of noodle soup carts on the way to your hotel, there are several large franchises with names such as “Chai See” and “Champ”.
The cart owner will have a huge cauldron of broth bubbling away at all times, when you place your order, your choice of noodles are cooked fresh and placed into a bowl. Some broth is added to the noodles, and then a combination of meat, bean sprouts, herbs and seasoning are added. You can also order a special bowl (called pee-sayt) for an extra 10 Baht ($0.30), which will be a larger portion served with delicious pork dumplings. At your table you can add vinegar, sugar, chillies and fish sauce to turbo charge the flavour. At around $1 a bowl, you can’t go wrong with this one!
Thai Curries – แกงไทย
I’m sure most people have tried a Thai curry at some point in their life. Thai curries start their lives as freshly ground curry paste, made from ingredients such as galangal, shallots, lemongrass and chillies with various herbs and spices added in. These are then combined with coconut milk, to which meat, vegetables and other ingredients are then added to finish it off. They are very easy to make, taking only 5-10 minutes, and are delicious, quite rightfully a favourite amongst visitors to Thailand. There are confusingly many different types, but here are the five that you are most likely to encounter when on holiday:
Green curry (gaeng kiaow waan), arguably the most popular, gets it’s colour from the green chillies used to make the paste. It also includes kaffir lime leaves, and the curry includes miniature Thai eggplants.
Red curry, known as gaeng pet (literally: spicy curry) unsurprisingly gets it’s colour from the red bird’s eye style chillies used in the paste. It also contains small cherry tomatoes, and it supposed to be spicier than the
green curry, although in reality there’s not much difference in heat level.
Yellow curry is one which you may never encounter on menus, it is a much milder curry, which is a bit like the Chinese curries you can buy at Chinese takeaways in the West. It usually comes with your choice of meat and potatoes, and is delicious.
Massaman curry is a Muslim-influenced curry originating from the south of Thailand, and was ranked as the number one tastiest food in the world by CNN in 2011. Again, it uses potatoes and peanuts, and is packed with flavour, it is dark brown in colour and really is not to be missed!
Jungle curry (gaeng paa) is different as it doesn’t use coconut milk. So it is less creamy and more watery, but is still very fiery and packed with flavour, definitely one to try if you fancy something different. It originated from the jungles of Northern Thailand where they didn’t have access to coconuts, hence the name.
Som Tum – ส้มตำ (Spicy Papaya Salad)
Som Tam is arguably the dish which is most popular with the locals, you will see them eating it everywhere, and at any time of the day. It consists of thinly sliced papaya, so thin that it looks almost like noodles, mixed up with peanuts, green beans, garlic, chilli, tomatoes, fish sauce and palm sugar. Unsurprisingly for a Thai dish, they put in a huge amount of fresh chillies, creating another fiercely hot dish, this is like no salad you have ever eaten before, but definitely give it a go to see what all the fuss is about.
Larb Moo – ลาบหมู (Spicy Minced Pork Salad)
Larb is a meat dish that compliments Som Tum very well. Minced pork is combined with lime, chillies, fish sauce and cooked with toasted sticky rice to create a wide range of flavours. This rice is slightly crunchy which really adds some texture to the dish and adds a real earthly flavour to the dish.
Kai Jeow Moo Sab – ไข่เจียวหมูสับ (Thai Omelette with mined pork)
If you’re feeling delicate after a heavy night, or just want to give your poor stomach some time off, here’s your answer. Super cheap and available almost everywhere, it is simply some Thai jasmine rice topped with a simple omelette with minced pork inside, and despite it’s simplicity, it is delicious. If you want to jazz it up a little you can add various condiments, however it will be tasty whichever way you choose to eat it, and is great if you’re needing a break from all those chillies.
Yam Nua Yang – ยำเนื้อย่าง (Spicy Beef Salad)
Yam Nua is a spicy beef salad which accompanies many other Thai dishes very nicely. All that’s needed is good quality beef, fresh hot chilli peppers, garlic and fish sauce to cook together in a pan. It’ll come with a salad of lettuce, cucumber and shallots and drizzle with lime juice.
Kao Niew Ma Muang – ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง (Mango and Sticky Rice)
Another super simple, cheap and delicious dish, this consists of a portion of Thai sticky rice, which is easily eaten with your fingers after rolling it up into a small ball, with a piece of sliced fresh mango. The rice has a sweet flavour from being cooked in coconut milk, so this is considered to be more of a dessert in Thailand, although it is often eaten as a snack and is another favourite amongst tourists.
Mu Kratha (moogata/mookata) – หมูกระทะ (Thai-style BBQ)
Moogata, often referred to confusingly in Thailand as Korean BBQ, is more a style of restaurant, where diners choose their ingredients and then cook them together on a single charcoal-fired grill pan. First, stock is added to the pan, then the ingredients are cooked on the raised central section, so all the juices and flavours run down into the soup. Common ingredients are marinaded pork, seafood, mushrooms and noodles, although in theory almost anything can be added. Usually the soup is flavoured with a handful of fresh herbs and an egg is cracked into it.
As the soup cooks and develops it’s own flavour, it becomes increasingly more delicious, and the noodles cooked in it come out super tasty. It’s very popular amongst the Thais, and can be very economical, with a kilo of ingredients starting at 200 Baht ($6.50), enough to serve 3-4 adults. You only pay for the food and drinks, use of the cooker is free.