What to eat in Thailand
The food alone is really reason enough for a trip to Thailand. Curries, fruit shakes, stir fries, fresh fish made a zillion ways – and that’s just the beginning. Food in Thailand can be cheap and easy (Thai fried noodles) cooked at a street stall and floating markets or expensive and complicated as a ten-course meal by a royal chef served in one of Bangkok’s 5 star hotels.
Since most backpackers will be sticking closer to the first than the second, one of the great things about Thailand is that food from stalls and tiny sidewalk restaurants is usually quite safe. Unlike some Asian countries, travellers should worry more about overeating or too much curry spice than about unclean kitchens and bad food. In fact, street restaurants, where you can see what you’ll get and everything is cooked on the spot can be a safe option.
Be very wary of eating something spicier than you are used to on the evening before a lot of travelling!
Thai cuisine is characterized by balance and strong flavors, especially lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander, the combination of which gives Thai food its distinctive taste. In addition, Thai food has a deserved reputation for being spicy, with hot little torpedo-shaped chilies called phrik khii nuu lit. Thais are well aware that these can be more than Westerners can handle and will often ask if you like it hot; answer “yes” at your own risk!
Thai dishes can be roughly categorized into central Thai food (around Bangkok), northern Thai food (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influence), north-eastern Thai food (from the Isaan region bordering with Laos) and southern Thai food (with heavy influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some better-known dishes; see Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
The Thai staple food is rice, so much so that in Thai eating a meal, kin khao, literally means “eat rice”.
Khao suai or “beautiful rice” is the plain white steamed rice that serves as the base of almost every meal.
Khao phat is simple fried rice, usually with some pork (muu) or chicken (kai) mixed in.
Khao tom is a salty and watery rice porridge served with condiments, quite popular at breakfast.
Khao niao or “sticky rice” is glutinous rice – usually eaten dry, traditionally by hand, with grilled/fried pork or chicken or beef. It is especially popular (more than plain rice) in North-Eastern (Isan) and Northern provinces, but is widely available throughout the country, especially in places specializing on Isan or Lao cuisine.
Khao Chae is a croquette. Polished rice soaked with cold water. Which is often a barracuda. Then eat with rice variety.
Kuay tiao phat sii-u kai, or fried giant rice noodles with soy sauce and chicken
Thais are great noodle eaters. The most common kind is rice noodles, served angel-hair, but egg noodles, Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli and glass noodles made from mung beans are also popular.
Unlike other Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a rack of four condiments, namely dried red chilies, fish sauce, vinegar and sugar which diners can add to their own taste.
Phad Thai, literally “Thai stir-fry”, means thin rice noodles fried in a tamarind-based sauce. Ubiquitous, cheap and often excellent – and as an added bonus, it’s usually chili-free (you can add yourself, however, or ask to do if buying of the street – but be warned, it is often really hot). Can be made vegetarian, with shrimp, pork, or chicken.
Ba mii muu daeng yellow egg noodles with slices of red (barbecued) pork.
Guay dtiao ruea is a rice noodle soup with a fiery pork blood stock and an assortment of offal. An acquired taste, but an addictive one.
Soups and curries
The line between soups and curries is a little fuzzy, and many dishes the Thais call curries would be soups to an Indian. A plate of rice with a ladleful of a curry or two on top, known as khao kaeng, is a very popular quick meal if eating alone.
Tom yam goong is the quintessential Thai dish, a spicy, sour soup with prawns, lemongrass and galangal. The real thing is quite spicy, but toned-down versions are often available on request.
Tom kha gai is the Thai version of chicken soup in a rich galangal-flavored coconut stock, with mushrooms and not a few chilies.
Gaeng ped this coconut-based red curry dish can be spicy. Red curry with roast duck is particularly tasty.
Gaeng kheow-waan, sweet green curry, is a coconut-based curry with strong accents of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Usually milder than the red variety.
Gaeng som, orange curry, is more like tamarind soup than curry, usually served with pieces of herb omelet in the soup.
Thais like their mains fried or grilled. Fish, in particular, is often deep-fried until the meat turns brown and crispy.
Ka-phrao kai, literally “basil chicken” is a simple but intensely fragrant stir-fry made from peppery holy basil leaves, chilies and chicken.
About the only thing Thai salads have in common with the Western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. A uniquely Thai flavor is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chilies – the end result can be very spicy indeed!
Som tam, a salad made from shredded and pounded raw papaya is often considered a classic Thai dish, but it actually originates from neighboring Laos. However, the Thai version is less sour and sweeter than the original, with peanuts and dried shrimp mixed in.
Yam ponlamai is Thai-style fruit salad, meaning that instead of canned maraschino cherries it has fresh fruit topped with oodles of fish sauce and chilies.
Yam som-o is an unusual salad made from pomelo (a mutant version of grapefruit) and anything else on hand, often including chicken or dried shrimp.
Yam wunsen is perhaps the most common yam, with glass noodles and shrimp.
Yum Tua Poo is a mellow mix of pork and shrimp. Of Winged Bean and crunchy sweet-sour flavor. The taste is a little spicy, exotic food.
Thais don’t usually eat “dessert” in the Western after-meal sense, although you may get a few slices of fresh fruit for free at fancier places, but they certainly have a finely honed sweet tooth.
Khanom covers a vast range of cookies, biscuits, chips and anything else snack-able, and piles of the stuff can be found in any Thai office after lunch. One common variety called khanom khrok is worth a special mention: these are little lens-shaped pancakes of rice flour and coconut milk, freshly cooked and served by street vendors everywhere during the morning hours, but after that you might probably find it a bit difficult to find.
Khao niao ma-muang means “sticky rice with mango”, and that’s what you get, sweetened sticky rice and ripe mango with some coconut milk drizzled on top. Filling and delicious and an excellent way to cool the palate after a spicy Thai dish! Alternatively, for the more adventurous type, an equally popular dish is Khao niao tu-rean in which you get durian instead of mango with your sticky rice.
Waan yen, literally “sweet cold”, consists of a pile of ingredients of your choice (including things like sweet corn and kidney beans) topped with syrup, coconut cream and a pile of ice, and is great for cooling down on a hot day or after a searing curry.
Thong Yib, is originally Portuguese dessert. It was introduced to Thais a few hundred years ago by Marie Guimar de Pinha. Thong Yib literally means “pinched gold”. It is made from egg yolks; its bound is pinched to star-shaped. One piece of Thong Yib is bite-sized, served in a tiny cup. Thong Yib is sold in typical markets in the morning. Travellers can also find these in other Thai dessert shops.
Thong Yod means “gold drop” and its shape is like a drop. It is Portuguese sweet like Thong Yib. Rice flour is mixed with egg yolk; this is the difference of Thong Yod from Thong Yib that has no flour. Thong Yod is usually sold with Thong Yib.
Foy Thong means “gold fibre”. It is egg-based Portuguese sweet too. It is made from yolks mixed with egg-dew (the light egg white that remains in the egg shell). It is like fiber because the stirred mixture is poured through a pastry cone into hot syrup. When it is long enough, it will be folded to a fold.
In Thailand, there are many varieties of desserts. Most Thai people like to eat desserts that are made from coconut milk.
Khao lam means “Bamboo sticky rice” which is a sticky rice (white or black) with sweetened coconut milk, which may include taro or black bean, and stuffed into bamboo sticks.
Bua loy kai-wan means “Dumplings in coconut cream with egg”.
Dumpling balls in coconut cream with egg is found everywhere in Thailand and it also is a popular dessert. This dessert is often enjoyed in the evening. The dumpling balls are made from flour, water and colored water. Dumpling balls in coconut cream with egg can also be found in colors such as green, purple, blue, yellow, pink, white and so on. Each color is made from flowers and vegetables. The ingredients of this dessert contain eggs, coconut milk, taro, corn, and colorful dumpling balls. Most Thai people love these because it is a hot coconut cream soup with dumpling balls and eggs and tastes sweet and creamy.
Kluay buat-chi means “Banana in coconut milk”.
Banana in coconut milk are easy to buy and cook. The taste is creamy, sweet and silky. The ingredients are cheap and contain bananas, coconut milk, some salt and sugar. Most Thai people like to cook this dessert because of the affordable ingredients and the dish is easy to make. However, banana in coconut milk are easy to find in the supermarket and other shops.
Tubtim Krob “Water Chestnut with Syrup and Coconut Milk”. A tasty and refreshing dish when served with ice. It is very popular in the summer time and can be found in the markets.
Khanom Thai- usually made of starch, sugar and coconut milk. In the early times, Knanom Thai was only made for special occasions, like weddings and Songkran day, because of the considerable amount of time and people required in order to make a perfect Khanom Thai. Moreover, Thais believe that the names and the shapes of Khanom Thai will bring good luck to those who consume it.
Rook choob- is one of the most popular Thai desserts. Most people like this dessert because it is colorful and often made into fruit shapes. Moreover, Rook choob is made into a bite size, so it easy to eat. A main ingredient of this dessert is crushed green bean. It smells great from the natural colors such as Bai toey (green), Aun chun (blue) etc. While chewing it, you will not only get a soft sweet taste from soybean and coconut milk but also a good smell from aroma candle’s smoke. Great for relaxing with a hot tea. Very cheap can be bought at local markets and food shops.
Ka noom sord sai- is a meticulous Thai dessert because it has many steps to make. It consists of sticky rice, flour, coconut etc. The dessert has a sweet taste from coconut and palm sugar and a wonderful smell from aroma candle’s smoke. It is delicious and nutritious because of the carbohydrates and fat. This dessert is cheap and easy to find due to the availability of the ingredients. Furthermore, it is packed with Thai’s folk wisdom style, which is banana leaf and small bamboo pin. The banana leaf will keep the dessert’s smell and freshness.
Kaow tom mud is another dessert that popular in Thailand. It consists of many ingredients such as sticky rice, black bean, banana, coconut, etc. This desser provides many nutrients from carbohydrates and vitamins B1 and B2. Foreigners can buy this dessert, cheap, in any local market. It should be eaten while it is hot to keep the sticky rice’s softness. This dessert is wrapped with a traditional Thai banana leaf.
Vegetarians won’t have too many problems surviving in Thailand, with a couple significant exceptions: oyster sauce and/or fish sauce are used in nearly Thai cuisine, and keeping it out of soups, curries and stir-fries will be a challenge.
That said, Thailand is a Buddhist country and vegetarianism is a fairly well-understood concept, especially among Chinese Thais (many of whom eat only vegetarian food during several festivals). Tofu is a traditional Thai ingredient and they aren’t afraid to mix it up in some non-traditional dishes such as omelets (with or without eggs), submarine sandwiches, and burritos. Since Thai dishes are usually made to order, it’s easy to ask for anything on the menu to be made without meat or fish, but be careful because it’s not impossible for someone to say that’s fine and then put it in anyways. Bangkok features several fantastic veggie and vegan restaurants, but outside of big cities make sure to check that your idea of “veggie” matches the chef’s.
There are 2 categories of vegetarian in Thai:
Aside from abstaining from meat jeh eaters also avoid a number of strong smelling vegetables like garlic and onions.
mung sa wi rut comes from the Sanskrit mamsa, which means “meat” and virat which means “without.” So this is essentially an acceptable translation of “vegetarian.” As with its English counterpart, some people may or may not eat eggs and/or dairy.
Thailand has a large number of indigenous restaurant chains offering much the same fare as your average street stall, but with the added advantages of air conditioning, printed menus (often in English) and some semblance of hygiene. All the chains are heavily concentrated in Bangkok, but larger cities and popular tourist spots may have an outlet or two.
MK and Coca are near-ubiquitous chains specializing in what the Thais call suki, perhaps better known as “hotpot” or “steamboat”. A cauldron boils in the middle of your table, you buy ingredients and brew your own soup. The longer you spend, the better it tastes, and the bigger the group you’re with, the more fun this is!
S&P outlets are a bakery, a café and a restaurant all rolled into one, but their menu’s a lot larger than you’d expect: it has all the Thai mainstays you can think of and then some, and most all of it is good. Portions are generally rather small.
Yum Saap (signs in Thai; look for the big yellow smiley logo) is known for their Thai-style salads (yam), but they offer all the usual suspects as well. Quite cheap.
Kuaytiew Ruea Siam (signs in Thai; look for the boat-shaped decor and hungry red pig logo) does dirt-cheap noodles. Portions aren’t too generous, but at that price you can get two! No concessions to English speakers in menu or taste so point & choose from the pictures and watch out for the spicier soups.
Fuji and Zen specialize in surprisingly passable Japanese food at very cheap prices at least compared to Japanese restaurants almost anywhere else.
And yes, you can find the usual McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Komalas etc if you insist. If you do end up at McD’s, at least try the un-Maclike fried chicken with McSomTam (green papaya salad). For those craving American-style pizza, try the ubiquitous The Pizza Company, which is a less expensive and (arguably) tastier local chain.