While Thai food has a reputation for being spicy, Thai cuisine is actually based on a balance between different flavours including spicy, sour, sweet, salty, and bitter. This goes beyond simply combining the flavours within an individual dish to incorporate the contrast in flavours between two or three different dishes, which is one reason Thais share meals and eat family style. One distinctive aspect of Thai food is the use of fresh herbs and spices as well as the inclusion of fermented fish sauce in nearly every dish – a potential problem for vegetarians, though saying “jay” to indicate you are vegetarian goes a long way. However, there are certainly regional variations in what is typically considered Thai food; these are due to the influences of neighbouring countries; such as, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Malaysia. While some Thai restaurants specialize in specific dishes, most have a huge menu of Thai and western fare and prepare Thai food from throughout the kingdom.
Rice is the staple food for Thais, eaten with most meals, from breakfast to dessert. In fact, in Thai language, if you say you are hungry or you want to eat you literally say “I want to eat rice.” It should be unsurprising to learn then that Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice, and that Thai rice includes more than one strain, each of which has its own characteristic and flavour.
The most esteemed Thai rice is Jasmine rice, a sweet-aromatic long-grain rice that is indigenous to Thailand. Served steamed, Jasmine rice is the finest rice to accompany most dishes, including Thai curries. While Jasmine rice is the most coveted, it is also the most expensive. Consequently, most restaurants serve Khao Suai, “beautiful rice”, a plain white variety that grows in abundance and is consumed with all styles of entrée. Khao phat or “fried rice” is made with rice pork or chicken, chilies and fish sauce, typically with leftover Khao Suai, so as not to waste leftover rice that is a bit “stale”. Khao Tom is a popular breakfast dish, a salty porridge-like soup that is cooked with pork and garlic.
Khao Niao, “sticky rice” is eaten by hand when served with dishes of Northeastern influence; such as, grilled chicken (kai yang) and spicy papaya salad (som tam); however, sticky rice is a crucial ingredient in a favourite Thai dessert, sticky rice and mango.
While noodle dishes are quite common in Thailand (an influence brought by Chinese migrants) most Thai dishes are stir fried or grilled and served with rice.
Fish (pla), pork (mu), beef (nuea), and chicken (kai) are all prepared in a variety of ways, though typically cut into bite-sized pieces and stir-fried with various spices; such as, garlic, chili, and/or basil. Fish and chicken are frequently grilled or fried, fish typically cooked and served whole.
As Thai meals are typically served family style, with all diners sharing entrees; a Thai curry or soup is usually ordered with a meal. The consistency of each Thai curry varies widely, with some curries arguably classifiable as soups.
However, most Thai curries are coconut milk-based and some are spicier than others. Kaeng Massaman, is a mild, peanut and potato curry; Kaeng Kiao Wan (Thai green curry) is a curry of medium thickness and spiciness, while Kaeng Daeng (red curry); otherwise, known as Kaeng Phet (spicy curry), is a thinner, obviously spicier option. Tom Kha, a mild coconut soup, blurs the lines between soup and curry, while Tom Yam Kung, a quintessential Thai soup, is often blisteringly hot.
While Thai curries are shared and meant to be ladled over rice, soups are served communally with diners receiving small bowls to eat out of. Although some curries and soups can be served without meat for vegetarians, many Thai cooks put fish sauce in all dishes as it is the Thai substitute for salt.
Unlike typical Thai dishes, which are served for communal consumption, most Thai noodle dishes are served as individual dishes. While some restaurants will serve Thai noodle dishes, particularly Phat Thai noodles, noodles are more frequently served and eaten at street stalls that specialize in Thai noodle dishes. Thai noodles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including “small” (sen lek), “large” (sen yai), angel hair (sen mi), and x-large (kuai tiao).
Most Thai noodles are made of rice, though egg noodles (ba mi) and mungbean-based glass noodles are also common. Other than Phat Thai noodles, rat na and kuai tiao are stir-fried noodles served with beef, chicken, or pork; condiments, including dried chilies, fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar, are available to tailor to an individual diner’s taste. Otherwise, Thai noodles are normally served in soup, either with spicy red pork (mu daeng), chicken (on the bone), and occasionally coagulated pig’s blood.
Unlike most Thai dishes, which are eaten with a fork and spoon, Thai noodles are typically eaten with chopsticks and spoon, a reflection of the Chinese origin of the cuisine.
You could not tell by looking at the slim waste lines of many Thais, but Thai people love to eat dessert. This includes both traditional Thai desserts as well as Western fare, including cakes and ice cream. Traditional Thai desserts are quite sweet, made predominately from various combinations of rice, coconut milk, and sugar, along with a few seemingly less common dessert ingredients; such as, sweet corn or kidney beans.
Some egg-based Thai desserts trace their history back to the influence of Portuguese missionaries (who also introduced the chili). While these desserts are not prominently featured on menus in Thai restaurants and infrequently ordered at the conclusion of a meal, they are occasionally served complimentarily or can be found sold at street stalls that specialize in particular desserts.
Fruit is also a common Thai dessert and is usually served plain and sliced, though mango with sticky rice, covered in sweet coconut milk is a popular dessert when mangos are in season.
A Thai salad is often one of the spiciest Thai dishes and is frequently ordered as one of the many communal dishes in a meal. A Thai salad is generally made of raw vegetables mixed with chili, lime, and fish sauce, though some; such as, Yam Nuea (Thai beef salad) contain meat. The most internationally recognized Thai salad, som tam is technically a dish of Lao origin, and is most popular in Northeastern Thailand, where it is prepared in a manner that would wreak havoc on the stomach of an unsuspecting visitor unaccustomed to real spicy Thai food.
Som tam consists primarily of shredded papaya and is often served with grilled chicken (kai yang). Yam som-o, is a more mild salad that is based on the pomelo, a fruit similar to, but less sour than a grapefruit. Yam som-o is usually served with shredded chicken. Other salads include Yam Nuea, a Thai beef salad served with tomato and onion, and Yam Wonsan, a glass noodle and shrimp salad. Technically Thai meals do not include appetizers per se; all dishes are ordered at once and come out in random order for diners to share as they arrive.
However, there are certainly finger-food style dishes that can be categorized as appetizer style foods. Satay (grilled meat on a stick) and spring rolls are the most common of these; the former available on many street corners and technically classified in Thai cuisine as a snack rather than an appetizer.
Thai chili paste, or nam prik, is the base of many Thai dishes, though variations of it are also served as dips. Thai chili pastes are made by muddling chili, garlic, shrimp paste, lime, and other spices (depending on the region of origin). As a dip, it is served along with raw vegetables and occasionally pork rind.
Thailand is undoubtedly a nation of fruits; fruit vendors sell dozens of different chilled fruits on street corners throughout the kingdom, selling sliced ponlamai (fruit) for as little as 10 Baht per serving. Thai fruits include the familiar: banana, pineapple, watermelon, and papaya, as well as the exotic: dragon fruit, rose apple, durian, and jackfruit.
Dragon fruit is a large, odd-looking fruit, with pink spiky skin, though beneath the extravagant exterior is a tender white meat akin to a mellow, juicy kiwi fruit. Rose apple is a refreshing pear-shaped fruit that tastes something like a watery apple. The pungent smelling durian and its mellower cousin the jack fruit require an acquired palate, their flavours and textures revered by some and reviled by others; in fact so strong is the smell of the durian that it is not infrequent to see “no durian” signs inside many buildings.
Mangos are served both ripe and juicy and unripe and excruciatingly tart, a taste that Thais typically balance by dipping in a mixture of sugar and chili. There are literally dozens of other exotic Thai fruits, available seasonally, and always reasonably priced. Buy a bunch and share with friends; they make economical and healthy snacks.
While tap water is not generally recommended for consumption, ice is generally safe in Thailand and bottled water is ubiquitous and cheap. If you are concerned, you can always stick with Thai beer. It is nearly as cheap and the high alcohol content of Thai beer ensures that any germs are not likely to survive; Singha (pronounced “Sing”), Chang (which means elephant), and Leo are the three most popular.
Fruit smoothies and fruit juice are both very popular: smoothies made with fresh fruit and sugar syrup are blended with ice that is generally safe to consume. Coconut milk is another safe option, as the coconut is simply cracked open from the top and served whole with a straw. Thai ice tea is served with condensed milk, which gives it a pinkish orange color and sweet flavour. Thai ice coffee (oliang) is a strong black pick-me-up far superior to the Nescafe that is so often served as “coffee” in many restaurants.
Otherwise, there are many Starbucks throughout the Kingdom, particularly in Bangkok, if you really need a quick coffee fix. Finally, Red Bull energy drink was created in Thailand and can be procured at a 7-11 and mom and pop minimarts for 10 Baht. There are other local brands, but taste and potency vary widely.
While “Thai food” has gained international recognition, Thai cuisine can actually be broken down by the region from which it originated. Each of Thailand’s different regions has developed its own style and is responsible for dishes that are quite different from those of other regions.
Thai food from Isan, in Northeast Thailand, shares many similarities with cuisine from neighbouring Lao PDR, though the Thai versions of the dishes; such as som tam, are a lot heavier on the chili. Southern curries on the other hand, are less spicy, with a greater Malaysian influence, and feature more coconut and turmeric.
And while Thai people love fish, whether from the river or the sea, Thailand’s beaches are the prime destinations to sample the best Thai seafood dishes.