Thailand is considered home to some of the finest and most exotic food in the world, with a justified reputation for its delicious, varied and unique cuisine. Thai food has been influenced by various Asian and European cultures yet manages to retain its distinctive style and flavours. Thailand has assimilated many foreign ingredients, techniques and recipes into its cuisine, sometimes adapting the tastes to suit local palates.
Many people visit Thailand to enjoy the food, which can be a very special and memorable experience. Authentic Thai dishes are usually superior to the same ones made abroad, because the correct ingredients and spices are readily available here. As an example, decent papaya salad is hard to find in some European countries, because when papaya is unavailable it might be substituted with carrot. Visitors might be surprised to discover that their favourite Thai dishes taste much better when made in Thailand.
An important principle with Thai food is that there should be a harmony of tastes, and a balance between hot, sour, sweet, salty and bitter. In most meals the strength of individual flavours can be adjusted according to personal taste, for example by using fewer chillies or adding more lime juice.
Thailand offers a large diversity of food experiences to suit all tastes and budgets. It’s possible to eat international food in fine restaurants, grab a cheap snack on the street, enjoy a Thai style barbecue, or just buy fresh ingredients at the local market to cook at home. Eating in Thailand has many unexpected surprises, and there are always new dishes, restaurants and delicious ingredients to discover.
The Thai Way to Eat
Thais love food and it could even be considered a national obsession. Three meals are normally consumed each day, but its not uncommon to have many snacks in between. There isn’t always time to sit down for a proper meal, so it’s quite normal to eat on the move and at unusual times of day. In most towns, there is always somewhere open to buy food whether it’s a street-side restaurant or just a 24-hour local shop. Thailand’s climate is warm year round so many people eat outdoors, which can be a very pleasant experience and encourages more social interaction. Just remember to take the insect repellent!
When Thais gather to eat with family or friends in a social occasion, they tend to order many dishes which are shared enthusiastically by everyone at the table. Each dish is supposed to arrive at the same time and everybody can sample them all. Rice is a staple food in Thailand and accompanies nearly every meal. A familiar greeting between friends is “gin khao reu yang”, which translates as “have you eaten rice yet?” but simply questions whether they have eaten yet.
Use a Fork and Spoon!
Perhaps surprisingly, Thais eat using a fork and spoon rather than chopsticks, which are a Chinese import and reserved only for noodle dishes. The fork is simply used to push food onto the spoon, a technique which thankfully works with most dishes. King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) is said to have popularised use of the fork and spoon after observing foreign dignitaries at a banquet. He decided that they would be used in Thailand but that knives were unnecessary. As such, knives are rarely used by Thais but are always available in tourist restaurants and hotels, and for steak and other tricky dishes. As a foreigner in Thailand you won’t be expected to know the local dining etiquette, but you won’t need a knife, and definitely avoid eating rice with chopsticks.
Many Thai dishes include common ingredients such as lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, garlic and lemon grass. Chillies are used extensively in everyday foods, especially the tiny but hot “prik kee noo” or mouse dropping chilli, which is red or green in colour and always fiery hot. Chillies and hot spices can be used more sparingly to produce milder versions of regular dishes.
Each region in Thailand (such as northern, central, east and south) has its own local foods and specialities. For example, sticky rice or “khao nee-o” is more popular in northern parts. In rural areas, fried insects including crickets, grasshoppers and ant larvae are popular snacks. Even in cosmopolitan towns such as Hua Hin, street sellers serve up fried insects to the locals and even a few brave tourists.
Dipping sauces are usually present on the table, especially at street-side noodle shops. Several small containers contain seasonings including dry chilli flakes, chillies in fish sauce or “prik nam plaa”, white sugar, and chillies in vinegar. These are added to the soup according to the individualÕs taste. Restaurants always have prik nam plaa available, which can be spooned liberally over rice and other dishes for extra flavour.
Many kinds of spicy salads are popular favourites in Thailand. “Yam neu-a” is a hot and tangy salad with grilled beef, “yam ma-moo-ang” has mango, and “yam wun-sen” is a noodle-based salad. Perhaps the most widely known is “som tam”, a very sharp and spicy salad that usually includes unripe green papaya, chillies, garlic, tomatoes, lime juice, peanuts, and shrimps or crab. There are countless variations, and any specialist papaya salad restaurant should be able to make a large selection of these. Som tam from a street vendor costs around 30 or 40 baht and is freshly mixed, shredded and pummelled on the spot. These salads can be extremely spicy, but Thais can be reluctant to make them hot enough for foreigners that really want the maximum, blow-your-mind spice level.
Curries and Soups
Subtly flavoured Thai curries and soups are already familiar to many foreign visitors. Typically served with rice, chilli-based curries are made with coconut milk including the well known green, yellow, and red curries, and the Indian style massaman which contains beef, peanuts, potatoes, cinnamon and tamarind. There are also many regional curries including “gaang morn” or Mon curry, and drier variations which don’t contain as much coconut milk. The ever popular “tom yam” soup contains vegetables and either seafood or chicken, and “tom kha gai” is a more creamy soup with coconut milk, galangal and chicken. There are many varieties of lesser known soups from each region, and most restaurants will do at least some of the most popular dishes.
Stir fried meals such as sweet and sour pork, fried rice with chicken, Sukkothai style fried noodles, and deep-fried squid with garlic and black pepper are just a few of the common and widespread dishes. As with Chinese cuisine, fried food in Thailand is cooked quickly and the ingredients are normally very fresh. Many street vendors sell quick and simple fried noodles, and every Thai restaurant will be able to whip up stir fried meals in just a few minutes. The famous “phat Thai” noodle dish usually includes thinly sliced red pork or seafood and is served with spring onions, bean sprouts and lime wedges.
Meat and Fish
Meat, poultry, fish and seafood is widely available in Thailand. Many Thai recipes use pork or chicken, and the customer can choose whichever they like. For example, green curry might contain pork, chicken, or even duck. Beef tends to be a little more expensive and lamb is rarely used in Thai food. An interesting dish called “larb” is a meaty, spicy salad made by mixing minced meat (cooked or raw), poultry or fish with lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, herbs and mint leaves. A variation on this called “nam tok”, meaning waterfall, uses sliced rather than minced meat, for example the well known dish “neu-a yang nam tok” or grilled beef waterfall.
Fish is cooked in many ways in Thailand, used in curries and soup, barbecued and rubbed with salt, or stuffed with herbs and cooked on a hot platter surrounded by soup. There are many varieties of fresh- and saltwater fish in local restaurants and markets, as well as shrimps, squid and many types of shellfish. As expected, coastal regions typically have the best and freshest seafood but there are also plenty of inland shrimp farms, and freshwater fish can be caught in rivers and lakes. In seaside towns, it’s quite interesting to watch the fishing boats bring in the day’s catch of various fish, squid, and crabs.
Desserts and Fruit
Thai meals are often accompanied by fresh fruit or desserts. They are made with ingredients such as sticky rice, coconut milk, and seasonal fruits. Examples include mango with sticky rice and “gloo-ay boo-at chee” which is a dish containing bananas in a white syrup of sweetened coconut milk. The Thais have even adapted some traditional European desserts in novel ways such as ice cream in bread, which might seem unusual but is surprisingly delicious.
Fruit in Thailand is available all year round but some fruits are only available at certain times of the year. Bananas, water melon, pineapple, mango, and guava are sold everywhere by street vendors, then sliced and put into little plastic bags with a wooden skewer. The price is usually around 10 or 20 baht. There have been claims that vendors spray unhealthy chemicals on the fruit to keep it looking fresh, so check before you buy!
Exotic fruits including rambutan, longans, jackfruit, mangosteens, rose apples and papayas are readily available and can be bought in markets and shops everywhere, even from the back of pickup trucks that have come straight from the farms. Perhaps the most revered fruit is the durian, which is well known throughout Asia and is seasonally available in Thailand. A large green, heavy fruit with dangerously sharp spikes and soft creamy yellow flesh, it is an acquired taste which can be quite sublime. The smell is very strong and they are not usually permitted inside hotels and guesthouses.
Where to Eat Thai
Inexpensive, tasty and fresh Thai food can be found everywhere. It seems that every street has abundant restaurants, street vendors, and snack stalls. Try to discover where the locals eat, as the most popular places usually have the best food in town.
Mobile vendors are a common sight night and day, selling an assortment of foods including fried noodles, spicy soup, papaya salad, sliced sausages, kebab sticks, pancakes, fresh fruit, hot and cold drinks, and ice cream. A hot coal barbecue or wok is sometimes attached to a frame welded to the side of a motorbike. Others are simply two-wheeled carts that can be moved around easily. Street food is usually inexpensive, for example papaya salad or friend noodles for only 30 baht. Shrewd tourists can eat very well and cheaply at such places, and the food is freshly prepared and usually quite hygienic.
A step up from the mobile vendors are the street-side restaurants, popular with locals and serving inexpensive Thai food. Some are quite ramshackle in appearance, and the owners might pack away the entire restaurant each night onto motorbikes. Battered metal tables and tiny plastic chairs are the norm but the food is the attraction, not the decor. Many Thais order takeout meals from such places, which comes wrapped in plastic bags and can be emptied onto plates at home. Prices are very reasonable and almost certainly cheaper than the touristy restaurants and hotels. Some local Thai places have such a good reputation that they become packed with visitors and locals alike.
In tourist destinations, there are restaurants which almost exclusively attract foreigners. Thai customers might be unusual, perhaps because the same food can be bought more cheaply at other restaurants or even made at home. Such restaurants normally have Thai and international food, and as expected the prices are a little higher than elsewhere. In towns such as Hua Hin there are some great restaurants aimed at tourists, as well as places that cater mainly to Thai customers. The local beaches have dozens of small restaurants and hawkers, and the shopping malls offer a wide selection of places to eat.
It can be a welcome treat to splash out occasionally and dine in opulent style. At the top end of the scale are the upmarket, classy and sometimes highly regarded restaurants, which can be found wherever there are tourists and wealthy Thais. For example Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samui and Hua Hin have an assortment of upmarket and expensive restaurants. Foreign and acclaimed chefs are sometimes used to add a few unique twists to the menu or to enhance the restaurant’s reputation.
Not everybody wants to eat Thai food all the time, and it certainly won’t be a struggle to find superb international and western food in tourist hotspots, and many other towns and cities. Almost every nation’s food can be found somewhere, with English, Chinese, French, German, Italian, Indian, Japanese, Korean and many more available. As an example, downtown Hua Hin has all the above and American, Mexican, Norwegian, Spanish, and Swedish restaurants.
Thai people generally don’t eat much Western and European food, with the possible exception of fast foods such as pizza, French fries, and hamburgers. Foreign food is reasonably expensive in comparison, and considering the variety of amazing national dishes, it’s not surprising that Thai food remains firm favourite. Asian cuisine such as Korean and Japanese is quite popular amongst Thais, however.
Common Western meals are normally executed quite well in Thailand, but some dishes might turn out less appetising than the originals. For example, guesthouse breakfasts often use cheap hot dog sausages rather than the traditional sausages that most Westerners are used to. Thais can typically make Thai food to a higher standard than European and other international food. It might be a brave decision to order German or Swedish food in a Thai restaurant, although the specialist foreign restaurants should have accomplished cooks that know how to prepare each dish properly. Most guesthouses have a small restaurant which does limited international food and a mind-bending array of Thai dishes, and good hotels should have a comprehensive international menu that extends beyond just burgers and chips.