Food alone is a worthy reason to visit Thailand. Known for its inimitable melange of aromatic ingredients, piquant flavors and razor-sharp spices, Thai cuisine ranks among the top culinary traditions in the world, perhaps even warranting a league of its own.
From street-side stalls peddling wholesome meals to fine-dining establishments plating exquisite delectables on par with the world’s best restaurants, Thai food checks pretty much every box on the gastronomic spec sheet, even for the most demanding and discerning foodies.
Blessed with the best tropical fruits and vegetables, a sumptuous local supply of fresh seafood, the choicest meat and dairy from farms across the country and a magnificent variety of regional grains, herbs and condiments, Thai food exudes a strong sense of identity. On the one hand, it celebrates the recipes and traditions of its many Indigenous communities. On the other, centuries of cosmopolitan interactions have resulted in an infusion of essential elements from other formidable gastronomic traditions, such as Indian, Chinese and European.
While no volume of literature would do justice to the sheer volume and diversity of Thai food, the following are some essential experiences that comprise a rite of passage for food lovers, either plotting their way around Thailand or simply passing through the capital city of Bangkok – arguably one of Southeast Asia’s foremost culinary destinations.
Dig into pad thai, Thailand’s "national dish"
Designed as part of a nation-building exercise in the first half of the 20th century, pad thai was conceptualized to represent Thailand on a plate. A wok-fried dish featuring flat noodles, shrimp, beancurd, bean sprouts, spring onions, peanuts, assorted spices and sauces, pad thai brings together everyday ingredients consumed in Thai households across the country.
It is wildly popular with travelers — especially those acquainting themselves with Thai food for the first time. If you find yourself gorging on nothing but pad thai through your first 48 hours in Thailand, don’t be surprised. Many others have done just the same before you.
Where to try it: Thip Samai and Baan Phadthai, Bangkok.
Earn your local stripes with a pad kra pao lunch
After the initial infatuation with pàt tai has worn off, most travelers take a cue from locals and graduate to ordering their first pad kra pao.
A simple meal of steamed rice topped with spicy, basil-laced minced meat (chicken, pork or beef) and a fried egg, pad kra pao is the definitive working lunch for millions of Thai office-goers looking for a quick and filling fix. The regulation pad kra pao comes loaded with bombastic chilis, so let the chef know well in advance if you prefer it on the mild side.
Where to try it: Phed Mark and Prow, Bangkok.
Master your Thai curries by their colors
The hallowed trinity of Thai curries – the spicy red, the piquant green and the aromatic yellow – is perhaps the most recognizable inclusion on any authentic Thai menu around the world. All three can be prepared with a permutation of meats, seafood or vegetables (the green curry lends itself particularly well to a vegetarian rendition).
After you have sampled all three, round off your curry excursion by tucking into a bowl of massaman, an iconic curry from Southern Thailand featuring potatoes and meat in a star-anise-flavored gravy.
Where to try it: Sanguan Sri, Paste and Krua Apsorn, all in Bangkok.
Explore Northern Thailand’s rustic culinary gems
The food in Northern Thailand is a universe of its own, deriving from the traditions of its resident Indigenous communities. While you're there, sample a bowl of the legendary khao soi (fried noodles in creamy soup), snack non-stop on sai oua (spicy pork sausage) and tuck into impossibly flavorful gaeng hung lay (tender pork belly simmered in aromatic red curry).
Where to try it: Kiti Panit, Khao Soi Khun Yai, and Khao Soi Mae Sai in Chiang Mai.
Sample Southern Thailand’s seafood delicacies
In the quaint urban grid of Phuket Town are a bunch of culinary institutions showcasing the best marine delicacies of Thailand’s ocean-hemmed south, prepared according to the region’s signature recipes. Served with rice-noodle rolls, the crabmeat in yellow curry is a must-try, as are deep-fried whiting flavored with turmeric and the many versions of fried grouper, bass and snapper, served with an assortment of sauces.
Where to try it: Raya, One Chun and Tu Kab Khao, all in Phuket.
Break the bank for a high-end Bangkok dinner
Home to some of the world’s most renowned contemporary chefs, Bangkok is a fine-dining wonderland, where a jaw-dropping number of haute-cuisine kitchens jostle for position on best-of lists year after year.
While a single meal at any of these perpetually booked-out places can easily make your wallet lighter by several hundred dollars, the intangible experience of being served by the best names in the business is often priceless.
Where to try it: Gaggan Anand, Sühring and Sorn, Bangkok.
Raise a late-night toast at a Bangkok rooftop bar
Rooftop watering holes are synonymous with Bangkok’s nightlife. There’s no dearth of options when it comes to choosing a stylish bar situated on a terrace overlooking the city’s skyline, where the cocktails are stiff and delicious, the house beer is chilled to a crisp and the company is cheerful and irreverent. Many have a smart-casual dress code, however, so make sure you don't turn up in shorts or flip-flops.
Where to try it: Above 11, Moon Bar and Octave, all in Bangkok.
Enjoy a riverside dinner on the Chao Phraya
If you are a romantic who values ambience as much as food, book yourself a dinner table at a riverside restaurant on the banks of the Chao Phraya. Enjoy a memorable meal while gazing out onto the dark waters of Bangkok’s principal waterway, beaming with a magical glow cast by city lights as it snakes its way through the metropolis. You could also book yourself a dinner cruise, allowing you to savor the electric atmosphere from a boat cruising the placid waters.
It’s a quintessential experience without which no culinary adventure in Thailand is complete. Most restaurants and cruises get booked out days in advance, so grab your spot well ahead of your date.
Where to try it: Chakrabongse Villas, Steve’s Café & Cuisine and Asiatique, Bangkok.
Lap up a sweet serving of mango sticky rice
A simple but thoroughly enjoyable serving of sticky jasmine rice, sliced ripe mango, crisp-fried lentils and coconut cream, this balmy dessert provides the perfect balance to close out a spicy Thai meal. Practical tip for vegetarians with a sweet tooth: this dish makes for a fantastic meal option if find yourself in a Thai restaurant with a meat-heavy menu.
Where to try it: Ban Khun Mae and Eathai, both in Bangkok.
Vegetarians and vegans
In spite of its robust meat-and-seafood reputation, Thailand’s capital boasts an enduring vegetarian and vegan food culture. A selection of stylish vegan eateries whip up refreshingly creative meals suitable for global palates and healthy lifestyles, while a formidable line of Indian restaurants belts out iconic vegetarian dishes.
The annual Vegetarian Festival – a nine-day celebration of plant-based food, usually held in September – is a great time to be in the city, as the Chinatown neighborhood comes alive with innumerable street stalls selling a mind-boggling variety of vegetarian delights.
Where to try it: Veganerie, Bonita Cafe & Social Club and Saravana Bhavan, all in Bangkok.
Foods worth trying
Larb: Salad of boiled minced meat (chicken, pork or beef), seasoned with lime juice, crushed rice powder, fish sauce, chili, onion, lemongrass and mint.
Pad see ew: Stir-fried soy-glazed flat noodles with leafy greens, featuring beef, seafood or tofu.
Kor moo yang: Slices of charcoal-grilled pork shoulder, served with spicy sauce.
Seafood spaghetti: A unique Thai concoction of stir-fried spaghetti and assorted seafood in a super-spicy pepper sauce, flavored with kaffir lime leaves.
Coffee: Locally grown organic coffee – particularly from the Chiang Rai highlands – has a loyal fan base across Thailand. You’ll find innumerable cafes in the country’s urban centers serving the beverage in a plethora of brewing styles and traditions.