For many visitors, food is one of the main reasons for choosing Thailand as a destination. Even more remarkable, however, is the locals' own love for food: Thais get just as excited as tourists when presented with a bowl of perfectly prepared noodles, or when seated at a renowned hawker stall. This unabashed enthusiasm for eating, as well as an abundance of fascinating ingredients and influences, has generated one of the most fun and diverse food scenes anywhere on the planet
Habits & Customs
Like most of Thai culture, eating conventions appear relaxed and informal but are orchestrated by many implied rules.
Whether at home or in a restaurant, Thai meals are always served ‘family style’ – that is, from common serving platters, with the plates appearing in whatever order the kitchen can prepare them. When serving yourself from a common platter, put no more than one spoonful onto your plate at a time. Heaping your plate with all ‘your’ portions at once will look greedy to Thais unfamiliar with Western conventions. Another important factor in a Thai meal is achieving a balance of flavours and textures. Traditionally the party orders a curry, a steamed or fried fish, a stir-fried vegetable dish and a soup, taking great care to balance cool and hot, sour and sweet, salty and plain.
Originally Thai food was eaten with the fingers, and it still is in certain regions of the kingdom. In the early 20th century Thais began setting their tables with fork and spoon to affect a ‘royal’ setting, and it wasn’t long before fork-and-spoon dining became the norm in Bangkok and later spread throughout the kingdom. To use these tools the Thai way, use a serving spoon, or alternatively your own, to take a single mouthful of food from a central dish and ladle it over a portion of your rice. The fork is then used to push the now-food-soaked portion of rice back onto the spoon before entering the mouth.
If you’re not offered chopsticks, don’t ask for them. Chopsticks are reserved for eating Chinese-style food from bowls, or for eating in all-Chinese restaurants. In either case you will be supplied with chopsticks without having to ask. Unlike their counterparts in many Western countries, restaurateurs in Thailand won’t assume you don’t know how to use them.
Despite having evolved in a relatively small area, Thai cuisine is anything but a single entity and takes a slightly different form every time it crosses a provincial border.
Southern Thai Cuisine
Don’t say we didn’t warn you: southern Thai cooking is undoubtedly the spiciest regional cooking style in a land of spicy regional cuisines. The food of Thailand’s southern provinces also tends to be very salty, and seafood, not surprisingly, plays an important role. Fresh fish is grilled, added to soups, dried, or pickled and fermented for sauces and condiments. Two of the principal crops in the south are coconuts and cashews, both of which find their way into a variety of dishes. Nearly every meal is accompanied by a platter of fresh herbs and vegetables, and a spicy ‘dip’ of shrimp paste, chillies, garlic and lime.
Dishes you are likely to come across in southern Thailand include the following:
- Gaang đai þlah An intensely spicy and salty curry that includes đai þlah (salted fish kidney); much tastier than it sounds.
- Gaang sôm Known as gaang lĕu·ang (yellow curry) in central Thailand, this sour/spicy soup gets its hue from the liberal use of turmeric, a root commonly used in southern Thai cooking.
- Gài tôrt hàht yài The famous deep-fried chicken from the town of Hat Yai gets its rich flavour from a marinade containing dried spices.
- Kà·nŏm jeen nám yah This dish of thin rice noodles served with a fiery curry-like sauce is always accompanied by a tray of fresh vegetables and herbs.
- Kôo·a glîng Minced meat fried with a fiery curry paste is a southern staple.
- Pàt sà·đor This popular stir-fry of ‘stink beans’ with shrimp, garlic, chillies and shrimp paste is both pungent and spicy.
Central Thai Cuisine
The people of central Thailand are fond of sweet/savoury flavours, and many dishes include freshwater fish, pork, coconut milk and palm sugar – common ingredients in the central Thai plains. Because of the region’s proximity to the Gulf of Thailand, central Thai eateries, particularly those in Bangkok, also serve a wide variety of seafood. Chinese labourers and vendors introduced a huge variety of noodle and wok-fried dishes to central Thailand as many as 200 years ago.
Must-eat central Thai and Bangkok dishes include the following:
- Pàt tai Thin rice noodles stir-fried with dried and/or fresh shrimp, bean sprouts, tofu, egg and seasonings, traditionally served with lime halves and a few stalks of Chinese chives and a sliced banana flower. Thip Samai, in Banglamphu, is probably Bangkok’s most lauded destination for the dish.
- Yam þlah dùk foo Fried shredded catfish, chilli and peanuts served with a sweet/tart mango dressing. Try it at Kimleng, in Bangkok’s Banglamphu district.
- Ðôm yam Lemon grass, kaffir lime leaf and lime juice give this soup its characteristic tang; fresh chillies or an oily chilli paste provide it with its legendary sting. Available just about everywhere, but it’s hard to beat the version at Krua Apsorn.
- Yen đah foh Combining a slightly sweet crimson-coloured broth with a variety of meatballs, cubes of blood and crispy greens, yen đah foh is probably both the most intimidating and popular noodle dish in Bangkok. Available at Soi 10 Food Centres and many street stalls.
- Gaang sôm Central Thailand’s famous ‘sour soup’ often includes freshwater fish, vegetables and/or herbs, and a thick, tart broth. Available at Poj Spa Kar.
- Gŏo•ay đĕe•o reua Known as boat noodles because they were previously served from small boats along the canals of central Thailand, these intense pork- or beef-based bowls are among the most full-flavoured of Thai noodle dishes. Try a bowl at Bharani.
Royal Thai Cuisine
A significant influence on the city’s kitchens has come from the Bangkok-based royal court, which has been producing sophisticated and refined takes on central Thai dishes for nearly 300 years. Although originally only available within the palace walls, these so-called ‘royal’ Thai dishes are now available across the city.
- Máh hór With origins in the palace, this is a Thai appetiser that combines chunks of mandarin orange or pineapple and a sweet/savoury/peppery topping that includes pork, chicken, peanuts, sugar, peppercorns and coriander root. It's available as part of the set meal at nahm.
- þlah hâang Dried fish combined with sugar and crispy deep-fried shallots, served on top of slices of watermelon.
- Kà·nŏm bêuang The old-school version of these taco-like snacks comes in two varieties: sweet and savoury.
- Mèe gròrp Crispy noodles made the traditional way, with a sweet and sour dressing (a former palace recipe), are a dying breed. Chote Chitr in Banglamphu serves an excellent version of the dish.
Immigrants from southern China have been influencing Thai cuisine for centuries, and it was most likely Chinese labourers and vendors who introduced the wok and several varieties of noodle dishes to Thailand. They also influenced Bangkok's cuisine in other ways: beef is not widely eaten in Bangkok due to a Chinese-Buddhist teaching that forbids eating ‘large’ animals.
Thai-Chinese dishes you’re likely to run across in Bangkok's Chinatown (and elsewhere) include the following:
- Kôw kăh mŏo Braised pork leg served over rice, often with a side of greens and a hard-boiled egg, is the epitome of the Thai-Chinese one-dish meal. It's available at the Soi 10 Food Centres and other street markets.
- Kôw man gài Chicken rice, originally from the Chinese island of Hainan, is now found in just about every corner of Bangkok. We particularly like the version served at Boon Tong Kiat Singapore Chicken Rice.
- Bà·mèe Chinese-style wheat-and-egg noodles typically served with slices of barbecued pork, a handful of greens and/or wontons. Mangkorn Khăo, a street stall in Chinatown, does one of Bangkok’s better bowls.
- Săh·lah þow Chinese-style steamed buns, served with sweet or savoury fillings, are a favourite snack in Bangkok.
- Gŏo·ay đĕe·o kôoa gài Wide rice noodles fried with little more than egg, chicken, salted squid and garlic oil is a popular Thai-Chinese dish.
- Or sòo·an Another Bangkok Chinatown staple, this dish combines a sticky, eggy batter topped with oysters. Nai Mong Hoi Thod does what is arguably Bangkok’s best take on this dish.
- Gŏoay jáp This dish consists of an intensely peppery broth and pork offal.
When Muslims first visited Thailand during the late 14th century, they brought with them a meat- and dried-spice-based cuisine from their homelands in India and the Middle East. Nearly 700 years later, the impact of this culinary commerce can still be felt in Bangkok.
While some Muslim dishes such as roh·đee, a fried bread similar to the Indian paratha, have changed little, if at all, others such as gaang mát·sà·màn are a unique blend of Thai and Indian–Middle Eastern cooking styles and ingredients.
Common Thai-Muslim dishes include the following:
- Kôw mòk Biryani, a dish found across the Muslim world, also has a foothold in Bangkok. Here the dish is typically made with chicken and is served with a sweet-and-sour dipping sauce and a bowl of chicken broth.
- Sà·đé (satay) These grilled skewers of meat probably came to Thailand via Malaysia. The savoury peanut-based dipping sauce is often mistakenly associated with Thai cooking.
- Má·đà·bà Known as murtabak in Malaysia and Indonesia, these are roh·đee that have been stuffed with a savoury or sometimes sweet filling and fried until crispy. It's available at Karim Roti-Mataba in Bangkok.
- Súp hăhng woo·a Oxtail soup, possibly another Malay contribution, is even richer and often more sour than the ‘Buddhist’ Thai đôm yam. Try the dish at Muslim Restaurant in Bangkok.
- Sà·làt kàak Literally ‘Muslim salad’ (kàak is a somewhat derogatory word used to describe people or things of Indian and/or Muslim origin), this dish combines iceberg lettuce, chunks of firm tofu, cucumber, hard-boiled egg and tomato, all topped with a sweet peanut sauce.
- Gaang mát·sà·màn ‘Muslim curry’ is a rich coconut-milk-based dish, which, unlike most Thai curries, gets much of its flavour from dried spices. As with many Thai-Muslim dishes, there is an emphasis on the sweet. A non-halal version is often served at upmarket restaurants such as nahm in Bangkok.
- Roh·đee This crispy fried pancake, drizzled with condensed milk and sugar, is the perfect street dessert.
Staples & Specialities
Curries & Soups
In Thai, gaang (it sounds somewhat similar to the English ‘gang’) is often translated as ‘curry’, but it actually describes any dish with a lot of liquid and can thus refer to soups (such as gaang jèut) as well as the classic chilli-paste-based curries for which Thai cuisine is famous. The preparation of the latter begins with a krêu·ang gaang, created by mashing, pounding and grinding an array of fresh ingredients with a stone mortar and pestle to form an aromatic, extremely pungent-tasting and rather thick paste. Typical ingredients in a krêu·ang gaang include chilli, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime zest, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste and salt.
Another food celebrity that falls into the soupy category is đôm yam, the famous Thai spicy-and-sour soup. Fuelling the fire beneath đôm yam’s often velvety surface are fresh prík kêe nŏo (tiny chillies) or, alternatively, half a teaspoonful of nám prík pŏw (roasted chilli paste). Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and lime juice give đôm yam its characteristic tang.
Standing right alongside curries in terms of Thai-ness is the ubiquitous yam, a hot and tangy ‘salad’ typically based around seafood, meat or vegetables. Lime juice provides the tang, while the abundant use of chilli generates the heat. Most yam are served at room temperature, or just slightly warmed by any cooked ingredients. The dish functions equally well as part of a meal or on its own as gàp glâam, snack food to accompany a night of boozing.
Being a tropical country, Thailand excels in the fruit department. Má·môo·ang (mangoes) alone come in a dozen varieties that are eaten at different stages of ripeness. Other common fruit include sàp·þà·rót (pineapple), má·lá·gor (papaya) and đaang moh (watermelon), all of which are sold from ubiquitous vendor carts and accompanied by a dipping mix of salt, sugar and ground chilli. A highlight of visiting Thailand is sampling the huge variety of indigenous fruits of which you've probably never heard. Many are available year-round nowadays, but April and May is peak season for several of the most beloved varieties, including durian, mangoes and mangosteen.
Here is a list of other lesser-known tropical fruits:
- Custard apple Known in Thai as nóy nàh, the knobbly green skin of this fruit conceals hard black seeds and sweet, gloopy flesh with a granular texture.
- Durian Known in Thai as tú·ree·an, the king of fruit is also Thailand's most infamous, due to its intense flavour and odour, which can suggest everything from custard to onions.
- Guava A native of South America, fa·ràng – the same as the word for Westerner – is a green, apple-like ball containing pink or white flesh that's sweet and crispy.
- Jackfruit The gigantic green pod of kà·nŭn – it's considered the world's largest fruit – conceals dozens of waxy yellow sections that taste like a blend of pineapple and bananas (it reminds us of Juicy Fruit chewing gum).
- Langsat Strip away the yellowish peel of this fruit, known in Thai as long·gong, to find a segmented, perfumed pearlescent flesh with a lychee-like flavour.
- Longan Lam yai takes the form of a tiny hard ball; it's like a mini lychee with sweet, perfumed flesh. Peel it, eat the flesh and spit out the hard seed.
- Lychee The pink skin of lín·jèe conceals an addictive translucent flesh similar in flavour to a grape. It's generally only available between April and June.
- Mangosteen The hard purple shell of mang·kút, the queen of Thai fruit, conceals delightfully fragrant white segments, some containing a hard seed.
- Pomelo Like a grapefruit on steroids, sôm oh takes the form of a thick pithy green skin hiding sweet, tangy segments. Cut into the skin, peel off the pith and then break open the segments and munch on the flesh inside.
- Rambutan People have different theories about what ngó look like, not all repeatable in polite company. Regardless, the hairy shell contains sweet translucent flesh that you scrape off the seed with your teeth.
- Rose apple Known in Thai as chom·pôo, rose apple is an elongated pink or red fruit with a smooth, shiny skin and pale, watery flesh. It's a good thirst-quencher on a hot day.
- Salak Also known as snake fruit because of its scaly skin. The exterior of sàlà looks like a mutant strawberry and the soft flesh tastes like unripe bananas.
- Starfruit The star-shaped cross-section of má·feu·ang is the giveaway. The yellow flesh is sweet and tangy and believed by many to lower blood pressure.
Although more home than restaurant food, nám prík are spicy chilli-based dips. Typically eaten with rice and vegetables and herbs, they’re also among the most regional of Thai dishes – you could probably pinpoint the province you’re in by simply looking at the nám prík on offer.
Rice & Noodles
In Thailand, to eat is to eat rice, and for most of the country, a meal is not acceptable without this staple. Thailand maintains the world's fifth-largest amount of land dedicated to growing rice, an industry that employs more than half the country's arable land and a significant portion of its population. Rice is so central to Thai food culture that the most common term for ‘eat’ is gin kôw (literally, ‘consume rice’) and one of the most common greetings is Gin kôw rĕu yang? (Have you consumed rice yet?).
There are many varieties of rice in Thailand and the country has been among the world leaders in rice exports since the 1960s. The highest grade is kôw hŏrm má·lí (jasmine rice), a fragrant long grain that is so coveted by neighbouring countries that there is allegedly a steady underground business in smuggling out fresh supplies. The grain is customarily served alongside main dishes such as curries, stir-fries or soups, which are lumped together as gàp kôw (with rice). When you order plain rice in a restaurant you use the term kôw þlòw (‘plain rice’) or kôw sŏo·ay (‘beautiful rice’). Residents of Thailand's north and northeast eat kôw nĕe·o ('sticky rice'), a glutinous short-grained rice that is cooked by steaming, not boiling. And in Chinese-style eateries, kôw đôm, 'boiled rice', a watery porridge sometimes employing brown or purple rice, is a common carb.
Thai Noodles Dishes
In Thailand, noodles are ubiquitous, cheap and tasty. But they're also extremely varied and somewhat complicated to order. So with this in mind, we've provided a crash course in Thai noodles.
Stir-Fries & Deep-Fries
The simplest dishes in the Thai culinary repertoire are the various pàt (stir-fries), introduced to Thailand by the Chinese, who are famed for being able to stir-fry a whole banquet in a single wok.
The list of pàt dishes seems endless. Many cling to their Chinese roots, such as the ubiquitous pàt pàk bûng fai daang (morning glory flash-fried with garlic and chilli), while some are Thai-Chinese hybrids, such as pàt pèt (literally ‘spicy stir-fry’), in which the main ingredients, typically meat or fish, are quickly stir-fried with red curry paste.
Tôrt (deep-frying in oil) is mainly reserved for snacks such as glôo·ay tôrt (deep-fried bananas) or þò·þée·a (egg rolls). An exception is þlah tôrt (deep-fried fish), which is a common way to prepare fish.
English-language Thai menus often have a section called 'Desserts', but Thai-style sweets are generally consumed as breakfast or as a sweet snack, not directly following a meal. Sweets also take two slightly different forms in Thailand. Kŏrng wăhn, which translates as 'sweet things', are small, rich sweets that often boast a slightly salty flavour. Prime ingredients for kŏrng wăhn include grated coconut, coconut milk, rice flour (from white rice or sticky rice), cooked sticky rice, tapioca, mung-bean starch, boiled taro and various fruits. Egg yolks are a popular ingredient for many kŏrng wăhn, including the ubiquitous fŏy torng (literally 'golden threads'), probably influenced by Portuguese desserts and pastries introduced during the early Ayuthaya era.
Thai sweets roughly similar to the European concept of pastries are called kà·nŏm. Probably the most popular type of kà·nŏm in Thailand are the bite-sized items wrapped in banana leaves, especially kôw đôm gà·tí and kôw đôm mát. Both consist of sticky rice grains steamed with gà·tí (coconut milk) inside a banana-leaf wrapper to form a solid, almost taffy-like, mass.
The Four Flavours
Simply put, sweet, sour, salty and spicy are the parameters that define Thai food, and although many associate the cuisine with fiery heat, virtually every dish is an exercise in balancing these four tastes. This balance might be obtained by a squeeze of lime juice, a spoonful of sugar and a glug of fish sauce, or a tablespoon of fermented soybeans and a strategic splash of vinegar. Bitter also factors into many Thai dishes, and often comes from the addition of a vegetable or herb. Regardless of the source, the goal is the same: a favourable balance of four clear, vibrant flavours.
Westerners might scoff at the all-too-literal name of this condiment, but for much of Thai cooking, fish sauce is more than just another ingredient, it is the ingredient.
Essentially the liquid extracted from salted fish, fish sauce is one of the most common seasonings in the Thai kitchen, and takes various guises depending on the region. In northeastern Thailand, discerning diners prefer a thick, pasty mash of fermented freshwater fish and sometimes rice. Elsewhere, where people have access to the sea, fish sauce takes the form of a thin, amber liquid extracted from salted anchovies – much like with olive oil, the first extraction is considered the finest. In both cases the result has an admittedly pungent nose, but is generally salty, rather than fishy, in taste. Indeed, prík nám þlah, a tiny bowl of fish sauce, supplemented with thinly sliced chillies and garlic – an item found on just about every restaurant table in Thailand – can be considered the Thai equivalent of the salt shaker.
Vegetarians & Vegans
Vegetarianism isn’t a widespread trend in Thailand, but many tourist-oriented restaurants cater to vegetarians, and there are also a handful of ráhn ah·hăhn mang·sà·wí·rát (vegetarian restaurants) where the food is served buffet-style and is very inexpensive. Dishes are almost always 100% vegan (ie no meat, poultry, fish or fish sauce, dairy or egg products).
During the Vegetarian Festival, celebrated by Chinese Buddhists in September/October, many restaurants and street stalls in Bangkok go meatless for one month.
The phrase ‘I’m vegetarian’ in Thai is pŏm gin jair (for men) or dì·chăn gin jair (for women). Loosely translated this means ‘I eat only vegetarian food’, which includes no eggs and no dairy products – in other words, total vegan.
Thailand's eateries span the entire spectrum. Booking is only necessary at a handful of the country's most acclaimed restaurants.
- Street stalls The most ubiquitous source of prepared food in Thailand, street stalls can be found just about anywhere, at any time of day or night.
- Shophouse restaurants A step up, in terms of comfort and price, from the street stalls, these semi-outdoor eateries serve some of the best food in the country.
- Restaurants Thailand's restaurant scene is vast and varied, in terms of cuisine, amenities and price.
a·ròy – the Thai word for delicious
bà·mèe – wheat-and-egg noodles
đôm yam – Thailand's famous sour and spicy soup
gaang – curry
gài – chicken
gŏo·ay đĕe·o – the generic term for noodle soup
kà·nŏm – Thai-style sweet snacks
kôw – rice
kôw nĕe·o – sticky rice
lâhp – a 'salad' of minced meat
mŏo – pork
nám dèum – drinking water
nám þlah – fish sauce
nám prík – chilli-based dips
pàk – vegetables
pàt – fried
pàt see·éw – wide rice noodles fried with pork and greens
pàt tai – thin rice noodles fried with egg and seasonings
pèt – spicy
þèt – duck
þlah – fish
pŏn·lá·mái – fruit
prík – chilli
ráhn ah·hăhn – restaurant
tôrt – deep-fried
yam – a Thai-style salad