One of the most enjoyable aspects of travel is eating. It’s true. Trying new dishes and buying unfamiliar foods from markets is one of the most hands on way to explore a new place. You can even relive some of the travel experience at home by trying new ethnic foods from far away countries.
From this point of view – Thailand has it all. Exotic sights and flavours make Thailand an excellent foodie destination. Street food is cheap and often just as good of quality as restaurant food, almost everything is made with simple and fresh ingredients, and it is even easy to find vegetarian options (if you can let the ubiquitous fish sauce slide).
So without further adieu, here is my top 10 foods to try in Thailand (or at your local Thai restaurant).
Pad thai is one of Thailand’s national dishes and can be found at any Thai restaurant, or from any number of street vendors in Thailand. It is a filling combination of rice noodles, vegetables, meat or tofu, egg, sauces and spices. The fresh ingredients are combined together and then stir fried in a large wok – usually one portion at a time. The result is an incredibly fresh meal which is easily altered to suit vegetarians.
When perusing the night markets in Bangkok, the local pad thai vendor is always a great place to take a break and feast on the sights and smells of Thailand.
One of my personal absolute favourites – the dessert, mango sticky rice! This dish left such an impression upon me that I seek it out at every Thai restaurant back home. Sticky rice is a short grained rice that sticks together when cooked. It is great for making into bite sized balls and then dipping into your favourite sauce. But it is even better when cooked with sweet coconut milk, topped with fresh ripe mango, and drizzled with even more sweetened coconut milk.
After my first encounter with mango sticky rice at a market in Bangkok, it became my personal everyday mission to find more of it.
Papaya salad is one of the quickest street foods to make from scratch, and you don’t get any more fresher than this! The salad combines the four main tastes of Thai food – salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, hot chili, and sour lime. Upon ordering papaya salad, the cook will combine shredded unripened papaya, tomatoes, chili, palm sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice into a large mortar. The cook will then lightly crush the ingredient together with a pestle, releasing all the flavours.
Since each salad is made fresh and in front of the customer’s eyes, this is one of the easiest Thai dishes to fully customize to your specifications.
Thailand was my first encounter with fresh spring rolls. In the west, the most common variety of spring rolls are the deep fried variety. Fresh spring rolls consist of finely chopped raw vegetables, combined with fresh shredded herbs, and occasionally shrimp (it is possibly to get tofu instead), wrapped together in a sheet of rice paper and served with a sweet and spicy dipping sauce.
I first tried these in a market in Bangkok ( I tried most things for the first time in Bangkok, as it was the first Thai city I visited) and since that first experience would often seek them out as a healthy and light breakfast. These spring rolls are also very easy to make at home. I often serve them as an alternative to salad or take them along to picnics. You can find rice paper in most supermarkets in the Asian foods aisle.
Panang curry is a Thai adaptation of a similar curry from Malaysia. This curry combines the flavours of lemon grass, galangal, cumin, and coriander with of course, chili. The only liquid added to this curry is coconut milk, which produces and very rich and filling curry. It is most commonly prepared with beef, but an easy vegetarian option is to ask for tofu instead.
Red and green curry are the two main curry options in Thailand. Green curry is typically sweeter than the more spicy red curry. Green curry is typically made with aubergine, pea aubergine, coconut milk, and keffir lime leaves which are combined with the green curry paste. Red curry is typically made with lemon grass, galangal, Thai aubergine, and bamboo shoots. Both curries are made with fish sauce, which may make them unsuitable for strict vegetarians. From my experience in Thailand, trying to communicate “no fish sauce” is an almost impossible task, as the idea of not using fish sauce is bewildering to most Thais. But for those vegetarians who are not too strict, both curries can be easily made with tofu instead of meat.
Tom yum soup is definitely yum indeed. It combines hot and sour flavours, with fragrant herbs and fresh vegetables. Stalks of lemon grass, galangal, keffir lime leaves, and chili are typical flavours to encounter. The soup is typically made with fish or chicken, but as with all other Thai food, it is usually not difficult to have tofu substituted instead. The lack of coconut milk in this dish makes it a much lighter alternative to other Thai dishes.
The Singha is a mystical lion, found in ancient Hindu and Thai stories, and the symbol used for Thailand’s most popular lager. Singha is produced exclusively in Thailand, and it is also Thailand’s main exported beer as well. It has recently been challenged by Beer Chang, who is proving to be a worthy rival. No holiday to Thailand is complete without a sampling of these two beers.
Definitely not for the faint of heart – or stomach. Or if crickets don’t suit your particular palette, how about deep fried ant eggs? Or grasshoppers, or silk worm? All of these can be found in Thai markets, or food vendors. Nothing can get the stomach rumbling (or churning) when the mobile cricket cart passes by. Apparently, the insects are actually rather bland when deep fried, which is why your insect purchase will include a variety of dipping sauces.
Thankfully, I was able to hide behind the vegetarian excuse, and therefore had a very good reason to avoid trying these local delicacies.
Laap is actually the national dish of Laos, but I am including it here because many Thai restaurants in the Western world also offer Laap as an option (another spelling variation is “Larb”)
Laap is a meat salad and it is traditionally eaten raw. Laap is typically made with either beef, fish, duck, pork, or chicken and is flavoured with lime juice, mint, coriander, and chili. It is served with lettuce on the side, and the lettuce is used to wrap up the laap for eating.
Due to health considerations, chicken laap is now almost always served cooked, and all varieties of laap can be cooked upon request. It is also possible to make laap at home using tvp or tofu as a substitute.