Let’s not even get started on how delicious Thai food is, how elaborate and diverse it gets. For me, Thai food, with its profusion of exotic flavours and fragrances, is to Asia what French food is to Europe (or to the world really), i.e., the best! Let’s also not get started on how important food is in Thai culture. A regular question Thai friends would often ask in a broken English: “you eat already?”.
As menus in many restaurants are often seemingly inexhaustible in their variety of dishes, I listed my absolute musts when visiting Thailand, which are a tiny sample of what Thai food has to offer. They are all definitely on my checklist each time I go though. Before starting, a bit of vocabulary could be interesting and useful:
- Water: Nam
- Ice: Nam Keng
- Rice: Khao
- Pad: stri-fried
- Chicken: Gai
- Pork: Moo
- Curry: Kaeng
- A little bit spicy: spicy nip noi
- Papaya salad (Som Tum)
Wow! That’s one of the spicy ones! For those whose first reaction would be « I don’t like the strange taste of that fruit », well, papaya salad is made with grated green papaya, string beans, tamarind juice, fish sauce, peanuts, dried shrimp, tomatoes, lime juice, sugar cane paste, garlic and chilies, a lot of chilies!
The first time I had it, I was off a road in the middle of nowhere in the Kanchanaburi province with a Thai friend. He ordered the salad and it came, as it always does, beautifully presented, which hides its true colours or rather, its true taste. My eyes, nose and ears were smoking as I took the first mouthful, but taking away a bit of the sauce made it more mild and quite delicious! That’s also a dish I made during my cooking class in Chiang Mai (so it doesn’t look as great in my photo as it should be), at my level of spiciness and it was really good.
2. Thai Larb pork salad (Larb Moo)
Great salad for meat lovers and spicy tolerants. Looks pretty simple: it’s a combination of minced pork, seasoned with fish sauce, chili flakes, lime juice, shallots, spring onions, cilantro and mint leaves – and I always have it with a plate of sticky rice on the side. However, when I tried to have a go at this recipe… it was a real disaster… It was too salty, the meat wasn’t cooked in the proper way… although I did follow the book! Maybe the meat wasn’t right… Bottom line, delicious to order, not that easy to make!
3. Pad Thai
Easily translated as Thai style stir-fried noodles, Pad Thai is probably the most famous dish and maybe one of the easiest to make at home (after I was thought during my cooking class in Chiang Mai, I was able to prepare it as an exotic post-Christmas dish for all my family). You can find Pad Thai in almost any restaurant and very often as street food.
Medium sized rice noodles are stir fried with a host of ingredients like tofu, peanuts, shrimp or chicken, green onions, bean sprouts, garlic, pepper, fish sauce and lime juice. A scrambled egg mixed into the noodles seals the dish together and ensures deliciousness.
Pad Thai is great to eat with a squeeze of lime and ground peanuts. Again, a spoon or two of sugar, chili flakes, and vinegar, are always an option by way of condiments.
4. Fried rice (Khao Pad)
Chicken, pork, shrimp or veggie, fried rice is the safe choice you’ll find everywhere. Thai fried rice can be made with a variety of ingredients – whatever happens to be on hand, but it essentially comes with fried rice, egg, onion, a few herbs – nothing more, nothing less and served typically with a wedge of lime and slices of cucumber. I also love the pineapple fried rice, which adds that sweat twist.
Fried rice for me always has its life cycle: I eat too much at the beginning of my trip, then get sick of it and after a while, usually not too long before going back home, I really want to eat it and feel it so comforting!
5. Pad See Ew
I’m pretty sure I had a dish called « Drunken noodles » in the US, which was very similar to this. Whatever the name, it is delicious! A bit heavy on the end, but still so good! It’s fat rice noodles cooked with eggs, chicken, bok choy, some veggies and soy sauce. The noodles are quite sticky, so when you pick one mouthful, you usually get about half the dish with it.
6. Tom Yum Goong
The quintessential Thai aroma! This delicious masterpiece soup is a blend of shrimp, mushrooms, tomatoes, lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves and fish sauce. This soup truly unifies Thai flavours: sour, salty, spicy and sweet, all in one bowl. Be careful, it can be very spicy !
The first time I tried it, I was in Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia actually. Tom Yum was on the wish list of this girl I had met, who absolutely wanted to have it before she went back home a couple of days later. No wonder!!
7. Coconut soup (Tom Kha)
The first dish I had on my first visit to Thailand in 2014 and absolutely stays one of my favourites!! I remember getting directly from the airport in Bangkok to my bungalow in Kanchanaburi, feeling like I had arrived to the perfect place. That, plus I ordered chicken coconut soup, which is a more creamy and mild soup, infusing chilies, thinly sliced galangal, crushed shallots, stalks of lemongrass, tender strips of chicken, veggies, topped off with fresh lime leaves.
8. Thai Noodle soup
Noodle soup has become my transit dish, i.e. I always go for it when there’s a stop on bus trip. I like to have my little habits! The dish is pretty simple as well, but not sure everyone enjoys these strange pork balls and the other fish-like meat that comes with it, but it’s basically that, noodles, soya beans, coriander and then you can add chilies, soya sauce and peanuts yourself. You can actually also choose your noodles; I like the big flat ones! Noddle soup is quick, safe and tastes like Asia!
9. Khao Soi
I recently discovered this succulent dish. King of the North, you’ll find it a lot in Chiang Mai and surrounding provinces. A Thai saying says: « If you haven’t tasted Khao Soi or seen the view from Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, you haven’t been to Chiang Mai ». This Burmese-influenced dish would mean « cut rice » in Thai, although it is possibly just a corruption of the Burmese word for noodles, which is just « khao swè ».
Khao Soi has everything one would want from a Thai-style creamy curry noodle soup situation: spices, coconut milk, noodles (soft boiled noodles on the inside, and crispy fried noodles on top), a nice chunk of chicken and it is usually served on the side with lime and chopped red onions. Yummy !!
10. Red or Green Curry
Big classic, served somewhat like a soup, made out of their respective curry pastes, mixed with coconut milk, chicken and topped off with a sprinkling of finely sliced kaffir lime leaves and other ingredients for the red curry and green peppers (that is why it is so hot!) together with, Thai eggplant and other vegetables for the green curry.
11. Massaman Curry
This more mild curry, is a mixture of curry paste, coconut milk, a strong flavour of peanuts, and a hint of nutmeg, cumin and cinnamon. It comes with chunks of potatoes that have soaked up the coconut milk like a sponge and chicken. I guess it’s one of the few common Thai dishes that come with potatoes.
12. Basil fried Pork or Chicken (Pad Krapow Moo / Gai saap)
My go to after-party food. After our long Koh Tao nights, we would go to one of the few places still open serving food and I would always (yes, I’m a creature of habits) order Pad Krapow Moo saap (or rather some Thai or Burmese friend would do it for me, as I was incapable of remembering the name of it). Chicken, pork or minced meat, stir fried with basil, garlic, chilies, small green vegetables like green beans in soy sauce and sugar, served on a bed of rice and often, if you wish so, topped with a fried egg (kai dao).
13. Chicken cashew nuts (Gai Med Ma Muang)
Chicken, sometimes served crispy, is fried with onions, dried chilies, crunchy cashew nuts, carrots, mushrooms and can also have tomatoes. The mix of oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar and other spices create a perfect sweet, slightly thick sauce.
14. Street food
Thai street food… where to start ? Everywhere you’ll find stalls on the side of the streets selling all sorts of different eggs, sausages, meat balls, chicken, seafood, insects, fruits, pancakes and many strange looking things… So I’ll just give one advice, be adventurous and try it all !!
15. Mango Sticky rice
The very best for the end! Out of all Thai delicacies, Mango sticky rice shines up above. It’s the kind of food you eat and just makes you feel happy. Picture how, in so many cartoons, the character will eat something and make that melting face of content and happiness – well that’s Mango sticky rice.
It sounds a bit odd: Mango, rice and coconut milk… the first time I heard about it, I certainly thought it did. I had it the first time I was in Thailand, volunteering and we were out on our weekly visit to the Lat Ya market. My friend from New Zealand made these big eyes when she heard I had never tried it and that I was sure it was weird. So she made me try and… it was love at first taste…! It’s a blend of that incredible mango freshness, married with the sweet sticky rice, mingled with the coconut taste and the little nuts that give it the crunchy touch. An absolute perfect combination!
Bonus! Thai Milk Tea
Okay it’s not food, but it certainly can replace a little 4 pm snack and feeling that the heat is drying you up. It’s a triple V: very good, very fresh and very sweet – and this comes from someone who doesn’t like tea. One doesn’t actually really taste the tea flavor, which is a blend of black tea and spices, as it is overpowered by a large portion of sweetened condensed milk and heavily iced. I also ask for bubbles, which are tapioca pearls (they taste a bit like gummy bears). You can get the same but with green tea instead.
What’s your favourite ?