For many people, a trip to Thailand means exploring world-famous Thai cuisine. The use of fresh herbs, the flaming hot stir-fries, the tasty curries… we can all picture it. However, once they’ve arrived in the Land of Smiles, most tourists stick to what’s familiar and end up eating Pad Thai and fried rice for weeks. This guide will provide some insight into what Thai cuisine really has to offer and give you the confidence to order one of the many other delicious local dishes.
Thai people really love to eat. It’s one of the defining aspects of Thailand’s culture. Everywhere you go, everywhere you look, you’ll see restaurants, street food vendors and people eating. Where most countries focus on the four (actually five) flavours, namely saltiness, sweetness, sourness, bitterness and savoury (also known as umami), the Thai cuisine replaces the bitterness with spiciness. But the level of spiciness really depends on the type of Thai food. To really understand Thai cuisine, it’s important to know that there are strong regional differences. You can divide Thailand into four different food regions:
- Northern Thai Cuisine
- Northeastern Thai Cuisine (Isaan)
- Central Thai Cuisine
- Southern Thai Cuisine.
Each region borders one of the neighbouring countries (except for Central Thai Cuisine) and has adopted some of their neighbour’s food habits as borders changed over the years throughout the history of these southeastern countries. Northern Thai Cuisine has similarities with Burmese food, Northeastern Thai Cuisine incorporates aspects of Laotian food and Southern Thai cuisine has Malaysian influences. The result is obvious and clear: the Thai cuisine offers a huge variety of delicious food with specialities in every region.
1. Northern Thai Cuisine
Influenced by the less fiery Burmese cuisine, Northern Thai Cuisine is in theory less spicy than food in other parts of Thailand, which makes it easier to explore for those with a Western taste palate. This applies when you compare the traditional dishes with other regional dishes, however, Northern Thai food can still be spicy for the majority of Western people. The most famous dishes the Northern Thai Cuisine has to offer are:
Khao Soi is a creamy noodle soup/curry and perhaps the most famous Northern Thai dish. The soup is topped with crispy fried noodles and usually served with a chicken drumstick. The soup is not too spicy and has subtle flavours of garlic, turmeric and ginger. Khao Soi is usually served with lime, red onion, pickles and coriander, which you can add to the bowl of deliciousness based on your own preferences. If you are planning to visit Chiang Mai, you might want to visit one of the restaurants listed in our article about the 5 best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai.
Hang Lae is a famous Chiang Mai stew with pork belly. The use of tamarind and star anise makes this stew extremely flavourful. As the pork belly is stewed for hours, the pork literally melts in your mouth. Usually, the dish is topped with roasted nuts and freshly chopped cilantro. In general, Hang Lae is not a spicy curry. If you are in Chiang Mai and want to try an amazing version of Hang Lae, you must visit Tong Tem Toh and order their Burmese Style Pork Curry (73 THB).
Nam Prik Ong
This Northern Thai speciality is a version of the common Nam Prik, a dish that can be found anywhere in Thailand. The Nam Prik Ong is a dip made of ground pork, chillies and tomatoes and is served with cabbage leaves. It’s herby, mild and reminds you of Italian pasta due to the garlic and tomatoes. You dip the vegetables in the dip and the result is a true flavour explosion. In general, Nam Prik Ong is not spicy at all. There are all sorts of variations to find in the north, some served with other Northern Thai specialities such as Northern Thai sausage. If you are in Chiang Mai, you can visit Tong Tem Toh, Thajene Chomchan or Khao Soy Nimman and order their versions of Nam Phrik as they are highly recommended.
Nam Prik Ong
Sai Oua, also known as Northern Thai Sausage, is a delicious seasoned sausage made of pork. The use of aromatic curry paste in combination with the lemongrass makes it a must-try dish when visiting Northern Thailand. Sai Oua can be ordered as a snack from a street food cart as well as at upscale restaurants. There is a huge difference in spiciness as some Thai add a decent amount of chillies in the recipe, while others adding so many chillies that even Gordon Ramsay burst into tears:
As mentioned, Northern Thai Cuisine is not necessarily known for its spiciness but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any famous spicy dishes available. Nam Ngiao, a noodle soup mostly served with fermented rice vermicelli, boasts plenty of chillies. The main ingredients are either beef or chicken, as well as the more adventurous curdled blood. Due to that last ingredient, Nam Ngiao isn’t that popular amongst tourists, but it sure as hell is for the locals. For me personally, I did not like this dish in the beginning, but nowadays when I scoop out the blood curd, I can really enjoy a large bowl of this deliciously spicy and sour soup. Tasty versions of this popular soup can be found at Khao Soy Nimman and local's favourite Khao Soi Maesai, both in Chiang Mai.
This unusual yet delicious Thai snack is a combination of chopped ingredients such as shallots, ginger, garlic, peanuts, chilli and dried shrimps. You wrap all these ingredients in edible tea or beetle leaves with a sweet sauce and eat it in one bite, hence the name: Miang Kham, which translates as: “one bite wrap”. The result is one big taste explosion that you just must try! Miang Khum can be found throughout Thailand, although it's not always easy to find a restaurant that serves this appetizer. I would recommend trying Miang Kham at one of the following restaurants: Blue Rice Restaurant (Kanchanaburi), Baan Phad Thai (Bangkok) and Cabbages & Condoms (Pattaya). The most unique version I ever tried was at Tom Yum Kung, where they serve Miang Kham with bright red baby prawns (see picture below).
This grilled pork sausage is actually fermented which gives it a uniquely sour flavour. The fact that it is fermented means you can also eat it raw, which you can often find in the Northern regions of Thailand, but it’s best to stick with the cooked versions to avoid Asian stomach aches. Besides, once it’s grilled, the sausage has even more (hearty) flavour!
Northeastern Thai Cuisine
The Northeast Thai Cuisine offers perhaps the most interesting Thai Food. This region, also known as the Isaan-region or Isaan, served incredibly seasoned dishes with loads of herbs, chillies, garlic and raw veggies. You might find the flavours overwhelming to start with, but once you get used to the amount of sour and spice, you can't live without it. The Northeastern Thai Cuisine does have a few extreme ingredients that you want to avoid as a foreigner, especially when it's your first time eating dishes from this widely popular cuisine. These extreme ingredients will be mentioned in the listed dishes below. The most popular dishes of the Northeastern Thai cuisine are:
Som Tum (Papaya Salad)
Thailand’s most famous salad Som Tum, also known as Papaya Salad, is made of unripe green papaya, fresh carrots, tomato and plenty of chillies drenched in a sweet and mostly sour dressing. There are many versions of the som tum featuring extra ingredients such as dried prawns, crab, deep-fried catfish and pickled mussels. In Northeastern Thailand, it’s common to use Pla Rah: fermented fish sauce. For most foreigners, the flavour and smell are too extreme, so it’s best to order without it. Som Tum can be made as spicy as you want it to be. When you order Som Tum in Thailand, ninety-nine per cent of the times they will ask how spicy you want it to be. Som Tum can be ordered in every single Thai restaurant and is used as a side dish, for example with grilled meat. Som Tum is a simple, straight-forward Thai dish that is hard to judge where to find the best version it, as many vendors and restaurants just follow the recipe.
This minced meat salad often served with chicken or pork and has its origins from Laos but is incredibly popular throughout Thailand. Like many other Isaan specialities, the level of spice and sourness can be a little bit too much so it’s common to order rice with Laab to dilute all these extreme flavours. The laab, which is made with roasted rice as well, is topped with lemongrass and mint leaves for a fresh and cooling kick, although the raw red onion is often sharp as well. Over the years, laab became one of my daily-favourite Thai dishes. Make sure that when you order laab, you order without any intestines, as laab often gets served with bits of liver and sometimes more.
Nam Tok Moo
Nam Tok Moo is a pork neck salad that has, flavour-wise, many similarities with Laab. The big difference is that it uses sliced pork neck rather than minced meat. The pork neck gives it a heartier tone with tasty pork flavours compared to the Laab. Also, the Nam Tok Moo is topped with chopped spring onion instead of mint leaves. Personally, my preference goes to laab, as the quality of the pork neck defines the quality of Nam Tok and too often I've had extremely fat bits of sliced nam tok. When the pork neck is decently lean, nam tok is an incredible Thai dish. But that is my personal opinion when comparing laab with nam tok.
Nam Tok Moo
This hot pot is a delicious, fun meal perfect for sharing with friends. Chim Chum is a clay pot with a broth full of herbs, which is set above a charcoal stove to boil. You can add ingredients such as cabbage and a variety of meats and seafood and the broth gets stronger and stronger while your ingredients boil. Usually, you can choose between a meat version, a seafood version or a mixed version. Optional is to add an egg to the soup, which makes it almost a Thai-version of Sukiyaki. Trying Chim Chum is a bit difficult as not many Thai restaurants serve this dish. If you're in Bangkok and you want to try Chim Chum, one of the restaurants that serve really delicious Chim Chum is Lao Garden.
Chim Chum Hot Pot
Sai Krok Isaan
These popular grilled fermented sausages can be found all over Thailand at local street food vendors but they’re an authentic Isaan speciality. Like the Naem, the Northern Thai Sausage, this Isaan variety has a strong sour flavour and it’s usually served with bird’s eye chillis, raw cabbage and sliced ginger.
Sai Krok Isaan
Yum means hot and sour in Thai and this word is common in Thai dishes, for example, Tom Yum Goong, which is a hugely popular Thai soup, means "boiled sweet and sour prawns". So Yum or Yum Salad, is a hot and sour salad. And as you probably already noticed, in the Northeastern region of Thailand the people love spicy sour salads. Yam is yet another delicious lukewarm salad that’s unique because it incorporates Chinese celery. One of the best Yam combinations is the Yum Talay served with seafood, usually sliced squid and river prawns. The chewy squid is only boiled briefly, so all the ingredients have a perfect bite. But there are many variations of yam salads, even with a fried egg.
Hot and sour are the foundations of Isaan cuisine and this flavourful soup demonstrates that yet again. Tom Saep is a herby soup with great balance of spices and sour flavours, usually served with pork ribs and sliced mushrooms. While the soup has similarities to the hugely popular tom yum soup, tom saep is by far the lesser-known. Also, the pork ribs are not as richly packed with meat as foreigners are used to when they think of pork ribs. In fact, these tiny baby racks are difficult to eat. The soup, however, is much more satisfying and the finishing with Thailands most beloving herb, Thai basil, makes it even more delicious.
Gai Yang and other grilled meats
When walking through the streets of Thailand, you can see vendors smoking and grilling their meat from a mile away. Perhaps the most famous version is the grilled chicken, known as Gai Yang, which as a smoky flavour and originates in Isaan. Gai Yang can be found in every Isaan restaurant throughout the country. Another Thai-favourite is grilled beef, also known as Neua Yang. Both grilled chicken and beef are often served with so-called jaew-sauce, a sweet and spicy dipping sauce. As mentioned earlier, grilled meat is perfect to combine with som tam (papaya salad) and especially with sticky rice and an ice-cold beer. If you are in Chiang Mai, make sure to visit one of the following famous grilled chicken and beef restaurants: SP Chicken, Lert Ros and Cherng Doi Roasted Chicken.
Grilled Pork Skewers, also known as Moo Ping, are a popular Northeastern snack that should not be confused with Satay. Moo Ping has a completely different marinade and is often served with a chilli sauce named JAEW.
Kor Moo Yang
Kor Moo Yang is grilled marinated pork neck served with spicy JAEW sauce. Depending on the quality of the meat, the pork neck can be incredibly lean and tender. Kor Moo Yang is yet another popular grilled dish with a smoky, spicy flavour.
Kor Moo Yang
Central Thai Cuisine
Central Thai Cuisine is the most common of the whole country and includes many of the Thai classics that most people have probably heard of before they visit Thailand. The Chinese have had a big influence on this food region, stemming from the Chinese merchants who settled in Bangkok in the 18th century. This influence is significant and can be found throughout central Thailand. In general, Central Thai Cuisine is less spicy and therefore easier accessible for tourists.
Thailand’s most famous dish is the Pad Thai. But there’s a story behind this dish that most people don’t know. First of all, it’s not as popular amongst Thai people as it is with tourists. That doesn’t mean that Thais don’t like it, it’s just that there are so many other good dishes to rival it. Secondly, the introduction of the Pad Thai in the late 1930s was part of a political campaign to increase nationalism, but the dish actually has actually Chinese roots. Nevertheless, this tasty noodle dish can be found everywhere in Thailand, on every street corner. In case you will be travelling to Bangkok, we've published an article about where to find the Best Pad Thai in Bangkok and we guarantee that you will enjoy pad thai at these restaurants.
Tom Yum Goong
Ah, Tom Yum Goong, a dish that I've mentioned several times before in this article. This spicy, sour soup is one of the most popular Thai cuisines has to offer. There are two different versions of Tom Yum, namely Tom Yum Nam Sai and Tom Yum Nam Khon. The difference is a dash of coconut milk that makes the Tom Yum Nam Khon more creamy and the creamy version is the most popular version in Thailand. Tom Yum Goong is a tom yum soup served with chopped mushrooms and large prawns (Goong means prawns in Thai). The soup itself is usually a bit spicier compared to the other famous Thai soup, Tom Ka Kai. In general, Tom Yum is served with Goong (prawns), but there are some other versions available too, for example, in Bangkok, there is a restaurant that serves tom yum with lobster, squid, mussels and crab. That restaurant is called Pe Aor and is listed in our article about the best Tom Yum in Bangkok.
Tom Yum Goong
Tom Ka Kai
This coconut-milk-based chicken soup is as herby as the Tom Yum soup but is less spicy and has a fresher feel thanks to the coconut milk and extra use of galangal. Tom Ka Kai is packed with large chopped mushrooms and sliced chicken chunks and topped with some cilantro. Where Tom Yum is usually served with prawns, is Tom Ka usually serve with chicken (Kai). Flavour-wise, these two popular soups are almost identical. If you’re new to all the exotic flavours, this soup is a great, safe introduction to Thai Cuisine.
Tom Ka Kai
When it comes to curries, green curry is the most well-known in Thailand. Often served with either chicken or beef, the curry is spicier than the yellow and red versions. The main ingredients are green curry paste, coconut milk and Thai eggplant, garnished with some Thai basil. If you're in Bangkok during your holidays, make sure to stop by at Sanguansri, as they serve the best green curry in town.
Pad Kra Pao
Ask a Thai person what their favourite dish is and they’d most likely answer with Pad Kra Pao, a simple stir-fry with minced meat, chunks of meat, crispy fried pork belly or even seafood. What a hamburger is for Western people, is what Pad Kra Pao is for Thai. While it’s frying, you add soy and oyster sauce along with chillies, garlic, sugar and finally add the Thai holy basil. The dish is served with steamed rice and topped with a Thai fried egg, meaning that one side is super crispy fried, while the top is still soft and the egg yolk that runs over your plate the moment you put your fork in it. Pad Kra Pao can literally be found in every Thai restaurant in Thailand and is a dish once you discover it, never can live without it.
Pad Kra Pao (with crispy pork)
Often served on a sizzling hot plate, Hoi Tod is a crispy fried omelette with either mussels or oysters and beansprouts. Another version of the Hoi Tod is the Or Suan. The difference between these two is the batter, while Hoi Tod is crispy, Or Suan is spongier. Hoi Tod is not your daily Thai dish as it's way too greasy to fit it into a healthy diet, however, every now and then a plate of this delicious greasiness is something Thai simply need. When you're in Bangkok, make sure to visit one of the restaurants listed in our article about the best hoi tod in Bangkok.
Pla Nueng Manao
For many seafood lovers, Pla Nuang Manao is one of their favourite Thai dishes. A complete barramundi, also known as an Asian Snapper, gets steamed in a fragrant broth seasoned with lime, garlic and chilli. While the fish gets perfectly steamed, the broth develops more flavour by the minute and can be later used as soup. You can find this amazing seafood dish at almost every Thai seafood restaurant in the country. Examples of excellent Thai restaurants that serve Pla Nuenng Manao are Lek & Rut Seafood (Bangkok), King Seafood (Pattaya), Baan U-Thong (Ayutthaya) and Mai Thai Cuisine (Pattaya).
Pla Nueng Manao
Pla Ka-Pong Tod Mam Pla
One of the most popular seafood dishes in Thai Cuisine is Pla Ka-Pong Tod Mam Pla, which is deep-fried sea bass with fish sauce. Throughout Thailand, in most seafood restaurants, you can find this delicious treat. The sea bass is often simply sliced open and deep-fried, but if you are lucky, the sea bass is fileted first, then the chunks are deep-fried and finally served as a whole. The difference is that the fileted seabass has no fish bones in it, and the bits are even more crunchy on the outside. Pla Ka-Pong Tod Mam Pla is not spicy at all and is perfectly safe for foreigners who want to try Thai seafood.
Southern Thai Cuisine
Southern Thai Cuisine is heavily-influenced by Malaysian food and offers more curry dishes than anywhere else in Thailand. The Malaysian-derived curries are less spicy, but locals have also invented their own versions that are some of the spiciest in the country.
This Muslim-influenced curry is aromatic and mild, a creamy curry popular with both Thais and foreigners. Often, it’s served with either stewed beef or a chicken drumstick and has chunks of boiled potato and peanuts in it.
This red curry originated in Penang, a city in Malaysia. It’s incredibly creamy, mild and topped with sliced lemongrass to give it an extra-fresh kick. Compared to the Thai Green Curry, the Penang version is much thicker.
Khao Mok is a Thai biryani that is usually served with either beef or a chicken drumstick and a spicy dipping sauce. Biryani has its origins in India but was introduced to Malaysia and later found its way to Thailand.
Khao Mok Neua (with beef)
Perhaps the most famous Southern Thai dish is Khua Kling, an extremely spicy dry curry. It’s served with a variety of raw veggies which temper the spiciness and provide an extra crunch. If you can handle high levels of spice, you’ll love this taste explosion.
Everyone in the world knows satay, the marinated grilled skewers with that delicious peanut sauce for dipping. This amazing snack originated in Malaysia and spread to Thailand, where you can find it basically everywhere. Stay is usually served with some pickled veggies or toasted bread.
Moo Hong is a popular dish that has a sweet taste, made from stewed pork belly with plenty of garlic and fresh peppercorns. The pork is normally stewed for several hours, which makes it impressively tender, although it also contains a lot of fat.
Kaeng Tai Pla
Kaeng Tai Pla is loved by locals in Southern Thailand but doesn’t suit all foreign taste palettes. This is due to the use of fermented fish entrails and a large dose of chillies. If you’re in an adventurous mood and you want to try something extraordinary, Kaeng Tai Pla is a good option.
Kaeng Tai Pla
Noteworthy Thai desserts
You can also count upon that the Thai people to make delicious desserts. During your travels, finish your meals with one of these amazing treats:
Mango Sticky Rice
This is Thailand’s’ most popular dessert: fresh, sliced mango with sweetened sticky rice covered in coconut milk. This Thai classic can be found in almost every restaurant. In case you wondered where to get the best version of this delicious treat in Bangkok, check out our article about Mango Sticky Rice in Bangkok.
Mango Sticky Rice
Green jelly strings floating in coconut milk? This Thai dessert may not look appealing, but the secret lies within the deliciously sweetened coconut milk mixed with crushed ice. During hot days or after a spicy meal, this refreshing dessert is your best friend.
Tup Tim Grob
Similar to Lod Chong, Tup Tim Grob is a dessert that uses sweetened coconut milk and crushed ice. The big difference is that it’s not served with green jelly strings, but fruit such as water chestnuts. The Tup Tim Grob version also boasts sweetened jelly pieces.
Tup Tim Grob - the fancy restaurant version
Pang Kuay Tod
Pang Kuay Tod is a deep-fried banana with a crispy crust, covered in powdered sugar and chocolate sauce. Did we mention that Thai people know how to make delicious desserts?
Pang Kuay Tod
As you can see, Thai Cuisine has so much more to offer than just Pad Thai and fried rice. So, do yourself a favour next time you visit the beautiful country of Thailand and start to eat like a local with TopTravelFoods.