Thailand can be divided into four food regions, namely the northern Thai Cuisine, The Southern Thai Cuisine, The central Thai Cuisine and the Isaan cuisine. Each region is heavily influenced by neighbour countries and for the central Thai cuisine, the Chinese immigrants play a vital role in the daily diet.
Northern Thai cuisine
The northern Thai cuisine, also known as Lanna food, is influenced by the area that is now known as Myanmar. Not so long ago, the borders of Thailand's neighbouring countries were different from the current state of the borders. It is no surprise that the cuisine in these northern regions has similarities to other countries. In fact, Lanna food is a combination of Yuannanese, Shan and Burmese cuisines. The northern Thai cuisine can be seen as a fragrant one. Like all other Thai food regions, Northern Thai cuisine is usually spicy, but definitely not as spicy as the Isaan regions or the Southern Thai region. The use of fragrant herbs and the fact that not all dishes are so spicy, make the Northern Thai cuisine perhaps the favourite cuisine of the Thai gastronomy. Absolute highlights are Khao Soi, Sai Oua (Northern Thai sausage), Hang Lay, Miang Kham and Nam Phrik Ong.
A small impression of the Northern cuisine
The Isaan cuisine has its roots in the Laotian cuisine and when people mention "the Isaan", they refer to the Northeastern Thai region that borders Laos. Where the Northern Thai cuisine is more balanced and fragrant, the Isaan cuisine is the opposite. Isaan food is raw, and we don't mean they serve raw meat. The flavours are extreme. For example, it is pretty common to add whole cloves of garlic in a salad, along with red onion, a couple of bird-eye chillies and add a few limes to make sure it has plenty of sourness as well. It has no finesse. But here is the thing. It is the most popular cuisine in whole Thailand among Thai. And once you discover the dishes and know what suits your taste palette, dishes like Papaya Salad become your daily addiction.
A small impression of the Isaan cuisine
Southern Thai cuisine
Influenced by the Malaysian cuisine, the Southern Thai cuisine is rich in curries. Southern Thai food is also inspired by Java, which means that dishes are often packed with chillies. The Southern Thai cuisine is by far the spiciest region of the Thai gastronomy. Dishes such as Gaeng Som Pla and Khua Khling make your tongue burn for at least ten minutes. But there are non-spicy Southern Thai dishes to be found which are perfectly balanced with coconut milk, an ingredient that is widely used in this gastronomy.
A small impression of the Southern cuisine
Central Thai cuisine
The Central Thai cuisine refers to the region of Bangkok and its surrounding cities. It's a combination of influences from other regions as well as the influence of the Chinese merchants and immigrants. Dishes such as the popular Moo Grob, the famous breakfast option Jok, as well as the huge variety of noodle soups and dishes all were brought by the Chinese. Noodles were far from popular and during World War II, they had to be promoted due to the rice shortage. An old dish named Kuay Tiew Phad that originates from the Ayutthaya Kingdom (1351 – 1767) was renamed to promote the consumption of noodles and to boost nationalism: "Pad Thai" was born. Other popular Central Thai dishes are the green and red curry, tom yum soups and many more.
A small impression of the Southern cuisine
In the next paragraph, we dive deeper into our food recommendations and explain more about each popular dish. See it as a checklist for your next travel to Thailand. The more dishes you try, the better you will understand the Thai gastronomy.
Note: Check out our other articles in case you’re looking for Thai food with special requirements as this article about what to eat in Thailand recommends spicy and not-too-common dishes too.
Best Thai food for kids and picky eaters
Best Thai food for beginners
Best vegetarian Thai dishes
The following dishes you should eat when in Thailand are:
1. Pad Kra Pao
Forget Pad Thai, one of the most popular Thai dishes is Pad Kra Pao. Pad Kra Pao is a stir-fry served with steamed rice. This spicy dish is made with plenty of garlic, chillies, fish sauce, soy sauce and most importantly, holy basil leaves. Because of this specific ingredient, Pad Kra Pao is known as Holy Basil Stir Fry. Due to the simplicity and the fact that it’s served within minutes, Pad Kra Pao can be seen as the Thai equivalent of the hamburger (or other types of fast food). The most common versions of Pad Kra Pao are with minced pork or chicken, but other versions with seafood and duck can be found as well. We admit this wonderful dish is spicy, although most restaurants will ask foreigners the number of chillies they would like, once you found the right amount of heat, Pad Kra Pao is addictively delicious. Make sure to order the Pad Kra Pao with a Thai fried egg! When visiting Bangkok, make sure to visit one of the restaurants listed in our article about the best Pad Kra Pao in Bangkok.
Pad Kra Pao
2. Tom Yum Goong
Tom Yum Goong is the most popular Thai soup you can find and - similar to the previous recommended Thai dish - can be found in basically every Thai restaurant. Tom Yum Goong is a spicy and sour soup served with prawns. The fragrant soup got it’s distinctive flavour thanks to herbs like galangal, coriander and lemongrass. There are two types of Tom Yum soups, one is thickened with coconut milk (Tom Yum Nam Khon) and one without (Tom Yum Nam Sai). The version without coconut milk is spicier. Tom Yum Goong is ideal to share with others as it often comes in larger versions for two or more people. When visiting Bangkok, make sure to visit one of the restaurants listed in our article about the best Tom Yum in Bangkok.
Tom Yum Goong
3. Khao Soi
Khao Soi is for many foreigners instantly one of their favourite Thai dishes once they have tried it. This Northern, creamy Thai curry is not as spicy as most curries and is incredibly fragrant thanks to ingredients such as lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, coriander seeds and lime leaves. On the bottom of the bowl, you’ll find noodles even though it’s served with crispy fried noodles on top as well. Usually, the curry is served with a tender chicken drumstick, although different versions such as beef are easy to find too. As Khao Soi has its origins from a Muslim minority, finding a version with pork is almost impossible. For a full flavour explosion in your mouth, make sure to add some sliced shallots, lime wedges and pickled mustard root to your bowl of curry, which is always served with it. Khao Soi is a Northern Thai speciality and a must-try when visiting places such as Chiang Mai. For the most delicious ones, check out our article about the best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai.
4. Som Tum
Som Tum, or Papaya Salad, is by far the most popular Thai dish among Thai. There are many Thai who eat this spicy and sour salad twice or more a day. Som Tum is a typical Isaan dish, meaning that it originates from the Isaan region, the eastern provinces near Laos and Cambodia. Som Tum is made with raw papaya, which already has a bit of sour taste. In a mortar, other ingredients such as garlic and flaming hot chillies are added along with the seasoning. The result is a fresh salad with addictive, extreme flavours. Som Tum can be extremely spicy, but as a foreigner, they often spare you and only add a tiny chilli to the salad. The most common - and foreigner-friendly - version is Som Tum Thai, but there are many other versions of Som Tum with not-so-common ingredients such as fermented fish. If you’re planning to visit Bangkok, make sure to read our article about the best Som Tum in Bangkok. This article also gives you a good idea of what kind of Som Tum you can expect in Thailand.
5. Boat Noodles
Boat Noodles are one of these dishes with a cool backstory and therefore should be on your list of things to eat in Thailand. Back in the days when transportation mostly went per boat, people could also get their lunch or dinner on the river. One of the dishes you could order were boat noodles and as the seller served these typical bowls of noodles from a small canoe, the size of the bowls were small too in order to make it as convenient as possible. You can still see this phenomenon of ordering food per boat at floating markets, although the majority of Thai just order their food at restaurants or street food stalls. Nowadays, boat noodles are served in larger bowls and in restaurants, but there are still some places, mostly in Bangkok and Ayutthaya - where the boat noodles originate from - that serve these tiny bowls of tasty noodles. Check out our articles about boat noodles in Bangkok and boat noodles in Ayutthaya if you’re planning to visit these places.
6. Mango Sticky Rice
When it comes to Thai desserts, there is a dessert that truly stands out. Mango Sticky Rice is as simple as it gets but oh-so-delicious. A perfectly ripe mango carved in slices served with sticky rice with a sweet coconut sauce and topped with crispy yellow mung beans. The secret to a good Mango Sticky Rice is the quality of the mango. First of all, the mango should be a Nam Dok Mai mango, which is the highest quality you can find. Secondly, the mango should be perfectly ripe and that’s actually only possible during mango season: from April until June. That does not mean you can’t get a good Mango Sticky Rice the rest of the year, but there is a difference. If you’re planning to visit Bangkok, make sure to visit one of the shops listed in our article about the best mango sticky rice in Bangkok.
Mango Sticky Rice
7. Deed-Fried Sea Bass with Spicy Mango Salad
Surrounded by two seas, namely the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand, you would not be surprised that there is an abundance of seafood in the Thai cuisine. One of our personal favourites, but also for many others is the Deep-Fried Sea Bass with Spicy Mango Salad, a classic Thai seafood dish you can find in every Thai seafood restaurant. The sea bass is carved in two or sliced in chunks, then deep-fried and served with this amazing spicy mango salad to dip the deep-fried fish in. The mango salad is spicy, sour and sweet, which goes perfect together with the sea bass. For more typical seafood dishes, check out our article about the best Thai seafood dishes.
Deep-Fried Seabass with Spicy Mango Sauce
Moo Tod Daew is one of these Thai dishes that I discovered after staying for a longer period in Thailand because I start noticing many locals - and not tourists - eat it regularly. Moo Tod Daew is a simple dish, like many other Thai dishes, which is deep-fried, sun-dried marinated pork with steamed or sticky rice with a sweet chilli dipping sauce. Because the pork is first sun-dried, the texture of the pork becomes a bit chewy. The savoury marinated pork is not spicy, but after being deep-fried, a very satisfying healthy meal. This is one of these dishes that I personally eat a few times a week, together with a spicy papaya salad.
Moo Tod Daew
8. Khai Jiao or Hoy Thod
Khai Jiao is a Thai omelette and is a perfect side dish to add some healthiness to your meal. The omelette is seasoned with fish sauce and lime juice and is fried in a way it gets crispy and greasy on the outside, fluffy on the inside. There are many versions of this typical Thai meal, including with added seafood or pork. Because of the simplicity of this dish and the fact that it’s similar to other international cuisines, Khai Jiao (Thai omelette) is a perfect Thai dish for beginners. But if you’re looking for something special, you must try Hoy Thod, which is an oyster omelette. There are two versions of Hoy Thod, and the difference is in the batter. Hoy Tod is crispy, Or Suan is a spongier version. The greasiness of these dishes doesn’t make them necessarily healthy, but sure as hell tasty. If you’re planning to visit Bangkok, make sure to read our article about the best hoy thod in Bangkok if you’re up for something special!
9. Green Curry
Thai cuisine gets often associated with curries. Although there are several other delicious Thai dishes available in this world-famous cuisine, curries do play a big role. One of Thailand’s most popular curry is green curry. The curry itself is made of green chillies, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime, cilantro, cumin seeds, shallots, shrimp paste and finished with coconut milk. The curry is served with your usual protein but also with Thai eggplant and pea aubergine. Green curry, in general, is spicier than red curry, which people often mistook. The green chillies they use in the green curry is spicier. For more curries, check out our article about the best curries in Bangkok.
10. (Khao) Moo Grob
Moo Grob, also known as Crispy Pork is baked out pork belly that’s baked super crunchy on the outside and is often nicely tender on the inside. This non-spicy Thai dish with Chinese influence is served with a sweet soy sauce and is perfectly safe to eat as a foreigner. Usually, you find this popular Thai dish at specialist restaurants where they serve Khao Moo Grob as well. Khao Moo Grob is a plate of rice and crispy pork covered in a sweet gravy and served with an egg. Khao Moo Grob and other versions of Moo Grob are insanely popular among locals and these restaurants are often packed during lunchtime. If you are planning to visit Bangkok, check out our article about the best crispy pork in Bangkok if you want to try this comforting, Thai meal.
Khao Moo Grob
Laab is yet another tremendously popular Isaan dish and should definitely be on your list of things to eat in Thailand. Why? The use of fragrant herbs such as mint and kaffir lime leaves together with the spiciness and heartiness of the meat. Even though Laab is labelled as a salad, it has nothing to do with fresh vegetables and a dressing as we are used to in Western countries. No, Laab is a mixture of boiled minced pork with toasted rice. Eat this together with steamed or sticky rice and you have an excellent lunch. Laab and Pad Kra Pao are some of my favourite Thai meals which I can easily devour a few times a week!
12. Massaman Curry
Similar to the earlier mentioned Khao Soi, Massaman Curry has Muslim roots and if you pay close attention, you will find similar flavours in both dishes. Massaman Curry is a rich, non-spicy curry that is slightly sweet and fragrant thanks to the use of cinnamon, cloves and star anise. Nowadays, some Thai prepare the curry paste differently than before, making Massaman Curry pretty oily. Personally, we love the creamier version a lot more, which is made with the original curry paste and finished with a dash of coconut milk. The curry is usually served with either chicken or beef and the curry has chunks of boiled potatoes in it as well.
Massaman Curry that is creamy
Massaman Curry that is oily
13. Khua Kling
Khua Kling is a Southern Thai speciality and among the spiciest dishes you can find in Thailand. Khua Kling is a dry curry, meaning that the meat is marinated curry paste but won’t soften the extreme flavours with coconut milk and palm sugar, which is the case with regular Thai curries. The result is that Khua Kling has much deeper, but also extreme flavours. The dry curry is topped with lemongrass, spur chilli and kaffir lime leaves and served with a variety of fresh veggies to tip with. Khua Kling is a bit similar to a Thai curry, but dry and intense, but also seriously delicious. In Bangkok, there is an amazing restaurant named Khua Kling Pak Sod that is specialized in Southern spicy Thai food, which is a great place to try their signature dish Khua Kling. But when you’re travelling to the southern parts of Thailand, you can find this dish everywhere.
There are many types of Thai noodles, from Guay Tiew Naam (wide rice noodles) to Ba Mee Hang (Egg Noodles), all with different toppings and flavours. But when travelling in Thailand, you will immediately notice how popular noodles are and when wondering what to eat in Thailand, noodles should be on your list as well. We recommend you to read our article about the best noodles in Bangkok, which is an article that covers over twenty different noodles, from dry noodles to noodle soups. You will get a clear image of what to expect when it comes to noodles in Thailand. It's also good to know that some regions in Thailand have their own special type of noodle, for example, Sukhothai Noodles. In general, it's difficult to find these noodles outside that region, so if you have the chance, try and eat their speciality!
Regular noodles, that can be found anywhere in Thailand
15. Bonus: Street Food
When you think of Thailand, you think of street food. We highly recommend you to explore the Thai street food scene as well, but we would like to suggest you read our Bangkok Street Food Guide first. This article covers all the information you should know of Thai street food in general and recommends the most unique and best areas to find street food in Bangkok.
If you're on a desktop, you can start searching for more dishes in Bangkok or many other cities such as Pattaya, Chiang Mai, Koh Larn, Ayutthaya, Kanchanaburi and Sukhothai.
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