When most foreigners think of Thai food, Pad Thai and spring rolls jump to mind. If you spend some time teaching or living in Thailand; however, you might be surprised at the immense diversity of the food. Not only is the food an artful balance of sweet-spicy-sour-salty (often in the same bowl), but cultural exchange has shaped much of the cuisine.
There are the rustic and earthy flavors of Esan, the seasonal dishes of the north and the spices of the south. Noodle dishes abound, many of Chinese origin. Chinese communities also helped inspire the annual vegetarian festival that is celebrated during the rainy season. You can find Muslim influence in everything from street stall roti to peanut-based satay.
So, the culinary culture of Thailand is far from homogenous. That being said, most meals are paired with rice. In fact, rice is so ubiquitous that an everyday greeting translates to, “Have you eaten rice yet?” Thais are seriously passionate about their eating. It’s reflected in their language, and of course in their cuisine.
Some Thai friends invited me to their restaurant, where we sampled bowl after bowl of noodles. With each new dish they asked me for the English name. My answer was always “noodles”. They would laugh because their naming depended on the size of the noodle, how it was made, the color, and what was in it. I guess it’s similar to telling an Italian that risotto and gnocchi are both “pasta.”
1. Pad See Ew (Stir-Fried Noodles)
Hold up on the Pad Thai and order yourself the lesser-known Pad See Ew! Characterized by wide, flat noodles (sen yai) fried with Chinese broccoli, soy sauce and egg, this dish can be found all over Thailand. It’s typically served with thinly sliced meat, but can easily be adapted to the vegetarian palate.
2. Kow Soi (Curry Noodles)
Chiang Mai’s signature dish is soft egg noodles, pickled vegetables, and a so-tender-it-falls-off-the-bone leg of chicken swirl in fragrant, curry-like soup. Topped off with deep-fried noodles for an incredibly satisfying crunch.
3. Bamee Moo Daeng (Yellow Noodles and Red Pork)
A dish with electric colors, adapted from China that is simple but oh-so-satisfying. If you’re craving comfort, delve into a hot bowl of thin yellow noodles, fried garlic, fishballs, blanched greens and crispy red pork.
Gaeng Hang Lay Moo Curry (Pork Belly Curry)
When I asked a friend from Chiang Kham to recommend a northern dish, this was his immediate suggestion, and for good reason. It’s decadent and sweet and savory and wonderful. Soft pork belly swims in an ocean of hot red curry.
What makes the dish, though, is the seasoning. The flavor is distinctly Thai, but hints Indian due to the slew of spices blended into the curry—cardamom, turmeric, fennel and masala to name a few. The dish actually descended from Indian down to Myanmar, and from there made its way to Thailand. It’s an excellent example of how intercultural Thai cuisine truly is.
Kai Med Ma Muang (Chicken and Cashew Nuts)
Cashew and chicken stir fry! Dried chilies add smoke and spice. Delicious over jasmine rice.
A kind of thick curry with many variations. Coconut lends it a rich creaminess, and the consistency, in combination with nutty undertones, differentiate it from soupier red curry. It typically contains some kind of meat, like shrimp or chicken.
Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)
It tastes a bit different anywhere you order it, but it’s always a tastebud explosion— crisp, unripe papaya is pounded into a mortar with a tantalizing mixture of sour citrus, salty fish sauce, sweet palm sugar and spicy chilis. It’s popularly combined with grilled chicken and sticky rice. If you’re feeling traditional, use your hands by first taking a pinch of sticky rice and then reaching into the papaya salad
Tom Kha Kai (Chicken Coconut Soup)
A mouthwatering and surprisingly refreshing soup that’s great for sharing. It’s not quite creamy—silky is a more apt descriptor. Lemongrass, kaffir and lime juice add a punch.
Larb (Minced Meat Salad)
Although it varies from region to region, larb is basically som tam for carnivores. Minced meat (or mushroom) is mixed with spices and toasted rice. It’s often served with vegetables, and is typically dressed with either lime juice, fish sauce or some combination thereof. In the north it’s heavily spiced, and sometimes served raw. Be careful with this, for obvious reasons—it’s best to opt for the stir-fried version.
Thom Kao (Rice soup)
The chicken-noodle-soup-of-Thailand, and apparently a popular breakfast entrée among locals. The rice is cooked until thick and soft, sensationally flavored with garlic, lemongrass, scallions and fresh cilantro.
Unless you come from someplace tropical you’ll likely encounter fruits you’ve never heard of like:
Some of the fruits are entirely alien-looking. If you’re in a city, look for small stalls that have a selection on ice. They’re typically 10-20 baht for a serving, and many are paired with a little bag of seasoning—the classic chili, sugar, salt.
About the Author:
Greenheart Travel English teacher, Chiara Burns, is a wanderer, wonderer, insomniac and a firm believer in the powers of serendipity and human kindness. Chiara likes traveling, fantasy literature, deadlifting, and photoshopping Tom Hanks’ face onto photos of the family dogs. You can read more about her adventures in Thailand on her blog, The Road to Everwhere.