Landing in a strange and different country and trying to figure out what you should eat and drink can be challenging. Because the food (and even the drinks) in Thailand are so different for most of us, eating in Thailand can be more challenging that in most other countries. Especially if you don’t like spicy food!
I have to admit up front that I am not a big fan of some of the spicier food in Thailand, although I have many friends who love the whole Thai food thing. I enjoy chillies in my food, but some places in Thailand add far too much chilli and my system just objects violently.
My idea of staple Thai food is Pad Thai or Thai Fried Rice. If I’m feeling adventurous I may order Penaeng Curry or Massaman Curry, but I rarely get much more adventurous than that – although I will eat coconut prawns when I can find them. My wife lives mostly on stir-fried seasonal vegetables and an occasional dish of Chicken with Cashews.
So let’s take a look first at some of the most common Thai food and what you’ll get if you order it in Thailand.
What’s in that food?
The ingredients you’ll find most commonly in Thai local dishes are fish paste or fish sauce, shrimp paste, chilli paste, oyster sauce, fermented soy beans, dark soy sauce and a range of fresh herbs like cilantro (coriander), lemon grass, basil, mint, kaffir lime leaves, ginger, galangal, tamarind, tumeric, garlic and shallots. These are essentially the same ingredients you’ll find in Thai food at home and are also common in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laod and parts of India and Malaysia.
Caution: Any dish with the word “phrik” in it will usually have loads of chilli paste and be quite spicy to western tastes. Sometimes Nam Phrik is serves as a side dish and you can choose how much of it you add, but more often it will just be ladled on top of your food as all Thais love chilli!
Other words useful to know are “mamuang” (mango) and “gai” (chicken).
The commonly used vegetables in Thai local food are eggplant (small or large varieties), khana (a substitute for broccoli), long beans, bean sprouts, tomato, cucumber, kale, choy sum, Chinese cabbage and sweet potato.
Thai cooks will also use several varieties of mushrooms, both long stringy varieties like het (het fang) and fungi styles like het hu nu khao. These are very delicious.
Rice and noodle dishes
Rice is at the base of a lot of Thai dishes, and most curry or vegetable dishes will be served with a bowl of rice. The most commonly used rice style is Jasmine (my favourite when I cook at home) which is longer-grained and quite fragrant.
If you’re looking for a quick meal with rice, ask for “khao rat kaeng”, which should get you a bowl of rice with some curry sauce and some vegetables on top.
Thai cooks also use a lot of noodles, but it depends on where you go in Thailand. As I said before, one of my staples is “Pad Thai” (which locally is called “Phat Thai”, a stir-fried dish of flat rice noodles, usually including some chicken pieces, chopped vegetables, bean sprouts and chopped peanuts on top.
If you prefer egg noodles, try ordering “Khao soi”, a curry soup with egg noodles. The Thai also use vermicelli noodles (cellophane noodles) which can be found in dishes like “khanom chin keng khiao” (green curry with rice noodles).
Lots of fruit on offer where ever you are eating in Thailand and it’s all very fresh and very cheap, including:
- Kluey – banana variety often used in banana pancakes and banana fritters.
- Ma phrao - coconut varieties used for drinks and snacks, as well as coconut milk.
- Noi-na – custard apples, look a bit nobbly on the outside but sweet and pulpy inside.
- Toorian – large spikey fruit, tastes like heaven, smells like hell.
- Put-sar – green crab apples with a very tart flavour.
- Farang – also the name for foreigners, but this is guava – eat with salt and sugar.
- Ka-noon – jackfruit, sweet but very sticky and lots of work to eat.
- Lin-chee - large red lychees grown in Northern Thailand, very sweet and juicy.
- Mamuang – mango, mostly of the yellow varieties and very juicy.
- Maprang – Marina plums with a very firm texture, but sweet.
- Som kee warn – green variety of orange, quite sweet, mostly used in orange juice.
- Saparot – pineapple variety, said to be one of the best in the world.
- Theng moh – Thai variety of watermelon, favourite thirst quencher when juiced.
Desserts and snacks
I find the Thai are not really big on desserts, even though your local Thai restaurant probably offers many on their menu. Here’s a few worth trying when you’re in Thailand.
- Khanom chan – layers of sticky rice flour flavoured with pandan and mixed with coconut milk.
- Khanom niao mamuang – sticky rice cooked with coconut milk and served with fresh, ripe mango pieces.
- Khanom tan – a little cake made from palm flavoured sticky rice with coconut on top.
- Tub tim grob – slices of pomegranate in a jasmine coconut syrup with cubes of red water chestnut.
- Look choob – the cutest dessert in Thailand, it’s perfectly formed miniature fruits made from green beans, coconut milk and sugar.
Your breakfast in Thailand will probably consist of toast, jam, cereal, coffee, tea and juice, possibly supplemented by banana pancakes. But what do the Thai eat for breakfast?
- Jauk – a local version of the Chinese style rice porridge breakfast, often served with pork slices or chicken pieces.
- Nam tauhu – like Pearl Tea, a hot drink made from soy milk, served with sugar syrup and small delicacies like tapioca beads.
- Khanom khrauk – similar to Dutch pofertjees, a small pancake made from cooked rice and coconut milk, served with vegetable toppings.
Some common Thai dishes you can try
- Phat thai – flat rice noodles strir-fried in fish sauce and flavoured with sugar and lime juice, usually served with chopped fried egg, chicken, tofu and a sprinkling of peanuts on top.
- Gai pad met mamuang - stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and vegetables.
- Som tam - a spicy Thai salad with slices of papaya fruit. Very healthy!
- Tom yam gai – a spicy chicken soup served with vegetables – favourite of many travellers.
- Tom yam gong – like Tom yam gai but with prawns instead of chicken.
- Tom kha gai – a variation of Tom yam gai but made with coconut milk soup.
- Kaeng phanaeng - aka “Penaeng Curry”, a soupy, creamy curry dish with chicken, pork or beef pieces – can be a bit spicy.
- Kaeng keaw wan gai – aka “Green Curry” with chicken and rice.
- Khao man kai – rice steamed with chicken soup and garlic, usually served with boiled chicken and a spicy dipping sauce.
- Kuai-tiao nam – a soup dish loosely based on Malaysian “kway-chow” with lots of vegetables and different spices, usually has rice noodles at the base.
- Khao soi – a sweet chicken curry soup with fried noodles.
- Kai phat khing – stir-fried chicken with ginger.