Whether you’re munching on freshly-made papaya salad, slurping down noodles or devouring fresh mangoes, Thai cuisine is unbeatable. The country has some of the most explosive, fresh and tasty food in the world and eating is a major reason people visit.
Thai meals tend to have five features – spicy, sweet, sour, salty and bitter – and when put together are said to produce the perfect balance. Not all of its food has the famous tongue-burning spices, so don’t be afraid to dive in and sample some dishes. When it comes to eating etiquette, throw off any chopstick anxiety – most food is eaten with a fork and spoon, and chopsticks are only used for noodles. Dishes are placed in the middle and shared.
One of the many great things about Thai food is the sheer variety; each region has its own style and characteristics, although it’s possible to get virtually any meal in any part of the country. Here’s a breakdown of what you can look forward to while you’re on the road.
Folk from the northeast (Isahn), are justly proud of their food. Much of the cuisine, like the dialect, is similar to that found in neighbouring Laos. This includes the legendary som tam (spicy papaya salad), made by pounding papaya with a mortar and pestle, then adding lime juice, fish sauce, tomatoes and roasted peanuts. Lahp (minced meat mixed with shallots, chillies and mint) is a firm favourite in the northeast, along with grilled chicken, catfish and tom saep, a spicy hot and sour soup.
Food is often eaten with glutinous sticky rice, which is rolled into a ball with the right hand and then chomped on. Eating this way will earn you huge respect from locals, who will marvel at your ability to dispense with a fork and spoon. To clock up some more respect (and if you’re feeling brave), join them in dining on frog, rat or deep-fried scorpion.
The north is home to several tasty Burmese-style curries and dips. The most well-known is gaang hang lair, a pork curry with handfuls of peanuts, tamarind juice and dried chillies thrown in the mix. Khao soy is a fantastically rich broth with egg noodles and meat, topped with pickled onions and a slice of lime. Also popular in the north are dipping sauces, which are usually combinations of chillies, tomatoes, fish sauce and raw vegetables. Deep-fried pork rinds are used to scoop up the mixture by hand.
The best way to experience northern cuisine is while watching a khantoke (traditional dance performance). Diners sit on the floor and eat from a low table filled with various dishes that will almost certainly include the north’s spicy version of sausage, sai ua.
Central Thailand is home to rivers that flow from mighty mountains into fertile plains, and the abundant rice and vegetable crops that grow here form a major part of the diet. Along with fantastic jasmine rice, there are several classic central dishes, including gaang pet (red curry), gaang som (orange curry) and salads. The latter are seriously spicy affairs and a world away from the tomato and lettuce variety found in the West.
One of Thailand’s most famous dishes, tom yam, comes from the central region and is a fiery concoction featuring lemongrass, lime, galangal, herbs and, of course, chilli. This soup usually comes chock full of giant, juicy prawns, but can also be found with mixed seafood. Another must-try soup is tom kah gai, a gorgeous creamy coconut soup that comes with chicken.
In Ayuthaya, the erstwhile capital of Siam, be sure to check out gooay deeo reua, a famous noodle soup, and roti sai mai, a DIY dessert that diners create by rolling together thin strands of sugar palm inside a pancake. Those who make the journey up the serpentine road to the border town of Sangkhlaburi are rewarded with markets offering large pots of curries made by the local Mon people.
With a strong Muslim community and more coconut trees than rice fields, it’s no surprise that southern food has a distinctive flavour. The coconuts are used to full effect in curries and soups, with one of the best being gaang massaman, a smooth curry featuring potato and peanuts. Another major ingredient is turmeric, which gives many dishes their characteristic yellow tones.
Being a narrow peninsula with lots of coast, seafood is particularly common and inexpensive in the south. Lobster, crab, squid, prawns and scallops all feature on menus, and if you’re staying near a beach, be sure to experience the seafood barbecues. Other traditional southern dishes include yellow rice and chicken, Malay-style satays with peanut-based dipping sauces and the dessert roti, a pancake covered with lashings of condensed milk, filled with anything from bananas to chocolate and eaten with toothpicks.
It’ll be a test of your willpower, given the array of savoury cuisine on offer, but make sure you leave plenty of room for dessert. An incredible array of Thai fruit is available, including mangosteen, bite-size bananas, super-sweet pineapple and durian, which is delicious but so smelly most hotels ban it. As well as fruit, be sure to try khao lam (black or white sticky rice with coconut milk, sugar and black beans) and the divine mango with sticky rice and coconut milk.