Thai food

Introduction to Thai food

Thai food is spicy, sour and sweet. Rice is a basic component of Thai cuisine, as it is of most Asian cuisines. Steamed rice is accompanied by highly aromatic curries, stir-frys and other dishes, incorporating sometimes large quantities of chillies, lime juice and lemon grass. Noodles, known throughout parts of Southeast Asia by the Chinese name kwaytiow, are popular as well but usually come as a single dish, like the stir-fried Pad Thai or noodle soups.

The ingredient found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce. Shrimp paste, a combination of ground shrimp and salt, is also extensively used. There is a uniquely Thai dish called nam prik which refers to a chile sauce or paste. It is prepared by crushing together chillies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle. It is then often served with vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and yard-long beans, either raw or blanched. The vegetables are dipped into the sauce and eaten with rice.

Coconut is a main ingredient in desserts, in particular the milk and the shredded coconut pieces.

A food stall.
A food stall.

Because Thai food can take a long time to prepare, Thai people are used to eat outside, at food stalls. At lunchtime you can see office staff and executives in suits, sitting on plastic chairs on the pavement. The food is very cheap and sometimes surprisingly good. Most food stalls are clean, so it is usually safe to eat that way.

Thai food is generally eaten with a fork and a spoon, not with chopsticks (except for noodle soups).

Famous dishes

Khao Pad Kai (fried rice with chicken) and Yam Wun Sen.
Khao Pad Kai (fried rice with chicken) and Yam Wun Sen.

Khao pad – One of the most common dishes in Thailand, fried rice, Thai style. Usually with chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, crab or coconut or pineapple, or vegetarian.
Khao tom – A Chinese style rice soup, usually with pork.
Pad thai – Rice noodles pan fried with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or tamarind pulp, chopped peanuts, and egg combined with chicken, seafood, or tofu.
Pad kaphrao – Beef, pork or chicken stir fried with Thai Holy basil.
Tom yam – Hot and sour soup. With shrimp it is called Tom yam koong, with seafood (typically shrimp, squid, fish) Tom yam talae, with chicken Tom yam kai.
Tom kha kai – Hot sweet soup with chicken and coconut milk.
Yam wun sen – Glass noodles salad with chicken or seafood.
Keng phet – Red curry, made with copious amounts of dried red chillies.
Keng khiew-waan – Green curry, made with fresh green chillies and flavoured with Thai basil, and chicken or fish meatballs. This dish is one of the spiciest of Thai curries.
Som tam – Grated papaya salad, pounded with a mortar and pestle. There are three main variations: Som tam poo with salted black crab, Som tam Thai with peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar and Som tam plara from north eastern part of Thailand (Issan), with salted gourami fish, white eggplants, fish sauce and long bean.
Larb – Sour salads containing meat, onions, chillies, roasted rice powder and garnished with mint.
Khao niao ma muang – Sticky rice and ripe mango.

Western food (as well as Chinese, Indian or Japanese food) is also available in many restaurants, in all large cities and popular resorts.

How to order not (so) spicy food

It happens very often that tourists in Thailand order not spicy food (they explicitely say “not spicy”, or “may phet” in Thai), but the food comes and is still very spicy. Why is that? There are two reasons: “not spicy” for a Thai doesn’t mean not spicy at all, it means “not very spicy”. As they are so used to eat spicy food, they don’t feel it anymore if there is only little chili. And even if they know what you want, sometimes the pan in which the food is prepared is enough to give a spicy taste to the food, even without adding any chili. So, if you want to order food which is not spicy at all, you have to specify “may say prik leuy” (do not use any chili), and you have to choose restaurants who are used to dealing with foreign tourists.

Thai travel menu

For more advice about ordering food (names of dishes in Thai and in English, hints for vegetarians, useful sentences for people who are allergic, etc.), we recommend that you download and print Chanchao’s Thai travel menu.

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