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What to eat in Thailand? The most delicious dishes you need to try

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Thailand

Joanna Horanin

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Last updated at 25/07/2024, 09:15

Hi, I'm Joanna, the author of The Blond Travels. In the worlds of Thailand and Portugal, I feel like a fish in water - and it's no coincidence! I've been exploring Thailand for over a decade, and I've settled in Portugal for 6 years now. My mission is to support Dreamers - just like you - in discovering these fascinating countries and helping those in love with them find their own place on Earth, preferably for good! Let's uncover these unique corners of the world together.

Thai food is considered the best in the world. Its aroma, flavours and variety can really make you fall in love with it. To me there is nothing better and I could only eat noodles or rice dishes from a small stall on the streets of Chiang Mai or Bangkok. If you’d like to really get to know the country and its people, try the food. In this post you will find my favourite Thai dishes.

I actually hadn’t known much about Thai food until I went there for my first holiday. I got completely lost in different flavours. To me it was love from the very first taste. When I became a teacher in Chiang Mai, for 2 years my diet consisted of Thai dishes only. I even didn’t miss the typical food from my country, Poland.

Many people ask me what to eat in Thailand. Here’s a list I compiled of those dishes that I love and which, I think, are worth trying.

A short introduction to Thai cuisine

Thai cuisine is very simple, but yet complicated. The dishes are easy to make at home, but whatever you do, they don’t really taste as good as at a street stall in a Thai village, or town. What makes it so unique then?

Ingredients and one very special addition

There are some vegetables and fruits that are available only in Thailand, or South East Asia, for example – Thai basil, which is added to many Thai dishes, is hard to get anywhere else.
The same comes to sauces, even soy sauce is a little different here than in other countries.

Ingredients for Thai dishes, even at some of the smallest stalls are usually very fresh and were bought on the same day. Nothing can beat that.

Most food sellers add so called MSG, monosodium glutamate, to their dishes. It’s a substance found in many vegetables and fruits and even in our own guts. It enhances taste and increases savoury flavours in food. There is no evidence that says MSG is harmful for human consumption and it’s said that it’s safe to eat (found in Wikipedia). MSG might be the secret behind the success of Thai food.

All different flavours

It is said that a Thai dish needs to have all 4 flavours. It needs to be salty, sweet, sour and spicy. A dish that is prepared in a big pot, at a Thai market, is ready to eat and has all those. However, you should always add some more spices and adjust it to your liking. On the plastic tables in Thai street restaurants, you will see containers with salt, sugar, vinegar and chilli. To make it better and adjust it to your taste buds, you should add what you like the most.

Cooking methods

A lot of Thai dishes are done in woks or big pots (mostly soups). The oil is heated to a very high temperature and the ingredients are cooked for a short while. This makes food cooked, but also deliciously crunchy and fresh.
Some also claim that the unique flavour is preserved by woks that have been used many, many times over the years and never been changed.

The importance of food in Thai culture

I think that one of the reasons why Thai food is so good is because it’s such an integral part of Thai culture.
Thai people eat a lot and they eat really often. When they don’t have a proper meal, they snack. All celebrations revolve around food and it’s normally the main subject of small talk.

Even the typical greeting is about food. In Thai we don’t ask ‘how are you’, we ask ‘gin kao rue yang’ – ‘have you eaten rice yet?’ If you haven’t, then that’s not good. Someone needs to fix that now. Let’s go and eat something. If you have, then that’s great, but….maybe we can go and eat something?

Thai people are proud of their dishes and they put a lot of emphasis on cooking and preparing food. And on top of that, food needs to be easily available and affordable, so everyone can have full stomachs.

We can wonder about the ingredients and methods of cooking, but when it comes to the real reason why Thai food is so good, it’s probably because Thais just love to eat.

The most delicious dishes in Thailand

Are you wondering what to eat in Thailand? Below you will find dishes, which I love and eat all the time. I think there are those you might know, but I hope that you’ll find some unusual ones that you haven’t heard of yet.

Pad kra pao

Pad kra pao is a simple stir fry with mince meat with holy basil. It’s often sold with a fried egg on top. The meat is usually pork.
Add some fish sauce with chopped chillis on top, break the egg and stir everything together.

Khao pad gai kai dao

It’s a very similar to the previous dish, but this time we have chicken and the dish doesn’t have any additional basil leaves.
You can also add some additional spices, like fish sauce and chilli.

Pad see ew

It’s one of my favourite dishes. It’s a noodle dish made out of big, jelly-like noodles, fried with spices and soy sauce. You can choose to eat them with chicken, pork, tofu or prawns.
I like to add some chopped fresh chillis on top.

Noodle soups

If you see a street stall with a big metal pot and some noodles displayed you can be sure that you’ll get some delicious Thai soup there.
If the seller has different meat, you will first need to choose between chicken, pork or beef broths. After that you can point which noodles you’d like with your soup. At the end you might be asked which additional ingredients you’d like. There are usually different pieces of meat, or wontons.

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After you get your soup, you are free to add anything you fancy – some salt, sugar, chillis or vinegar. On your table you might also find crushed peanuts, fish sauce and soy sauce.

Khao Soi

Khao Soi is a northern Thai dish which consists of curry broth and crispy noodles. It’s very aromatic, rich in flavour and it can be spicy.
It’s best to eat it around Chiang Mai and other northern cities. Outside of the area it might be a hit and miss.

Sukhothai noodles

When in Sukhothai, try these noodles. The best ones I have ever had were in a small place in New Sukhothai. They are not much different from the typical Thai noodle soups, but if you go to the right place, you will be blown away by how delicious they are.

Pad thai

Many people think that pad thai is something that Thai people eat, which is not entirely true. Comparing to the other dishes, pad thai is quite new and it has been introduced recently to increase morale of Thai people during the times of crisis.
It’s mostly eaten by tourists, not by Thais. However, it’s really good and fulfilling and it’s a dish you really must try when in Thailand.

Sai ua – Northern Thai sausage

Sai ua is a very aromatic Thai sausage, usually grilled and served cut with sauces. It has many sizes. In restaurants the sausage is quite small and cut into slices.
Sai ua is best eaten as a starter or a snack.

Som tam

That’s one of the best dishes in Thailand. Som tam is a salad made out of green papaya with added spices and peanuts. It has quite a few forms: with small dried prawns, with blue crab and with egg. If you don’t want to experiment, ask for som tam thai, which is just papaya salad with no extra surprises. Just remember to say ‘mai bpet’ – not spicy as som tam can really burn your mouth.

A great addition to som tam is kao niaw, sticky ricy. Eat it with your fingers and dip it in the som tam sauce.

Tom yum (goong)

This is a dish I look out for when I’m in Thailand. I love its spicy and sour taste. But, as I have eaten so many of it during the years, I also noticed that it’s not always great. You need to find a place that you like. It’s a simple soup, but it’s easy to spoil it.
Tom yum can be eaten with prawns (goong) and that’s the most common one, but you can also ask for chicken. In some places there are some vege options and tofu is available, too.

Gai Yang

Nothing beats gai yang when sitting with friends at a street stall and enjoying a cold beer. Gai yang – grilled chicken skewer – can be enjoyed as a quick snack. You can buy it on a street. It’s usually packed in a plastic bag with sauce.
It’s also available at restaurants and bars. Order one to share with some kao niaw and beers.

Keang – curry

There are many curries in Thai cuisine. They are more popular in the south and you probably heard of them already. We have red, green and yellow curry – quite similar to each other. Then, there are massaman curry, which has quite a lot of peanuts. And finally, penang curry, a bit more sweet and zesty.

Laab

Laab is more popular in the north of the country. We can call it a meaty salad. It’s minced meat with shallots and special sauce. Laab is best eaten with kao niaw. In some places there are vegetarian options and the dish is made out of tofu.

Pa Plao

I actually discovered this dish very late and I have loved it ever since.
Pa plao is normally a tilapia (fish), rubbed in big crystals of salt, stuffed with lemon grass and grilled over charcoal. It’s really delicious!

Eat it with kao niaw and some som tam.

Bua loi

Let’s eat something sweet! Bua loi is a fun dessert made out of coconut milk and little colourful balls, which are cooked using tapioca flour. You get it in a little bowl and eat like a soup. Sometimes you might have an option to add some ice-cream to it.

Khao niaw ma muang

This is a very popular dessert among tourists – sticky rice with slices of sweet mango served with slightly salty coconut milk. It’s lovely, refreshing and so, so delicious.

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Additional things to remember about

Before you start eating, find out more about the culture of eating in Thailand and how best to enjoy it.

How to find the best place to eat in Thailand?

Thai streets are full of street stalls and restaurants. It’s hard to choose something. If you’re looking for a good place to eat in Thailand, then watch how many customers each eatery has. If it’s full of locals, you might be onto something really nice. It’s really a simple rule, which I always follow when travelling.

Another thing worth remembering is that it’s not always possible to find good food at any time of the day. Typical Thai restaurants and street stalls open in the early morning, then close and re-open in the evening, but that’s different in more touristy places.

Cutlery

Only in more expensive places, or ones that are frequented by tourists, will we find knives. Normally, Thai rice dishes are eaten with a spoon and a fork. You can use your fork to help you to scoop rice on a spoon.

Noodles are eaten with chopsticks and soups are eaten with chopsticks and a small special spoon.

Knives are not needed as Thai dishes consist of soft, chopped ingredients that don’t need cutting.

Ordering and paying

How to order food in Thailand? That depends where you are. If it’s a street stall with seating, order at the counter and sit down. The food will be brought to you. Pay after you finish eating.

If you’re buying food to takeaway, order from the seller, take your food and pay.

If it’s a more fancy place, you will be sat at a table, your order will be taken and you will ask for the bill at the end.

Vegetarian and vegan option

It was a surprise to me that Thai food doesn’t have many vege friendly options. Thai love meat and they add it everywhere. Small street places will not have much to offer. You might get som tam with so prawns, but it still has fish sauce, so it’s not good for vegans.

If you really want to get something without any meat, you’ll need to find a vegetarian/vegan restaurant. Nowadays, there are many options in bigger towns and cities, which are popular among tourists. Outside of those, you will find it hard to get something to eat.

If you have allergies

Thai dishes are made using coconut oil. There are also a lot of peanuts and other ingredients, which can cause problems.

People with food allergies might have problems with food in less popular destinations. It’s nearly impossible to buy something safe at street stalls. Mostly because the same wok is used to prepare a lot of dishes and is not washed properly between cooking, plus at smaller stalls the seller might not speak good English and might not understand you.

If you have severe allergies it’s best to keep it safe and go to more expensive restaurants, or stay at a resort, where staff will be informed about your problems.

The good news is that people who are lactose intolerant will be more than happy in Thailand. Milk and milk products are rarely used in Thai food.

Is food in Thailand healthy?

A quick and easy answer is – no. It’s not healthy and it’s not great for your weight either. It has a lot of fat and most of the dishes in Thailand are fried. If you are on holiday, you’ll be fine. One or two weeks of eating curries and rice won’t harm you. But, if you live there and that’s what you eat all the time, you might want to start cooking, or eating less.

Thai food is definitely not good for those with diabetes, high cholesterol or heart problems.

Stomach problems

Food poisoning and stomach problems might happen. Thai food is spicy and heavy. It’s different from what you know from home. It might take a couple of days for your stomach to adjust. Eating at street stalls is really OK. Just choose those that seem to be crowded and popular. If they have food on display, try to check if it’s fresh. Don’t buy food that looks like it’s been there for a long time.

From my experience, the worst food is usually around tourist areas. I’d go somewhere a bit further and eat where the locals eat.

Food in Thailand is amazing and worth exploring. There are so many more dishes than I have in this post. The possibilities are endless. If you are a foodie, you will not want to leave the country. Explore the country, try new dishes and enjoy your time in the Land of Smiles.