Thai foods have made a name for itself everywhere. Even if you have never been to Thailand, it’s likely you’ve sampled some version of Thai cuisine in a western restaurant. If you’re lucky enough to have the chance to visit Thailand and sample some authentic Thai foods, you will be very surprised at how different the real deal is!
The staple of Thai foods is rice; the different types, how to cook it, what to put on it, or what to combine it with. In fact, in Thailand when you want to ask someone if they want to eat something you don’t say “Do you want to eat?” You say, “Do you want to eat rice?” It is assumed that rice is a part of every meal, so this is how the question is posed. Every dish on this list is either made from rice or served with rice!
Food in Thailand is a huge part of the culture. There are dishes that are so unlike anywhere else in the world, you’ll wonder how they ever created such strange but delicious combinations.
There are four words that can be used to describe most of Thailand’s main dishes; salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Whether it’s a salad, soup, curry, or stir fry, get ready to test the limits of your taste buds and indulge in some of the most delicious and flavorful food in the world!
Spicy Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
This dish is one of my absolute favorites of Thai foods. Originally coming from the Issan (northeast) region of the country, this salad is now consumed nationwide.
To start, an unripe papaya is peeled and grated. When papaya is not its usual ripe-and-ready-to-eat orange color, it’s a light green or off-white color with a sour taste. Some places will grate a little carrot into the mix too. Then diced tomatoes, a few pieces of garlic, fresh green beans, a few peanuts or cashews, a few hot chili peppers, lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce are crushed together with a mortar and pestle. The papaya is then added for a final toss.
The real art of Som Tam is knowing how much of each ingredient to use. Usually this salad is made very spicy, unless you otherwise specify. When I order it, I always say “pet nid noi” or “prik nueng, ka!”, which means “a little bit spicy” or “one chili, please!”
This salad is usually combined with other side dishes to compliment a main meal. It can, however, be quite filling if combined with shrimp or chicken and paired with sticky rice.
FYI: some places will make the same dish, but substitute an unripe mango for the papaya. Slightly different taste and just as good!
Spring Rolls (Bah Bpee-ya)
Deep fried Thai spring rolls are perfect if you’re craving something sweet and salty. They’re a quick, cheap, and crunchy snack that can be found at many street stalls. They’re also great to order as a shared appetizer if you’re eating out. You’ll find them on most restaurant menus.
Most spring rolls contain a minced pork filling if they’ve been pre-made at a street stall. However, it’s possible to order them vegetarian style in a restaurant. The typical ingredients include the minced meat, muang bean noodle (thin and clear), and bean sprouts. You may also find some grated carrot in there occasionally.
Served with a tangy sweet and sour dipping sauce, these are the perfect snack or warm up for your main meal!
One of Thailand most unique curries is actually not one of the traditional Thai foods. Massaman curry is thought to have been derived from Persian culture long, long ago. Its name, which stems from the word Muslim, could have been influenced by nearby Islamic countries like Malaysia or Indonesia.
In any case, Massaman is a rich and mild curry that is simply irresistible. It’s the Thai foods equivalent to hot bowl of chili or chowder son a cold day.
The magic of Massaman is in the curry sauce, made from coconut milk, cinnamon, cumin, and nutmeg. The other ingredients vary, but you’ll usually find either chicken or beef Massaman combined with potato, carrot, peanuts, and bay leaves.
Massaman, like all Thai curries, is served with a plate of plain steamed rice. It some traditional southern towns (like Surat Thani), you may find Massaman served with roti, which is like fried dough. This is a real treat.
Fried Noodles (Phad See-Euw)
Not to be confused with Phad Thai, which is one of the most cliché things you can order as a tourist in Thailand. Phad See-Euw is the more authentic version.
This is a savory dish of sticky, wide fried noodle dishes. The noodles start as white rice noodles (called “sen yai”) and are then combined with garlic, Chinese broccoli (dark-green veggie), soy sauce, sugar, and one egg. Usually combined with chicken (“gai”) or beef (‘nu-ah”), but it can also be made vegetarian (“mai sai nu-ah”) if you choose.
Fried together in a wok and you’ve got the tastiest noodle dish in Thai foods.
Noodle Soup (Goy-Tee-Ow Nam-Sai)
The Thai version of good, old fashioned, chicken noodle soup. However, nothing about it is comparable to a tin of Campbell’s.
When ordering this dish, it’s good to know a little Thai, because you can create your own. Thai soup varies depending on the broth, the noodles, and the additions. You can pick the type of noodles – wide (“sen yai”), thin (“sen lek”), yellow (“sen ba-mee”), glass noodles (“wun sen”), etc. You can also pick the type of broth – clear broth (“nam sai”), spicy broth (“tam yam”) are the most common.
With the broth and noodles chosen, the next is step is fillings. Chicken or beef can be added, different types of vegetables, dumplings, and what’s known as fish ball. These have a consistency that’s tougher than tofu with a medium fishy taste. They’re strange, but common in Thailand.
The soup is served with an array of flavorings like vinegar, dried chili flakes, sugar, and crushed peanuts for you to garnish your own soup. You are the master of your soup domain!
Tom Yam Zaab, an example of a spicy broth soup with beef and plenty of coriander!
Coconut Chicken Soup (Tom Kha Gai)
This is another type of soup, bordering on curry, and one of the most unique dishes in Thai foods. Tom Kha Gai’s base is a mild, slightly sweet, creamy coconut milk broth. Added to the base to get the unique Tom Kha taste is ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaves.
Mushrooms, tomatoes, and onion are usually mixed in as well. Chicken is added, and there you have it!
Served with rice (of course), this is a filling and satisfying meal.
Fried Rice Omlette (Khao Klook Kapi)
This is a different version of fried rice and good to order if you’re really hungry. Fried rice is standard all over Thailand, but an omlette stuffed with fried rice is something special. Yes, it sounds strange, but the salty, savory combo is great. Not to mention, ridiculously filling.
You start with the traditional Thai fried rice combination of rice, egg, fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and lime juice. The omlette is prepared separately, then the fried rice is wrapped up in the omlette. Picture a calzone – except the folded over crust is the omlette and the cheesy pizza filling is the fried rice!
Don’t forget about DESSERT! Thailand loves sweet treats and you’ll never find a shortage of delicious delectables. Some may not be what you’re used to, but there are two that cannot be missed!
Mango Sticky Rice (Khao Nee-ow Mamuang)
Unlike anything you’ve ever tried. Mango sticky rice is probably the best-known Thai dessert, and capable of satisfying even the strongest sweet tooth.
The dessert combines sweet mango and slow cooked sticky rice in coconut milk. The rich flavor of the rice mixed with the sweet tang of the mango is a brave combination only Thailand would have thought to try. I thank them for it!
Banana Pancakes (known simply as “pancake”)
This freshly made pancakes can be had at any time of day, but they’re a perfect dessert if you feel like sharing something sweet.
The best pancakes are made at the small street stalls, usually manned by one or two people and a large flat wrought iron hot-plate. Most places have a variety of filling to choose from, but the most popular is the banana pancake with Nutella and garnished with condensed milk.
The dough is put on the hot iron and fried. The banana is sliced and added inside and then the pancake is turned over on itself. The outcome is a square, crispy, fried piece of delicious dough. The larger square is then sliced into smaller, bite-sized pieces.
If you opted for Nutella, it’s spread on the surface of the pancake. It’s completed with a drizzle of condensed milk, which forms small pools in the fried dough. It’s packed with calories, but no one every complains!
Once you start, it’s difficult to get enough of Thai food. The flavors and combination of ingredients (fish sauce and lime juice – what?!) are drastically different from any western-style food. But somehow it works – really, really, well.
These are just a few of my favorite Thai foods, but there are countless others that deserved to make this list. It’s nearly impossible to choose! The best way to discover your favorites is to try them all yourself!