Thai cuisine is extremely popular around the world because of its lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components and a spicy edge. In 2017, seven Thai dishes appeared on a list of the "World's 50 Best Foods" — an online poll of 35,000 people worldwide by CNN Travel. While Thai cuisine is available in many countries, Thailand is where you can experience the most authentic versions of its dishes, and the widest diversity of regional styles.
Thai dishes can be roughly categorized into central Thai food (around Bangkok, with strong Chinese influences), northern Thai food (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influence), Isaan food (having much in common with Lao cuisine) and southern Thai food (with heavy influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some better-known dishes. See Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
One common ingredient in Thai cuisine is fish sauce (น้ำปลา naam plaa), a pungent and salty sauce made from fermented anchovies that is used to flavour many dishes. Other common ingredients that contribute to the distinctive flavour of Thai cuisine include lime juice, lemon grass, fresh coriander and Asian tamarind (known as asam in Malaysia), along with fiery-hot little chillis known as phrik khii nuu (พริกขี้หนู, lit. "mouse shit chillies").
The Thai staple food is rice (ข้าว khao), so much so that in Thai eating a meal, gin khao, literally means "eat rice".
- Khao suai (ข้าวสวย) or "beautiful rice" is the plain white steamed rice that serves as the base of almost every meal.
- Khao pat (ข้าวผัด) is simple fried rice, usually with some crab (pu), pork (muu) or chicken (kai), as well as spring onion and eggs mixed in, and flavoured with fish sauce.
- Khao tom (ข้าวต้ม) is a salty and watery rice porridge served with condiments, quite popular at breakfast.
- Khao tom pla (ข้าวต้มปลา) is the Thai name of Teochew-style fish porridge, which is a popular street dish in Bangkok.
- Khao niao (ข้าวเหนียว) or "sticky rice" is glutinous rice - usually eaten dry, traditionally by hand, with grilled/fried pork or chicken or beef. It is especially popular (more than plain rice) in northeastern (Isaan) and northern provinces, but is widely available throughout the country, especially in places specializing on Isaan or Lao cuisine.
- Khao man kai (ข้าวมันไก่), literally "chicken fat rice", is the Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice, and somewhat similar to the version sold in Malaysia and Singapore.
- Khao moo daeng (ข้าวหมูแดง) is rice with barbecued pork, crispy skin pork belly, Chinese pork sausage, cucumbers and a hard boiled egg topped off with some gravy.
- Khao kha mu (ข้าวขาหมู) is a dish of Teochew origin consisting of rice with a stewed pig's trotter, stewed hard boiled egg and some vegetables.
Thais are great noodle eaters. The most common kind is rice noodles, served angel-hair (เส้นหมี่ sen mii), small (เส้นเล็ก sen lek), large (เส้นใหญ่ sen yai) and giant (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว kuay tiao), but egg noodles (บะหมี่ ba mii), Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli (เกี๊ยว kio) and glass noodles made from mung beans (วุ้นเส้น wun sen) are also popular.
Unlike other Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a rack of four condiments, namely dried red chillies, fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar which diners can add to their own taste.
- Pad Thai (ผัดไทย), literally "fried Thai", thin rice noodles, scrambled eggs and shrimp fried in a tamarind-based sauce. Ubiquitous, cheap and often excellent. As an added bonus, it's usually chili-free (you can add yourself, however, or ask to do so if buying of the street, but be warned, it is often really hot).
- Ba mii muu daeng (บะหมี่หมูเเดง) is thin egg noodles with slices of Chinese-style barbecued pork. Bangkok's Chinatown is particularly known for this dish.
- Kuai tiao ruea (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวเรือ), literally boat noodles, is a rice noodle soup with a fiery pork blood stock and an assortment of offal. An acquired taste, but an addictive one. The city of Ayutthaya is best known for it.
- Khao soi (ข้าวซอย) is egg noodles with meat (usually pork, chicken or beef) in a coconut curry-based broth, served with fresh onions, fermented vegetables and chilli sauce on the side. A speciality of Northern Thailand.
- Kuai chap (กวยจั๊บ) is Teochew-style flat rice noodles in a dark soy sauce-based soup, served with pork, offal, hard-boiled egg and some herbs. Known as "kway chap" in Malaysia and Singapore, the Thai version has undergone its own unique evolution and differs significantly from the version served in those countries, and from the original Chinese version. Bangkok's Chinatown is a well-known place to sample this dish.
Soups and curries
The line between soups (ต้ม tom, literally just "boiled") and curries (แกง kaeng) is a little fuzzy, and many dishes the Thais call curries would be soups to an Indian. A plate of rice with a ladle-full of a curry or two on top, known as khao kaeng (ข้าวแกง), is a very popular quick meal if eating alone.
- Tom yam kung (ต้มยำกุ้ง) is the quintessential Thai dish, a sour soup with prawns, lemon grass and galangal. The real thing is quite spicy, but toned-down versions are often available on request.
- Tom kha kai (ต้มข่าไก่) is the Thai version of chicken soup in a rich galangal-flavored coconut stock, with mushrooms and not a few chillies.
- Kaeng daeng (แกงเเดง, "red curry") and kaeng phet (แกงเผ็ด, "hot curry") are the same dish and, as you might guess, this coconut-based dish can be spicy. Red curry with roast duck (kaeng phet pet yaang แกงเผ็ดเป็ดย่าง) is particularly popular.
- Kaeng khio-waan (แกงเขียวหวาน), sweet green curry, is a coconut-based curry with strong accents of lemongrass and kaffir lime. Usually milder than the red variety.
- Kaeng som (แกงส้ม), orange curry, is more like tamarind soup than curry, usually served with pieces of herb omelette in the soup.
Thais like their mains fried (ทอด thot or ผัด phat) or grilled (yaang ย่าง). Fish, in particular, is often deep-fried until the meat turns brown and crispy.
- Ka-phrao kai (กะเพราไก่), literally "basil chicken" is a simple but intensely fragrant stir-fry made from peppery holy basil leaves, chillies and chicken.
About the only thing Thai salads (ยำ yam) have in common with the Western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. A uniquely Thai flavour is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chillies. The end result can be very spicy indeed!
- Som tam (ส้มตำ), a salad made from shredded and pounded raw papaya, originating in the Isaan region and neighbouring Laos, but now popular throughout the rest of the country as well. The Thai version is less sour and more sweet than the Lao version, with peanuts and dried shrimp mixed in.
- Yam pon la mai (ยำผลไม้) is Thai-style fruit salad, meaning that instead of canned maraschino cherries it has fresh fruit topped with oodles of fish sauce and chillies.
- Yam som-o (ยำส้มโอ) is an unusual salad made from pomelo (a mutant version of grapefruit) and anything else on hand, often including chicken or dried shrimp.
- Yam wunsen (ยำวุ้นเส้น) is perhaps the most common yam, with glass noodles and shrimp.
- Sai krok Isaan (ไส้กรอกอีสาน), or just sai krok, is a sausage made of fermented pork and rice (making it somewhat similar to Louisiana's boudin), giving it a slightly sour flavour. As the name suggests, it originates in the Isaan region.
- Salapao (ซาลาเปา) is the Thai name for Chinese-style steamed buns with fillings, known as baozi in Chinese. It has been significantly localised in Thailand, and is widely available at numerous food stalls in local markets.
- Hoi tod (หอยทอด) is Thai-style shellfish omelette, made with eggs, sweet potato starch and some other herbs. Originally brought to Thailand by Teochew immigrants, and made using oysters, though these days the version with mussels is much more common. One popular place to get he original oyster version is in Bangkok's Chinatown, though prices tend to be on the high side. A variation of the dish that is widely available is known as or suan (ออส่วน), in which the dish is fried to a gooey texture instead.
Thais don't usually eat "dessert" in the Western after-meal sense, although you may get a few slices of fresh fruit (ผลไม้ pon la mai) for free at fancier places, but they certainly have a finely honed sweet tooth. Korean-style bingsu shaved ice also is very popular among younger Thais, with local chain After You being a favourite hangout spot for youths.
- Khanom (ขนม) covers a vast range of cookies, biscuits, chips and anything else snackable, and piles of the stuff can be found in any Thai office after lunch. One common variety called khanom khrok (ขนมครก) is worth a special mention: these are little lens-shaped pancakes of rice and coconut, freshly cooked and served by street vendors everywhere.
- Khao niao ma-muang (ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง) means "sticky rice with mango", and that's what you get, with some coconut milk drizzled on top. Filling and delicious and an excellent way to cool the palate after a spicey Thai dish! Alternatively, for the more adventurous type, an equally popular dish is Khao nio tu-rean in which you get durian instead of mango with your sticky rice.
- aan yen (หวานเย็น), literally "sweet cold", consists of a pile of ingredients of your choice (including things like sweet corn and kidney beans) topped with syrup, coconut cream and a pile of ice, and is great for cooling down on a hot day or after a searing curry.
- Roti sai mai (โรตีสายไหม) is a thin Indian-style flatbread wrapped around cotton candy. A local specialty of Ayutthaya.
A vast number of Thailand takeaway food vendors, mainly roadside ones, use plastic bags for everything from sauces and soups to main dishes. Thailand is suffering from a huge plastic environmental contamination problem. One of the ways tourists can help is by trying to avoid plastic bags altogether, bringing one's own stackable metal pans (also available in the country; you can take it back) or appropriate-sized reusable plastic Tupperware-type food containers, plus a fork and spoon or, at the very least, ensuring all these plastics are disposed of properly after use.
Drinking at the night markets is a distinctly Thai experience. Many night markets have bars set up within them, where both locals and tourists go to socialize way into the night.
Beer is widely available in Thailand, though someone pricey for the locals. Expect to pay about 45 baht for a bottle of beer in supermarkets, and 50-120 baht in bars and restaurants. Some popular local brands of beer in Thailand include Singha and Chang. Imported Western beers are also available, though expect prices to be much higher than the locally-brewed beers.
Perhaps the most famous Thai drink internationally is Thai milk tea (ชา chaa), which can be served both hot (ชาร้อน chaa rorn) and cold (ชาเย็น chaa yen), and is instantly identifiable due to its dark orange color. The hot version is typically served for breakfast in local markets, and is often served with Chinese-style youtiao (ปาท่องโก๋ pathongko) fritters for you to dip in the tea.
Coconut water (น้ำมะพร้าว naam ma-phrao), iced and drunk directly from a fresh coconut, is a popular cold drink in Thailand, and sold by vendors in the numerous street markets.