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, course, where you want to go to experience the most authentic versions of its dishes, and the wide diversity of 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), northeastern Thai food (from the Isaan region bordering with Laos) 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.
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) 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.
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", means thin rice noodles 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 egg noodles with slices of Chinese-style barbecued pork.
- 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.
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 is often considered a classic Thai dish, but it actually originates from neighboring Laos. However, the Thai version is less sour and more sweet than the original, 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.
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.
- Waan 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.
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.