Everyone dreams of visiting Thailand for the beaches, crystal clear waters and picture-perfect island living… but ask any seasoned traveler what it is that keeps them returning to Thailand again and again… and they’ll tell you: it’s the food.
Sure, we might have been inspired to first make the pilgrimage to paradise by Leo and his band of merry backpackers circa 2000 in The Beach. But after visiting the Beach for ourselves, our biggest question is… how did they all stay so happy on a diet of nothing but fish and rice, without a street food cart or steaming bowl of Thai curry in sight?! We’d be begging to go back to the mainland for our next foodie fix.
Without further ado, here’s seventeen of our absolute must-Thai dishes. Some of these will be available in the US, but to find them all, and indeed get a real, authentic taste of Southeast Asia, you’ll have to venture there for yourself…
(or, ahem, enter to win a trip there before April 16th here).
1. Khao Soi
Creamy, spicy chicken curry? Check. Oodles of soft noodles? Check! This Burmese-inspired northern Thai dish is even topped with crispy noodles before being finished off with shallots, pickles and as much chilli as you can handle.
If you’re in Chiang Mai, be sure to head to Mr Kai’s restaurant on Chang Lor Road, where a bowl of the good stuff won’t set you back more than $3.
2. Som Tam (papaya salad)
Southeast Asia’s staple salad is made from thin strips of green papaya drowned in lime juice, red chilli, fish sauce and even sugar. Stop by a street cart and watch as the vendor shaves you a portion fresh from the fruit before sprinkling it with peanuts, or order it as a side to a chicken dish in a restaurant. Best enjoyed from a banana leaf!
3. Massaman curry
There’s more to Thai curry than the normal red and green varieties! Cinnamon, cumin, nutmeg and copious amounts of beef, potatoes and peanuts are the main staples of this Middle Eastern hybrid. Yep – Middle Eastern – the word ‘Massaman’ is thought to translate to ‘Muslim’. Others believe it came across the border from Malaysia. Regardless of its origin, it’s sweet, warming and delicious.
4. Pad Kra Pao
Thought basil was for Italian cooking? You haven’t tried the Asian variety. Translating as ‘basil stir-fry’, this dish incorporates ground chicken or pork, rice, chilli, garlic, soy, oyster and fish sauce and handfuls of sweet, fragrant Thai holy basil leaves. Best served with a fried egg on top, there’s no brunch or lunch more satisfying.
5. Ton Yum soup
This sweet and sour noodle soup is one you can find anywhere – on every street corner! It’s usually served plain with a side of chilis, ground peanuts and sometimes even sugar so you can go wild building your own flavour profile. Add fresh, meaty prawns, mushrooms and whatever else tickles your pickle, and you’re onto some pretty tasty, comforting broth.
6. Hor Mok curry
‘Amok’ refers to cooking, and often (but not always) serving curry in either a hollowed out coconut or wrapped in banana leaves. Tender, sweet and often loaded with fresh seafood and piles of shaved coconut, save this one for a special occasion!
7. Bamee bpet yang
So, you’re a sucker for the duck when you head to a Chinese restaurant? We hear you. And so, it seems, are the Thais. Wander around any Bangkok market and you’ll surely come across a stand serving up this satisfying dish, made up of honey glazed roasted duck breast and egg noodles, served with a hearty portion of gravy which can be spooned over the top of it all, or sipped on the side.
8. Pad pak bung fai daeng (morning glory)
Can you go ten minutes in Thailand without a bit of innuendo? The perfect side dish to any meal, this green veggie is best when drowned in soy, garlic and those ever-present Thai red chilis.
9. Gai pad pongali
This is a curry with a difference – an egg is cracked and scrambled into the curry before serving, giving it a chunky texture which absorbs twice as much flavor as the norm.
Moo Satay or Khao Neow Moo Ping… chicken, beef, spicy pork, or scorpion… whatever it is you want, sweet or spicy, you’ll never be far away from delicious morsels of meat sizzling on an open grill. Perfect snacks for market meanderings, you’ll be able to load up on ample variations in-between big feeds.
11. Pad kee mao sen yai
Memories this one; you’ll need it! ‘Pad Kee Mao Sen Yai’ translates to ‘drunken noodles’. Sounds fun, right? They are. Drowned in soy, garlic, fish sauce, chilli and just about every other Thai flavor going, they’re a perfect taste sensation after a few too many Changs, and even better the next day to awaken you from the dead.
12. Pink broth
One for the wannabe unicorns, Yen ta fo Is a highly Instagrammable rice noodle soup which is colored pink with fermented bean curd.
13. Thai pancakes
There’s a reason why you’ll see signs for cafes and hostels named after Thailand’s staple Banana pancakes everywhere you go… because there’s no other desert more satisfying, and backpackers live off them! Served hot from the griddle, full of squishy banana, melted chocolate, fruit and coconut, you’ll end up eating these for most desserts. Best enjoyed from a paper plate in the street!
14. Kluay tod
Deepfried. Battered. Banana. Hot, sweet, crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-middle within, these snacks cost mere cents, so keep your eyes peeled (pun unintentional) for these babies.
Don’t worry, they do peel them before frying!
15. Mango sticky rice
Rice puddings’ more exotic cousin, Thai sticky rice has a slightly dried texture making it easy to pull apart using your hands. Generous helpings of coconut cream and sticky mango make it all the more appe-thai-sing. This is probably the most famous classic Thai sweet treat, and one you’ll no doubt master if you invest in a Thai cooking course.
16. Sesame dumpings
These gooey balls made from sesame dough served in a ginger flavor broth or tea. They’re usually eaten at birthday or New Year celebrations – we say being in Thailand is cause for celebration enough, so you should definitely indulge your inner child and sip on a pot of these if you get the chance.
17. Cha yen
Thailand’s very own ice tea is full of super-sweet condensed milk – the perfect pick-up after a long, hot day of soaking up culture. The drink comes in all sorts of flavors and styles – pick one up from a street cart and you’ll likely have it served to you in a cute plastic carrier bag, complete with a straw. Head to a mega-mall in stylish Sukhumvit or a beach bar in the south, and you’ll find fruity flavors served in cocktail glasses.
What other insane Thai food have you tried that you feel needs adding to the list?* Leave your comments below or even better, tag your foodie pics with #EatYourWaytoThailand and mention @STATravel to be in with the chance of winning an all-expenses-paid trip to Thailand, courtesy of G Adventures. Find out more on how to enter here.
*We were tempted to give special shoutouts to durians, officially the world’s smelliest fruit, often banned from hotels and hostels, and 7-Eleven toasties. Life. Savers.