Thai food is known by many people as spicy food, but it is actually based on a balance between different tastes, including spicy, sour, sweet, salty and bitter. A characteristic aspect of Thai food is the use of fresh herbs and spices as well as the use of fermented fish sauce in almost every dish.
However, there are also regional differences in Thai food, which are due to influences from neighboring countries such as China, Laos, Myanmar and Malaysia. Although some Thai restaurants specialize in specific dishes, most have a huge selection of Thai and Western dishes on the menu.
For most Thai, eating is an informal and social affair. Whether it is a wedding, funeral, garden party or festival, eating together always plays a key role. In most cases, Thai meals are served in ‘family style’, which means that joint dishes are placed in the middle of the table in the order in which the kitchen can prepare them. When dining out in a restaurant, Thais often tend to order a lot of food to appear generous.
Rice in Thai food
For Thai people, rice is the staple food and they eat rice with most meals, from breakfast to dessert. If you say in Thai that you are hungry or want to eat, you literally say ‘I want to eat rice’. It is therefore not surprising to know that Thailand is the world’s largest exporter of rice and that there are many species with their own characteristics and taste.
The most popular Thai rice type is jasmine rice, a sweet-smelling long grain rice species that belongs to Thailand. Steamed jasmine rice is the best rice to accompany most dishes, including Thai curry, but also the most expensive. That is why most restaurants serve Khao Suoy, ‘beautiful rice’, a white variety that grows in abundance.
Khao pad, ‘fried rice’, is often made with fried pork or chicken, pepper and fish sauce, usually with leftovers Khao Suoy.
Khao Tom is a popular breakfast dish and is a salty porridge-like soup that is cooked with pork and garlic.
Khao Niaw, ‘sticky rice’, is eaten by hand with dishes with influences from the north-east, such as grilled chicken (gai yang) and spicy papaya salad (som tam). ‘Sticky rice’ is also a crucial ingredient in one of the favorite Thai desserts, namely sticky rice with mango.
Main dishes in Thai food
Although noodle dishes are very common in Thailand (an influence of Chinese migrants), most Thai dishes are served stir-fried or grilled with rice. Fish (plaa), pork (muu), beef (neua) and chicken (gai) are all prepared in a variety of ways, but usually they are fried in bite-sized pieces with various herbs, such as garlic, chili and/or basil. Fish and chicken are often grilled or fried, usually cooked and served in its entirety.
Thai curry and soup
Since Thai meals are usually served in the ‘family style’, where all guests share the starters, a Thai curry or soup is usually also ordered with a meal. The composition of each Thai curry varies greatly and can be made with various types of curry paste. Main herbs of Thai curry and soup usually contains turmeric, hot chilies or chili powder, cumin, coriander (cilantro), garlic and some other spices that differ from region to region. In Southern Thailand, people tend to make curries with a lot of coconut milk, while in the Northeast, people often use more lime juice and less coconut milk.
Gaeng Massaman, is a mild curry with peanuts and potatoes; Gaeng Kiaw Wan (Thai green curry) is spicy on average and Gaeng Daeng (red curry), also known as Gaeng Pet (spicy curry), is a thinner, obviously spicier option. Tom Kha, a mild coconut soup, fades the lines between soup and curry and Tom Yam Goong, a typical Thai soup, is often very spicy hot.
Thai curries are usually meant to eat with rice. Soups are served in small containers for eating separately. Although some curries and soups are served without meat for vegetarians, many Thai chefs use fish sauce in all dishes as the Thai substitute for salt.
Unlike the typical Thai dishes, which are served for common use, most Thai noodle dishes are seen as individual dishes. Although some restaurants serve Thai noodle dishes, in particular Pad Thai noodles, noodles are often served and eaten at street stalls specializing in selling Thai noodle dishes. Thai noodles come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, including ‘small’ (sen lek), ‘big’ (yai), ‘angel hair’ (sen) and ‘extra large’ (gway tiow). Most Thai noodles are made from rice, but egg noodles (ba mee) and green beans based glass noodles are also common.
In Thai food, besides Pad Thai, rad naa and gway tiow stir-fried noodles are served with beef, chicken or pork. Spices such as dried peppers, fish sauce, vinegar and sugar are always available to suit your taste.
In other cases, Thai noodles are normally served in soup, either with spicy red pork (moo daeng), chicken (on the bone), and occasionally solidified pig’s blood. Unlike most Thai dishes, which are eaten with fork and spoon, Thai noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks and spoon, a reflection of the Chinese origin of the kitchen.
Desserts in Thai cuisine
You might not say it if you see the slim bodies of many Thais, but Thai people like to eat desserts. Both traditional Thai desserts and Western, including cake and ice cream, are popular. Traditional Thai desserts are fairly sweet, and are mainly made from different combinations of rice, coconut milk and sugar, along with a few seemingly less obvious dessert ingredients, such as corn or kidney beans.
Fruit is also common in Thai desserts and is usually served sliced. Mango with sticky rice and covered with sweet coconut milk is a very popular dessert.
Salad in Thai food
A Thai salad is often one of the spiciest Thai dishes and is often ordered as one of many common dishes in a meal. A Thai salad is generally made from raw vegetables mixed with chili, lime and fish sauce, although some salads, such as Yam Neua (Thai beef salad), contain meat.
Som Tam is the most internationally recognized Thai salad, but actually has its origin from Laos. This salad is especially popular in the north-east of Thailand, where it is prepared very spicy. Som Tam consists mainly of grated papaya and is often served with grilled chicken (gai yang).
Yam som-o is a milder salad that is based on the pomelo, a fruit that resembles a grapefruit, but is less acidic. Yam som-o is usually served with grated chicken.
Other salads include Yam Neua, a Thai beef salad with tomato and onion, and Yam Wonsan, a glass of noodles and shrimp salad.
Thailand is undoubtedly a land of fruits. Throughout the country you’ll see vendors selling dozens of different chilled fruits. The most famous fruits are the banana, pineapple, watermelon and papaya. More exotic are the dragon fruit, chompu, durian and jackfruit.
The dragon fruit is a large, strange-looking fruit with a pink prickly skin on the outside and inside soft white flesh resembling a kiwi. The chompu is a refreshing pear-shaped fruit that tastes like a watery apple. The pungent smell of the durian and its softer cousin the jackfruit, require an acquired taste. The smell of the durian is so strong that you will see a ‘no durian’ sign hanging from many buildings!
The mango is eaten both ripe and juicy, unripe and aggressive acid, the latter being immersed in a typical Thai way in a mixture of sugar and chili.
There are also dozens of other exotic Thai fruits, available per season, and always reasonably priced.
Given the warm climate in Thailand, it is wise to drink a lot of water. The tap water is not suitable for drinking, but the ice is generally safe in Thailand and bottles of water are cheaply available everywhere.
Fruit smoothies and fruit juices are both very popular in Thailand. Smoothies are made from fresh fruit and sugar syrup mixed with ice. Coconut milk is another safe option since the coconut is just cracked at the top and served with a straw.
Thai iced tea is served with condensed milk, giving it a pink-orange color and sweet taste. Thai iced coffee (oliang) is a strong black coffee far superior to the Nescafe which is often served as ‘coffee’ in many restaurants. If you really need a quick cup of coffee, you will find many Starbucks throughout Thailand, especially in Bangkok.
With the high alcohol content of the Thai beers you do not have to be afraid of any germs. The most famous Thai beer brands are Singha (pronounced ‘Sing’), Chang (meaning elephant) and Leo. In addition, many import beers are available, including Budweiser, Heineken, Corona, etc.
The Red Bull Energy Drink was invented in Thailand and is available for 10 Bahts in every 7-11 store. There are other local brands whose tastes vary considerably.