This is an important section. Thai people love their food and it is one of the focal points of their lives. Thai food is incredibly varied and we cannot hope to give more than an introduction. Whole books have been written on the subject that still only scratch the surface.
Thai cooking is based on a fusion of strong flavours. The five flavours of Thai cooking are spicy (pet), sour (brio), salty (kem), sweet (waan) and bitter (kom). These flavours are combined to produce dishes of startling intensity that burst onto the taste buds. Thai dishes are generally eaten with rice or noodles to disperse the intensity of the flavours.
The intensity of the five flavours can be varied to match the taste of the consumer. When Thais order food they will often specify how spicy, sour, sweet, etc they want the dish prepared. The concern for a lot of westerners is that the dish should not be too spicy. To order a dish not spicy say ‘mai ow pet’ (do not want spicy). To order a dish only a little spicy say ‘may ow pet maak’ (do not want very spicy). To order a dish extra spicy say ‘ow pet pet’ (want spicy spicy).
For a fuller introduction to Thai food terms, see our Thai Language Food Section.
Fresh ingredients are an essential part of Thai cuisine. There are very few processed products in Thai dishes. This is probably one of the reasons why Thai people look so healthy. Thais are very demanding when it comes to their food. They have finely tuned taste buds and very definite ideas as to how each dish should taste. They will not accept anything other than fresh ingredients cooked in the style they expect.
Thais are great snackers. They do not believe in the western concept of three good meals a day. If they are peckish, they will snack. There is so much convenient and cheap food available that this is easy to do. The latest research suggests this is a healthier way to eat. It maintains a steady supply of energy instead of the peaks and troughs of western style eating.
Eating Thai Style
A lot of the restaurants in the tourist resorts offer a compromise version of Thai food. They tone down the spiciness and intense flavours, and serve the food in western conventions. This is a nice way to get a gentle introduction to Thai food but if you want a more authentic Thai eating experience then you need to know a little about eating Thai style.
Thais eat their food with a fork (left hand) and a spoon (right hand). They use the fork to push the food onto the spoon and the spoon goes to the mouth. The meat in Thai dishes is cut into mouth size pieces so you do not need a knife. They use chopsticks for some dishes such as noodle soup.
Eating in Thailand is a social event. Thais do not order individual plates as we do in the west. Instead, each person will get a plate of rice. They put the main dishes in the middle of the table and share them. That way you get a greater selection of dishes and a more varied culinary experience.
Thai cuisine does not have the concept of starters or side dishes. They serve the food as it is ready. Naturally, some dishes can be prepared quicker than others and tend to arrive first. If anybody is still hungry, they will just order more food and it will keep on coming until everybody is satisfied.
Thai Restaurants and Food Stalls
There are eating establishments everywhere in Thailand. They range from simple food stalls to up-market restaurants. The range of food is incredible. If you wander around the food stall area of a fresh food market you will see stall after stall of strange and exotic food. Sausages, meatballs, seafood, grilled chicken, papaya salad, curries, flossy pork, preserved fruits, Thai cakes and sweets, the list is endless.
One of the strangest sights for most westerners is the insect stalls. Insects are originally a northern Thai food but they have grown in popularity and you can now find them all over the country. You can buy a serving of grasshoppers, beetles, maggots or ant eggs if it takes your fancy.
Noodle soup stalls are very popular eating-places with Thai people. Known as ‘groat tee-ow’, they can be found almost everywhere. You can get a bowl of noodle soup for 20 to 30 baht. When ordering you must select your noodle type. ‘Sen mee’ are thin strand rice noodles. ‘Sen lek’ are the next size up while ‘sen yai’ are flat, wide noodles. Next, you select your meat accompaniment, chicken (gai), pork (moo), beef (neua) or meatballs (look chin). You can have your noodles in broth (sai nam) or dry (hairng). And when it arrives, you can add condiments such as crushed chili, vinegar or sugar to suit your taste.
Classic Thai Dishes
There are just so many great Thai dishes. We cannot cover them all but here are a few of the classics. If you do not know where to start, we suggest you try the first three dishes in the list with a plate of boiled rice. These three should be on any visitors must eat list.
Som-tam (Spicy Papaya Salad)
Main Ingredients: Papaya, tomatoes, green beans, dried shrimps, chilies, peanuts, garlic, limejuice, fish sauce
If Thailand has a national dish then it is som-tam. It is said that on any given day a quarter of Thailand’s population will eat som-tam. Shredded green papaya is the main ingredient of this northeastern Thai dish. It is prepared with a mortar and pestle. The ingredients are pounded together releasing the juices and the heat from the chilies. This dish can be burning hot so remember to say ‘mai ow pet’ when you order if you don’t want your taste buds seared. Thais usually eat som-tam with rice, sticky rice or grilled chicken.
There are a few versions of som-tam. We suggest you stick with the standard version called ‘som-tam Thai’ as some of the other versions are too harsh for western palettes. Other popular versions include ‘som-tam boo’ (a raw crab is pounded into the mix), ‘som-tam plah kem’ (salty fish), som-tam plah rah (fermented fish) and ‘som-tam kai kem’ (salty eggs).
Tom Yam Goong (Spicy Sour Prawn Soup)
Main Ingredients: Prawns, mushrooms, tomatoes, onion, lemon grass, limejuice, lime leaves, chilies, chili paste, fish sauce
‘Tom’ in Thai means to boil and when used in relation to food dishes it means soup. ‘Yam’ means sour and ‘goong’ means prawns. There are a few other versions of tom yam such as tom yam talay (seafood), tom yam plah (fish) or tom yam het (mushroom). In all versions, the soup should burst onto the taste buds with an explosion of spicy and sour flavours. The combination of citrus ingredients gives the soup a great depth of flavour that lingers on the tongue.
The dish can be ordered ‘nam sai’ which means no chili paste. This takes away the spicy edge from the dish but also reduces the depth of flavour. The standard version with chile paste is ‘nam kon’.
Tom Kah Gai (Coconut Chicken Soup)
Main Ingredients: Coconut milk, chicken, galangal, lemon grass, limejuice, lime leaves, chilies, fish sauce
Coconut milk is one of the few processed ingredients in Thai cuisine. It is high in saturated fat although some studies have claimed this fat is easily metabolised into energy and that coconut milk has other beneficial effects. One thing is for sure – it makes fantastic soup and curry. This classic dish is a chicken coconut soup. ‘Gai’ is Thai for chicken. ‘Kah’ is Thai for galangal, a root, which along with the citrus ingredients, compliment the sweetness of the coconut milk with a sour edge.
Gairng Kee-ow Waan (Sweet Green Curry)
Main Ingredients: Coconut milk, meat, green curry paste, brinjal, basil leaves, lime leaves, sugar, fish sauce
This dish is usually made with chicken but pork or beef can also be used. ‘Gairng’ is the Thai word for curry. ‘Kee-ow’ is Thai for green and ‘waan’ means sweet. The various Thai curries are based on different curry pastes. These can be made fresh or bought at the local market. Green curry paste should include green chilies, onion, cilantro, lime, ginger and galangal. This curry is usually made with brinjal which is a small round member of the eggplant family. The curry is smooth, sweet and a little spicy.
Gairng Pet (Red Curry)
Main Ingredients: Coconut milk, meat, brinjal, red curry paste, lime leaves, sugar, fish sauce.
The red curry has the consistency of soup. It is much hotter than the green curry – ‘pet’ is Thai for spicy. The red curry paste should include red chilies, shrimp paste, garlic, lemongrass, galangal, coriander pepper and lime leaves.
Masaman Neua (Masaman Beef Curry)
Main Ingredients: Potatoes, meat, onion, cashew nuts, coconut milk, masaman curry paste, sugar, salt
This southern Thai dish is strongly influenced by Malaysian and Indian curry. It is smooth and creamy with a lovely depth of flavour. Usually made with beef but any other meat can be used.
Pat Thai (Stir Fried Rice Noodles)
Main Ingredients: Rice noodles, bean sprouts, egg, vegetable oil, garlic, lime juice, sugar, fish sauce
There are lots of variations on this classic Thai dish but basically, it is shallow fried egg noodles. ‘Pat’ (often written ‘pad’ or ‘phad’) is Thai for shallow fried. You can add a variety of green vegetables, onions and meats to vary the recipe. A good Pat Thai should not be too dry or too oily.
Khao Pat (Fried Rice)
Main Ingredients: Boiled rice, vegetable oil, egg, vegetables, meat, fish sauce
‘Khao’ is Thai for rice and ‘pat’ is Thai for shallow fried. Khao Pat is a quick and convenient meal available everywhere. It should be made from boiled rice that has been left to cool. You can add various vegetables such as onion, tomato or kale. Optionally meat can also be included.
Yam Talay (Spicy & sour seafood salad)
Main Ingredients: Seafood, shallot, cilantro, chilies, shrimp paste, limejuice, sugar, fish sauce
Yam dishes are usually translated on menus as spicy salad but in fact, they contain few vegetables. There are many versions of yam salads such as seafood, beef, salty egg, sausage and many more. The characteristic of the dish is that it is crisp, sour and spicy.
Laap (Ground Meat with Mint)
Main Ingredients: Minced meat, shallot, mint leaves, ground chili, cilantro, limejuice, fish sauce.
This northeastern dish is often listed as meat salad but again there is little vegetable content. This dish is made from braised ground meat, usually pork. It is sour but is given a lovely fresh taste by the mint leaves and limejuice.
Plah Raat Prik (Fried Fish in Sweet Chili Sauce)
Main Ingredients; Whole fish, sweet chili sauce, chilies, limejuice
Phuket has lots of great seafood. This is one popular way to eat fish. ‘Plah’ is Thai for fish and ‘prik’ means chilies. The scales are scraped from the fish. The flesh is then slit with a knife and gently rubbed with salt. It is then deep fried whole and served with a sweet chili sauce. The fish meat slides easily from the bone and the sweet chili sauce compliments the rice.
Plah Nerng Manow
Main Ingredients: Whole fish, limejuice, garlic, chilies, oil, sugar, fish sauce
‘Nerng’ is Thai for steam cooked. This dish is a whole fish steam cooked and served in a lime (manow) sauce. The fish meat will be soft and fall from the bone with ease. The sauce is sweet and sour and can be spicy if required.
Plah Samlee Dairt Dee-ow
Main Ingredients: Sun dried fish, shredded green mango, shallot, chilies, limejuice, sugar, fish sauce
For this dish, the fish is cut open and sun dried for half a day. This gives the flesh a firmer texture. The fish is then deep fired and served with a shredded green mango salad that is sour and spicy and gives the meal a lovely fresh edge.
Boo Pat Pong Garee (Crab in Curry Sauce)
Main Ingredients: Crab, onion, egg, cilantro, curry powder
Crabmeat is sweet and light. The only problem is it is so much effort to get so little meat. In this dish, the crab is broken into sections and the shell cracked to make it easier to get at the meat. It is served in a curry powder sauce with onions and egg.
We have to be honest and say this is not the strength of Thai cuisine. Most Thai desserts are too sweet and sticky for western tastes. A fruit platter is a good way to round off a meal. Other good options are banana in sweet coconut milk or mango with sticky rice.
Learn Thai Cooking
There are several Thai cooking classes available in Phuket. The most well known is ‘Pat’s Home’. She is fluent in English and holds the classes in her own home. You can email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or telephone: +66 (0)81 538 8276.