Food in Thailand is an interesting contrast to the western world because it’s all super cheap, good, easy to make and fresh. Whether you’re looking for casual street food on the go or fine dining at one of the many waterfront establishments or dinner cruises, here are some signature dishes you shouldn’t miss. One thing’s for sure, from the bug carts to the foreign markets, food in Thailand is always an adventure.
The most common thing you’ll come across is definitely the made-to-order Pad Thai with your choice of noodles - color and thickness and protein - fried egg, chicken, shrimp, etc. The seasonings are laid out on the counter, much like that of a pizza stand to flavor to your liking from spicy to sweet. Get your noodle fix here because you most likely won’t see Pad Thai on a restaurant menu unless it’s one of the more touristy joints. While a favorite in the US, in Thailand it is solely a low end snack (but undoubtedly delicious). Kabobs are also prevalent on Khoasan Road, the popular street market/ backpacker haven. While red meat is rare (they don’t eat much cow in Thailand), skewers with garlic mayo aoli served in naan are a good snack. Be sure to save some room for the desserts too – mango and sticky rice are a local treat, as well as my personal favorite, the Asian variation of a crepe - naan with honey, condensed milk, banana and Nutella. Prices of everything range from about 30 Baht ($1) for more plain snacks to about 60 Baht ($2) so feel free to try everything without breaking the bank.
Before every entrée, be sure to start with a tom yum soup. This spicy clear broth is a favorite of both locals and foreigners. Made of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, fish sauce and chili peppers, it is the quintessential Thai appetizer. Different variations are made with the addition of prawns (Tom yum goong or tom yam kung), chicken (Tom yum gai or tom yam kai), seafood (Tom yum thale ) and coconut milk (Tom yum nam khon). Thailand is known for its fantastic seafood so any dish with gigantic prawns or steamed fish is sure to be a hit while you’re there. Curries are also big, but whether you go red or green depends how much spice you can handle. Spicy papaya salad is a good side, but if you come across spicy eggplant salad that was my personal favorite.
Aside from the glorious surplus of fresh fruit, if it’s gelatinous, on ice or made with condensed milk, it’s a Thai dessert. Tub Tim Grob (Ruby Red in English) is popular with a few variations, but the main idea is that it’s essentially tapioca fruit (commonly jackfruit, pineapple or coconut) and veggies like water chestnuts dyed red floating in sweet coconut water served over ice. Most desserts are refreshing with a texture like ice cream, but lighter and airier than the American version. You must also try Lao Khao Dome, banana or coconut sticky rice served wrapped in banana leaves. It’s like opening a gift for dessert.
The drink menu was regularly as exciting as the main menu due to the glorious varieties of smoothies readily available. We tried a different unknown fruit almost every day, and supplemented with lemongrass juice (yum), ginger tea and many other delicious variations of regional sweet teas. Thai iced tea and Thai coffee are also favorites, but be forewarned; they’re very sweet from the addition of condensed milk so it’s essentially an Eastern Frappuccino.
For the Adventurous Eaters
Bugs are a normal snack in Thailand and we had the pleasure of trying two variations - silkworm and a beehive. Neither could be classified as good, but not vomit-inducing either - just different. If you’re a texture person, you may want to avoid the bugs because hearing that crunch’ll really get you. Our guide told us they tasted like cheese balls, which couldn’t be farther from the truth, nutty was the only flavor I could somewhat even identify, but hey, when in Rome. Scorpions are also supposedly a big accomplishment out east, but we didn’t come across any.