Thailand’s food is a feast for the senses. First you eat with your eyes, as each dish is beautifully presented. A whiff of the spicy aroma teases you again before you finally dig in. Once you start eating, every bite tantalizes the tastebuds. Thai cuisine is diverse, with influences from a lot of different countries. Its flavors are complex. Each individual element and condiment is used deliberately. It’s a delicate blend of exotic spices, flavors and textures that result in dishes that transports you to places.
Though I’m familiar with Thai cuisine from restaurants in the Philippines, nothing beats eating authentic Thai food in its country of origin. From sampling exotic street eats during a tuk-tuk night tour around Bangkok to all the multi-course meals at elegant cafes and floating restaurants, we ate a LOT of food during our #ThailandThroughHerEyes tour organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). If you’re traveling to Thailand, here are some of the dishes you should look out for.
1. Pad Thai
Pad Thai is a classic stir-fried noodle dish commonly served as street food and at casual eateries all around Thailand. It’s made with soaked dried rice noodles, which are stir-fried with eggs and chopped firm tofu, and flavored with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic or shallots, red chili pepper and palm sugar, and served with lime wedges and often chopped roast peanuts. It’s the blend of flavors and textures that make this dish stand out. The combination of chewy noodles, acidic lime, the tangy tamarind, and crunchy peanuts just sings in your mouth. I could eat this all day.
2. Tom Yum
One of the most famous Thai dishes worldwide is a spicy and sour soup that gets its name from two Thai words. “Tom” refers to the boiling process, while “yam” refers to a Thai spicy and sour salad. Tom yum’s flavors are distinctly hot and sour, with fragrant spices and herbs generously used in the broth. It’s usually cooked with shrimp, though other meats like chicken, beef or pork can also be used. The lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf and lime juice give the broth its signature tang. I’m generally not a fan of spicy food, but this dish converted me. As soon as I got home to Manila, I went to a Thai restaurant and ordered it again. Sadly, it was nothing like the delicious versions we had there.
3. Spring Rolls
Po Pia Tod or Spring Rolls with Thai dipping sauce is another favorite appetizer. Usually served deep fried, these little rolls are just packed with vegetables and lots of flavor. It can be made vegetarian with tofu, or with baby shrimp and proves that good things come in small packages. Some variants like the ones we tried in Saveoy, a farm to table cafe in Bangkok, serve a pretty good fresh version of it.
4. Som Tam
Som Tam is a spicy salad made of shredded, unripe papaya. It sounds simple, but it’s just packed with so much flavor! This appetizer manages to combine the five main flavors of local cuisine: sour lime, hot chili, salty, savory fish sauce and sweetness added by palm sugar. Definitely a must-try before every meal.
5. Thai Crispy Fish with Tamarind Sauce
For a main course, you can’t go wrong Pla Rad Prik or Crispy fish with tamarind sauce. We sampled several versions of this dish which makes use of a whole fish that is deep-fried until crispy. It’s served with a delectable sweet, spicy and sour tamarind sauce. Pair it with Thai fried rice and you’re all set.
Though originally from Indonesia, satay is also closely associated to Thai cuisine. These seasoned, skewered and grilled meats are served with a tasty peanut sauce. Satay is widely available in streetside or at open-air hawker stalls and is usually included in buffet restaurants.
7. Thai curry
There are a lot of varieties of curry dishes in Thailand including Thai Red Curry and Thai Green Curry. Of all those we tasted, Massaman Curry, a southern Thai dish that is Muslim in origin was the most memorable. The dish usually contains coconut milk, roasted peanuts or cashews, potatoes, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, palm sugar, fish sauce, chili, and tamarind sauce. The sauce has this thick spicy, coconutty, sweet and savory flavor that just warms the heart. My photo doesn’t do the dish justice, but this is one of the most excellent dishes I’ve ever tasted. Paired with pineapple fried rice – wow! Every bite was just bursting with flavors. If anyone knows where I can find good Massaman Curry in Manila, please let me know.
8. Exotic eats
Not for the faint of heart, but if you want a taste of something exotic, you can try various fried insects like crickets, black scorpion, grasshopper, water bug, and grubs. These are fried and seasoned with salt, pepper or chilli and sold in bug carts and commonly sold in backpacker and red-light districts. They’re high on protein!
9. Sticky rice delicacies and other desserts
Thai cuisine is big on desserts and we sampled a lot of different sticky rice and coconut based desserts. Sticky rice with mango drizzled with coconut milk is always a favorite. Bua loi are glutinous rice flour balls in coconut cream. This popular dessert is sold in market stalls and restaurants. The rice balls are naturally colored to make it look more appetizing. Chefs use pumpkin to make them yellow, pandan paste for green and butterfly pea flower for purple.
We helped make Khanom Tom, another old Thai dessert from the Sukhothai period, which is traditionally served for special occasions. These rice balls, which have a soft, smooth, sticky texture similar to mochi, are filled with coconut meat sweetened with palm sugar before they’re boiled. They’re coated in grated coconut and served in little packets made of banana leaves. Just lovely!
Another fun and interesting dessert sold by vendors was this coconut ice cream sandwich which is literally put on sliced bread and topped with peanuts from a stall vendor at the River Kwai. Very nice on a hot day.
We also enjoyed popsicles with very distinctive local flavors like coconut, Thai milk tea and durian. One of my companions downed four of these in one sitting. They were that good.
10. Local beer
If you follow this blog, you know that I have a thing for beer, so any food list needs to include some kind of local brew. The most popular brands which are widely available in restaurants include Singha, Chang and Leo. The most commonly associated beer with Thailand is Singha, a 5% pale lager, with a beer label showing an icon of a powerful mythological lion, found in ancient Indian, Hindu and Thai stories.
Singha’s closest competitior is Chang Beer, a 5% pale lager which features a couple of elephants on the label. Leo is another standard 5% lager brewed by Boon Rawd Brewery in Bangkok that features what looks like a cheetah on the label. Except for their interesting labels and origins, all three taste pretty standard as far as beers go. However, when ice cold, they’re a great compliment to all the spicy dishes. Beerlao, from neighboring country Laos is also sold in some restos and bars. I highly recommend the Dark Lager!
One really interesting find that I came across were a couple of craft beers from Chiang Mai Brewery. Chiang Mai Weizen and Red Truck IPA were being sold in a bar in Asiatique, a riverfront lifestyle shopping area in Bangkok. Inspired by its hometown scenery, Chiang Mai Weizen is brewed using fresh grains harvested from the wheat fields around Fang district, Chiang Mai province. The medium-bodied beer offers hints of fragrant fruits and spices. This was one of the most distinctive and refreshing Thai beers I’ve tasted.
These are just a few of the dishes we tried in Thailand. I kind of felt sorry for the people in our group who were either vegetarian, lactose intolerant or allergic to seafood. Thankfully, I have no food allergies whatsoever and ended up eating everyone’s leftovers. Seriously, Thailand is one of the best destinations for foodies! Check out the full food trip album on my Facebook page.