Thailand is one of our most favourite countries in the world. We love its beautiful islands with turquoise water. Its capital, the bustling Bangkok, also has many charms. Then, there are the northern mountains - the foothills of Himalaya.
The people of Thailand are laid-back, friendly and they make fantastic food. Though the cuisine varies from the South, through the Central, to the North, with the influence from many neighbouring cultures (Chinese, Laotian, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Malaysian, Burmese), most dishes offer an excellent balance of diverse flavours. The spicy edge and the use of fresh herbs stand out in Thai food, and, in my opinion, are the key to its attraction and fame.
Here is a list of dishes that we love and would highly recommend to everyone who is to travel to Thailand.
1. Som Tam - Spicy Green Papaya Salad
Som Tam is the first thing I think of when somebody mentions Thai food. It’s a simple side dish, made with shredded green papaya in a tangy fish sauce dressing. In with the papaya are often tomatoes, chilli, peanuts. Some also add green beans, cucumber...and mango! (because why not?)
It's more of a side dish, but some chefs add black crab legs for more protein or throw in the rice noodle to make it more substantial.
There's one thing you should know: The spiciness of som tam varies massively. The waiter often asks how spicy one wants her som tum, but, in my experience, “not too spicy” is translated into different ways, from A-OK to chilli-over-powering. If you dare to ask for “spicy”, as Ian often does, you might have to abandon the dish or end up going (chilli) numb.
On the street of Thailand, it’s common to find a som tam stall like this one
When you order your som tam in such a stall, the chef would start from scratch, chopping, slicing the vegetables and fruits, crushing the peanuts in a mortar and pestle, and throwing everything into the plate with the fish sauce dressing. The whole process takes about five minutes and super fun to watch.
You can then carry your som tam home. Many people eat the food right there. Standing next to the stall, on the pavement, gulp it down in a few minutes and get going with whatever you have in your life. Or you can move to the next stall for the main course
2. Tom Yum - Spicy Chicken or Prawn Soup
Tom Yum is a thin, clear broth, made with lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves, chilli, fish sauce and lime juice. Its sweet and sour taste of lightness is perfect in the hot weather when you don't want anything too heavy.
You can find a chicken version or a prawn version of tom yum, depending on your preference or taste. I like everything with prawn, so I often go for the later.
3. Pad Thai - Fried Noodle Dish
If you travel to Bangkok, you must visit this Pad Thai restaurant in Ghost Gate. When you get to the area, just look for the queue. We went there twice, three years apart and the restaurant was double in size. It is so big now that you feel like being inside a factory. The food was still decent, but the portion dwindled. It's still worth a try, I think.
My favourite Pad Thai is the one made by our Thai friend, Win. Admittedly, he is probably not the best chef in Thailand. Well, Win is not even a chef by profession. However, he had shown us the arts of making the dish, the little details that you only realised when being explained and demonstrated to.
After seeing him cook a dozen of times and attempting myself again and again, here is what I can tell you about Pad Thai.
It’s a noodle base stir-fry dish. You use flat rice noodle with this one.
Pad Thai starts with garlic in hot oil, then go the minced pork, prawn, and eggs (in that exact order). Once the eggs are in, you have to stir very quickly while adding the noodle, sugar, tamarind juice, chilli and fish sauce. You can add bean sprout and spring onion to the pan and cook them quickly, or add them fresh later when serving.
The key is to balance the taste of sweet sugar, sour tamarind, and spicy bird eye chilli. You want all the flavours, but none of those should be dominant.
4. Kuay Teow Moo Daeng - Red Pork Noodle Soup
This noodle soup is something I had in Bangkok the first time I went there and hadn’t manage to find it anywhere else. When I read about the proposed ban of all street food stalls in Bangkok, I was concerned about the hard-working street food sellers and this particular dish.
Red pork noodle soup is something that would give you the comfort after a hard day: umami - rich broth, delicious red pork and ambiguous yet yummy wontons. There are also bok choy and bean sprouts in the bowl. The Kuay Teow name gives a hint of the Chinese origin, and like most Chinese takeaways, it has the quality of being tasty though not particularly healthy.
5. Yam Nua - Spicy Beef Salad
This salad is very fresh. The beef is merely cooked in the marinade sauce of lime, chilli and fish sauce. The fresh coriander and spearmint give the dish its freshness while the rice powder crumbles create a crunchy and surprising texture.
This dish could be spice, as its name suggests, so beware!
6. Pad Krapow Moo Saap - Spicy Pork With Fried Basil
Our favourite everyday dish: stir-fry basil and pork. Fried basil gives the minced pork the fragrance. The combination of slightly sweet basil leaves, chilli, soy sauce and sugar makes the pork very tasty. If you don't like pork too much, you can find a similar dish using chicken.
7. Mango Sticky Rice
Yep, it’s dessert time!
Mango sticky rice is a simple dish: sticky rice cooked in coconut milk eating with heavenly mango. It should be a dessert kind of thing but the portion is often huge, and the sticky rice fills you up.
So if you are feeling naughty, have it as a main meal or for breakfast (like Ian often does). Whichever way you choose, it’s a delight.
8. Banana Pancake
On the street of Chiang Mai, I had these pancakes more times than I want to keep track of.
It’s mesmerising to see the chef making it. A small ball of dough is stretched thin on a hot plate, then topped with bananas, sugar and condensed milk. You can also choose to add chocolate, Nutella, or an egg. Yes, an egg! I have never tried the egg version, and I never will, but have tasted all the other super sweet combinations. Sugar is not good for you, I know, but on the street of Chiang Mai, after an often spicy dinner, it’s super hard to say no to banana pancakes.
Other Food of the World posts on the blog: