Thai cuisine is famous all over the world, but nowhere quite compares to the delicate balance of flavors found in its homeland. Thai food is intricate; it is characterized by a harmony of flavors: sweet, salty, sour, and spicy – and each region has its own unique taste.
Food is at the heart of Thai culture; a common greeting between locals is “have you eaten yet?” From humble street food carts to Michelin-starred fine dining, let’s go on a journey through the drool-worthy food of the Land of Smiles, from fine dining to streetside treats.
Contrary to its Western counterparts, many Asian countries – including Thailand – have a custom of ordering several dishes to be shared between everyone at a meal. This allows ample opportunity to try a little bit of everything and have a good balance of meat and vegetable dishes.
For newcomers to Thai cuisine, there are plenty of aromatic flavors – a little more flowery than Indian starters and with a lot more punch than most of the dishes you’d find in North Asia.
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Street Food & Snacks
You’ll find that the snacking culture is evident the moment you set foot on Thailand’s streets. Locals love to graze during the day on a variety of delicacies, many of which are sold on street carts in every neighborhood. Night is even better, with every town in the country featuring some sort of bustling night market. Skewered meats are quite a common sight, as are desserts which make delightful use of tastes such as coconut and taro. A more common snack in restaurants is the delicious miang kham – a traditional leaf-wrapped parcel of goodness. If you’re in Bangkok, you’ll find some of the best street eats in Chinatown, but no matter where you are in Thailand, you’re never too far from street food.
Far beyond the famed pad thai, noodle carts can be found around the country, serving up everything from rice noodles to egg noodles in tantalizing broths, rich soups, or just enjoyed haeng (dry). The base is often complimented with toppings ranging from marinated red pork to a variety of fish balls, and further enhancements include dried shrimp, coriander, chopped nuts, and herbs.
Some are region specific. In the northern region of Thailand, khao soy is often hailed as Chiang Mai Noodles, and in Southern Thailand fish-based flavors are the taste to beat. And, of course, the basic kuay teow is a hangover-curing favorite throughout the country
Rice & Stir-Fries
You can’t talk Thai food without talking rice, enjoyed as a base with most meals. When not sharing with others, dishes are usually ordered lad khao – a term meaning ‘with rice’. Spicy, sour, sweet, and salty stir fries are best soaked up on a plate of rice to provide a perfect balance of carbohydrates, proteins, and vegetables. Also, if you’re downing a particularly spicy curry, you’ll need some rice to take the edge off the heat. Rice porridge (congee) is also a popular breakfast option in Thailand, best served alongside piping hot coffee and fried puffs of dough.
When one thinks of salads in Thai cuisine, it is best to disassociate from the normal definition of a vegetable-laden dish. Meat eaters need not feel discouraged. Many Thai salads feature meat, seafood, or noodles as their main ingredient, served with a powerful dose of fresh herbs and greens. Some of Thai cuisine’s favorite salads include moo nam tok and laab, and the popular som tam – a raw papaya salad that is made by pounding ingredients in a pestle and mortar.
Creamy and comforting, Thai curries are popular all over the world. Most curries are made out of pastes that can be ready-bought, but nothing beats the taste of a curry made with fresh home-made paste, as many street vendors and their satisfied customers can attest. Most Thai curries have a base made out of coconut milk, or coconut cream for a richer and sweeter taste. A keen Thai curry lover will have noticed that the flavors vary wildly. From the refreshing sweet green curry to the savory potatoes of a Massaman and the spicy bite of a Penang curry, Thailand has a curry for everyone.
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There are a lot of life or death travel tips and this is at the top: Always leave room for dessert, especially in Thailand. Curious foodies are in for a treat, as Thai desserts are (you guessed it) quite different than the sugar-laden treats of their Western counterparts. Sweets and snacks native to Thailand tend to feature sweet syrups, jellies, puddings, coconut, sweet sticky rice, egg yolks, and tropical fruits. Because Thai desserts are usually light on the sugar, a lot of diners get eyes bigger than their stomachs, but be assured that the flavors are rich and the calorie count can be pretty decadent too.
If you’re looking for a healthier end to your meal, take advantage of the juicy bounty of the tropics. This kingdom is abundant with exotic and unique fruits all year round. Fruits can be found in main dishes, desserts, and drinks, although they are fondly enjoyed on their own as a snack. Don’t worry, we can understand if you choose to stay away from the infamously smelly durian (although the taste eventually lures many), but don’t leave without trying the likes of jackfruit, rambutan, longans, lychee, and much, much more.
Finally, you’re on vacation: Have a drink. Cold drinks trump hot ones in the heat of Thailand’s climate. Locals love to cool off with freshly-blended smoothies and juices or Thai Iced Tea, sweetened with condensed milk. Others swing toward the ubiquitous Thai beers, although craft beers are making their steady rise in the big city. For the more adventurous, head over to one of Bangkok’s many rooftop bars, or an island’s beachside establishment, to get a taste of the creative use of Thai ingredients in cocktails, such as the Tom Yum Martini.
Our signature ‘Tom Yum’ cocktail at Saffron. One part spicy. One part sour. All parts delicious! A post shared by Banyan Tree Samui (@banyan_tree_samui) on