What & What Not to Eat in Thailand
Thailand is a great country for the intrepid and also the less adventurous eaters because there’s fantastic food at every turn. Many peoples first experience of Thai food and often ‘street food’ is on Khao San Road in Bangkok. Khao San has all kinds of street hawkers, selling pad thai and spring rolls but a few too many banana pancakes for my liking. In The Beach Alex Garland describes it in as “a decompression chamber for those about to enter or leave Thailand. A halfway house between east and west.” I thoroughly agree, however, it’s a good way to break you into a new food culture gently if it’s your first time in Thailand.
One of the most well-known exports is pad thai, widely available all across the country. Pad thai features chilli, lime, sugar, fish sauce, and peanuts all expertly and instantly cooked on Thai streets with prawn, omelette and noodles. It’s the equilibrium of flavours, sweet, spicy and sour that makes it so appealing to the Thais and tourists alike.
In Bangkok or the south, salads are great. One of my favourites is a glass noodle salad with minced pork, meaty but still spicy and fresh. My girlfriend Jess was always on the hunt for a hot and sour seafood salad, squid, prawns and if you’re really lucky crab claws. Street grazing opportunities are abundant in Bangkok with temporary kitchens on every corner. There’s such a wide spectrum of food, fried rice and barbequed meats, fresh fish or seafood, noodle soups, curries and fresh salads. One thing almost all Thai dishes have in common is bold, punchy flavours and chilli levels to make grown men cry.
Another food that varies all over the country is ‘gaeng’, or curries. Available from north to south made with chicken, pork, seafood or vegetable – and in the colours of red, green and yellow – Thai curries are fantastic! The core ingredients of Thai cuisine are, as usually present here, chilli & lime, fish sauce and garlic. Red Thai curry can often be the hottest, made with red chillies. Green curry features more Thai basil, coriander and green chillies. Yellow curry is often made with turmeric and yellow chillies. There is also massaman curry, a Muslim dish & penang curry, which has history and taste in Thailand as well as Malaysia and India. Red, green and yellow curries all feature coconut milk to add sweetness and take away the spice. A jungle curry for example is made with water and can be spicier still.
Papaya salad, known in Thailand as som tam, is eaten all over the country and also throughout South East Asia. It’s an incredibly pungent dish made with ground shrimp, fish sauce, lime, and chilli mixed with shredded green papaya that packs a sensory punch. It’s surprisingly versatile and goes great with barbequed fish and meats. Some chefs will also bash crabs into the mixture to add extra flavour.
With so much coastline and islands, seafood is cheap, abundant and popular in Thailand. Pork is also incredibly popular throughout all of South East Asia, and Thailand is no exception; with such variety there’s something to appeal to everybody! Grilled pork skewers, minced pork with basil, pork leg stew, crispy pork and hundreds of other variations to throw into the mix. Personally, I hardly eat any pork in the UK – I don’t really enjoy it – but it’s the go-to meat for Asian food; it’s deliciously fatty, and always full of flavour and so versatile. Having said that, it’s not a just for the carnivores; Thailand features lots of vegetarian food and tofu is often available as an option instead of meat.
I really like the food culture in the north, and Chiang Mai has some excellent soup carts that appear after dark and knock out hearty bowls of noodle soup; they’re such good quality and incredibly cheap! Chiang Mai also has the walking markets on Sunday nights which are packed with food choices; they’re a great option for curious grazers.
Another of my favourite things to find in Thailand is the fishcakes. They’re a made to be small and flat they’re made without any batter or breadcrumbs and have a strong taste of lime leaves and like many Thai dishes the skill in the cooking lies in the balance of sweet, and spicy. They can often be served cold and they’re perfect finger food!
One sweet dish well worth a mention is sticky rice and mango. Sweet rice, with mango and coconut, not for those without a sweet tooth, but so moreish!
I’ve been to Thailand several times now and it’s such a great place to explore food. The street markets are everywhere, eating opportunities are at every corner. Pull up a plastic stool, and eat something delicious on your travels.