Everything You Need To Know About Thai Food

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If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you know that the vibrancy and variety of the country’s cuisine is (sadly) under-represented by Thai restaurants in your home country. This is true both in terms of the number of dishes you can find on menus, but also in the intensity and complexity of the flavors.

Below, I’ll answer some common questions about Thai food, which I think you’ll find illuminating whether or not you’ve visited Thailand. If you have, they might help you explain the nuances of Thailand’s culinary culture to your less-traveled friends.

If you haven’t visited Thailand, I have a feeling you’re going to start searching for flights soon. Once you’ve read the juicy facts I’m about to give you, two weeks in Thailand will seem like an even more delicious prospect.

What is traditional Thai food?

Thai papaya salad made of green papaya, tomatoes, peanuts, green beans and more in a white bowl on a brown table.
Thai Papaya Salad

“Traditional” Thai food takes many different forms, and varies regionally. Well-known Thai dishes include Pad Thai (stir-friend noodles with meat, seafood or tofu)Gaeng Kiaw Wan Gai (green curry soup with chicken) and Som Tam Thai (Thai-style spicy papaya salad). Although these dishes are most authentic and delicious in Thailand, you can find them at most Thai restaurants around the world.

What makes Thai food different?

Glutinous rice and fresh mango slices on a blue and white plate with two forks on a brown table.
The most popular Thai dessert, mango sticky rice!

For me, Thai food is special for precisely the reasons that Thai culture, more broadly, is so unique: It is unabashedly intense. Whether because of its eclectic flavors (which I’ll describe more in a minute), bright colors or the sometimes unorthodox ways it’s prepared (in street stalls, for example, with seemingly minimal attention paid to sanitation), Thai food is loud, proud and unapologetic.

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What does Thai food taste like?

If you’ve ever been to a Thai restaurant (especially in Thailand), you’ll notice a four-lobed sauce receptacle, known as Puang Prik, on the table. This contains sugar (sweet), fish sauce (salty), vinegar (sour) and chili flakes (spicy)—the way Thais manually season their foods provides a hint to how they prepare it. While some dishes showcase one taste more than another, all maintain some balance of these four key flavors.

What is the difference between Northern and Southern Thai food?

Picture of the mild Khaaw Man Gai on a white plate with a bowl of soup next to it on a steel table. Khaaw Man Gai is a Hainanese-style boiled chicken with rice eaten as a streetfood in Thailand.
Khaaw Man Gai is a mild Hainanese-style boiled chicken with rice

Whether in mainstream destinations like Chiang Mai or the rough-and-tumble Isaan region, I’d say that Northern Thai food tends to be spicier (Khao Soi curry chicken soup and the aforementioned Som Tam papaya salad) and meatier, as in the case of Sai Krok sausages. Southern Thai foods like Massaman Curry bear the influences of nearby cultures (in this case, Malay); they also spotlight fresh-caught seafood, as Gaeng Som fish curry does.

What should I try in Thailand?

Pad Krapaw gai, a dish made of stir fried chicken and holy basil on a bed of white rice in a dark blue plate on a steel table
Pad Krapaw Gai is made of stir fried meat and holy basil

I’d recommend being adventurous in Thailand, but this doesn’t have to mean being outrageous. For example, relatively mild Khaaw Man Gai (Hainanese-style boiled chicken with rice) is just as tasty as the spiciest Pad Krapraw (stir-fried meat with holy basil) I’ve had on the streets. While blood and entrails are common ingredients, especially in Northern cuisine, “normal” Khaaw Niaw Ma Muang (mango with sticky rice) can be just as satisfying.

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What do vegetarians eat in Thailand?

Most Thai dishes can be made without meat inside them, although many include animal by-products in their preparation. If you’re vegan (or a strict) vegetarian, you basically have two surefire options. Larger cities like Bangkok and Chiang Mai are home to many vegan restaurants, which are popular both among locals and foreigners. Beyond this, any food served in a Buddhist temple (these are everywhere in Thailand) is 100% vegan.

What do local Thai people eat for breakfast?

Thai congee topped with an egg in a white bowl on a blue table. Thai congee is a streetfood consisting of rice porridge served with pork or meat that's eaten for breakfast in Thailand. Veg versions are available too.
Thai Congee

Although certain morning foods in Thailand scream “breakfast” (I’m thinking the Kai Jiaw Thai-style omelette), Thais eat all kinds of food in the morning. One of my favorites is Jok, i.e. Thai-style pork or chicken congee, and I also used to eat Khaaw Ka Muu (stewed pork leg with rice) when I lived in Bangkok. When in doubt, head onto the streets after you wake up, and eat as the locals eat!

Did I answer all your questions about Thai Cuisine?

I hope you ate before you read this post! If not, you’re probably salivating for a Thai meal right about now. While the Pad Thai you find at your local raan aahaan might not be comparable to what you can enjoy on the streets of Bangkok, it’ll serve its purpose—to inspire your next trip to Thailand, regardless of when you’re able to take it. Here’s to hoping that when that time comes, you explore the Kingdom’s culinary map as broadly as you sample Thailand’s wide range of destinations and experiences.

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About Robert from Thailand Starts Here

Robert with the flag of Thailand
Robert Schrader of Thailand Starts Here

Robert Schrader created Thailand Starts Here, among other reasons, to introduce an English-speaking audience to the delicious world of Thai cuisine. Once you check out the website, make sure to follow Thailand Starts Here on Instagram, or here on Facebook, and here on Twitter.

Some popular food Stories and Travel posts to read!

Pics of Thai papaya salad and mango sticky rice in a Pinterest image about Thai food
Pinterest image of Thai congee with a runny egg yolk in a blue bowl
Pinterest image of pad krapraw gai in a bluish-black plate on a marble table

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