Thai cuisine is a culinary adventure that offers a wide variety of delicious and flavorful dishes. And, while the country may have a reputation for spice, there is enough variety to please any palate.
Thai meals are all about vibrancy, with delicious blends of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors that tantalize the taste buds. A particular highlight is the liberal use of fresh ingredients, including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and chili peppers, always giving dishes a pleasant, aromatic flavor.
But what about the signature dishes? Well, you’ve probably heard about the iconic pad thai - a stir-fry made with rice noodles, vegetables, and your choice of meat. As delicious and versatile as this favorite go-to snack can be, there’s so much more to discover in Thai cuisine, with curries, salads, soups, and sweet desserts to excite your taste buds. Visitors to Thailand absolutely must try some of the following dishes... Let’s tuck in!
Khao Soi - ข้าวซอย (cow-soy)
Visitors to the northern city of Chiang Mai always sing the praises of this delightful curry noodle soup. The base of the soup features two ingredients integral to Thai cuisine - coconut milk and curry paste. The particular curry paste for khao soi uses a combination of chili, ginger, lemongrass, turmeric, and some other assorted spices. The final addition to the flavorful, spicy coconut mixture is beef or chicken broth, adding an extra layer of decadent deliciousness.
You'll find soft egg noodles hidden within the thick, creamy soup, and crispy noodles resting on top, providing an extra layer of textural interest and a pleasing crunch. Usually, Khao Soi is served with either chicken or beef, both of which should be nice and tender, having been stewed in the broth during the cooking process. Pork is a less common option due to the dish’s Muslim origins.
What provides Khao Soi with the extra wow factor are the garnishes available. Usually, in Thai restaurants or at street vendors, you’ll have liberal use of shallots, pickled greens, peanuts, limes, and chili flakes at your disposal. This choice lets you add the extra zing, spice, or crunch to your desired taste.
Som Tam - ส้มตำ (som-tum)
If you spend time in Southeast Asia, you’ll notice a pleasant blending of culinary influences across national boundaries. Many of the dishes on this list feature in Laotian, Burmese, and Cambodian cuisines, with slightly contrasting regional variations. Som Tam is one of those dishes that’s ubiquitous in this part of the world and a staple dish at mealtimes, usually to be shared with other dishes.
Som Tam is a green papaya salad that packs a punch with its bold contrasting flavors. With shredded unripe papaya as its base, the fruit is then mixed with tomatoes, garlic, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, peanuts and chili peppers. The result is a refreshing, tangy salad that really hits the spot!
The unripe papaya provides crunch, the chilies offer spice, the tomatoes and lime deliver the fresh zing, the sugar adds sweetness, and the fish sauce offsets it all with its savory, salty twang!
Head to any Thai restaurant, and they’ll be able to serve you up Som Tam, freshly made with the ingredients ground and combined in a motor and pestle, often right in front of you. Local Thais can often be enthusiastic with the chilies, at least for Western tastes. So, if you’re spice-averse, request they reduce or even remove the chili.
To say "not too spicy" in Thai, you can say "mai phet mak" (ไม่เผ็ดมาก). The word "mai" (ไม่) means "not", "phet" (เผ็ด) means "spicy", and "mak" (มาก) means "a lot". Together, "mai phet mak" (ไม่เผ็ดมาก) means "not spicy a lot" which equals "not too spicy".
Massaman curry - แกงมัสมั่น - gaeng massaman (gang-mass-a-maan)
Thai curries typically feature that wonderful combination of curry paste and rich coconut milk. Add herbs and spices such as chili, lime, galangal, lemongrass, ground shallots, and garlic, and you have intriguing, complex curries that always deliver, served with your choice of meat and vegetables, ladled over steamed rice.
Most visitors are familiar with the three ‘color’ curries:
- Green curry (gaeng khiao wan) is considered one of the spiciest curries and is made with green chili peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and basil. It is usually served with chicken or seafood, and is known for its bright green color and fragrant aroma.
- Red curry (gaeng phet) is made with red chili peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and basil. It is considered milder than green curry and has a sweeter and slightly smoky flavor. It is usually served with chicken, beef or pork.
- Yellow curry (gaeng kari) is made with yellow curry paste, coconut milk, and turmeric. It is considered milder than green and red curry and is known for its rich and creamy texture. It is usually served with chicken, beef or seafood.
However, my personal favorite is the Massaman Curry (gaeng massaman), which is made with a blend of cinnamon, cardamom, star anise, cumin, and nutmeg, and of course shallots, garlic, and various dried chili peppers. The paste base is mixed with coconut milk, peanuts, and potatoes to create a rich and creamy sauce.
Milder than the other curries, its nutty, rich flavor characterizes the dish, along with the typical addition of potatoes. For this reason, it's an especially hearty curry that is wonderfully comforting.
Mango sticky rice - ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง - Khao Niao Mamuang (cow-neow-ma-mwung)
No list of tantalizing Thai dishes would be complete without including a mango-based dessert. During the height of mango season in April or May, villages all over Thailand drown in mangoes as the sweet fruit literally falls off the trees, making them abundant, cheap, and readily available to include in all sorts of dishes.
Mango sticky rice is a simple yet delicious dessert, popular among visiting tourists but also popular among Thais, who often serve the dessert during special occasions such as weddings and religious festivals.
The sticky rice is cooked with the coconut milk and sugar mixture until it becomes sticky and sweet, and a generous portion of sweet and juicy mango is added on top of the sticky rice while still warm. The cold refreshing mangoes mixed with the warm, rich sweetness of the coconut-infused rice is a delightful combination.
You’ll often get toasted sesame seeds or shredded coconut to garnish the dessert, providing that pleasing crunch that’s emblematic of many Thai dishes.
Tom yum kung/goong - ต้มยำกุ้ง (tom-yum-goong)
In Thailand, soups are often served with main meals or as a meal on their own, instead of as a starter as is more common in the West. The varieties of Tom Yum soup in Thailand have a signature broth that is made by simmering lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and chili peppers in water or stock. The broth is then flavored with fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice to balance the salty, sweet, and sour flavors.
In this ‘kung’ variety, most popular among tourists, shrimp is the main addition (“kung” means shrimp in Thai.) Chefs add the prawns or shrimp while the broth is boiling, cooking them until they turn pink and tender, and imparting all their rich flavor.
The Tom Yum Kung is then garnished with mushrooms, cilantro, and chopped scallions, which add a nice earthy and fresh flavor to the soup, and served up steaming hot in a hot pot. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the dish's heat, intense flavors, and powerful aroma make it a great choice if you’re feeling like a pick-me-up.
Ordering Food in Thailand
These dishes offer just a glimpse of the culinary delights available to you in Thailand. Of course, with chilis never far away, spice is prevalent across the country. However restaurateurs and even street food vendors can cater their spice content accordingly.
On your cycling trip in Thailand with Grasshopper Adventures, you’ll get plenty of opportunity to savor the local cuisine, with plenty of regionally-specific dishes to try on your travels, from spicy local sausage in the north to seafood and zesty soups in the south.
Eating in small but popular restaurants where the locals eat, you get to appreciate the warmth of Thai hospitality and embrace the hustle and bustle of local life. Grab a bowl of Tum Yum Kung surrounded by lively chatter, set yourself down on a stool, and bask in a sensational bowl of flavor!
Experience all of these dishes and discover more about this fascinating country on an immersive cycle tour of Thailand. Riding is not only a unique and incredible way to experience Thailand up close, it is also a fantastic way to build up an appetite for your food adventure!