The food alone is reason enough for a trip to Thailand. This isn’t one of those countries where the national cuisine is best sampled elsewhere. In Thailand, you’ll get the freshest seafood, the most fragrant curries, Thai salads with blistering chili, an excellent range of tropical fruit and beautifully presented Thai sweets.
Dishes are usually served with rice or noodles, and eaten using a fork and spoon, although chopsticks are also used. Sticky rice may be eaten with the fingers of the right hand.
Thai food is usually prepared with fresh, rather than dried, herbs and spices. Common flavourings are garlic, galangal, lemongrass, pepper, chillies and coriander leaves. One of the most popular ingredients in Thai cuisine is fish sauce – a salty condiment made from fermented raw fish.
Meat dishes may include chicken, pork, duck, beef or seafood. Commonly used vegetables are eggplant, bean sprouts, bamboo shoots, cucumbers, kale, sweet potatoes and corn.
Many dishes, such as steamed buns, rice porridge and fried rice noodles, were introduced to Thailand by the Chinese, from as early as the 15th Century.
Regional differences in cuisine
In the south, the style of cooking is influenced by Indian and Malay cuisine, with coconut cream featuring heavily. Roti, an Indian flat-bread, is also popular here – it’s usually eaten with curry. In this region, the sea provides an abundance of lobster, crab, mussels, prawns, fish and scallops.
Specialties in the north include pickled pork sausage with green chillies, pork and tamarind curry, and meat and pickled onions in a curry sauce, usually served with egg noodles. People in the north traditionally eat by using their hands to roll balls of “sticky rice” to dip into the accompanying dishes.
Popular in the north-eastern region is a savoury salad made with unripe papaya. The fruit is mashed and combined with lime juice, fish sauce, garlic and other ingredients such as shrimp paste, peanuts and chilli. Grilled chicken is another specialty of this region and is usually rubbed with garlic, fish sauce and other flavourings before barbecued over hot coals.
In the central region common dishes are red curry, spicy soup with chicken or seafood, and green curry with chicken or fish. Most curries contain coconut milk and are served with jasmine rice. Omelettes of various kinds are popular in this region – often served plain with thick sweet chilli sauce, or filled with ground pork.
Popular Thai drinks include various fruit juices and fresh coconut milk. Thai iced tea is a traditional specialty – usually made with tea, sugar and either condensed milk, evaporated milk or coconut milk. Coffee is also often mixed with condensed milk and sometimes flavoured with spices.
When it comes to beer, Singha (pronounced “sing”) is a favourite. Local whiskey and rum are also popular.
A good way to experience a range of Thai foods is at the street markets in major cities. Look out for unripe papaya salad, which is a staple at street markets. Grilled meat skewers, made with garlic marinated pork, chicken or water buffalo are a good choice too. Desserts commonly sold by vendors include mango sticky rice pudding, usually made with coconut milk, and fried banana.