Food in Thailand
If you’re unlucky enough never to have had Thai cuisine, you’re in for a treat. Thai restaurants have been proliferating all over the world in the past few years, and for good reason.
The staple food in Thailand is rice, khao. Most people in central and southern Thailand eat khao jao (plain rice) with every meal, even breakfast. In the north and northeast, people eat khao nieow (sticky rice) with their hands, as we would potato chips. The sticky rice is rolled into a small ball and is then dipped into different sauces. All of the dishes that we call main dishes or side dishes are called gap khao (with rice), so everything is “with rice,” except the rice!
There are four main tastes in each Thai dish: hot (spicy), sour, sweet, and salty. The combination of these tastes is what makes Thai food so unusually delicious. If you can’t eat spicy food, ask for mai phet (not spicy) or mai sai prik (do not put in chilis). If you do bite into something too hot for your palate, eat some plain rice or noodles. They will soak up the spicy oil; drinking water only spreads the oil around your mouth.
Restaurants, Food Stalls, and Open Markets
There are all kinds of places to find good food in Thailand; food stalls, air-conditioned ice creameries, floating restaurants on boats, and four-star haute cuisine in Bangkok’s best hotels are just a few. When choosing a restaurant, be sure that it’s fairly busy. This not only indicates that the food is good, but also (and probably more importantly) that it’s fresh. The most polite way to order food or drinks it to preface your order with the word kaw (pronounced like the “awe” in awesome) and then add your order, as in kaw Pepsi.
There aren’t many vegetarian restaurants in Thailand, but if you explain that you don’t eat meat, many restaurants will accommodate you. You can say kin jeh or kin mang-sa-wi-rat, which means “I eat vegetarian.” You can also order a normal dish and avoid various meats by saying mai sai neua (do not put in meat), mai mee muu (no pork), mai sai gai (no chicken), or mai sai goong, (no shrimp). You could also ask that tofu be substituted by saying sai dao hoo.
One of the best things about eating food in Thailand is that it may be bought absolutely fresh in any one of the open markets during the day or night. Night markets are a favorite and are full of individual vendors who display their ingredients in glass-enclosed shelves. To order, point to the things you want. You can even buy ready-to-go curry meals: just choose the curry you want, point, and it will be put in a plastic bag for you to take with you.
If you have a kitchen, there are many sources of groceries. In larger cities, different farmers’ markets are open in the morning, afternoon, and evening. For the freshest produce, go to one of the morning markets. You can also shop at supermarkets, where you’ll find the same sort of foods that you’d find in an American store. Department stores in the major malls have such supermarkets, but you’ll pay a premium price.
Water from the city water systems is not used for drinking. To be safe, buy bottled water or bottled beverages, which are sold in every corner shop. In the countryside, the cleanest water aside from bottled water is collected off the roof during the rainy season in large metal or concrete containers. Families take great care to keep this water clean, and it is usually safe to drink. If you visit families, the first thing they will do is offer you water. Be prepared to at least take a sip or two even if you aren’t thirsty.
- Phat tai. (Pronounced “pat tai”) This dish consists of fried noodles with bean sprouts, peanuts, and lime juice, and is generally not spicy. It is a favorite among Thais and foreigners alike.
- Khao phat. Fried rice, generally not spicy.
- Khao naa pet. Rice with roasted duck. Find this non-spicy dish in special duck shops, which have the roasted ducks on display in the front window.
- Kuoi tiaw. Chinese noodles either served as a soup (kuoi tiaw naam) or dry (kuoi tiaw hang). It is sold from street vendors and at restaurants.
- Raat naa taleh. Wide noodles (raat naa) with a selection of shrimp, squid, and other seafood in a light gravy. It is not spicy. Taleh means “the sea.”
- Tom khaa gai. Chicken soup with coconut milk and lemon grass. Delicious!
- Tom yam goong. Clear red shrimp soup, quite spicy. In nicer restaurants, it is served in a large doughnut-shaped bowl sitting on its own brassier.
- Kaeng khiaw waan. “Green” curry with beef and tiny eggplants.
- Plaa thawd. Savory deep-fried fish, often whole – it is a dish that should not be missed. The fish, often tilapia or catfish, will usually be so fresh that they were still swimming just before you ordered.
- Gai phat met ma-muang. Chicken, stir-fried with vegetables and cashews.
- Neua phat bai ka prao. Beef, stir-fried with vegetables and Thai basil.
- Phat pak lai yang. Stir-fried vegetables. If you order this at a night market, you can choose which vegetables you want; otherwise, selection depends on availability at the restaurant.
- Som tam. Green papaya salad with hot chilis, lime, tomatoes, peanuts, and a special sauce. This dish is a specialty of Isaan, the northeast region of Thailand.
- Cha yen. Thai iced tea made with a unique combination of black tea, ice, and condensed milk. It is often served in a plastic bag with a straw for you to carry away.