Food in Thailand
Food alone is reason enough for a trip to Thailand. Curries, fruit milkshakes, stir-fries, fresh fish have been around the world millions of times – and this is only the beginning. Food in Thailand can be as cheap and easy as fried Thai noodles (25 baht pad Thai) cooked on a street stall or as expensive and complicated as a $100 ten-course meal served by a royal chef in one of Bangkok’s luxury hotels.
As most hikers stand closer to the former than the latter, one of the great advantages of Thailand is that the food from the stalls and small pavement restaurants is generally quite safe. Unlike some Asian countries, travellers need to worry more about overeating or too much curry spices than about dirty kitchens and bad food. In fact, street restaurants, where you can see what you are going to eat and where everything is cooked on the spot, can be a safe option.
Dining etiquette in Thailand
Thai food is most often eaten with a fork and spoon. Hold the spoon in your right hand and use it to eat, and reserve the fork to stack the food on your spoon. Chopsticks are only used for noodle soups and East Asian-style dishes. Eat sticky rice with your right hand.
Thai food is meant to be shared. Everyone has their own rice dish and small bowl of soup, but all other dishes are placed in the centre of the table and you are free to eat whatever you want. Some people think that taking the last piece of a shared plate is considered a bit unlucky, and you may hear people making wishes for others to compensate for their own misfortune. A popular wish is “May my friend/boyfriend be beautiful!”.
In addition, food is usually brought to a dish at the time of its preparation. Guests are not expected to wait until all the dishes have been taken out before starting to eat, as is polite in Western culture. Rather, they are expected to pick up the nearest dish as it arrives.
Thai cuisine is characterised by its balance and strong flavours, especially lime juice, lemongrass and fresh coriander, the combination of which gives Thai food its distinctive taste. In addition, Thai cuisine has a well-deserved reputation for being spicy, with small torpedo-shaped hot peppers called phrik khii nuu (พริกขี้หนู, literally “mouse shit peppers”) which are found in many dishes. Thais are well aware that these chillies can be more than Westerners can handle and will often ask you if you like them hot (เผ็ด phet). Answer “yes” at your own risk!
Thai dishes can be roughly classified into three categories: Central Thai cuisine (around Bangkok), Northern Thai cuisine (from the northern region around Chiang Mai, with Burmese and Chinese influences), Northeast Thai cuisine (from the Isaan region to the border with Laos) and Southern Thai cuisine (with strong influences from Malaysia). The following list covers some of the better known dishes. See Isaan for Isaan food, which is widely available throughout the country.
The staple food of the Thai people is rice ( khao ), so much so that in Thai, eating a meal, gin khao, literally means “eating rice”.
- Khao suai or “beautiful rice” is the steamed white rice that is the basis of almost every meal.
- Khao pat is a simple fried rice, usually mixed with crab (pu), pork (muu) or chicken (kai), and flavoured with fish sauce.
- Khao tom is a salty, watery rice porridge served with condiments, very popular at breakfast.
- Khao niao or “sticky rice” is sticky rice – usually eaten dry, traditionally by hand, with grilled/fried pork or chicken or beef. It is particularly popular (more than regular rice) in the north-eastern (Isaan) and northern provinces, but is widely available throughout the country, especially in places specialising in Isaan or Laos cuisine.
Thai people are great noodle eaters. The most common are rice noodles, served in angel hair (sen mii), small (sen lek), large (sen yai) and giant (kuay tiao), but egg noodles (บะหมี่ ba mii), Chinese-style stuffed wonton ravioli and glass noodles made from mung beans are also popular.
Unlike other Thai foods, noodles are usually eaten with chopsticks. They are also usually served with a square of four condiments, namely dried red peppers, fish sauce, vinegar and sugar that guests can add to their own taste.
- Pad Thai, literally “fried Thai”, means thin rice noodles fried in a tamarind-based sauce. Ubiquitous, cheap and often excellent. As a bonus, it’s usually chilli-free (you can add some yourself or ask for some if you buy it on the street, but be careful, it’s often very hot).
- Ba mii muu daeng are egg noodles with slices of pork grilled the Chinese way.
- The Kuwaiti tiao ruea is a rice noodle soup with a hot pig’s blood broth and an assortment of offal. An acquired but addictive taste.
Soups and curry
The line between soups (literally just “boiled”) and curries (kaeng) is a bit blurred, and many dishes that the Thais call curry would be soup for an Indian. A rice dish with a ladle filled with one or two curries, called khao kaeng, is a very popular quick meal if you eat alone.
- Tom yam kung is the quintessential Thai dish, a sour shrimp, lemongrass and galangal soup. The real dish is quite spicy, but lighter versions are often available on request.
- Tom kha kai is the Thai version of chicken soup in a rich coconut broth with Galangan flavour, mushrooms and lots of chilli peppers.
- Kaeng daeng (แกงเเดง, “red curry”) and kaeng phet (“hot curry”) are the same dish and, as you can guess, this coconut-based dish can be spicy. Red curry with roast duck (kaeng phet pet yaang ) is particularly popular.
- Kaeng khio-waan, a sweet green curry, is a coconut-based curry with strong accents of lemongrass and kaffir lime. It is generally milder than the red variety.
- Kaeng som (แกงส้ม), orange curry, looks more like tamarind soup than curry, usually served with pieces of herb omelette in the soup.
Thai people like their main dishes fried or grilled. Fish, in particular, is often fried until the meat turns brown and crispy.
- Ka-phrao kai, literally “chicken with basil” is a simple but intensely fragrant stir-fry made from sacred basil leaves, peppers and chicken.
The only thing that Thai salads (ยำ yam) have in common with the western variety is that they are both based on raw vegetables. The unique Thai taste is achieved by drowning the ingredients in fish sauce, lime juice and chilli peppers. The end result can be very spicy!
- Som tam, a salad made from grated and crushed raw papaya, is often considered a classic Thai dish, but it actually originated in neighbouring Laos. However, the Thai version is less sour and sweeter than the original, with peanuts and dried shrimp mixed in.
- Yam pon la mai is a Thai-style fruit salad, which means that instead of canned maraschino cherries, it contains fresh fruit topped with fish sauce and chilli peppers.
- Yam som-o is an unusual salad made from pomelo (a mutant version of grapefruit) and anything else you have on hand, often chicken or dried shrimp.
- The wunsen yam is perhaps the most common yam, along with glass noodles and shrimps.
Thais generally don’t eat “dessert” in the Western sense of the word, although you can get a few slices of fresh fruit for free in more posh places, but they certainly have a sharp sweet tooth.
- Khanom offers a wide range of biscuits, biscuits, cakes, crisps and anything else that can be eaten as a snack. Lots of these products can be found in any Thai office after lunch. A common variety called khanom khrok deserves a special mention: these are small lentil-shaped rice and coconut pancakes, freshly baked and served by street vendors everywhere.
- Khao niao ma-muang means “sticky mango rice”, and that’s what you get, with a little coconut milk sprinkled on top. Rich and delicious, it’s a great way to refresh the palate after a spicy Thai dish! For the more adventurous, another equally popular dish is Khao nio tu-rean, in which you get durian instead of mango with your sticky rice.
- Waan yen, literally “sweet cold”, consists of a pile of ingredients of your choice (including things like sweet corn and red beans) covered in syrup, coconut cream and a pile of ice, and is ideal for cooling down on a hot day or after a hot curry.
Vegetarians won’t have too much trouble surviving in Thailand, with one exception: fish sauce is to Thai cuisine what soy sauce is to Chinese cuisine, and keeping it out of soups, curries and stir-fries will be a challenge.
That said, Thailand is a Buddhist country and vegetarianism is a fairly well understood concept, especially among Chinese Thais (many of whom eat only vegetarian food at several festivals). Tofu is a traditional Thai ingredient and they are not afraid to mix it into some non-traditional dishes such as omelettes (with or without eggs), submarine sandwiches and burritos. As Thai dishes are usually made to order, it is easy to ask that everything on the menu be prepared without meat or fish. Bangkok has several excellent vegetarian and vegan restaurants, but outside the big cities, check that your idea of “vegetarian” matches the chef’s idea.
Thailand has a large number of indigenous restaurant chains that offer more or less the same menus as on the street, but with the added advantages of air conditioning, printed menus (often in English) and clean shop windows. All of these chains are heavily concentrated in Bangkok, but major cities and popular tourist spots may have one or two outlets.
- Coke and MK. Almost elusive chains specialising in what the Thais call suki, perhaps better known as “hotpot” or “steamboat”. A pot boils in the middle of your table, you buy the ingredients (10-30 baht a pop) and make your own soup. The more time you spend, the better it tastes, and the larger the group you are with, the more fun it is!
- Fuji. And the Zen specialise in surprisingly passable Japanese food at very low prices (at least compared to Japanese restaurants almost everywhere else). Rice/noodles are less than 100 baht, and you can gorge yourself on sushi for less than 500 baht.
- Kuaytiew Ruea Siam (signs in Thai; look for the boat-shaped decor and the logo of the hungry red pig). Cheap noodles with prices starting from 25 baht. The portions are not too generous, but at this price you can get two! No concessions to English speakers on the menu or taste, so point and choose from the pictures and watch out for the spicier soups.
- S&P. The outlets are a bakery, a café and a restaurant, but their menu is much larger than you might expect: there are all the Thai pillars you can think of and more, and most of them are good. Portions are generally quite small, with prices mostly between 50 and 100 baht.
- Yum Saap (signs in Thai; look for the large yellow smiley face logo). Known for their Thai style salads (yam), but they also offer all the usual ones. Quite cheap, with a power supply of about 50 baht.
And yes, you can find the usual McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Komalas etc. if you insist. If you find yourself at McDonalds, at least try the not so typical Mac fried chicken with McSomTam (green papaya salad). For American-style pizza lovers, try the ubiquitous The Pizza Company, a cheaper and (probably) tastier local chain.
Drinks in Thailand
Tap water is generally not drinkable in Thailand outside Bangkok. However, in many parts of Bangkok, especially in new buildings, tap water is perfectly safe to drink. However, if you don’t want to take the risk, buying a bottle of water is the obvious solution. Bottled water is cheap and ubiquitous at 5-20 baht per bottle depending on size and brand, and drinking water served in restaurants is always at least boiled. In Thailand, ice cream is usually packaged directly at the factory and is safe; there is only need to worry if you are served hand-cut ice cream. You can also buy a large packet of ice cream in most 7-Elevens for 7 baht.
Mainly in residential areas, machines selling water in your own bottle (1 baht/L, or 50 satang (0.5 baht/L) if you pay more than 5 baht) are often available, located in some hotels (mostly Thai), in local shops, or simply on the street nearby. This is a clean option (the water is cleaned and UV-treated on site) and extremely cheap. In addition, you will avoid producing unnecessary plastic waste from empty bottles.
Coconut water, iced and drunk directly from a fresh coconut, is a cheap and healthy way to refresh the body. It is available in restaurants and fruit juice vendors.
Fruit juices, frozen foods and milkshakes of all kinds are very popular with Thais and visitors alike. Most cafes and restaurants charge 20 to 40 baht, but a bottle of freshly squeezed sweet Thai orange juice – which is really orange! – can be sold on the street for 15 to 30 baht. Thai people often add salt to their juices – an acquired taste that you may learn to appreciate. Thais also like to have basil seeds in their iced fruit juice sold on the street. They look like little balls of jelly in the bottle.
Tea and coffee
One of Thailand’s most characteristic drinks is Thai iced tea (ชาเย็น chaa yen, literally “cold tea”). Instantly recognizable by its bright orange colour, it is the side effect of adding ground (or nowadays artificial coloured) tamarind seeds during the drying process. Iced tea is always very strong and very sweet, and is usually served with a little condensed milk; ask for chaa dam yen to avoid milk.
Naam chaa and chaa jiin are weak and strong Chinese teas, often served for free in restaurants. The Western-style black tea is chaa ron (ชาร้อน). Coffee (กาแฟ kaafae) is also widespread, and is usually served with condensed milk and lots of sugar. Ask for kaafae thung for traditional filtered “bagged” coffee instead of instant coffee.
Starbucks is present in Thailand, but for the moment, local competitors Black Canyon Coffee and S&P still have the advantage in terms of market share. These are the places to look if you want that triple mocha latte with a hazelnut swirl and are willing to pay 75 baht for the privilege.
- Café Black Canyon. This is the Thai Starbucks coffee shop, but although coffee is their main product, they also offer a limited menu. Try chaa yen (Thai orange and milk ice tea).
Thailand is the country of origin of the Red Bull energy drink – a licensed and re-branded version of the original Thai Krathing Daeng (กระทิงแดง, “Red Bull”), with the familiar logo of two bulls charging each other.
The Thai version, on the other hand, is sweet and syrupy, non-carbonated, and is packaged in brown glass bottles with a medicinal aspect, because the target clientele is not the trendy clubbers, but the Thai working class of construction workers and bus drivers in need of a pick-me-up. The caffeine content is even higher than that of Western Red Bull, and its effect is equivalent to two or three doses of espresso coffee. Krathing Daeng and its many competitors (including the M150, the Shark, the .357 and the inevitable Karabao Daeng, the “Red Buffalo”) are available in all convenience stores for 10 baht each, although in some places you can now buy imported Red Bull at five times the price.
Drinking alcohol in Thailand, especially if you like Western tips, is actually relatively expensive, but still very affordable by Western standards.
Retail sale of alcohol in supermarkets and multinational convenience stores is limited to a period between 11:00 and 14:00 and between 17:00 and 24:00. Restaurants and bars are not affected, and small shops that are not part of a chain rarely comply with this rule. 7-Eleven is very demanding about compliance with this rule. However, in certain circumstances, these rules are relaxed for alcohol purchases above a certain quantity. For example, if you try to buy 5 litres of wine during the restriction period, this will not be allowed. On the other hand, if you buy, for example, 10 litres of wine during the same period, this may be allowed. Convenience stores at petrol stations are not allowed to sell alcohol at any time.
There are also days of the year when alcohol can’t be sold anywhere, even small soft drink shops normally play by the rules on these days, and most bars and pubs do too (although you can probably find a beer somewhere if you’re desperate enough). Bars and restaurants in upscale hotels are probably the only places that are realistically likely to be exempt. Religious holidays and elections are normally the reason for these restrictions.
Western beer (เบียร์ bia) is a somewhat upscale drink in Thailand, with the price of a small bottle varying between 40 and 100 baht in most pubs, bars and restaurants. Thai people like lager with a relatively high alcohol content (around 6%), as it is designed to be drunk with ice, so Thai beer can have more punch than usual. However, if you are an experienced drinker from Western Europe, i.e. Belgium or Germany, you will find it familiar.
- Local breweries: For many years, the only locally brewed beer was Singha (pronounced simply Sing), but it lost market share to the cheaper and stronger Chang. Both of these beers are quite strong (especially Chang at 6% and Singha at 5%), but for those who prefer something a little lighter, the two local brands have introduced low-alcohol versions of their beers. Singha Light is 3.5%, Chang Draught is 5% and Chang Light is 4.2%. Both are high in alcohol percentage, give a slightly spicy taste (for Europeans you can compare them to Leffe or Duvel) rather than the mixed sweetness of German beers (Erdinger or Paulaner). There are also cheaper local beers – Leo (very popular with locals and expatriates, with a price 10-20% lower than Singha) and Archa (cheaper, but the taste is not as pleasant, it is not often sold in bars, but is available in almost all 7-Elevens) being among the most popular.
- Luxury brands: The two most popular premium brands are Heineken and Tiger, but San Miguel, Federbrau and other Asian beers such as the Japanese Asahi are also quite common. Premium beers tend to be slightly weaker than local top-fermented beers and are about 10-20% more expensive.
- Imported beers : Most high-end pubs in tourist areas offer at least some imported beers, in addition to the usual local brands, either draught, bottled or both. Belgian and German beers are often available, as well as Irish stouts and ales such as Guinness, British bitters such as John Smiths and the increasingly popular light Mexican Corona. The regional favourite Beerlao has also started to appear in bars and pubs across the country. However, all imported beers (except Beerlao) are very expensive, about twice as expensive as local beers.
- Other non-beers: The usual range of “alcopops” is available in Thailand, with Bacardi Breezer taking the lion’s share of the market. The “Spy Wine Cooler” (of about 10 varieties) is also popular. Cider is harder to find, although some pubs have started offering Magnersand Bulmers.
Imported liqueurs, wines and beers are widely available, but at prohibitive prices for the average Thai. A glass of any brand-name liqueur costs at least 100 baht, a pint of Guinness will get you at least 200 baht and, thanks to an inexplicable 340 per cent tax, even the cheapest bottle of wine will get you over 500 baht. Note that in cheaper bars (especially those open to the public) the contents of that familiar bottle of Jack Daniels may be quite different.
Thai rice wine (สาโท sato) is actually a beer brewed from sticky rice, and is therefore a spiritual cousin of Japanese sake. Although traditionally associated with Isaan, it is now sold throughout the country under the brand name Siam Sato, available in any 7-Eleven at 25 baht for a 0.65L bottle. At 8% alcohol, it is cheap and powerful, but you may regret it the next morning! The original style of brewing and serving sato is done in earthenware pots called hai, hence the name of the other drink, lao hai(เหล้าไห). To serve them, simply break the seal of the pot, add water and drink immediately with a glass or, traditionally, with a straw directly into the pot.
The misnamed Thai (Lao) whisky refers to a number of liqueurs. The best known are the infamous Mae Khong (แม่โขง “Mekong”) and its sweetest competitor, Saeng Som (“Sangsom”), both of which are brewed mainly from sugar cane and therefore technically rum. Indeed, the only similarities with whisky are the brown colour and the high alcohol content. Indeed, many people associate the smell with that of a nail polish remover, but the taste is not as bad, especially when diluted with cola or tonic water. It is also by far the cheapest way to get blotto, as a pocket bottle of it (available in any convenience store or supermarket) costs only about 50 baht.
The “real” Thai whisky is Lao Khao (“white liquor”), which is distilled from rice. There are commercial versions, but it is mainly distilled at home as hooch, in which case it is also called lao theuan (“jungle liqueur”). The white liquor to which herbs are added for flavour and medicinal effect is called ya dong (ยาดอง). Strictly speaking, both are illegal, but no one seems to care, especially when trekking in the northern hill tribes, you will probably be invited to taste it, and it is polite to take at least a sip.