How to Eat Like a Local in Thailand
hailand is an epic place to travel if you’ve a hankering for adventure — rock climbing, diving, surfing, and trekking converge in one country known for stunning beaches, bustling cities, and a down-to-party vibe that’s been packing them in for decades.
Maybe even more exciting are the adventures you can find at street stands, in markets, and at unassuming roadside restaurants. Fiery hot, brightly seasoned, and often cooked in a pyrotechnic wok show, Thai food is an adventure for your palate unlike any other. Presenting the Huckberry guide to Thai food, in Thailand — get ready to go way beyond that pretty good pad thai you ordered for delivery last week.
There are five flavors that join to make the holy grail of Thai food: spicy, sour, bitter, sweet, and salty. The ways these flavors are used, and the traditional dishes you’ll find, are heavily influenced by region: Central Thailand (Bangkok and the surrounding area) is home to many familiar curries and strongly influenced by Chinese cuisine; Northern Thailand (lanna) is influenced by Burmese cuisine and features bitter, sour flavors, noodles, and sticky rice; Northeastern Thailand (isan) is impacted by neighboring Laos and is recognized for its distinctive som tam (green papaya salad), grilled and roasted meats, and spice; while the South makes use of ample coconuts, pineapple, cashews, and seafood (you’ll find strong influences from India and Malaysia, too).
You’ll find dishes from most all regions in the bigger cities in Thailand (or the areas frequented by tourists), but ordering them at the source is definitely the way to go, if you can. Generally, food will be served at a more mild temperature to farang, or foreigners — ask for Thai spicy if you dare, but be warned, it will be hot.
Chopsticks are usually only served with noodle dishes; a fork and spoon are usually the utensil of choice. If you’re served sticky rice, eat it (and the accompanying dishes) with your hands. And be sure to wash it all down with a cold Chang, Leo, or Singha — the three lager beers are virutally indistinguishable, but all three taste great on a hot Thailand night. Sangsom rum, mixed with soda water and served on ice is a worthy, if dangerous, drink choice, too.
Here are a collection of favorite dishes, tasted and captured on a recent trip through Southern Thailand, Bangkok, and Chiang Mai. This in no way encapsulates Thai food, which is more complex and diverse than most. Our words of wisdom for hungry travelers to Thailand: frequent markets, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to try the unfamiliar.
[A friendly note: visiting a travel medicine clinic before traveling is a great way to get the DL on potential food and waterbourne illnesses (and the meds to treat them). Can’t make time before your trip? Thailand has excellent, and affordable healthcare (particularly in the larger cities) — don’t get paranoid but do be smart in your eating choices!]
Laab. A “salad” of minced meat, toasted rice powder, lime, and fish sauce, you’ll find laab in many forms around the country. This version (made with chicken) was deceptively spicy and served with sticky rice. We tried excellent versions made with shrimp in the South, and grilled pork in Bangkok’s Chinatown. The funky-sour dressing is a hallmark, brightening the hearty, textured meat.
Kay Yaang. Isan-style whole roast chickens turn on a spit at SP Chicken in Chiang Mai (famously reputed for being the driving inspiration of Andy Ricker’s Portland restaurant, Pok Pok). Here, the crisp-skin chickens are stuffed with a mixture of garlic and lemongrass, and are eaten with sticky rice and a vinegary chile sauce.
Tom Yum. This is Central Thai food at its finest. Tom yum soup embodies Thai food flavors in every spicy, sour bite — the lemongrass and kaffir lime-rich broth is bursting with savory, hot and sour flavor; usually, it’s studded with chunks of fresh tomato, mushrooms, and often, shrimp. Tom kha gai is similarly hot and sour, and features the addition of coconut milk and chicken.
Mango Sticky Rice. Do everything you can to visit Thailand during mango season (it runs from about March to May). The sweet, slippery fruit is everywhere — in smoothies, salads, and better yet, served with sweet coconut sticky rice. That technicolor sticky rice is naturally altered using flowers, leaves, and vegetables.
Khanom Jeen Nam Ngiao. Here’s a dish for the more adventurous eaters out there. This is a lanna (or Northern) noodle soup featuring a garlicky, spicy, tomato-based broth, fresh rice noodles, ground pork, and cubes of jellied pork blood. Don’t let the blood freak you out (it’s those darker-colored squares) — the overall flavor is rich, heart, and almost bolognese-like; this is serious comfort food.
Sai Oua. This spiced pork sausage is one of the absolute highlights of Northern Thai cuisine. The ground meat is heavily spiced with lemongrass, kaffir lime, hot chilies, and galangal (ginger’s super-strong cousin). Order it at restaurants with sticky rice or buy it from vendors in markets and on the street where it’s grilled in large spiral coils.
Kao Soi. Probably the most distinctive lanna Thai dish, kao soi is a curry-rich soup served with tender egg noodles, meat (usually chicken), and topped with crispy fried noodles. At Kao Soi Lam Duan in Chiang Mai, the broth has just the right amount of heat, and the noodles are made fresh. It’s served with funky pickled greens and raw shallots.
Som Tom. The ubiquitous green papaya salad gets new life in Thailand, particularly the isan (Northeastern) version. Unabashedly spicy and tossed with funky dried shrimp, shredded green papaya is tossed with carrots, tomatoes, and often, mouth-burning whole red chilies.
Roti. You’ll find this Indonesian-inspired crispy-thin pancake cooked up all over city streets in Thailand. While the result is crepe-like, roti begins with a stretchy, hand-pulled batter that’s fried in oil and folded around a variety of toppings including egg, banana, coconut, cashew, etc. The tender-crisp pancake is usually topped with sweet condensed milk.
Nam Prik Noom. Lanna food has a variety of delicious dipping sauces, eaten with everything from crisp raw vegetables to fried pork rinds and sticky rice. Nam prik noom is a favorite — made with roasted green chilies, the overall effect is reminiscent of charred poblano peppers. It’s salty, earthy, and wonderfully flavorful. Nam prik ong is a similar sauce and also worth trying; that one has a tomato base and often featured ground pork.
Curry. Curry in Thailand is a marvelous surprise — when done well, the paste is freshly made, and the thick, coconut-rich mixture is bursting with layers of flavors.
This red curry paste was made by pounding fresh aromatics (lemongrass, lime, turmeric, onion, shallot) dried spices, and dried red chili. Green curry receives a similar treatment, but features fresh green chilies and Thai basil. Massaman curry hails from the South and shows distinctive Indian influence — the aromatic yellow curry is studded with potatoes, and includes bay leaf and curry powder.
Pad Thai. We know, we know — we promised you more than pad thai. But this noodle dish, the go-to for American Thai food eaters, is a whole different animal eaten in its native country.
First of all, pad thai is almost always best as street food. Cooked fresh in a firey wok, the noodles take on a pliant heat that will never be found in your take-out box. Second, banish thoughts of peanuty-sweet pad thai from your mind. Here, the noodles are tossed in a blend of oyster, soy, tamarind, and fish sauces. The umami-rich combination is funky, savory, and a tiny bit sweet; it’s far more complex than it appears. That dried chili powder is added by the wok master, or served on the side, allowing you to make your noodles as spicy as you can handle. [H]
Lauren Sloss is a San Francisco-based writer whose great loves include sour beer, stinky cheese, and avocados.
She's prone to stints in Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Istanbul, and is currently living on a 32-foot sailboat in Bali.
Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Images: 1; Easy Rent Asia. 2; Sara Olofson. 3-13; Lauren Sloss.