Eating in Thailand is a wonderfully endless venture — each glorious dish ready and waiting to be discovered. The depth and variety of flavours, revealed boastfully in every bite, will set your tastebuds on fire! That is, both from the pure joy and the chilis.
But therein lies a beautiful problem: great food is so plentiful in Thailand that it would be nearly impossible to list all of the best restaurants, even just in Bangkok. When you can turn any corner and find food ready to eat, it becomes less about where you eat and more about what you eat.
Instead focus on 8 specific must-try dishes that are unique to Thailand. It shall be your mission to seek them out and discover the magnitude of Thai cuisine.
It’s much more than just the Pad Thai and Green Curry you’re used to.
As a born-and-raised westerner, this dish always catches me off guard. It combines a few qualities that my typical meals don’t typically mix: tangy, fishy, nutty, spicy, and cold. It’s a battleground of flavours between the fiery Thai chilis and the succulent, sweet green papaya.
And both sides are winning.
What’s in it: shredded green papaya, long beans, garlic, peanuts, tomato, chilis, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime.
2. Khao Soi
Translated from Thai, the name means “cut rice”; which doesn’t really make any sense considering it’s a noodle dish. That’s because this one actually originates more so from historical Burmese recipe books than the Thai ones. In Myanmar, they call it Khao swe, meaning “rice noodle”, so it’s likely that it all boiled down to a classic game of broken telephone when this dish was graciously adopted in Thailand.
In any case, you mustn’t miss out on this one! It’s a boiled egg noodle base served in a creamy coconut broth, usually paired with chicken and shallots. To top it all off, they throw some deep-fried egg noodles on there to give it the perfect, crispy, final touch.
What’s in it: chicken, shallots, egg noodles (crispy and boiled), chilis, coconut milk, and a curry based broth.
3. Boat Noodles
Boat noodles are a dish with plenty of history: the original versions were sold via canoe through the canals of old Bangkok. In two-or-three-bite portions, these sought after noodles were served in deep bowls to avoid spilling over while in transit over water. Over time, these canals were filled in to make way for roads and this forced the boat noodle vendors on to dry land. But they’re still as popular as they ever were!
Today, it’s most commonly a street food but the small bowls have remained. Each bowl is about 15 baht so the expectation is that you continuously order bowl after bowl until your stack is instagram-worthy. The table will be set with pork rinds, sprouts, basil, and chilis — add these to your heart’s content.
And if you get there early enough, it typical comes with a small custard-like dessert.
What’s in it: pork/beef, noodles, fish balls, morning glory, chilis, cinnamon, sprouts, pork rinds, basil, garlic, and most notably cow or pigs blood. But just a splash.
4. Pad Pak Boong
Morning glory, also known as Water Spinach, is a leafy green vegetable with tender shoots for stems. In Thailand, it’s found in many dishes like boat noodles, but to really enjoy this marvellous plant is to have it all on it’s own.
Order it seasoned with oyster sauce and you’re in for a treat! Cooked properly, it will come out crunchy, salty and sweet.
You could serve with rice but I prefer to just eat it as is, I’m salivating just thinking about it!
What’s in it: soy bean paste, garlic, chilis, soy sauce, and oyster sauce.
5. Pad Krapow Gai
When you order certain meals, you’ll often get a giant plate full of herbs and sprouts alongside. Holy Basil is one of those herbs — it’s a Thai staple. You can rip it, bite it, eat it whole… whatever tastes best to you. My favourite? Get it cooked right into the dish.
Particularly with Pad Krapow Gai. It’s the first meal I ever had in Thailand and it’s one of the reasons I fell in love with the country as quickly as I did. It’s not a complicated dish. They simply chop up and cook together some chicken, holy basil, and chilis. Throw it over some rice, top it with an egg and you’re good to go!
It’s a popular meal-on-the-go due to the simplicity of the ingredients and the lack of messy sauce, so you’ll often find it sold on street side carts around lunch time.
Don’t forget to add the Prik Nam Pla.
What's in it: chicken, holy basil, chilis, rice, egg.
6. Prik Nam Pla
Okay, this isn’t a meal in itself but it deserves a place at the table! Which is exactly where you’ll find this staple condiment. It’s essentially just chopped chilis in a fish sauce but it adds something distinctly Thai to any dish. The taste is obviously spicy but complemented with a salty, sweet and often sour accent. It goes best with Pad Krapow Gai, in my opinion.
7. The fruits of Southwestern Asia
Tropical countries like Thailand naturally produce the most incredible fruits in the world. They are just so full of juicy, sweet flavour. If you’re a fruit lover like I am, make a point to seek out some of Southwestern Asia’s finest fruits.
I suggest shopping at places like Or Tor Kor Market for good quality fruits. Avoid the fruits that look unusually perfect — often they’re sprayed with chemicals to look that way. You’ll need to get out of the mindset that a perfect outside equates to perfect inside because thats usually not the case here.
Some notable mentions:
- Mangosteen is lauded as the greatest fruit in the world, and I happen to agree with this statement. It’s sweet and sour and so incredibly delicious. It peels like a thick orange to reveal little garlic clove sized pieces.
- Durian is a strange one. It’s equally eyebrow-raising and yummy at the same time. It smells a little farty and has a stringy, mushy consistency but you can’t leave Thailand without trying it!
- Plum Mangoes are very sweet and juicy and bruise easily. They are as they sound: somewhere between a messy plum and a ripe mango.
- Rambutans look aggressive but it’s what’s inside that counts, right? Beneath it’s high school punk phase, there’s a delicate oval lychee-type fruit.
9. Snails, Mantis Shrimp, and other unusual creatures
Much like other coastal regions in the world, here they’ve embraced what they have plenty of: seafood. Yes, Thailand is a seafood heaven! But we’re not talking about the Red Lobster menu. This is real seafood.
In Thailand, there are creatures you’ve probably never seen before; and others you may not believe are edible. But not only are they edible, they’re delicious.
You’ll still find lobster and shrimp here, of course, but they’re going to be at least double the size you’re used to (and sometimes about half the price).
I really encourage you to take a chance on some unusual sea creatures for dinner. Our favourite so far has been the Mantis Shrimp.
Additional Tip! You may not know the Thai language when you visit, and it’s no problem getting by without any knowledge of it, but here are some buzzwords that will aid you along when you happen to stumble upon that menu without English translations.
Gai = Chicken
Moo = Pork
Pla = Fish
Beef = Neiu
Kung = Shrimp
Rice = Khao
Egg = Khai
Nam = Water
Prik = Chili/pepper
Yum = Salad
Pad = Stir Fry
Ped = Spicy
Alright, you’re got everything you need to hit the streets of Thailand and fill up that belly!