Thai cuisine has its roots in the ancient civilization of Southeast Asia and has been influenced by various cultures – including Chinese, Indian, and Malay. Over the centuries, the Thai people have developed a unique cooking style that uses locally available ingredients and blends together a balance of flavors.
What makes the Thai cuisine special is the use of fresh ingredients, such as herbs, spices, and vegetables including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and coriander. These ingredients are often pounded together in a mortar and pestle to create the pastes that form the basis of many Thai dishes.
In essence, we can split the traditional Thai cuisine into four categories:
- Tom (boiled dishes) such as Tom Yum Goong (spicy shrimp soup) and Tom Kha Gai (chicken in coconut soup).
- Yam (spicy salads) such as Yam Nua (beef salad) and Yam Pla Duk Foo (catfish salad).
- Tam (pounded foods) such as Tam Khao Tod (deep-fried rice ball salad) and Tam Mak Hoong (green papaya salad).
- Gaeng (curry dishes) such as Gaeng Keow Wan Gai (green curry with chicken) and Gaeng Phed Ped Yang (roasted duck red curry).
Another thing that’s traditional in the Thai cuisine is eating with the hands while being seated on carpets or cushions on the floor, where all the dishes are placed in the center of the table for everyone to share. Rice is a staple food in Thailand and is eaten with most meals. Noodles, both rice, and wheat are also a popular part of the Thai diet.
Thai cuisine has a strong following around the world and can be found in many countries. It is trendy in other parts of Southeast Asia and has also gained popularity in Western countries because of its unique flavors and the use of fresh ingredients.
The Thai cuisine: A Guide to the 10 Most Iconic Dishes
A trip to Thailand is not complete without trying some of the country’s most popular dishes, such as tom yum goong (spicy shrimp soup), pad Thai (stir-fried noodles with shrimp and peanuts), and massaman curry (coconut milk curry with meat and potatoes).
One of the best ways to experience Thai cuisine is to follow a Thailand itinerary or a list of Thailand’s hidden gems that takes you through different regions of the country, each with its own unique culinary traditions. For example, you could start in the capital city of Bangkok, where you can sample a wide variety of street food and local specialties. From there, you could head north to Chiang Mai, known for its northern Thai cuisine, or east to the beach towns of Koh Samui and Krabi, where you can enjoy fresh seafood and coconut-based dishes. No matter where you go, you will find an abundance of delicious and authentic Thai dishes to try.
Did you know? In 2017, seven Thai dishes appeared on the “World’s 50 Best Foods” list, an online poll by CNN Travel. These dishes included tom yum goong (spicy shrimp soup), pad Thai (stir-fried noodles with shrimp, tofu, and peanuts), som tam (green papaya salad), massaman curry, green curry, nam tok (grilled meat salad), and gaeng daeng (red curry).
Tom Yum Goong
Tom yum goong is a famous Thai soup that is made with shrimp, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, and chili paste. It is known for its spicy and sour flavors, balanced by adding coconut milk. It’s usually served with various vegetables, such as mushrooms, tomatoes, and onions, and it can be garnished with cilantro and lime wedges. It is often served with a side of rice to balance out the spicy flavors.
Tom yum goong is especially popular in Thailand’s north and northeastern regions.
Pad Thai may be Thailand’s most famous dish consisting of stir-fried noodles with shrimp, tofu, peanuts, and a variety of vegetables, such as beansprouts, carrots, and onions. It is often flavored with a tamarind-based sauce and garnished with lime wedges, cilantro, and ground peanuts.
To eat pad Thai, you can use chopsticks or a fork to twirl the noodles onto your spoon. It’s also often accompanied by a side of fresh vegetables, such as cucumber and lettuce, which can be used to wrap the noodles.
Pad Thai is especially popular in the central and southern regions of Thailand.
Som Tam is a Thai salad made with green papaya, peanuts, dried shrimp, and various seasonings and spices. It is most known for its spicy and sour flavors, balanced by the papaya’s sweetness and the peanuts’ crunchiness. Som tam is often served with a side of sticky rice and grilled meat (such as chicken or pork).
To eat Som Tam, you best use a spoon to scoop the salad onto your plate and mix it with the rice and meat. Alternatively, you can wrap the salad and other ingredients in a lettuce leaf and eat it like a lettuce wrap.
Som tam is widely available in Thailand but is most popular in the northeastern region of Thailand.
Massaman curry is a dish made with coconut milk, massaman curry paste, and various meats and vegetables, such as chicken, beef, potatoes, and onions. It is known for its rich and flavorful taste, which is a balance of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. Massaman curry is often served with a side of rice and garnished with peanuts, cilantro, and lime wedges.
For the best Massaman curry, you visit the southern Thailand region.
Gaeng Keow Wan Gai
Gaeng Keow Wan Gai, also known as Thai green curry, is made with green curry paste, coconut milk, and various types of meat and vegetables, such as chicken, beef, eggplant, and bamboo shoots. It is known for its rich and flavorful taste, which is a balance of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. Green curry is often served with a side of rice and garnished with basil leaves, cilantro, and lime wedges.
Gaeng daeng is also known as Thai Red curry, and one of the main differences between red curry and green curry is the type of curry paste that is used. As the name suggests, red curry is made with red curry paste.
This Red curry paste is made with dried red chili peppers, while green curry paste is made with fresh green chili peppers. This gives the two curries their distinctive colors and flavors. Red curry is generally spicier than green curry, but the level of spiciness can vary depending on the recipe and the specific ingredients used.
Tom Kha Gai
Tom Kha Gai is a soup made with chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal (a type of ginger), and kaffir lime leaves. It is known for its rich and flavorful taste, which is a balance of sweet, sour, and spicy flavors. Tom kha gai is often garnished with cilantro and lime wedges, and it is usually served with a side of rice.
Tom kha gai can be enjoyed as a main dish or as a starter, and the soup should be eaten with a spoon, while it’s common to use chopsticks to pick up the chicken and other ingredients.
Khao pad, also known as fried rice, is a popular dish in the Thai cuisine that is made with rice, vegetables, and a variety of meats, such as chicken, pork, or shrimp. It is often flavored with soy sauce, fish sauce, and other seasonings, and it is usually garnished with cilantro and scallions. Khao pad is often served with a side of fresh vegetables, such as cucumber and lettuce, and it can be topped with a fried egg or omelette.
Nam tok is a Thai dish that can be enjoyed as a main dish or as part of a larger meal, and consists of grilled meat, such as beef or pork, that is sliced and served with a spicy dressing made with lime juice, chili peppers, and fish sauce. It is often garnished with onions, cilantro, and mint leaves, and it is usually served with a side of sticky rice.
Pla Pao is a popular dish in the Thai cuisine consisting of a whole fish coated in salt and chili and then grilled. It is often served with a side of sticky rice and various condiments, such as slices of ginger, lime wedges, and chili peppers.