Having lived in Thailand for about a year and a half now, I have tried many variations of different dishes, and loved nearly all of them. It’s difficult to choose a favorite dish or two, which is why I chose 10. Let me introduce you to a world of deliciousness, including some classics you’ve probably heard of, and some dishes that you haven’t (you’re welcome).
*Sidenote: I have only tried the vegetarian version of most of these dishes, with the exception of tom yum goong. Sorry if the meat versions aren’t as tasty (I highly doubt that). I will include how to ask for them as they are traditionally served so that you can try them for yourself. If you’re a veg like me, stay tuned for my vegetarian food guide to Thailand!
1. Tom Kha (tome kuh)
A very well known dish, tom kha is one of my absolute favorites. I don’t know if I can ever go back to Thai food in America after the flav-splosions I’ve experienced with dishes like this one. The dish features a creamy coconut milk base stewed in lemon grass, galangal (a ginger-like root), kaffir lime leaves, cilantro, and dried chillies. If there are floating on the top, like in this picture, you know it’s going to be a slow burner (you get a real kick after a few bites). My favorite thing about this soup is that the flavor is perfectly balanced and subtle: the tang of the lime and lemon grass base marries perfectly with the creamy sweetness of the coconut milk. I also love the veggies that are almost found in this soup: tomatoes, onions, and mushrooms. Okay, my mouth is watering just thinking about it (why did I write this post hungry?!) Tom Kha is traditionally served with chicken (tom kha gai), but we usually get a vegetarian version with mushrooms instead (tom kha het).
2. Khao Soi (cow soy)
As I’ve stated many times in this blog, this is my absolute favorite Thai dish. The soup has a creamy texture from its coconut milk base, with subtle flavors similar to penang but a bit tangier (especially with the traditional lime squeezed into it before eating). It’s got a slow kick that you won’t feel until you’ve had a few bites. However, the best part of this curry soup is the boiled egg noodles with crunchy egg noodles on top. They are so tasty, especially when they’ve been stewing in that delicious curry flavor. This dish is traditionally served with chicken (khao soi gai) or beef (khao soi nua), and comes with pickled cabbage, shallots, and lime slices on the side to jazz up the flavor (though it doesn’t need it).
3. Larb (lahb)
This northern dish is another amazing and interesting flavor combination that features fresh mint heavily (and deliciously). Seriously, I never knew mint could be so tasty. Traditionally, it is made with minced chicken (larb gai) or pork (larb moo) that has been seasoned with a mixture of various spices and flavors that can include: cumin, cloves, anise, cinnamon, lime, fish sauce, animal blood, etc. Don’t worry about what’s in it, just try it. It is served with fresh herbs piled on top like mint, spring onion, and lime leaves. It’s so tasty! I go to a vegetarian cafeteria near our apartment where they make tofu larb that is out of this world. Yeah, I’m a spoiled vegetarian.
4. Yom Tuat Plu (yahm too-aht poo)
This dish is completely different from all the other dishes in this post. It is more or less a fresh, spicy salad that is served cool (though the sauce can be warm). It features long beans (tuat) that are cut into green x-like shapes and pack a delicious crunch. It is also served with onions, fried garlic (the most delicious invention ever), dried smokey peppers, tomatoes, and boiled eggs. The sauce on top is a tangy, creamy concoction that I would guess is made with coconut milk, fish sauce, lime, and other seasonings (but I don’t know for sure). It’s extremely fresh and flavorful, though I wouldn’t recommend having it with a dish like tom yum because the two are both so intense. My students suggested this dish to me and I have been addicted ever since. I eat this salad at least 3 times a week. It is traditionally served with pork (yom tuat plu moo) or seafood (yom tuat plu talay).
5. Gaeng Phet Fak (gang pet fahk)
This curry is a real treat (and yeah, it sounds like ‘fuck’ when you say it). It’s a traditional red curry made with pumpkin/squash (fak) and it is melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Seriously. Sometimes red curry can be too intense for me, but in this dish the pumpkin really mellows it out and adds a subtle sweetness to it. Otherwise, the curry base is the same with a little coconut milk, a little lime, and red curry paste (which can be made from all sorts of things). If I recall, there is also onion and chillies mixed in, but the pumpkin is the real star of this dish. Another special from our local vegetarian cafeteria, I eat this curry with just the pumpkin in it, but it is traditionall served with chicken (gai).
6. Phad Kee Mao (pad key mow)
This dish has a story. The direct translation is ‘drunken noodles’, which supposedly derives from the fact that you are so drunk when you make it, you just put everything in it without discrimination (as told by my Thai teacher, Aom). I love this dish because it’s quick to make, it’s easy to make a ‘vegetarian’ version of it, and most road-side kitchens offer it. It can be made with ramen-like noodles (mama, my guilt pleasure) or wide noddles (rad na). It is smokey flavored, having been stir-fried all together in the pan, and usually features some combination of baby corn, broccoli, cauliflower, birds-eye chillies (spicy as hell), onions, mushrooms carrots, green beans, kale, and snow peas (everything in the fridge, in other words). This dish is spicy, oily, and smoky all at once and you get your daily required vegetables in one serving. A solid go-to for lunch while I’m at work , this dish is also deliciously cheap (usually 30 baht or less).
7. Som Tum (sohm tahm)
If you’ve ever eaten street food in Thailand, you’ve probably had som tum and chances are you had steam coming out of your ears from the spice. Som tum is a Thai staple found on most streets with food carts, and is a lot of fun to see prepared. It’s got a savory, tangy crunch to it and sets your mouth aflame from the first bite. Som tum starts with the mortar and pestle where shrimp paste, lime juice, salt, sugar, garlic, fish sauce and birds-eyes chillies are grinded up and mixed together to make the dressing. Grated unripened papaya, cherry tomatoes, baby dried shrimps and long beans are then thrown in and tossed. The final delicious package is scooped into a plastic bag or onto a plate for your eating pleasure. Som tum is best enjoyed with sticky rice (kao neow) to help absorb the delicious sauce. Make sure to ask for a little spice (phet nit noi), which is a running joke here in Thailand, because even if you ask for ‘no spice’ (mai phet), they still give you one or two chillies for the flavor.
8. Phad Thai (pad tie)
If you’ve ever had Thai food, you’ve had phad thai. Named the second most iconic food in the world by VirtualTourist.com, phad thai is a subtle, peanuty, sweet and savory noodle dish that consists of egg, usually meat, green onions, bean sprouts, fish sauce, sugar, lime, and other secret ingredients. It’s damn tasty when prepared well (I’m not a fan of really eggy phad thai, I like it a little limier personally). Once again, this lucky girl has a food cart just a few minutes walk from my apartment where they make veg. phad thai for 30 baht. In the picture to the left, you can see the guy making multiple serving at once (he get 8 or 9 going). A lot of tourists order this dish because it’s safe (not too spicy), subtle, and easy on the newbie tummy.
9. Tom Yum (tome yuhm)
The sister of tom kha, this ‘hot and spicy’ soup (as the name directly translates) is usually served with shrimp (tom yum goong). It’s got more of a kick than tom kha and is much more sour, due to the heavier use of lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. This dish is definitely a flav-splosion and can be super spicy (be careful!). It usually features onions, tomatoes, and mushrooms as well. The dish can be served two ways, as a clear soup (nam sai) or with a little coconut milk (nam kohn). I prefer the one with coconut milk as it mellows out the intense flavors.
10. Gaeng Kiao Wan (gang key-ow won)
This dish is known to foreigners as green curry, but translates to ‘sweet green curry’ in Thai. That’s because it’s a much sweeter curry that features more mellow accompanying ingredients (eggplants, onion, bell peppers, baby corn) for an altogether different curry flavor. I have no idea what gives the curry paste its green color, but its delicious. The flavor is near impossible to describe, so you’ll just have to take my word for it and try it for yourself.
What’s your favorite Thai dish? Any great experiences with the ones I’ve listed? Let me know below in the comments.