Since I’m Thai-American people often ask me for recommendations when they eat in a Thai restaurant. It’s never an easy question to answer since Thai cuisine has a long history and millions of home cooks and trained chefs churning out dishes inspired by the Land of Smiles. Of course there are a core battalion of foods that you should try when visiting Thailand or any Thai eatery worth its weight in baht. But if you really want to gauge how Thai your stomach is, check out this list of authentic food and drink from my motherland. If you’re a falang, or foreigner, who’s eaten all these, then let’s get your blood tested! We might be related. (Or maybe you’ve married one of my cousins).
Introduction to Thai Food
Satay- pretty much a standard offering in any restaurant. Satay is super-popular for good reason. What’s not to love about meat on a stick, especially when it comes with thick peanut sauce.
Spring Rolls- Veggies, shrimp and pork are rolled in a wanton wrapper and fried to a golden crispness that flakes in your mouth. Don’t forget the sweet chili dipping sauce. I prefer spring rolls that are small that way they are more crisp.
Roti- a flaky griddle pastry made from a dough that’s flattened and fried up in grease. Served traditionally, the pancake has sugar and sweetened condensed milk drizzled on top. With its popularity among tourists, the roti now comes with bananas and nutella or coconut and peanuts. In less touristic parts of Thailand, you can find this street snack for 5 baht. In prime locales like Koh Samui Island, prepare to dish out 40 for extra toppings.
Mango and Sticky Rice- A staple dessert for any Thai and a respectable snack for me anytime I can get my hands on it. When mangos are ripe, they are expertly served with fresh sticky rice that has been made with a special coconut sauce. Order extra, your friends will steal this.
Rambutan- it looks alien but this fruit with a thick red skin and long green hairs surrounding it is fantastic. In Thailand, Neil and I buy them by the kilo and feast on them right on the curb. If you like lychees, you’ll love this. We found rambutan in Leuven, Belgium when we visited travel friends we made in Peru and even though the sticker price was 6 euros ($8) for 10 rambutan, I bought it. Worth every cent.
Congee- rice porridge served with anything that’s been leftover from dinner: eggs, steak, chicken, seafood, broccoli. Just toss it in with hot chillies or extra fish sauce. Congee is great for a hangover and late night snack in the market. When in Atlantic City, New Jersey (when Neil tried out for Wheel of Fortune) I always indulge in congee with a 1000 year old egg. A special thanks to the Chinese gamblers whose late night cravings have prompted casino managers to import this dish.
Crab Fried Rice- Lots of people get fried rice with boring old chicken. I’ve been eating my fried rice with crab since I was 5 years old along the klongs (canals) of Bangkok. Simple yet special, crab fried rice is the best seaside meal.
Young Coconut Milk- not to be confused with the brown hairy things in the supermarket, young coconuts are big and green with a watery juice filling the inside. The tender coconut fruit lines the interior and you can scoop it right into your mouth. In the market, the coconut is hacked open and a large straw stuck inside so you can drink and walk. At the Four Seasons in Chiang Mai, they add banana liqueur and rum too. Just saying…
Fried Red Snapper with 3 Chili Sauce- Last time I went to Thailand with friends, we ordered 3 whole snappers made this way. The staff didn’t believe us at first but nobody wanted to miss out on this dish that pairs a whole (yes, head on, get over it!) red snapper with a sweet chili sauce complete with vegetables. White rice is served on the side.
Pad Thai– sold almost everywhere, this stir fry noodle dish is like Thai Foods 101, along side spring rolls and satay. Many travelers to Thailand are there to eat Pad Thai and ride elephants in the jungle. The dish is usually good and cheap. Have it with shrimp.
Tom Yum Goong- the soup that spice lovers adore, Tom Yum Goong is a sour soup of shrimp and vegetables sold in markets, restaurants, and even out of a can.
Thai Iced Tea- It shares the same color as an orangesicle. Orange pekoe tea is brewed, chilled, iced, and topped with sweetened condensed milk. ‘Nuff said.
Grilled Bananas- these fingerling bananas are grilled on the street and sold in rolled up newspaper. A cheap and sweet snack on the go.
Pomelo- Called Som-O in Thai, pomelo is a large grapefruit with a pale yellow skin and dry semi-sweet fresh. You have to peel the sections free from the pith but your work is rewarded with a really healthy and delicious fruit snack.
Nectarines with Salty/Sweet/Spicy Rub- This simple snack is a market favorite and good for lazy afternoon nibbles. Firm nectarines are cut into wedges and then dipped into a dry rub of salt, sugar, and super spicy chillies. It’s heavenly with a Singha beer.
Soda out of a bag- this is like a rite of passage. You buy an ice cold orange fanta from a street vendor. They pop the top, dump the soda into a plastic bag, add a straw and then do this cool wrist twist thing with a rubber band to close off the plastic bag. You even have enough slack on the rubber band so that you can hang it from your wrist as you bike around the temples of Ayutthaya. Of course, I’d recommend you drink your bag of soda without ice.
Taa-ko- a painstakingly tedious dessert to make (I spent hours of my childhood stirring pots and tapping air out of little serving cups). The batter is a warm tapioca slurry with sweet water chestnuts. The consistency is like thick jello. It sets quickly in little serving cups and then is topped off with a slightly salty and sweet coconut glaze.
Kai Pa Lo- Homecooking for the people, Kai Pa Lo is a dark brown broth with boiled eggs, stewed pork, star anise, and some veggies. Slightly more sweet than savory but served over rice as a complete meal. You’ll impress your Thai neighbors with your “humble” and sensible eating habits.
Rad Na- a rice noodle stir fry that’s served with a dark gravy of chicken or beef as well as veggies. My brother’s favorite as well as Neil’s.
Chicken and Rice- Kids love this because it’s simple. Homemade chicken stock is made using fresh vegetables and ginger. When the chicken is cooked, it’s removed and the soup is used to make Khao Mun Gai which literally means steamed rice of chicken broth. The dish is served with sliced cucumber and a spicy bean sauce if you like. We do!
Okay! So how many have you had? How many do you want to go get right now? If anyone’s had them all, shout it out! You deserve props! Tomorrow, keep a look out for part 2 with 15 more dishes (including lots of desserts) for Thai food lovers.