The sound of bustling market places—fruit vendors, hawker stalls, chatty diners and shoppers interacting. The smell of sweet and spicy, lemongrass and lime, intermingling like a perfume on the air. The taste of a new dish, something you’ve never tried before, hitting your tastebuds for the first time. For travelers, food is always a part of experiencing someplace new and no where is it more intricately woven into the everyday experience than in Thailand. For those visiting the “Land of Smiles” here are 10 tempting Thai dishes that will have all five of your senses singing a culinary symphony!
1. ผัดไทย – Pad Thai – Thai Fried Noodles
Immensely popular well beyond the borders of Thailand, pad thai is probably the country’s most iconic dish. So popular in fact that in 2011 pad thai was ranked number 5 on CNN Go‘s World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods readers’ poll. And it’s no surprise why! This flavorful dish is a staple at casual dining joints and street vendors. At it’s core, this quick-to-cook dish is made of rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and firm tofu and seasoned with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, garlic, and served with lime wedges. It could also include fresh shrimp, chicken, squid or other proteins.
2. ส้มตำ – Som Tam – Spicy Green Papaya Salad
Som tam dramatically combines the region’s major flavors: sour lime, hot chili, salt, savory fish sauce, and palm sugar sweetness. Another popular Thai street food, it actually originates from a Lao dish called tam som which translates to “pounding of sour ingredients.” This unique blend of powerful flavors tends to be either loved or hated by those who sample it! To make som tam the ingredients are pounded and pulverized in a mortar and among the street stalls in Bangkok, it is often served with chicken and sticky rice. If you like your foods with a kick—ask the hawker to throw in a handful of bird’s eye chili!
3. ต้มยำกุ้ง – Tom Yum Goong – Spicy Shrimp Soup
Nothing encapsulates the iconic aromas of Thailand like tom yum goong! The smell of lemongrass intermingles with chilies, galangal and kaffir lime leaves in this spicy soup, a popular choice for a quick bite in Bangkok. This versatile dish can be made with a variety of ingredients but most commonly the soup base is prepared with river shrimp. For a less sour version, try ordering tom yum gung nam kohn which comes full of coconut milk.
4. ต้มข่าไก่ – Tom Kha Gai – Chicken in Coconut Soup
Often referred to as Thai coconut soup in English, tom kha gai literally translates to “chicken galangal soup.” This rich and savory soup blends mushrooms and hearty chunks of chicken with earthy spices and hints of fragrant lemongrass. Historically it was served more like a curry—meats simmered in coconut milk and spices, served with rice—but today the soupy-version is a beloved comfort food across the globe.
5. แกงเขียวหวานไก่ – Geang Keow Wan Gai – Green Chicken Curry
More pungent than red curry varieties, green chicken curry derives its name from the green Thai chilies that give this dish its distinct color. Historians say that this iconic central Thai dish dates back to the reign of King Rama VI or King Rama VII, at the turn of the 20th century, and it has been a hit ever since. Grab yourself a heaping portion—with freshly steamed rice—and enjoy!
6. ผัดขี้เมาเส้นใหญ่ – Pad Kee Mao – Drunken Noodles
Drunken noodles are the perfect snack after a night out on the town! A classic at late night street carts, pad kee mao is a fried noodle dish made of broad rice noodles, soy sauce, fish sauce, garlic, meat and seafood. Literally translated khi means “drunkard” in English. While there is no official consensus about the origins of its colorful name, many muse that it was first concocted by a hungry chef with whatever he could find in the kitchen after a raucous night of drinking!
7. ผัดซีอิ๊ว – Pad See Ew – Pan Fried Noodles
Literally translated “fried with soy sauce,” pad see we draws its inspiration from Chinese cuisine and is similar in flavor to Singapore’s char kway teow. Commonly found throughout Thailand (and in Thai restaurants around the world) it is made of wide rice noodles, soy sauce, Chinese broccoli, eggs and meat. Eat this like a local by sprinkling chili flakes and splashing a bit of vinegar on top!
8. มัสมั่นไก่ – Massaman Gai – Chicken Peanut Curry
Unique among Thai dishes, massaman curry blends traditional Thai flavors with Persian spices thought to be imported to the country by Muslim immigrants. David Thompson, a renowned Thai food expert and chef, believes the dish originated in the 17th century in the bustling Thai city of Ayutthaya. The word “massaman” is not a Thai word, but instead is thought to be related to the word “Mussulman” which is an archaic form of the word Muslim. Due to Islamic dietary laws, this dish is traditionally made with chicken but variations including duck, beef, and goat can also be found.
9. ไก่ทอด – Gai Tod – Fried Chicken
From skewers sold at bustling market street stalls to plated versions served alongside salads and rice, gai tod is a classic fried chicken. Deep fried and crispy on the outside, hot and juicy on the inside, gai tod is often served with sweet and sour dipping sauces which infuse traditional Thai flavors into the meal. Countries across the whole world love to indulge in scrumptious fried chicken, and hungry Thai diners are no exception!
10. ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง – Khao Niaow Ma Muang – Mango Sticky Rice
And how do you go about finishing off your dining experience? Dessert of course! Mango sticky rice is a traditional Thai dish served across the country with freshly cut mangoes, sticky rice, and coconut milk. Eaten with a spoon—or sometimes your hands!—its readily found at street stalls and casual dining spots but fancier versions are served in restaurants running the gamut of formality. Keep an eye out for this sweet especially during peak mango season in April and May.
Hungry? Our Hong Kong & Bangkok Foodie Adventure puts plate after plate of tempting food right within your reach! From these delicious Thai tastes to the culinary delights of Hong Kong—get ready to eat your way through two of Asia’s most delicious cities!