Thailand’s legendary food will surprise and delight with its variety and freshness.
Phenomenal food is easy to find in Southeast Asia, but there’s a reason Thailand is known across the world for its cuisine. From the jungles of the north to the metropolitan bustle of Bangkok on the coast, and on the sun-soaked islands and beaches of the south, the freshness and diversity of Thai dishes will keep you perpetually hungry.
Whether you’re an inveterate chowhound or a casual diner, these are some of the best dishes worth seeking out while in Thailand.
Thai Iced Coffee
In this world-famous beverage, black-as-midnight Thai coffee is poured over ice and mixed with thick, sweet condensed milk to make a drink that’s impossible not to fall in love with. It’s fantastically delicious and exceptionally easy to find, which is great because between the caffeine, the sugar, and the sheer tastiness of it, it’s easy to become addicted.
Khao Soi, a soup from Thailand’s northeastern region named Isan, takes a number of wonderful ingredients and combines them with stunning efficacy. The broth itself is an elixir of red curry paste and coconut milk stained yellow by the addition of turmeric powder. Basking in the spicy, luxurious depths is a tender bone-in piece of chicken––often a leg––which sits amongst ribbons of sturdy yellow egg noodles. The whole enterprise is crowned with cilantro leaves and a nest of crispy fried noodles. It’s a can’t-miss concoction marrying sweet with heat and soft and tender with crispy.
At its core larb is simple, a dish made from finely chopped or ground meat (such as chicken) tossed with chopped herbs like mint and cilantro, onion, chilis, and spritzed with a hearty dose of lime juice. While it’s a humble dish using very common ingredients, it’s so well loved that in Laos, Thailand’s funkier northern neighbor, it’s literally the national dish. It’s also versatile, and while it’s often made with chicken it’s also not uncommon to find it made with other meats. Eaten with rice or scooped up with lettuce, it’s a wonderful meal and is something you’ll find yourself seeking out again and again.
Thai Coconut Pancakes (Khanom Krok)
Watching the little Thai coconut pancakes known as khanom krok being made is a bit mesmerizing. A dimpled cast iron pan slicked with oil is placed over an open flame and has its indentations filled with batter. Just a few minutes later each little cake is flipped over––often with a toothpick––revealing the underside has become covered in a golden web of browned, caramelized goodness. They’re warm, custardy, and have a coconut flavor that makes them easy to love. Khanom krok are also available basically everywhere, making it one of the easier treats to find.
Thai Rolled Ice Cream
Rolled ice cream is now a worldwide phenomenon but this Instagram-friendly dessert was born on the streets of Thailand. Soft, near-liquid ice cream is spread on a super chilled metal surface that looks like a commercial crepe pan and is then chopped and spread using flat steel putty knives. Cooled down it forms a layer of ice cream which is when scraped into tightly coiled rolls of deliciousness. Yes, it is super touristy, but it’s also a delicious dessert perfect for cooling you down on a sultry Thai night.
Pandan cake takes the comfort and familiarity of ethereal sponge cake and adds a distinctly Southeast Asian flair with the addition of pandan juice. Pandan, a plant beloved across Southeast Asia, is prized for its floral green-hued juice which is extracted by squeezing or pulverizing the long, narrow leaves, or soaking them in cooking liquid to extract flavor. Added to pound cake it provides not only a shock of color but also a very pleasant aroma.
Fresh Pomegranate Juice
Juice stands abound in the open air street markets of Thailand and no juice is quite as easy to spot as that of the pomegranate. Squeezed fresh it’s tart, blood red, and quenching. Be aware though that some stands may sell pre-squeezed juice or may add in other flavors or juices. If you want to make sure you get the real stuff find a stand that makes the juice right in front of you using fresh fruit.
Thai beers like Singha or Chang are great examples of the kind of beer found all across Asia––light, golden, and easily quaffable and meant to be consumed ice cold and with food. While it’s true these pale, fizzy lagers lack the complexity and depth found in craft beer, it’s important to remember that even when you’re in a city like Bangkok it’s still hot and humid and the food is still flavorful and spicy. An ice cold beer is not only a good match for most Thai dishes, it’s also remarkably restorative, and a convenient excuse to sit down and watch life bustle around you.
Basil Chicken with a Fried Egg Eaten From a Small Plastic Stool
While sweet Italian basil loses its punch almost the second it gets hot, floral, slightly spicy Thai basil is a sturdier companion. Tossed in a smoking wok with chicken and chilis it holds both its texture and flavor and helps produce a fragrant, herbal stir fry that knocks the socks off of any sad carryout you’ve had in the past. But, let’s be clear––you’re here for the eating experience as much as you are for the food. Yes, the stool (or chair) is sized for a kindergartener, and yes, you’re probably going to be inhaling tuk-tuk exhaust along with your food, but this is the kind of deeply memorable travel story that you’ll be boring your friends with for years to come. Let go of your inhibitions, park yourself on a stool built for a toddler, and dig in. Oh, and about that fried egg––if it’s offered, always get the fried egg. Always.
Khao Phat (Thai Fried Rice)
Hailing from central Thailand, khao phat (Thai fried rice) takes on many divergent forms depending on available ingredients and personal preference. Want it with crab or shrimp? That’s a solid option. How about chicken? That’s great too. What’s consistent is that it’s made with Jasmine rice and maintains a decidedly Thai flavor palate, meaning you’ll find fish sauce, eggs, garlic, onions, and sometimes a smattering of chopped herbs. It’s a simple, easy dish that’s a good fit for days when you want something straight forward and comforting.
Crying Tiger (Spicy Beef) Salad
Crying (or Weeping) Tiger salad is a perfect fit for the traveling carnivore. Marinated steak is grilled and thinly sliced, tossed with salad greens, onions, and chopped herbs, and then doused in an eye-popping dressing made from fish sauce, soy sauce, garlic, lime juice, and chilis. In terms of the name, well, nobody really knows. It could come from the fact that sometimes the dressing is so spicy it could make a tiger cry (you’ve been warned!), or it could be because this dish often utilizes flank or shell steak, which if cooked improperly can be so chewy that even a tiger would be dewy-eyed with disappointment. Either way, when cooked properly the meat is tender and medium rare and is a perfect complement for the flavorful acidic dressing.
Panang (Peanut) Curry
Panang curry occupies an interesting place in the pantheon of central Thai curries. While most Westerners are familiar with the base colors of Thai curry (yellow, red, green), panang curry uses fragrant red curry as a base and adds ground peanuts for creaminess and depth that would otherwise be lacking. A topping of basil and strips of fragrant Makrut lime leaf help provide color and herbaceousness, which is a nice contrast to the peanutty stick-to-your-ribs aspect of this dish. Thick, sweet, and tasty, panang curry is a perfect match for the mellow flavor of chicken, which is a very common pairing.
Mango Sticky Rice
The term “a side of rice” describes how Westerners view rice in relation to their Asian food––nice to have, but not the main attraction. All throughout Asia though rice is a vital and central part of dinner, and the same goes for when it’s time for dessert. Mango sticky rice, that most ubiquitous of Thai desserts, is a sticky pile of sweet and starchy short-grain rice which is topped by stunningly fresh mango, drizzled with sweetened coconut milk, and often studded with puffed rice. Don’t be surprised if the mango is wildly better than anything you’ve had in the past––India and Southeast Asia produce some of the best mangoes in the world, including varieties that are too fragile to ship to other places. Eat it while you can, it’s not going to be this good back home.
Yes, this is broad, but you’ve traveled to a part of the world where the quality of fruit is stunning and the variety is kaleidoscopic. Purple mangosteen are filled with delicate ivory-colored sweet-and-sour bulbs. Crimson, hairy rambutan hide a translucent pearly sphere that has the texture of grape flesh. The slippery sun-gold flesh of a ripe mango is almost spicy in its floral sweetness. And durian…well, yes, the large and forbidding durian smells so bad it’s literally been banned from public transportation, but its ice cream sweet taste is one of the reasons it’s known as the “King of Fruits,” even if it does smell like low tide at a drainage pool filled with diapers.
Lao Khao (Thai Whiskey)
One of the joys of travel is discovering, embracing, and then later disavowing the local hooch. Lao khao, which is what locals call their eye-watering homebrew moonshine, is really closer to rum than to whiskey, but why quibble about something you’ll simultaneously love and regret. As clear as water and as fragrant as gasoline, lao khao is strong, is cheap, and… well, those are really its best qualities. If you want the true Thai drinking experience (but don’t want to remember much later on) give lao khao a try.