Thai Food

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

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Nicole
December 13, 2021
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Thailand, otherwise known as the “Land Of A Thousand Smiles,” has a rich culture and cuisine.

When sampling food in Thailand, be sure not to limit yourself to the dishes offered by restaurants – the street food in Thailand is a must to try.

What’s the most popular street food in Thailand?

While there are many types of food to sample on the street, guay teow (noodle soup) is one of the most popular offerings, with vendors serving this hot and tasty bowl of noodles, broth, and meat.

Is your mouth watering yet? Good! Let’s travel to Thailand, exploring its culture, geography, and tasty cuisine.  

What’s The Culture In Thailand?

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Thai culture is a blend of Indian influences and Chinese traditions, while still containing Thai elements. A mix of Thai and Indian cultures can be seen in literature, art, as well as customs that are followed in the country. 

Buddhism and the monarchy have been sources of stability in Thailand’s society for many years, and are both still a symbol of unity for Thai people. In fact, more than 90 percent of locals are Buddhist. 

That said, Hinduism is also an important influence on the culture. Many people in Thailand are open to progressive ideas, which have been infused into the country as it’s become more globalised.

You will most likely see this in Bangkok, the country’s capital, which is a bustling city that’s filled with various traditional and contemporary influences.

Interesting Cultural Norms In Thailand 

Before you visit Thailand, you should be aware of various cultural norms that are followed. Here are some examples.

  • You shouldn’t point with your feet or touch someone’s head. Both of these are considered taboos in the country because the feet are the dirtiest part of the body and the head is the most sacred.
  • You shouldn’t point with a finger, either. This is seen as disrespectful. If you need to point to someone, you should bend your hand down with your fingers pointing to the floor and your palm turned upwards. 
  • You have to remove your shoes before entering a temple or someone’s home, as this is a sign of respect.
  • You should never raise your voice. This is seen as losing control. In Thailand, what’s revered is having a jai yen yen, which is a cool heart, instead of a hot heart, which is known as jai rawn.
  • You should duck when walking between two people. If you’ve ever been to Thailand and noticed that most Thai people duck when passing in front of two people who are talking to each other, you might have wondered why they do this. It’s an act of respect to acknowledge interrupting them. You should also dck if you walk past someone and block their vision. 

What’s The Geography Of Thailand? 

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Located in the heart of Southeast Asia, Thailand has varied landscapes – here you’ll find forested mountains, river plains, beaches, and dry plateaus. The mountain ranges move along the border with Myanmar and extend all the way down to Malaysia.

On the east and northeast of the country are Cambodia and Laos, with Myanmar to the northwest. The Andaman Sea is located west of Thailand, as is the Gulf of Thailand. 

The Chao Phraya River starts in the north of the country and moves south, irrigating ricelands in the Central Plains via canals. This river is the main water route through the central area of the country and empties into the Gulf of Thailand which is located 35 miles away from Bangkok, the country’s capital. 

Bangkok is sometimes called the Venice of the East. This is because it contains 83 canals and approximately 10,000 boats create a floating market of fish, fruits, and vegetables! 

There are four main regions in Thailand, and each one has its special geographic features as well as cultural elements.

1. Northern Thailand

This is a mountainous region that has beautiful thick forests. The culture of this area of the country is influenced by Burmese traditions.

2. Northeastern Thailand

This is removed from the rest of the country by a mountain range. It’s mainly agricultural. Here, the culture is Lao. 

3. Southern Thailand

This is located on the Malay peninsula and it’s filled with beautiful beaches, thanks to its tropical weather. There are also many fishing communities in this part of the country. The culture is influenced by Malaysia.

4. Central Thailand

This is the economic hub of the country, and most of the country’s rice is produced here. Most people in Thailand live in the central region, while it’s also the cultural and political center of the country. 

Thailand Demographics 

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Thailand’s population is around 68 million, and there are 75 ethnic groups. Over 80 percent of the population is Thai and this is composed of ethnic groups such as the Thai, Thai-Lao, Lanna Thai, and Pak Thai. There are also other ethnic groups, such as Chinese, Malay-speaking Muslims, and Khmer.

Most of the population resides in Bangkok, which has over five million inhabitants. 

What’s Thai Cuisine Like? 

Rice is a food staple in Thailand. In this country, you’ll find a variety of rice, such as white rice, sticky rice, rice soup, and even rice porridge. Some people will eat rice for every meal. 

Another staple is spice! Thai food can be very hot and spicy, and it might surprise you to know that Thai curry can be even spicier than Indian curry.

The Myth Of Having One Type Of Thai Food

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

While we talk about Thai food, there’s no one type of cuisine in the country. There are actually different cuisines available in four regions of the country, namely the north, northeast, south, and central region.

Since Thailand is central to trade routes, it has blended a variety of ingredients and cooking methods from various locations in the world into its cuisine.

For example, the cooking technique steaming was inspired by China, whereas the country took inspiration from India when it came to making delicious curries. 

Let’s explore the different types of food you can find in the four regions of Thailand. 

Northern Thailand

The food found in this area of Thailand is salty and spicy. The region has a temperate climate so it doesn’t reach hot-enough temperatures to enable coconuts to thrive. This is why dishes in this region will be made with broth or water instead of coconut milk. 

Grilling is a common cooking method in this part of the country as a result of how there is a lot of natural wood, courtesy of forestation, for cooking. Many bitter herbs are found in the forest which add a slightly acidic flavor to foods. 

Northeastern Thailand

Since there’s less natural fuel in this region, people tend to enjoy more raw and cured foods. The cuisine in this region can be very hot and spicy. 

Popular cooking methods used by the locals include boiling and grilling, while soups containing preserved fish are a common delicacy.

Southern Thailand

Since it’s located close to the Gulf of Thailand, seafood is very common in this area of the country.

There’s a large variety of oysters, prawns, mackerel, and crabs on offer.  You’ll find that many dishes will be made with shrimp paste.

If you love spicy food, you must visit Southern Thailand as it has some of the hottest food in the country. Curries and other dishes are cooked with coconut milk and coconut oil.

Central

This area is close to Bangkok, so you’ll find a diverse range of food. The flavors are complex and mostly focused on being salty and hot.

Popular meats in the region include pork, duck, and chicken, and there are also freshwater fish in the area. Since the region is influenced by Chinese cuisine, noodles and stir-fries are common.

Most Common Thai Dishes In The Country 

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Massaman Curry

It’s unknown where, exactly, massaman curry came from. It’s thought that it was brought to Thailand from Malaysia via Middle Eastern traders. It’s different from other popular Thai curries because it makes use of spices you won’t usually find in dishes, such as anise and cinnamon.

It’s enjoyed with a delicious paste that’s fried in a pan with tamarind and coconut cream so it’s savoury but spicy.

Som Tum

This is a sour yet spicy salad that contains green papaya and chilies. You can find different variations of it, such as Som Tum that contains fermented fish. This Thai dish hails from Laos which shares a border with Thailand.

In Thailand, this salad is made with the use of a large mortar and pestle, with lime, green papaya, fish sauce, and chilies thrown in, as this cooking technique helps to better blend the ingredients.

Guay Teow 

This is a noodle soup that’s very popular all over Thailand. You can find it made with beef, chicken, or pork. Either rice or egg noodles are used. 

Vendors sometimes add meatballs or wontons to it. You can enjoy this noodle soup with various condiments, such as lime juice and fish sauce.

Khao Pad 

This simple yet delicious fried rice dish is also commonly found across the country. It contains rice, egg, meat (such as crabmeat, chicken, or beef), garlic, and onion. It’s made by putting all the ingredients in a pan and stir-frying it on the stove so that all the flavors are released.

Kai Yang 

This is grilled chicken that is common in the northeast region of the country.

The chicken is marinated in fish sauce, garlic, and coriander. It can also be enjoyed with green papaya salad or sticky rice. 

Khao Yam 

This is an aromatic rice salad that displays the rich herbal flavors of the southern region. This area uses roots, spices and herbs that are minced so that they can be consumed entirely to add more flavor to the salad.

This salad also contains dry shredded shrimp, herbs, and grated coconut, as well as turmeric leaves, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. The rice is dressed with a delicious and sweet fish sauce. 

Miang Khan

This is a less common dish you won’t find in many places, but you can track it down in Northern Thailand. It contains ginger, chilies, shallot, coconut, peanuts, and lime bits. These are wrapped in Cha Plu leaves.

What’s great about this dish is that you can get creative with the types of ingredients you want to enjoy in it, so it can be spicy, salty, sour or even sweet. 

Pad Thai

This Thai dish is common in the central plains of the country, but you’ll find it everywhere. It’s considered to be one of the national dishes of Thailand! Traditionally, Pad Thai contains stir-fried noodles, eggs, tofu, sauce with tamarind paste, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic, and chilies. 

It’s meant to have rich flavors that move from fishy to sweet, and then to sour. While you can find various Pad Thai updates on the classic, this dish should contain wide rice noodles as a base, crushed peanuts on the top, and a lime wedge on the side.

It’s also common for scrambled eggs and fresh bean sprouts to be added to the dish. 

What Are Common Thai Desserts?

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

You can find many delicious and popular desserts in Thailand. These include the following:

Khanom Tuay

This is a popular dessert that’s sold by street vendors and restaurants. It contains rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk. Sometimes Pandan leaf is added to provide more of a sweet flavor, although some people have said that it tastes a bit like cheese.

Khao Niao Mamuang

This is a dessert that contains sticky rice. It’s steamed before being dipped in sweet coconut milk. The rice is served with fresh mango slices to give it juiciness and extra sweetness. This is a popular dessert to enjoy during the summer months as it’s enjoyed cold. 

Thong Yip 

This is an egg-based dessert that’s traditional in the country. “Thong” means “gold,” so this dessert symbolizes wealth and prosperity.

It’s usually consumed at celebrations such as weddings. It’s made with egg yolks from either ducks or chickens, and jasmine-flavored water. It’s shaped into a star or flower design, which makes it look artistic.  

Kluai Thot

This is a dessert that includes deep-fried bananas. It’s a delicious street food you can find in various areas of Thailand. It’s prepared with peeled and sliced burro bananas (kluay nam wa) which are then placed in a rice flour mixture, before being fried in hot oil.

This gives them a crispy outer layer. These treats are so popular, they’re usually sold in bags, and can be eaten as a dessert, snack, or appetizer. 

What Are The Main Flavors In Thai Cuisine? 

Thai cuisines contain salty, spicy, sour, and sweet ingredients. Salty foods include shrimp paste and fish sauce, spicy foods include pepper and chilies, sour ingredients include tamarind and lime, and sweet ones include fruits and palm sugar. 

It’s important to note that dishes in Thailand will have at least two of these ingredient categories, but sometimes you can find all four of them, as we’ve seen in the previous section of common dishes found in the country. This is what makes Thai foods so complex and interesting. 

What About The Most Common Thai Ingredients? 

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Tthere are some ingredients that are essential in Thai cuisine. These include the following:

Rice

Rice is a staple ingredient in Thai cooking. Sticky rice is commonly preferred in Northern and Northeastern areas of the country, and can be used in both savory and sweet dishes.

Jasmine rice is also common in the country’s cuisine. It’s a popular side dish for various Thai dishes and has a sweet yet sticky nature that makes it great for stews.

Fish sauce

Known as nam pla, this is made from fermented and salted fish. Fish with strong flavor, such as mackerel and anchovies, are ideal, giving the fish sauce a sweet, salty, and savory profile.

Fish sauce is commonly used in dressings, marinades, dipping sauces or served as a condiment. 

Chilies

Chilies come in a variety of forms, such as bird’s eye chilies, dried red chilies, or hot chilies (phrik haeng). These are ingredients for many different types of dishes.

Coconut 

This is a popular ingredient in a variety of dishes, both sweet and savory. Coconut gives a silky texture to soups and curries, while its fatty and cooling nature can be useful for balancing out spices in dishes.

Coconut milk is also very common, and you’ll find it’s a staple in  many desserts. 

Lime

Lime is just as common and popular in Thai cuisine as fish sauce. You can find lime in a variety of dishes because it’s so versatile. Limes are the main citrus used in Thai cooking that adds zesty and sour elements to meals. 

Spices

Thai food isn’t just about chilies. You can find a variety of spices in this cuisine, such as ground turmeric, cumin, curry powder, coriander seeds, and black cardamom.

These contribute to the complexity and aroma of Thai dishes.

Curry Paste 

Thai curries usually contain pastes made by cooks from scratch. There are three main curry pastes: green, red, and yellow pastes. 

  • Green curry paste contains green chilies and garlic, as well as other ingredients such as lemongrass and lime leaves. 
  • Red curry paste has dried hot red chilies, and contains spices like black peppercorn. 
  • Yellow curry contains curry powder, turmeric, and a mix of garlic, galangal, and chilies to balance out the heat of the dish with some sweetness. 

Eating Habits In Thailand 

Your Ultimate Guide To Thai Food

Most people in Thailand will eat three meals a day, but there are many delicious snacks sold by stalls and vendors that are impossible to resist!

Thai locals will start off their day with a quick breakfast on their way to work, and this is where the food stalls come in handy. It’s not unusual to find that egg dishes are cooked right on the side of the road!

Rice porridge is also a common food eaten for breakfast in Thailand, and it can be enjoyed with pork or seafood to make it heartier.

Lunch and dinner usually take the form of pork skewers and grilled chicken, as well as different types of eggs. When it comes to eating dinner, it’s customary for families to get together to enjoy evening meals. 

Does Thai Food In The U.S. Vary From Thai Food In Thailand? 

If you live in the U.S., you might think you know a lot about Thai food, so it might surprise you to know that Thai food in the U.S. varies quite a bit from the authentic food you’ll eat in Thailand. 

For starters, Thai food in the U.S. usually has its spices dialed down a bit whereas food will be spicier in Thailand. When ordering Thai food in a restaurant in the U.S., you should therefore request extra spice if you like food to be hot! 

The vegetables you’ll find in Thai food made in Thailand are usually fresh instead of frozen, whereas U.S.-based Thai food usually relies on frozen vegetables because they’re easier to store and find.

Sometimes vegetables will be used in Thai food that’s not authentic to Thailand, such as bell peppers and broccolis, because some vegetables aren’t easy to source.

The condiments you’ll get for your meal in Thailand include a large variety, such as chili paste and fish sauce, whereas Thai food served in the U.S. usually comes with fewer options, such as soy sauce. 

Related Questions 

Is Thai food healthy?

Traditional Thai food is healthy because it’s based on lean protein, herbs, spices, and vegetables.

However, some Thai dishes or variations of them can contain high amounts of salt and sugar, and refined carbs. 

What is Thai soy sauce?

This soy sauce is mild and a bit salty which is quite different from other Asian soy sauces. 

Conclusion 

Thai cuisine consists of a range of foods, dishes, and ingredients to give you rich, complex flavors.

In this guide to Thai food, we’ve featured some of the most common ingredients and dishes to enjoy in different regions of the country.

We’ve also given you information about the geography and culture of this vibrant, memorable country.

Sources:

Nicole

Nicole Dowdy is an avid foodie and successful restaurateur. [He/she] has dedicated nearly all her life to learning popular recipes from across the globe as well as developing new ones. Using Food Migration, Nicole Dowdy shares the very best recipes for just about every home cook looking to try something new in the kitchen. Pro chefs can also learn a few tricks on the website.Looking to improve your kitchen? You will also find awesome and high-quality kitchen utensil recommendations as well as buying guides on this website.