Thai cuisine is as diverse as the country’s landscape. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of various meals for you to try. And trust me, the ones we have in our home countries are absolutely different from authentic Thai food. It gets quite challenging to know what to order with so many options, so to ease your struggle, I teamed up with other travel bloggers to bring you a list of the best Thai food, along with historical and cultural influences of Thai cuisine.
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Get to know Thai cuisine first
Thai dishes are lightly prepared with a focus on strong fragrant and flavorful ingredients and spicy touch. Authentic Thai cuisine generally falls into four groups: yam (spicy salads), tom (boiled dishes), gaeng (curries), and tam (pounded foods). Chinese migrants brought deep-fried, steamed meals and stir-fries to Thailand back in the day.
However, with their culinary traditions, Thailand and its neighbors mutually influence each other over the centuries. Therefore, regional diversity tends to correspond to adjoining states with similar ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and geography on both sides of the border. For instance, northern Thai cuisine has similar food with Burma’s Shan State, China’s Yunnan Province, and northern Laos. At the same time, northeastern Thailand sees the influence of Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine, Vietnamese, and southern Laos. Malaysia, India, and Indonesia altered southern Thai dishes.
Thai cuisine falls into five regional cuisines, reciprocal to the country’s five main areas:
- Bangkok: a culinary melting pot with west and east influences, especially Portuguese and Chinese Teochew people.
- Central Thai: area of ex-Thai Kingdoms of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya with main rice-growing fields. The main ingredient here is coconut milk.
- Northeastern Thai or Isan: meals are very similar to Laos with influences from Cambodia’s Khmer cuisine. The most frequent ingredient here is the fermented fish or pla ra
- Northern Thai: area of mountains and cooler temperature that once used to be the Lanna Kingdom. The cuisine shares a lot of ingredients with the northeast area.
- Southern Thai: region bordered by tropical seas on two sides featuring many islands influenced by Malaysia and various Chinese subgroups.
Ingredients used in Thai cuisine
With more than 40 distinguished ethnic groups with their own culture, traditions, and even languages, it is no surprise that Thai cuisine boasts of many different ways of cooking and an abundance of ingredients.
Thai food uses fresh herbs and spices, while common flavors come from garlic, coriander, lemongrass, pepper, shallots, fish sauce, and chilies, to name a few. To sweeten the dish, Thais use Palm sugar made from the juice of certain palms.
Thai cuisine typically uses pork and chicken; however, you’ll see lots of beef, duck, and water buffalo meat as well. Fish and seafood also play an important part in Thail meals.
Similar to many Asian countries, rice is the primary grain of Thailand. It’s the most important part of any meal. There are several varieties, including non-glutenous rice (khao chao), sweet-smelling Jasmin rice (native to Thailand), and sticky rice, to name a few.
Today, noodles also play a big part in the Thai diet, made from wheat, rice, or mung bean flour. Other types of noodles adapted from Chinese cuisine come in three varieties: wide flat, thin flat, and round and thin (vermicelli). Apart from this, there are also noodles called bami made from wheat flour and egg.
To make desserts, Thais mainly use tapioca and rice flour.
Serving and eating etiquette of Thai cuisine
Authentic Thai food is eaten with hands while seated on carpets or mats on the floor or at coffee tables in upper-middle-class families. Some of those customs still prevail in the more traditional households. Today, however, Thais use a spoon and fork to eat at usual tables and chairs.
One of the important eating etiquette in Thailand is to practice holding the fork in your left hand while pushing the food on the spoon in your right hand to eat from the spoon. For soups, you’ll be given a special traditional ceramic spoon, while knives are not generally used.
Chopsticks, now common utensils for many Thai meals, used to be a foreign tool for many Thai ethnic groups brought by other cultures. They are mostly used to eat Chinese, Japanese, or Korean style noodle soups.
If you are invited to a Thai family for dinner, come hungry as you’d be trying all the different meals set on the table. Thai meals generally consist of rice and several other corresponding foods shared by everyone at the table. The meals are served all at once, including soups. Traditionally, the dinner will have at least five elements: a dip for cooked or raw vegetables, a soup, a curry or a stew, stir-fried meat, and a deep-fried dish. Note that you’ll need to try everything at the table, yet if you like one meal pin particular, don’t eat it repeatedly. Everyone at the table should try it.
At Thai restaurants, a selection of Thai condiments and sauces will be either set on the table or brought to you by the staff. These may include fish sauces, chopped chilies and garlic, dried chili flakes, sweet chili sauce, Sriracha, and sugar, to name a few.
Attend a cooking class:
- Half-Day Thai Cooking Class with Market Tour – Bangkok
- Thai Cooking Class with Authentic Market Experience – small groups in Bangkok
- Hands-on Genuine Thai Cooking Class and Market Tour – Bangkok
Best Thai food to eat in Thailand
I love nearly every meal in Thailand, but one of my favorites is the breakfast dish Kai Jeow (Khai Jiao) – a Thai omelet. You could call it a regular omelet, but how it’s made is quite unique. As with most meals in Thailand, it’s flash-fried. The simple recipe calls for a couple of whisked eggs cooked in a decent amount of boiling oil. It only takes about 20 seconds to cook, and the chef will usually baste the eggs and flip them over halfway through.
The result is a slightly crispy, fluffy omelet. You can usually get ingredients such as ham, onions, crab meat, fresh oysters, etc., mixed in. The omelet is then served on a rice bed, and I like to top mine with a bit of sweet chili sauce. While restaurants sometimes have Kai Jeow on the menu, I prefer to get mine from street food carts. You’ll find them all around Thailand and for as little as 15 THB ($0.50) per serving.
By Skye Travels
Fried Rice Kao Pad
Who wouldn’t know the delicious fried rice from their travels to Southeast Asia? The most simple dish has its origins in China but spread over the whole region. Rice is stir-fried in a wok or a frying pan together with any ingredients on hand; at local homes, this typically means the leftovers. This leads to countless variations of the dish.
You can find fried rice everywhere in Thailand, typically featuring chicken or pork (rarely beef or shrimps) and vegetables. Often, cooks add an egg to the mixture or put separately fried on top. Vegetarian and vegan versions are common too, with tofu to replace the meat.
By Travel Geekery
Jasmine rice is an aromatic rice variety with a flowery and nutty flavor. The rice is glutinous and has a note of the smell of jasmine flower that lingers on when you cook and eat it. Jasmine rice might appear to be a long-grained rice variety that has been artificially flavored with jasmine essence while cooking. But that is not the case. This is an aromatic rice variety mainly cultivated in Thailand.
However, it is also grown in other Southeast Asian countries such as Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Jasmine rice is soft and sticky and is best to have as a side dish with other gravy meals or sticky dessert.
Since this rice variety is not very firm when cooked, it is not suitable for fried rice dishes. The aroma of jasmine rice is refreshing and opens the taste buds. It is a most pleasurable food experience, a delicacy for sure.
Noodle meals and soups
One of the best Thai food and a signature meal is popular in Thailand and the rest of the world. Found in almost every restaurant and street food stall of the country, Pad Thai recipe calls for wide or thin rice noodles stir-fried with abundant chicken, beef or prawns, eggs, and onion crunchy bean sprouts, and grated peanuts. Alternatively, tofu substitutes meat, so vegetarians don’t need to pass on the meal either.
The ingredients sautéed together in a wok are evenly cooked yet not very soft. Once done, a special pad thai sauce is tossed in the wok to give it that signature aromatic salty flavor with a tinge of sweetness. Squeeze a lime juice before eating to complete the dish.
When in Chiang Mai, you need to try another best Thai food – Khao Soi, coconut curry noodle soup! This northern Thai dish was influenced by its neighboring Burma and calls for a mix of boiled and deep-fried crispy egg noodles, shallots, pickled mustard greens, ground chilies fried in oil, and meat served in a flavorful curry-like broth.
On top, a lot of people like to add chunks of pickled vegetables and sliced shallots. A squeeze of lime completes the dish.
Egg noodle soup
This Thai noodle soup, Bha Mee Moo Daeng, is another popular and one of the best Thai food to try in Thailand. The recipe calls for egg noodles served with meat broth, slices of roasted pork, and vegetables as a garnish.
Boat Noodle Soup
Thai boat noodle soup is a less popular choice among foreigners but widespread among locals. The name comes from the fact that it was originally offered from boats at Bangkok canals.
Noodles boil in meat broth flavored with typical local spices. The dish also includes chunks of preferred meat, pork or beef, pickled bean curd, dark soy sauce, and meatballs, among other herbs and spices.
Sometimes, the soup may contain cow or pig blood mixed with spices and salt to season the soup. This type of boat noodle soup is very similar to beef noodle soup in color, but the broth’s texture is thicker because of the added blood.
Soups and curries
Any list of the best Thai food would not be complete without a mention of its national soup, Tom Yum. A soup that led to my eternal love for Thai food, the Tom Yum is a type of hot and sour soup originally calling prawns as the main ingredient.
Nowadays, this Thai delicacy is famous worldwide, usually with slight variations. Along with prawns, the Tom Yum soup includes fresh ingredients such as lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice, fish sauce, and crushed red chili peppers. The result is a perfectly refreshing and rich broth that is the perfect appetizer.
Very often, cooks add noodles to the Tom Yum Soup along with a choice of protein to create the perfect meal! Don’t miss the Tom Yum soup when you are in Thailand, though that is very unlikely because they are available everywhere!
Green Curry is arguably the hottest meal in Thailand with its green chili peppers paste base. It is an exciting treat for those who love chili food but a challenge for those with milder taste choices.
Coconut milk is the main ingredient for the sauce along with herbs and spices like Thai basil, blue ginger, turmeric, and shallots to name a few. In addition, the recipe also includes vegetables, such as potatoes or eggplants. Mostly, locals order it with chicken, but some pair it with beef or seafood.
Those who love Pad Thai and other peanut-based curries will adore Panang curry, one of the richest and more flavorsome dishes in Thailand. The ingredients include coconut milk, peanuts, and brown sugar so how could it not be delicious? A touch of chili, squirt of lime, and a splash of the fish sauce give this dish an extra kick. If you’re not a fan of hot red and green curry, you may prefer it as it’s sweeter and less spicy.
Panang curry is popular in Thailand and Laos. You’ll find it served in restaurants all around Thailand from Bangkok to Chiang Mai and the islands. Traditionally it’s served with chicken but nowadays you’ll find veggie-friendly cafes in tourist and nomad areas serving Panang with potatoes and veggies. Check out this Chiang Mai food guide for more inspiration.
By Where Goes Rose
When it comes to Thai curries, Massaman is on the more mild side, making it a good “starter” curry to try if your palate isn’t up to face those Thai spice levels.
Massaman curry has roots in Muslim culture and has a base of cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, and other spices that round out this savory dish with unexpected flavors. These ingredients are not common in other Thai curries; people believed that traders from the Middle East and India brought them to the country.
Married with traditional Thai flavors like chili, lemongrass, galangal, garlic, and coconut milk, massaman curry takes on a taste that is uniquely its own. Traditionally served with potatoes, cashews, and meat, this dish is rich, hearty, and unbelievably delicious.
While the Massaman curry typically uses chicken, it can also include beef or made vegetarian by substituting the meat for tofu and extra veggies. If you’re traveling in Chiang Mai and want to try a vegetarian version of this dish, Anchan, located in the Nimman neighborhood, won’t disappoint.
By Two Wandering Soles
Laab is a Thai meat salad using pork, chicken, beef, or duck. A vegetarian version calls for mushrooms. Originally from the Isan region, the northeast of the country, Laab is actually known as a Lao dish (perhaps even the National Dish of Laos). Ethnic Laos’ brought the dish to Thailand, who make up the majority of the population of the region. However, you may be able to find Laab in Bangkok too.
Even though the salad has a Lao origin, the Thai version is very different. There is no fish sauce or souring agent, like lime juice, in it. Instead, cumin, cloves, pepper, star anise, and cinnamon flavor the dish. The recipe uses minced meat added spices.
You can eat Laap raw, however, we do NOT recommend this. Ask for the cooked version of the dish, where shallots, roasted rice, and the spices flavor the meat. The meal comes with coriander and extra chili for the kick on top.
Som Tam, or papaya salad, is a zingy and refreshing dish that encompasses all of the tastes of sweet, spicy, salty, and sour. This popular Thai food is widely available in restaurants and street stalls across Thailand. Each region of the country has a slightly different version.
The more traditional one calls for shredded unripe papaya giving it a crunchy texture, along with a mix of chilies, fresh garlic, dried shrimp, fish sauce, sweet palm sugar, peanuts, and lime juice. All the ingredients are pounded in a clay mortar with a wooden pestle (tam means pounded in Thai), making it a very quick dish to prepare. Sticky rice almost always accompanies Som Tam along with either fish or BBQ chicken.
Afterward, the cook tosses it with cherry tomato halves and chopped green long beans.
By CK Travels
Pad Krapow, a delicious dish cooked up in restaurants or street food carts across Thailand, is a very popular meal with locals and tourists. Additionally, it’s one of the cheapest street foods to purchase, for as little as 40 THB. ‘Pad’ means fried and ‘Krapow’ is the name of the basil the recipe uses. Often times, everyone calls the Thai basil meal.
The basil is spicy by nature, so the dish is often spicy with added chilies, garlic, oyster and fish sauces. This meal is versatile too as you can select your choice of filling such as chicken, pork, beef, or fish. Once you try this dish you’ll be hooked and going back for more.
One of the most common street foods in Thailand is the roadside barbecues firing away in puffs of smoke with all sorts of sausages on the grill. But one sausage really stands out in Thailand – the Isaan Sausage.
Named after the Northeastern region originated from, the sausage includes a mix of fermented pork, sticky rice, and garlic, which gives them a unique sour flavor. After a good grilling, it comes with optional additions of ginger cuts, fresh birdseye chilies, and green cabbage. Throw them all together for an explosion of Thailand’s sweet, sour, salty, and hot sensations. Along with Laab and Som Tam, it is one of the Isaan region’s must-try foods.
By Live Less Ordinary
Grilled meat on a skewer
Various meat grilled on a skewer is a popular street food all across Thailand. You can choose from pork (Mu Ping), beef, or chicken (Kai Yang) meat. Alternatively, there are meatballs from the same meat varieties. Usually, they come with a sauce of your choice. Eat them as it is, or pair with sticky rice or papaya salad.
Desserts and drinks
Street Food Thai Pancakes
Whether you’re on Khao San Road in Bangkok, at the night market in Chiang Mai or on one of the islands like Phi Phi, Koh Tao or Koh Samui, you’ll be sure to see a lady selling pancakes from a street food stall – a must try one when you’re in Thailand!
The pancakes work perfectly as a snack during the day, or at the end of a night out! You can choose from a savory pancake with ingredients like cheese, onion, egg and chili sauce, or a sweet pancake with the classic ingredients of banana and Nutella!
It’s great to watch the preparation process too as the vendor pours super-thin base, afterward puts ingredients and waits for a couple of seconds. Then, the flaky pancake is cut up into 12 pieces!
By The Wandering Quinn
Mango Sticky Rice
Mango Sticky Rice is a popular and classic Thai dessert. Just as the name suggests, it consists of a type of glutinous rice called sticky rice which has a somewhat sweeter taste. Additionally, coconut milk and mangoes round out the features of this life-changing dessert.
If you are visiting Thailand, April and May (mango season) are the best time of year for the dish but don’t rule it out if you are there other months. As with most Thai food, Mango Sticky Rice is quite filling so be sure to save some room. Eat the dessert right after serving when the rice is still warm and the freshly drizzled coconut milk still glistens on top.
You can find Mango Sticky Rice throughout most of Thailand and it ranges in price from street to restaurant. This is one dessert you will want to enjoy many times over while in Thailand!
This tiny dessert item called Luk Chup is almost too pretty to eat. It’s the Thai version of marzipan treats but the main ingredient is the mung beans instead of almonds. The recipe calls for simple ingredients such as beans, coconut milk, and sugar. Afterward, the cook shapes dough to look like tiny fruits, beautifully paints in bright colors, by hand, and then dips in a thin layer of clear gelatin. Don’t be fooled by their appearance though – they don’t taste like fruit and this little delicacy is more savory than sweet!
Luk Chup pieces can be found all over Thailand and are approximately the size of a nickel or quarter, depending on who makes them. The price is per group, and not individually. They’re so attractive and affordable you’ll want to buy a lot!
Khanom Krok is tiny, miniature pancakes and popular street food throughout Thailand. You can often find them at night markets, or any location where street food vendors congregate. Made with rice flour mixed with sugar and coconut milk, sometimes with the addition of shredded coconut. Since there are no dairy products or eggs, Khanom Krok is one of the many traditional vegan dishes in Thailand.
If you’re someone who likes to combine sweet and salty flavors, you will love it. Typically, the recipe calls for two different pancake batters – one salty and the other sweet. Cooked separately in a semi-circular mold, the vendor places one sweet semicircle and one savory to stick together to form a complete pancake. Although sometimes you’ll see them sold just as half circles, as pictured here.
By The Nomadic Vegan
Coconut Ice Cream
Thailand’s subtropical climate can be overwhelming on any given day, and even more so, if you aren’t used to sweltering heat. Luckily there is an easy way to cool off and satisfy your sweet tooth — coconut ice cream or Itim Kati.
Coconut ice cream is a firm favorite in Thailand. You can find it practically anywhere across the country – from the bustling streets of Bangkok to the laid back beaches of Railay Bay. Besides being plentiful, refreshing, and extremely fragrant, there is yet another reason to love coconut ice cream.
It’s effortless to make! And, if you’re up to it, you can recreate this Thai signature dish in a few simple steps at home. While you’ll find many different variants on the internet to create the perfect bowl of Itim Kati, it is a simple yet oh so tasty dessert. With only five ingredients (eggs, sugar, heavy cream, coconut milk, and vanilla essence), it’s not hard to see why it’s such a popular street snack in Thailand!
Thai orange cake
I found this amazing Thai orange cake in a trendy café in Chiang Mai, and it was delicious! The woman who made it was working on another cake next to the counter so before leaving I did not hesitate to ask her for the recipe so I could prepare it also at home.
The main ingredients to prepare this Thai orange cake are:
- 150g of cake flour,
- 1 teaspoon of baking powder
- 1/4 teaspoon of salt
- 4 eggs beaten
- 00g of sugar
- 80g of milk
- 80g of melted butter
- a teaspoon of vanilla extract
On the recipe, there was also SP but I could not find this in France so I replaced it by 15g of natron tablets (my secret touch!). The baking time is 30 minutes at 175C.
For the top you need orange zest, orange juice, water, 135g of sugar, 40g of cornflour, and 40g of salted butter softened. I also put some bits of orange zest in the dough. The ensemble has a slightly bitter taste which I like very much.
I did it once in France and it was a success so here’s the recipe if you want to try.
Thailand is known for its warm sunny weather but sometimes the heat is unbearable. One of my favorite ways to cool off is to have a Thai ice tea.
Strong black tea, sweetened with sweetened condensed milk, cooled with ice, and added spices like cardamom, tamarind, and star anise make the Thai tea. A nice, cooling drink on a hot day, however, you don’t want to know how much sweetened condensed milk is used in the tea.
Some vendors sell orange-color Thai ice tea and don’t be fooled though, this is just artificial coloring. Also be careful as Thai teas are highly addictive!
Krating Daeng – Thai Red Bull
We all know Red Bull, the energetic drink popular all over the world. BUT we mostly don’t know where it came from. The answer to that question is – Thailand! Literary translated as the “red bull” or “red gaur”, Krating Daeng is a non-carbonated energy drink created by Thai investor and Businessman Chaleo Yooovidhya.
The logo of the drink is very similar to Red Bull where two bulls presenting power, red indicating determination, and the sun on the background – energy. Introduced in 1976 on the Thai market as a refreshment for rural laborers, Krating Daeng quickly became popular in the country.
The “western” Red Bull is a different company and a product. An Austrian entrepreneur who visited Thailand on a business trip in 1982 created it after he discovered the drink helped him to cure the jet lag and started working in partnership with Chaleo’s company to cater to the taste of the western world.
Prepare for the trip
To ease your travel planning, check out all the posts about Thailand travel. Additionally, here are some of the websites and services I use when preparing for my next adventure anywhere in the world.
- Book affordable flights on Skyscanner, a platform that shows the best routes and flight deals to your destination. There’s a money-back guarantee if you miss the flight!
- Check iVisa to see if you need a tourist visa to visit Thailand, how to apply online if applicable, or where’s the nearest embassy or consulate
- Find budget-friendly deals on all sorts of accommodation types on Booking and Agoda
- Pre-book a shared or private car transfer from Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport to your hotel
- Buy the most flexible and budget-friendly travel insurance, SafetyWing, to cover all sorts of health problems on the road
- Book in advance some of the best city walks, floating markets, snorkeling tours, or day trips to maximize your stay and experience here