Whether you stray off the beaten path, or stick to hotels and tour groups, you are bound to see several classic Thai dishes again and again. Local people definitely have a food–obsessed culture, and their most popular Thai dishes accurately reflect this. Interestingly, these classic dishes barely scratch the surface of the creativity of Thai food as a whole. In fact, the Thai repertoire is so vast that even Thais will admit to not knowing all of Thai food.
Papaya salad is a national dish that is slowly gaining recognition outside of Thailand. The base of the salad is young shredded green papaya or mango, a few slices of tomato and green beans.
These are pounded together with garlic, peanuts, palm sugar and chilies, then doused with fish sauce and lime juice. Som tam has a bright taste that balances sweet, salty, and sour. In Thai restaurants this dish comes simply made to suit the Western palate. Out on the streets you will have to specify as to other ingredients that make it really Thai, such as dried shrimps, field crabs, lots more chilies, and pla raa – fermented fish paste. Thais themselves customize this dish, telling the maker exactly how they want it, so do not hesitate to do the same as you order yours. They’ll invariable ask ‘mai pet’ – meaning ‘not spicy, right?’
Tom Yam Goong
This hot and sour lemongrass and shrimp soup is the unofficial ambassador of Thailand. Tom yam goong usually involves a light chicken stock, shrimp, straw mushrooms, a few tomatoes for looks, and plenty of aromatic herbs like lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and cilantro. The flavours are balanced to the cook’s tastes with proper amounts of lime juice and fish sauce. Sometimes the soup is really spicy, but every time you are guaranteed a delicious balance of salty and sour, as you enjoy a good bowl of tom yam goong.
Tom Kha Gai
This is another essential Thai soup dish. The key ingredients are chicken stock, chicken, mushrooms, onions, galangal, and coconut milk, which gives it a mellow white color. It is heavier and milder than the shrimp soup above, but just as satisfying, offering the classic balance of flavours that Thailand is famous for.
Gaeng Kiaow Waan
Literally translated as ‘sweet green curry’ is one of the three principal curries you find in Thailand. The curry is green (‘kiaow’ in Thai) because the curry paste is made from pounded green chilies. Other ingredients in the paste are a complex mix of pounded herbs like galangal, garlic, and lemon grass. As the name suggests, you can expect this curry to be lightly sweet, and to include a meat of choice, eggplant, coconut milk, and generous amounts of Thai basil.
Noodles have made the global rounds introducing many Westerners to their first tastes of Thai cuisine. Eaten more often as a quick snack rather than a meal by the Thais, it is readily found throughout the country. The dish has a base of stir–fried rice noodles, fish sauce, sugar and then a dash of dried shrimps, plus crushed peanuts thrown into it. It is a great Thai treat that appeals to nearly everyone. You can expect to pay next to nothing for it at a foodstall compared with ordering it in your hotel, so head outside for a true taste.
A southern Malay-style dish which is a nice mild introduction to Thai food (unless you experience a genuine spicy local version in southern provinces). It comprises a coconut based brown curry flavoured with peanuts and usually including chicken along with potato chunks. It’s widely found on menus and is one of the most flavoursome of Thai dishes.
This is the name for red curry in Thai, only the name actually means ‘spicy curry.’ The curry paste gets its colour from red chilies and also includes as many as 20 other items, most prominently lemongrass, garlic, and galangal. Most restaurants serve it with your choice of meat, and adjust the heat for Westerners. A favourite dish of central Thai cuisine, gaeng phet pet yang (red duck curry), is a rich and sweetly delicious take on red curry. Many Westerners count it as a favourite among Thai dishes.
This is red curry with a name that is easy for most Westerners to remember, and so many enjoy this dish by default as well as by choice. It is Malay-influenced and often much sweeter and less soupy than standard red curries. The sauce is rich with flavours from red curry paste, coconut cream and a pinch of sugar. Enjoy these Thai dishes regionally in the centre of the country, the south or hotel restaurants all over.
Is marinated, grilled, skewered meat – usually pork, sometimes chicken, and is known outside of Thailand nearly as well as the accompanying peanut sauce that it is served with. The sweet, creamy peanut sauce, rich with coconut milks, reflects its Malay influence, and has become an icon for Thai cuisine. The remarkable combination of flavours between grilled meat and creamy peanut sauce have endeared this dish to all.