Love at First Bite! Why Thai Food is Always on Top?

Thai food goes much further beyond Tom Yum soup or Pad Thai. And that fact is best discovered only when you take on a culinary journey here in the kingdom of flavours.
Contrary to popular belief, the authentic flavour of Thai food is not always about spiciness but rather a vast array of flavours dancing across the palate in one bite. Thanks to the abundance of fresh herbs and unique local seasoning ingredients, a typical Thai dish is said to carry up to eight different tastes of sweetness, sourness, saltiness, spiciness, bitterness, creaminess, astringency and insipidness – all interpreted distinctively according to the cooking styles of the country’s five different regions.  Here’s a mini guide on how to experience Thai food like a pro.    

The Central Thai Cuisine

The cuisine from this region is considered the most flavorful and perhaps the kind of “Thai food” that international visitors are most familiar with. Multiple influences that came with international travellers and settlers from China, Portugal, India, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodian and Vietnam, combined with complex use of ingredients, diverse cooking techniques, and elaborated decoration styles from the royal Thai cuisine culture mark the main characteristic of central Thai food. A typical meal usually consists of a set of several dishes that are to be shared among family members, also known as a Sum Rub, and eaten with steamed rice, the region’s main staple diet. Here are a few of the most recommended Central Thailand dishes to try: 

Pad Kaprao (Stir-Fried Holy Basil) is the Most Popular Dish in Thailand.
Often lovingly dubbed as “the no-brainer dish” for Thais, stir-fried Holy basil leaves with any meat served on top of steamed rice along with one or two crispy-rimmed soft-boiled fried eggs is always the winner whenever you run out of ideas for a meal. Traditionally, a Pad Kaprao dish only consists of the meat of choice, Holy basil leaves, chillis and garlic. A more modern version sees the addition of more vegetables such as baby corn, onions and string beans.

Tom Yum Goong (Hot and Sour Prawn Soup)
This spicy prawn soup is perhaps the most famous Thai dish that has been constantly promoted by the government. A Tom Yum soup can come in either clear (with or without oiled chilli paste added) or murky (with added evaporated milk or coconut milk) broth. A slurp brings an explosion of flavours from sourness, saltiness, spiciness and slight bitterness from local herbs like galanga, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.    

Pad Thai (Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Assorted Toppings)
The popularity of this noodle dish took off during WWII’s great economic recession in Thailand when the then government encouraged Thais to lessen rice consumption. Thanks to the tantalizing ingredients of palm sugar, tamarind juice and lime juice, the Chinese thin rice noodles that are stir-fried with either dried or fresh shrimp, tofu, pickled radish, peanuts, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, and a pinch of chilli flakes, were eventually transformed into a completely new Thai dish as we know today.      

Panaeng (Spicy Red Curry Meat Stew)
Thickened with fresh coconut milk, the winning taste of this sweet, salty and mildly spicy curry comes mainly from the complexity of the curry paste which is made up of pounded chillis, galanga, lemongrass, coriander roots, coriander and caraway seeds, garlic, cinnamon, and salt. The beauty of this curry is that the sauce itself can be paired with any kind of meat. No wonder Panang has recently been named as one of the Top 100 Stews in the World by          

Kaeng Keaw Wan (Creamy, Sweet and Spicy Green Curry)
This “sweet green curry” has derived its name from the soft green colour of the curry paste consisting of pounded shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, coriander roots, peppers, red and long green chillis, cooked with the meat of choice in fresh coconut milk. It is best enjoyed on top of hot steamed rice and not slurped as a soup. 

The Northeastern Thai Cuisine
Don’t let Isaan (northeastern) food’s simple ingredients and cooking style fool you. Despite the region’s mostly barren climate and scarcity of natural food sources, Isaan cuisine is highly flavorful and makes the fullest use of local greens, fishes, and amphibians such as frogs and bullfrogs from the rivers, as well as several varieties of edible insects. Isaan food’s taste profile is based on saltiness (with Pla Ra or fermented fish as a prime salty ingredient), spiciness, and sourness and is always served with sticky rice. The following are the top picks of northeastern Thai delicacies:     

Som Tum (Spicy Papaya Salad)
One can confidently say that Som Tum is the most well-known Thai salad. The raw green papaya shreds are lightly mashed with garlic, small tomatoes, peanuts, dried shrimp, and fresh chillis and tossed in a very savoury dressing made up of palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and in some recipes, with pickled crabs or fermented fish. Som Tum is best accompanied by grilled chicken, sticky rice, and fresh raw vegetables.    

Larb, Koi and Naam Tok (Spicy Meat or Sish Salads)
This trio of spicy meat or fish salads contain similar seasoning ingredients of fish sauce, grilled rice powder, chilli flakes and lime juice, but the difference lies in the meat cooking technique before adding the dressing: Larb requires the meat to be finely minced and pouched; Koi is Larb in the raw version; and the meat for Naam Tok must be grilled until it releases the juice.     

Jaew Bong (Sweet and Savoury Chilli Paste)
A highly umami sweet and spicy herbal chilli paste that is rich in flavours from toasted and pound shallots, galanga, lemongrass, garlic and dried chillis, a hearty dip of sticky rice in a well-mixed Jaew Bong is satisfying as a meal on its own.

Sai Krok Isaan (Northeastern-Style Fermented Sausage)
A sausage made with ground pork, lard, garlic, and rice and left to ferment for several days until it develops tanginess. It is best eaten grilled until the skin becomes crispy.

Soop Nor Mai (Spicy Bamboo Shoot Salad)
One of the better-known Isaan dishes, Soop in the northeastern Thai dialect refers to a salad rather than a soup, hence Soop Nor Mai is a shredded young bamboo shoot salad seasoned with fish sauce, lime juice, dried chillis and grilled rice powder.  

The Northern Thai Cuisine

Quite like the northeastern cuisine, northern Thai cuisine is often served with sticky rice, however, the prominent taste profile is mildly salty and not at all sweet, nor it is as sour and spicy as Isaan food. The influence of the region’s mountainous terrain is also well reflected in foraged greens from the wild and the rather high fat content to help combat the cold weather. Here are some of the prominent dishes worth sampling:  

Khao Soi (Egg noodle soup in a curry broth)
Originally called the Yunnan noodles, Khao Soi is egg noodles in flavorful coconut milk-based curry soup with either cooked chicken or beef and lots of condiments such as pickled cabbage, shallots and seasoned with oiled chilli paste, lime juice, fish sauce, and sugar. Despite its murky curry appearance, Khao Soi soup gives a mildly creamy taste that is just right.

Sai Ua (Northern-Style Spicy Sausage)
This northern Thai grilled sausage is comprised of a filling made with minced pork, galanga, shallots, garlic, turmeric, kaffir lime leaves and other seasonings stuffed in softened pig’s intestines. 

Kaeng Hung Lay (Northern-Style Pork Curry)
A curry dish without coconut milk, Kaeng Hung Lay’s rich flavour of saltiness, sourness and gentle spiciness comes from masala spices that signature of Myanmar’s heavily Indian-influenced cuisine.
The choice of meat can be anything from chicken, beef, and pork. Some recipes even include acidic fruits such as pineapple, santol or mango to add a hint of tanginess to the dish.  

Kaeng Hoh (Northern-Style Mixed Curry)
Traditionally, Kaeng Hoh is cooked by stir-frying leftover Kaeng Hung Lay and other unfinished food (the word ‘hoh’ in the northern Thai dialect means ‘mixing together’) with new ingredients such as vermicelli, young bamboo shoots, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and more Hung Lay curry paste – truly a delicious and clever way in managing food waste.       

Khanom Jeen Naam Ngio (Rice Vermicelli Noodles with Spicy Pork Stew)
Lightly spicy and tangy in taste, this fermented rice vermicelli dish with pork and pig’s blood cake in tomato base sauce originally comes from the cuisine of the Tai Yai or Shan minority group. Naam Ngio can be served with pork or beef, but it can’t be without two prime ingredients: dried red cotton tree flowers and Thua Nao or fermented soy bean cakes mixed into the soup.     

The Southern Thai Cuisine

Southern Thai food is certainly a roller coaster ride for those with a more adventurous palate. Strong in spiciness, aroma and flavours, the dishes of the south are often characterized by the taste of fresh seafood and coconut creams, with influence from southern Indian cuisine that can be seen in the heavy uses of herbs and spices such as turmeric, galanga, garlic, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. The intensity in flavour and spiciness of southern Thai cuisine is best balanced by eating with steamed rice and plenty of fresh raw vegetables.  The following are the must-try arharn tai (southern Thai food) dishes:    

Khua Kling (Dry-Fried Meat Curry)
This dry meat curry is one of southern Thai cuisine’s most well-known creations. Unlike a normal curry that the meat is usually cooked in a sauce, Khua Kling requires the minced meat to be stir-fried dry directly with the extra hot southern Thai curry paste, making the flavour and spiciness even more intense and bold.

Kaeng Tai Pla (Spicy Fish Curry with Fish Entrails Sauce)
This renowned curry dish features the salty taste of tai pla or southern-style salty sauce made from fish entrails that have been fermented in salt for about 10 to 30 days and seasoned with spices, fish stomach and vegetables such as string beans and eggplants. Sometimes coconut milk may be added to create a milder version of it. Be warned, though, that Kaeng Tai Pla is indeed very spicy and has a strong umami taste.   

Kaeng Luang (Spicy, Clear Yellow Curry)
Although its name is translated as “yellow curry”, Kaeng Luang in southern Thailand is often called Kaeng Som or “orange curry” as well.  Fresh turmeric is the key ingredient that could set the colouration of this curry apart, as it would make the broth appear more yellowish, and the one without it would seem more orange. Often cooked with fish meat, Kaeng Luang is another highly spicy southern Thai curry without the creaminess of coconut milk, and instead features the tanginess from pickled bamboo shoots, tamarind juice, and lime juice, along with fish sauce, sugar, and salt.

Khao Yum (Spicy Rice Salad with Vegetables and Herbs)
Spicy rice salad or Khao Yum is another famous southern Thai dish. This healthy creation is comprised of cooked rice tossed with plenty of herbs and vegetables and drizzled with a strongly flavoured dressing made from southern Thai-style fish sauce called Budu mixed with shallots and some sugar.

Sa Tor Pad Kapi (Stir-Fried Stink Beans in Shrimp Paste)
No arharn tai meal would be complete without ordering this unique stir fry dish, as Sa Tor, or stink beans, can only be found in the southern part of Thailand. Ideally, pouched Sa Tor beans would be stirred fried with pounded chillis, garlic, shallots, shrimp paste and palm sugar, along with minced pork and fresh prawns until cooked. Be sure to rinse your mouth well after eating as Sa Tor beans can be quite alarmingly pungent.  

The Eastern Thai Cuisine

Eastern Thai food might be a little lesser known when compared to the cuisines of other regions, but packed with its unique flavours, thanks to its proximity to the ocean that has brought diverse culinary cultures from places such as Portugal, China, and Cambodia, especially to the charming port town of Chanthaburi. Here are some of the eastern Thailand region’s most celebrated dishes:   

Pad Mee Chantaburi (Chanthaburi-Style Stir-Fried Noodles)
It is not an exaggeration to say that Chanthaburi makes one of Thailand’s best noodles, particularly the very al dente Sen Chan, a thin rice noodle which makes the greatest Pad Thai and Pad Mee Chanthaburi. At a quick glance, the Chanthaburi stir-fried noodle dish looks quite similar to Pad Thai, however, the differences are in the much sweeter seasoning, the lack of tofu and peanuts, and the signature small blue crabs on top.         

Kaeng Moo Cha Muang (Sweet and Sour Pork Stew with Cha Muang Leaves)
A must-try delicacy of eastern Thailand that is favoured by the people of Rayong, Trat and Chanthaburi, this tender pork curry dish sports a signature refreshing sourness derived from the locally grown Cha Muang leaves.

Janglon (Grilled Fish Cake on Wooden Picks)
On the surface, Janglon very much resembles Tod Mun or fried fish cakes. However, the difference is that this Eastern Thai snack is actually fish cake paste shaped on skewers and then oven-grilled until cooked rather than fried. 

Khao Kluk Prik Klua (Rice with Salty Chilli Sauce and Seafood)
This savoury mixture of chillis, garlics, fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice is also known as Chanthaburi’s “seafood sauce”. A few dollops of this special condiment on top of steamed rice served with hard-boiled eggs, cooked pork meat or seafood will spice up the flavour of any simple dish.  

Khanom Kuay Ling (Hand-Rolled Sticky Rice Dumplings)
Known locally in Chanthaburi as the “monkey’s penis” sweets, the century-old traditional treat is consisted of only a few simple ingredients: hand-rolled black and white sticky rice boiled until completely cooked, and then tossed in sugar, shredded coconuts and sesame.    

If it pleases you, say “It’s delicious!” like Thais do!

Central Thailand and in general – Aroy mak!

Northern Thailand – Lum kanaad!

Southern Thailand – Roy jung hoo!

Northeastern Thailand – Saab e lee!