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Thai Cuisine

Blending elements of several Southeast Asian traditions, Thai cooking places emphasis on lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components. The spiciness of Thai cuisine is well known. As with other Asian cuisines, balance, detail and variety are of great significance to Thai chefs. Thai food is known for its balance of three to four fundamental taste senses in each dish or the overall meal: sour, sweet, salty, and bitter.

Thai Green Curry Seafood Chowder
Thai Green Curry Seafood Chowder

Serving meals in Thai cuisine

Thai meals typically consist of a single dish if eating alone, or rice (khao in Thai) with many complementary dishes served concurrently and shared by all. It is customary to serve more dishes than there are guests at a table.

Thai food was traditionally eaten with the right hand while seated on mats or carpets on the floor as still happens in the more traditional households. It is now generally eaten with a fork and a spoon. Tables and chairs were introduced as part of the westernisation during the reign of King Mongkut, Rama IV. The use of fork and spoon were introduced by King Chulalongkorn after his return from a tour of Europe in 1897 CE. The fork, held in the left hand, is used to push food into the spoon. The spoon is then brought to the mouth. A traditional ceramic spoon is sometimes used for soup. Knives are not generally used at the table. Chopsticks are used primarily for eating noodle soups, but not otherwise used.

It is common practice for Thais and hill tribe peoples in north and northeast Thailand to use sticky rice as an edible implement by shaping it into small, and sometimes flattened, balls by hand which are then dipped into side dishes and eaten. Thai-Muslims frequently eat meals with only their right hands.

Thai food is often served with a variety of sauces (nam chim) and condiments. These may include Phrik Nam Pla (consisting of fish sauce, lime juice, chopped chillies and garlic), dried chilli flakes, Sweet Chilli Sauce, sliced chilli peppers in rice vinegar, Sriracha Sauce, or a spicy chilli sauce or paste called nam phrik. In most Thai restaurants, diners can find a selection of Thai condiments, often including sugar or MSG, available on the dining table in small containers with tiny spoons. With certain dishes, such as Khao Kha Mu (pork trotter stewed in soy sauce and served with rice), whole Thai peppers and raw garlic are served in addition. Cucumber is sometimes eaten to cool the mouth after particularly spicy dishes. They often also feature as a garnish, especially with one-dish meals. The plain rice, sticky rice or the khanom chin (Thai rice noodles) served alongside a spicy Thai curry or stir-fry, tends to counteract the spiciness.

A Thai family meal will normally consist of rice with several dishes which form a harmonious contrast of ingredients and preparation methods. The dishes, also soups, are all served at the same time. A meal at a restaurant for four people could, for instance, consist of Chuchi Pla (fish in dry red curry), Som Tam (a spicy green papaya salad with dried shrimps, tomatoes, green beans and peanuts), Pik Kai Sot Sai Thot (deep fried stuffed chicken wings), Yam Nuea Yang (a salad of grilled beef, shallots and celery or mint), Khai Yiao Ma Phat Kraphao Krop (spicy stir fried century eggs with crispy-fried holy basil)and tom chuet taohu kap sarai (a non-spicy vegetable soup with tofu and seaweed) to temper it all.

Common Ingredients in Thai Cuisine

Thailand has about the same surface area as Spain and a length of approximately 1650 kilometres (Italy, in comparison, is about 1250 kilometres), with foothills of the Himalayas in the north, a high plateau in the northeast, a verdant river basin in the centre and tropical rainforests and islands in the south. And with over 40 distinct ethnic groups with each their own culture and even more languages, it doesn’t come as a surprise that Thai cuisine, as a whole, is extremely varied and features many different ingredients and ways of preparing food. Thai food is known for its enthusiastic use of fresh (rather than dried) herbs and spices. Common herbs include coriander, lemongrass, Thai basil and mint. Some other common flavours in Thai food come from ginger, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, garlic, soy beans, Asian shallots, white and black peppercorn, kaffir lime and, of course, chillies.

Pastes and Sauces in Thai Cuisine

The ingredients found in almost all Thai dishes and every region of the country is nam pla, a very aromatic and strong tasting fish sauce. Fish sauce is a staple ingredient in Thai cuisine and imparts a unique character to Thai food. Fish sauce is prepared with fermented fish that is made into a fragrant condiment and provides a salty flavour. There are many varieties of fish sauce and many variations in the way it is prepared. Some fish may be fermented with shrimp and/or spices. Pla ra is also a sauce made from fermented fish. It is more pungent than nam pla, and, in contrast to nam pla which is a clear liquid, it is opaque and often contains pieces of fish. To use it in Som Tam (spicy papaya salad) is a matter of choice. Kapi, Thai shrimp paste, is a combination of fermented ground shrimp and salt. It is used, for instance, in Red Curry Paste, in the famous chilli paste called nam phrik kapi and in rice dishes such as khao khluk kapi. Tai pla is a sauce used in the Southern Thai cuisine made with the fermented innards of the short-bodied mackerel. It is one of the main condiments of kaeng tai pla curry and is also used to make nam phrik tai pla.

Nam phrik are Thai chilli pastes, similar to the Indonesian and Malaysian sambals. Each region has its own special versions. The words “nam phrik” are used by Thais to describe many pastes containing chilies used for dipping, although the more watery version tend to be called nam chim. Thai curry pastes are normally called phrik kaeng or khrueang kaeng (lit. curry ingredients) but some people also use the word nam phrik to designate a curry paste. Red curry paste, for instance, could be called phrik kaeng phet or khrueang kaeng phet in Thai, but also nam phrik kaeng phet. Both nam phrik and phrik kaeng are prepared by crushing together chillies with various ingredients such as garlic and shrimp paste using a mortar and pestle. Some nam phrik are served as a dip with vegetables such as cucumbers, cabbage and yard-long beans, either raw or blanched. One such paste is nam phrik num, a paste of pounded fresh green chillies, shallots, garlic and coriander leaves. The sweet roasted chilli paste called nam phrik phao is often used as an ingredient in Tom yam or when frying meat or seafood, and it is also popular as a spicy “jam” on bread. The dry nam phrik kung, made with pounded dried prawns (kung haeng, Thai: กุ้งแห้ง), is often eaten with rice and a few slices of cucumber.

The soy sauces which are used in Thai cuisine are of Chinese origin and the Thai names for them are (wholly or partially) loanwords from the Teochew dialect: si-io dam (dark soy sauce), si-io khao (light soy sauce), and taochiao (fermented whole soy beans). Namman hoi (oyster sauce) is also of Chinese origin. It is used extensively in vegetable and meat stir-fries.

Khanom chin, freshly made Thai rice noodles
Khanom chin, freshly made Thai rice noodles

Rice and Noodles

Rice is a staple grain of Thai cuisine, as in most Asian cuisines. Highly prized, sweet-smelling jasmine rice is indigenous to Thailand. This naturally aromatic long-grained rice grows in abundance in the verdant patchwork of paddy fields that blanket Thailand’s central plains. Steamed rice is accompanied by highly aromatic curries, stir-fries and other dishes, sometimes incorporating large quantities of chilli peppers, lime juice and lemongrass/maenglak. Curries, stir-fries and others may be poured onto the rice creating a single dish called khao rat kaeng (Thai: ข้าวราดแกง), a popular meal when time is limited. Sticky Rice (khao niao) is a unique variety of rice that contains an unusual balance of the starches present in all rice, causing it to cook up to a sticky texture. Sticky rice, not jasmine rice, is the staple food in the local cuisines of Northern Thailand and of Isan (Northeastern Thailand), both regions of Thailand directly adjacent to Laos with which they share this, and many other cultural traits.

Noodles are popular as well but usually come as a single dish, like the stir-fried phat thai or in the form of a noodle soup. Many Chinese dishes have been adapted to suit Thai taste, such as kuai-tiao ruea (a sour and spicy rice noodle soup). In Northern Thailand, Khao Soi, a curry soup with bami (egg noodles), is extremely popular in Chiang Mai.

Noodles are usually made from either rice flour, wheat flour or mung bean flour and include six main types. Rice noodles are called kuai tiao in Thailand and come in three varieties: sen yai are wide flat noodles, sen lek are thin flat rice noodles, and sen mi (also known as rice vermicelli in the West) is round and thin. Bami is made from egg and wheat flour and usually sold fresh. It is similar to the Chinese mee pok and lamian. Wun sen are extremely thin noodles made from mung bean flour which are sold dried. They are called cellophane noodles in English. Khanom chin is fresh Thai rice vermicelli made from fermented rice, well-known from dishes such as khanom chin kaeng khiao wan kai (rice noodles with green chicken curry).

Rice flour (paeng khao chao) and tapioca flour (paeng man sampalang) are often used in desserts and as thickening.

Vegetables, herbs and spices

Phrik khi nu (bird's eye chillies) often gives Thai food its spiciness
Phrik khi nu (bird’s eye chillies) often gives Thai food its spiciness
Some of the fresh ingredients for red curry paste
Some of the fresh ingredients for Red Curry Paste

Thai dishes use a wide variety of herbs, spices and leaves rarely found in the West, such as kaffir lime leaves (bai makrut). The characteristic flavour of kaffir lime leaves appears in nearly every Thai soup (e.g., the hot and sour Tom yam) or curry from the southern and central areas of Thailand. The Thai lime (manao) is smaller, darker and sweeter than the kaffir lime, which has a rough looking skin with a stronger lime flavour. Kaffir lime leaves are frequently combined with garlic (krathiam), galangal (kha), lemongrass (takhrai) and/or Thai lemon basil (maenglak), turmeric (khamin) and/or fingerroot (krachai), blended together with liberal amounts of various chillies to make curry paste. Fresh Thai basils are also used to add spice and fragrance in certain dishes such as Green curry, of which kraphao has a distinctive scent of clove and leaves which are often tipped with a maroon colour. Further often used herbs in Thai cuisine include phak chi, (cilantro or coriander), rak phak chi (cilantro/coriander roots), culantro (phak chi farang), spearmint (saranae), and pandanus leaves (bai toei). Other spices and spice mixtures in Thai cuisine include phong phalo (five-spice powder), phong kari (curry powder), and fresh and dried peppercorns (phrik thai)

Besides kaffir lime leaves, several other tree leaves are used in Thai cuisine such as cha-om, the young feathery leaves of the Acacia pennata tree, which cooked in omelettes, soups and curries and raw in salads of the Northern Thai cuisine. Banana leaves are often used as packaging for ready-made food or as steamer cups such as in ho mokpla, a spicy steamed pâté or soufflé made with fish and coconut milk. Banana flowers are also used in Thai salads or minced and deep fried into patties. The leaves and flowers of the neem tree (sadao) are also eaten blanched.

Five main chillies are generally used as ingredients in Thai food. One chilli is very small (about 1.25 centimetres ) and is known as the hottest chilli: phrik khi nu suan (“garden mouse-dropping chilli”). The slightly larger chilli phrik khi nu (“mouse-dropping chilli”) is the next hottest. The green or red phrik chi fa (“sky pointing chilli”) is slightly less spicy than the smaller chillies. The very large phrik yuak, which is pale green in colour, is the least spicy and used more as a vegetable. Lastly, the dried chillies: phrik haeng are spicier than the two largest chillies and dried to a dark red colour.

Other typical ingredients are the several types of eggplant (makhuea) used in Thai cuisine, such as the pea-sized makhuea phuang and the egg-sized makhuea suai, often also eaten raw. Although broccoli is often used in Asian restaurants in the west in phat thai and rat na, it was never actually used in any traditional Thai food in Thailand and is still rarely seen in Thailand. Usually in Thailand, khana is used, for which broccoli is a substitute. Other vegetables which are often eaten in Thailand are thua fak yao (yardlong beans), thua ngok (bean sprouts), no mai (bamboo shoots), tomatoes, cucumbers, phak tam leung (Coccinia grandis), khana (Chinese kale), phak kwangtung (choy sum), cha om (tender Acacia pennata leaves), sweet potatoes (used more as a vegetable), a few types of squash, phakatin (Leucaena leucocephala), sataw (Parkia speciosa), Tua phū (Winged beans) and kapōt corn.

Among the green leafy vegetables that are usually eaten raw in the meal or as a side dish in Thailand, the most important are: Phak bung (morning-glory), hōrapha (Thai basil), bai bua bok (Asian pennywort), phak kachēt (water mimosa), phak kat khao (Chinese cabbage), kra thin Thai (ipil-ipil), phak phai (Praew leaves), phak kayang (Rice Paddy Herb), phak chī farang (Eryngium foetidum), phak tiu (Cratoxylum formosum), phak “phaai” (Yellow Burr Head) and kalampli – (cabbage). Some of these leaves are highly perishable and must be used within a couple of days.

Several types of mushroom (het) also feature in Thai cuisine such as straw mushrooms (het fang) and white jelly fungus (het hu nu khao).

Fruits

Related article : List of Tropical Fruits

The durian shown here is of the Long Laplae variety, one of the most expensive durians available in Thailand
The durian shown here is of the Long Laplae variety, one of the most expensive durians available in Thailand
Known as the “Queen of Tropical Fruits” the mangosteen is one of the most popular tropical fruits. The white flesh tastes very sweet and juicy, with a lemon tang.
Known as the “Queen of Tropical Fruits” the Mangosteen is one of the most popular tropical fruits. The white flesh tastes very sweet and juicy, with a lemon tang.

Fruit forms a large part of the Thai diet and are customarily served after a meal. Although many of the exotic fruits of Thailand may have been sometimes unavailable in Western countries, many Asian markets import such fruits as rambutan and lychees. In Thailand one can find papaya, jackfruit, mango, mangosteen, langsat, longan, pomelo, pineapple, rose apples, durian, Burmese grapes and other native fruits. Chantaburi in Thailand each year holds the World Durian Festival in early May. This single province is responsible for half of the durian production of Thailand and a quarter of the world production. The Langsat festival is held each year in Uttaradit province around the middle to end of September. The langsat (Lansium domesticum), for which Uttaradit is famous, is a fruit that is similar in taste to the longan.

The fruit of the tamarind is used to make sour dishes, and palm sugar, made from the sap of certain Borassus palms, is used to sweeten dishes. From the coconut palm comes coconut sugar, coconut vinegar, and coconut milk. The juice of a green coconut can be served as a drink and the young flesh can be eaten.

Apples, grapes, pears and strawberries, which do not traditionally grow in Thailand, have become increasingly popular in recent years. They are being grown locally in the cooler highlands and mountains of Thailand, mainly in the North, but now most are imported from China.

Representative dishes

Related articlesList of Thai Dishes  —  About Thai Curries  —  About Thai Salads

Many Thai dishes are familiar in the West. In the many dishes below, different kinds of protein, or combinations of protein, can be chosen as ingredients, such as beef (nuea, Thai: เนื้อ), chicken (kai, Thai: ไก่), pork (mu, Thai: หมู), duck (pet, Thai: เป็ด), tofu (taohu, Thai: เต้าหู้) or seafood (ahan thale, Thai: อาหารทะเล).

Breakfast dishes

Thai cuisine does not have very specific breakfast dishes. Very often, a Thai breakfast can consist of the same dishes which are also eaten for lunch or dinner. Fried rice, noodle soups and steamed rice with something simple such as an omelette, fried pork or chicken, are commonly sold from street stalls as a quick take-out. The following dishes are viewed as being specific breakfast dishes but they can also be eaten at any other moment of the day:

  • Chok – Although it is more popular as a breakfast dish, many stores specialising in congee sell it throughout the day. Variations in the meat and toppings are also frequently found. It is especially popular during Thailand’s cool season..
  • Khao Khai Chiao – an omelette (khai chiao) with white rice, often eaten with a chilli sauce and slices of cucumber.
  • Khao Tom – a Thai style rice soup, usually with pork, chicken or shrimp.
  • Pa Thong Ko – The Thai version of the Chinese deep-fried bread called youtiao, it can be topped up with spreads or dips such as pandan coconut custard or with chocolate and sweetened condensed milk.
  • Nam taohu – Soy milk which is often served with sweet jellies.

Individual dishes

  • Khanom chin nam ngiao – A speciality of Northern Thailand, it is Thai fermented rice noodles served with pork blood tofu in a sauce made with pork broth and tomato, crushed fried dry chillies, pork blood, dry fermented soy bean, and dried red kapok flowers.
  • Khanom chin namya – round boiled rice noodles topped with a fish based sauce and eaten with fresh leaves and vegetables.
  • Khao Khluk Kapi – rice stir-fried with shrimp paste, served with sweetened beef and vegetables.
  • Khao Man Kai – A popular boiled chicken one plate dish in Thailand which is derived from the famous Hainanese chicken on rice..
  • Khao Phat – a variety of fried rice typical of central Thai cuisine. This dish differs from Chinese fried rice is that it is prepared with Thai Jasmine rice instead of regular long-grain rice.
    • Khao Phat Gai – (Fried Rice with Chicken). – A basic fried rice commonly made by street vendors and fine restaurants alike. It’s best to use day-old rice that’s been cooked and sitting at room temperature (just leave it in the rice cooker for best results).
    • Khao phat mu – fried rice with pork.
    • Khao phat pu – fried rice with crab meat.
    • Khao Phat Kung – Classic shrimp fried rice with fresh shrimp, rice, spring onions, peas, carrots, and oyster sauce. The secret is to use day old cooked rice.
    • Khao phat naem – fried rice with fermented sausage, a typically dish from the Northeast
  • Khao Soi – crispy noodles in sweet chicken curry soup (a Northern dish).
  • Kuai-tiao nam – rice-noodle soup can be eaten at any time of day; served with many combinations of proteins, vegetables, and spicy condiments. The word kuai-tiao, although originally designating only one type of noodle, the sen yai (wide rice noodles), is used colloquially for all rice noodles in general.
  • Mi krop – deep fried rice vermicelli with a sweet and sour sauce.
  • Phat khi mao – noodles stir-fried with Thai basil.
  • Phat si-io – rice noodles (often kuai tiao) stir-fried with si-io dam (thick sweet soy sauce) and nam pla (fish sauce) and pork or chicken.
  • Phat thai – rice noodles pan fried with fish sauce, sugar, lime juice or tamarind pulp, chopped peanuts, and egg combined with chicken, seafood, or tofu.
  • Kuai-tiao rat na – wide rice noodles in gravy, with beef, pork, chicken, shrimp, or seafood.

Central Thai shared dishes

  • Chuchi Pla Kaphong – If you love seafood and want to experience the diverse flavours and textures of Thai cuisine then you cannot afford to skip Chuchi pla. Fish in dried red curry (chuchi pla) is rich and little bit hot but great with rice and good for dinner. It looks hard to do, but it really is easy with just a few steps.
  • Ho mok pla – a pâté or soufflé of fish, spices, coconut milk and egg, steamed in a banana leaf cup and topped with thick coconut cream before serving.
  • Kai phat khing – chicken stir-fried with sliced ginger.
  • Kaeng Khiao Wan – Thai green curry paste is surprisingly easy to make, and it’s so much healthier & fresher-tasting than the store-bought variety. Added to your favourite meats or seafood, noodles, vegetables, tofu, or wheat gluten, this paste will create sumptuous curries. Or use it to make delicious soups or noodle dishes. Cook with the paste right away, or store in the refrigerator for up to 2 weeks and use it as you need it. The paste can also be frozen for future use.
  • Kaeng Phanaeng – Kaeng Phanaeng curry is a nice creamy curry that goes well with beef (Kaeng Phanaeng Neua) or chicken, is simple to make and not too time consuming.
  • Kaeng phet  – also known as red curry in English, it is a coconut curry made with copious amounts of dried red chillies in the curry paste.
  • Kaeng Som  – Made from a type of red curry paste, which could be made from dried chillies as well as from fresh chillies. Kaeng Som can be made with any kind of fish but most prefer crustacean seafood; shrimp usually the most available and affordable. Any white fish works wonderfully. Kaeng Som is considered spicy by central, northern and north-eastern Thai people and is a regional specialty of southern Thailand.
  • Kai phat met mamuang himmaphan – The Thai Chinese version of the Sichuan style chicken with cashews known as Kung Pao chicken, fried with whole dried chillies.
  • Miang kham – dried shrimp and other ingredients wrapped in cha plu leaves; often eaten as a snack or a starter.
  • Phak bung fai daeng – stir fried morning-glory with yellow bean paste.
  • Phat khana mu krop – khana (gailan) stir fried with crispy pork.
  • Phat kaphrao – beef, pork, prawns or chicken stir fried withThai holy basil, chillies and garlic; for instance kai phat kaphrao  (Thai: ไก่ผัดกะเพรา),, with minced chicken.
  • Phat phak ruam – stir fried combination of vegetables depending on availability and preference.
  • Phat phrik – usually beef stir fried with chilli, called Nuea phat phrik.
  • Pla Neung Manao – A steamed whole fish with lime dressing is a Thai non-vegetarian food and Thai food always embodies a balance of sweet, sour, spicy and salty. It’s one of Thailand’s most requested fish recipes and is normally served over a portable furnace of smoking embers in a fish shaped metal dish. If you are a seafood lover, discover the exquisite taste of Thailand with this special recipe.
  • Pla sam rot – literally “Three flavours fish”: deep fried fish with a sweet, tangy and spicy tamarind sauce.
  • Pu cha – a mixture of cooked crab meat, pork, garlic and pepper, deep fried inside the crab shells and served with a simple spicy sauce, such as Sri Rachaa sauce, sweet-hot garlic sauce, nam phrik phao, nam chim buai, or in a red curry paste, with chopped spring onions. It is sometimes also served as deep fried patties instead of being fried in the crab shell.
  • Suki – a Thai variant of the Chinese hot pot.
  • Thot man – deep fried fishcake made from knife fish or shrimp.
  • Tom chuet wun sen or Kaeng chuet wunsen – a clear soup with vegetables and wunsen (cellophane noodles made from mung bean).
  • Tom Kha Kai – This simple Thai chicken coconut soup or Tom Kha Kai has that distinctive Thai flavour a balance of spicy, salty, sweet and sour. Tom Kha Kai is a great first course for any Thai curry or served as a main course – The aroma is wonderful..
  • Tom yam – hot & sour soup with meat. With shrimp it is called Tom yam goong or Tom yam kung, with seafood (typically shrimp, squid, fish) Tom yam thale, with chicken Tom yam kai.
  • Yam – general name for many different kinds of sour Thai salads, such as those made with glass noodles (Yam wunsen), with seafood (Yam thale), or grilled beef (Yam nuea). The dressing of a “Yam” will normally consist of shallots, fish sauce, tomato, lime juice, sugar, chillies and Thai celery (khuenchai) or coriander.
  • Yam pla duk fu – crispy fried catfish with a spicy, sweet-and-sour, green mango salad.

Northeastern shared dishes

The cuisine of Northeastern Thailand generally feature dishes similar to those found in Laos, as Isan people historically have close ties with Lao culture and speak a language that is generally mutually intelligible with the Lao language.

  • Kai yang – marinated, grilled chicken.
  • Khao niao – Sticky rice is eaten as a staple food both in the Northeast as in the North of Thailand; it is traditionally steamed.
  • Mu ping – marinated, grilled pork on a stick.
  • Lap – a traditional Lao salad containing meat, onions, chillies, roasted rice powder and garnished with mint.
  • Nam chim chaeo – is a sticky, sweet and spicy dipping sauce made with dried chillies, fish sauce, palm sugar and black roasted rice flour. It is often served as a dip with mu yang (grilled pork).
  • Nam tok – made with pork (mu) or beef (nuea) and somewhat identical to lap, except that the pork or beef is cut into thin strips rather than minced.
  • Som Tam - Green Papaya Salad
    Som Tam – Green Papaya Salad

    Som Tam – A popular dish from the North Eastern part of Thailand (the largely rural Isan region) that combines spicy, sour and sweet flavours to make a classic dish. It is often served alongside barbecue or grilled chicken and a portion of sticky rice.

  • Suea rong hai – grilled beef brisket.
  • Tom saep – Northeastern-style hot & sour soup.
  • Yam naem, a snack made of crumbled crisp rice balls, minced pork, ginger, green chillies, peanuts and onion.

Northern shared dishes

  • Kaeng hang-le- a Burmese-influenced stewed pork curry which uses peanuts, dried chillies, tamarind juice and curry paste in the recipe, but containing no coconut milk.
  • Kaeng khae – is a spicy northern Thai curry of herbs, vegetables, the leaves of an acacia tree (cha-om) and meat (chicken, water buffalo, pork or frog). It also does not contain any coconut milk.
  • Kaeng khanun – a curry of pork stewed with green jackfruit, which is very popular in the region. Like all northern Thai curries, it does not contain any coconut milk.
  • Kaeng Pa – This Thai curry is unlike many of the Thai curries that you will be familiar with. Jungle curry contains no coconut milk since no coconuts grow in the jungles of northern Thailand. It was also originally prepared from wild boar but these days it is mainly prepared from pork or chicken.
  • Kaep mu – deep fried crispy pork rinds which often eaten with chilli pastes such as nam phrik num but also eaten as a snack on their own.
  • Khao soi – curried noodle soup enriched with coconut milk (traditionally a novel ingredient in the northern cooking tradition), garnished with crispy fried wheat noodles, and served with pickles, lime and red shallots on the side. Vastly different from the Lao version.
  • Larb Lanna – drier and smokier in taste, Northern Thai larb does not contain lime or fish sauce. Instead it’s flavoured and seasoned with an elaborate mix of ground dried chillies, dried spices like cumin, cloves, long pepper, star anise, Sichuan pepper, cinnamon, and occasionally blood of the animal used.
  • Nam phrik kha – thick relish made with roasted chillies, garlic, galangal and salt. This northern Thai specialty is often served as a dip for steamed mushrooms.
  • Nam phrik num – a chilli paste of pounded large green chillies, shallots, garlic, coriander leaves, lime juice and fish sauce; eaten with steamed and raw vegetables, and sticky rice.
  • Nam phrik ong – resembling a thick Bolognese sauce, it is made with dried chillies, minced pork and tomato; eaten with steamed and raw vegetables, and sticky rice.
  • Sai ua – a grilled sausage of ground pork mixed with spices and herbs; it is often served with chopped fresh ginger and chillies at a meal. It is also sold at markets in Chiang Mai as a snack.

Southern shared dishes

  • Kaeng lueang – a sour spicy yellow curry that does not contain coconut milk, often with fish and vegetables.
  • Kaeng Matsaman – also known in English as Massaman curry, it is an Indian style curry, usually made by Thai-Muslims, of stewed beef and containing roasted dried spices, such as coriander seed, that are rarely found in other Thai curries. In 2011 CNNGo ranked massaman as number one in an article titled World’s 50 most delicious foods.
  • Kaeng tai pla – a thick sour vegetable curry made with turmeric and shrimp paste, often containing roasted fish or fish innards, bamboo shoots and eggplant.
  • Khao mok – Thai-style biryani, a specialty of Southern Thailand’s Muslim community.
  • Khao yam – a rice salad from Southern Thailand.
  • Khua kling – a very dry spicy curry made with minced or diced meat with sometimes yardlong beans added to it; often served with fresh green phrik khi nu (thai chillies) and copious amounts of finely shredded bai makrut (kaffir lime leaves).
  • Sate – grilled meat, usually pork or chicken, served with cucumber salad and peanut sauce (actually of Indonesian origin, but now a popular street food in Thailand).

Desserts, sweet snacks and drinks

Desserts and sweet snacks

Khao Niao Mamuang, mango with sticky rice

Most Thai meals finish with fresh fruit but sometimes a sweet snack will be served as a dessert.

  • Chaokuai – grass jelly is often served with only shaved ice and brown sugar.
  • Khao Tom Mat – A Thai street food made of sweet sticky rice cakes filled with banana, black beans and then steamed in banana leaf parcels. Eaten both as a sweet snack or as a meal in itself, the parcels are often given to monks as food offerings at the beginning of Buddhist lent (Khao Phansa).
  • Khanom bua loi – mashed taro root and pumpkin are mixed with rice flour into small balls, boiled and then served in coconut milk.
  • Khanom chan – multi-layers of pandanus-flavoured sticky rice flour mixed with coconut milk. It is the one of the 9 auspicious Thai desserts.
  • Khanom mo kaeng – a sweet baked pudding containing coconut milk, eggs, palm sugar and flour, sprinkled with sweet fried onions.
  • Khanom tan – palm flavoured mini cake with shredded coconut on top.
  • Khanom thuaitalai – steamed sweet coconut jelly and cream.
  • Khao lam – A cake made from steamed rice mixed with beans or peas, grated coconut and coconut milk.
  • Khao Niao Mamuang – Having fresh fruit or a sweet snack is a typical Thai way to end a meal, making mango sticky rice (Khao niao mamuang) the ideal Thai dessert.
  • Lot chong nam kathi – pandan flavoured rice flour noodles in coconut milk, similar to the Indonesian Cendol.
  • Ruam mit – mixed ingredients, such as chestnuts covered in flour, jackfruit, lotus root, tapioca, and lot chong, in coconut milk.
  • Sarim – multi-coloured mung bean flour noodles in sweetened coconut milk served with crushed ice.
  • Sangkhaya fak thong – egg and coconut custard served with pumpkin, similar to the coconut jam of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines.
  • Tako -jasmine scented coconut pudding set in cups of fragrant pandanus leaf.

Drinks

  • Cha Yen – A drink made from strongly-brewed Ceylon tea. However, due to Ceylon tea’s high price, plain black tea with added food colouring is commonly used. Other ingredients may include added orange blossom water, star anise, crushed tamarind seed or red and yellow food colouring, and sometimes other spices as well.
  • Krating Daeng – an energy drink and the origin of Red Bull.
  • Oliang – a sweet Thai black ice coffee.
  • Satho – a traditional rice wine from the Isan region.

Other alcoholic beverages from Thailand include Mekhong whisky and Sang Som. Several brands of beer are brewed in Thailand, the two biggest brands being Singha and Chang.

Insects

A street stall selling fried insects
A street stall selling fried insects

Certain insects are also eaten in Thailand, especially in Isan and in the North. Many markets in Thailand feature stalls which sell deep-fried grasshoppers, crickets (ching rit, Thai: จิ้งหรีด), bee larvae, silkworm (non mai, Thai: หนอนไหม), ant eggs (khai mot, Thai: ไข่มด) and termites. The culinary creativity even extends to naming: one tasty larva, which is also known under the name “bamboo worm” (non mai phai, Thai: หนอนไม้ไผ่, Omphisa fuscidentalis), is colloquially called “express train” (rot duan; Thai: รถด่วน) due to its appearance.

Most of the insects taste fairly bland when deep-fried, somewhat like popcorn and prawns. But when deep-fried together with kaffir lime leaves, chilies and garlic, the insects become an excellent snack to go with a drink. In contrast to the bland taste of most of these insects, the maeng da or maelong da na (Thai: แมลงดานา, Lethocerus indicus) has been described as having a very penetrating taste, similar to that of a very ripe gorgonzola cheese. This giant water bug is famously used in a chili dip called nam phrik maengda. Some insects, such as ant eggs and silk worms, are also eaten boiled in a soup in Isan, or used in omelettes in northern Thailand.

Thai vegetarian cuisine

Traditional Thai vegetarian restaurants will carry this yellow sig
Traditional Thai vegetarian restaurants will carry this yellow sign with the word che written in red inThai script

Although a vegetarian festival is celebrated each year by a portion of Thailand’s population, and many restaurants in Thailand will offer vegetarian food during this festival period, pure vegetarian food is normally difficult to find in Thailand. All traditionally made Thai curries, for instance, contain shrimp paste, and fish sauce is used as salt in nearly all Thai dishes. Meat dishes are also commonly part of the alms offered to Buddhist monks in Thailand as vegetarianism is not considered obligatory in Theravada Buddhism; but having an animal killed specifically to feed Buddhist monks is prohibited.

Traditional Buddhist vegetarian fare, without any meat or seafood products of any kind and also excluding certain strong tasting vegetables and spices, is sold at specialised vegetarian restaurants which can be recognised by a yellow sign with the word che (Thai: เจ; IPA: [tɕeː]; lit. “vegetarian”) written on it in red. These restaurants serve what can be regarded as vegan food. Many Indian restaurants of the sizeable Thai-Indian community will also have vegetarian dishes on offer, due to the fact that vegetarianism is held as an ideal by many followers of the Hindu faith. Indian vegetarian cuisine can incorporate dairy products and honey. Due to the increased demand for vegetarian food from foreign tourists, many hotels, guesthouses and restaurants that cater to foreign tourists, will now also have vegetarian versions of Thai dishes on their menu. Pescatarians would have very few problems with Thai cuisine due to the abundance of Thai dishes which only contain fish and  seafood.

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