Table of Contents
- What Is Thai Cuisine?
- Our History with Thai Food
- Thai Food Favorites You Should Not Miss
- Traditional Thai Dishes
- 1. Pad Thai (Fried Thai Noodles)
- 2. Pad See Ew (Fried Wide Noodles with Soy Sauce)
- 3. Khao Soi (Coconut Curry Noodle Soup)
- 4. Tom Yum (Hot and Sour Soup)
- 5. Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup)
- 6. Kuay Teaw Nua (Beef Noodle Soup)
- 7. Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
- 8. Gaeng (Curry)
- 9. Goong Ob Woonsen (Shrimp & Glass Noodles)
- 10. Khao Kha Moo (Pork Leg and Rice)
- 11. Khao Man Gai (Chicken and Rice)
- 12. Gai Yang (Grilled Chicken)
- 12. Kai Jeow (Thai Omelet) and Khanom Bueang Yuan (Crispy Omelet)
- 13. Pla Pao (Baked Fish)
- 14. Larb (Meat Salad)
- 15. Kanom Pakkaad (Stir Fried Turnip Cakes)
- 16. Sai Krok (Fermented Sausage)
- Thai Desserts
- Thai Drinks
- Unique Thai Food Experiences
- Traditional Thai Dishes
- Plan Your Thailand Stay
- Hungry for More Food Around the World?
- Pin It for Later
- About the Authors
Thai food is so much more than Pad Thai. Read on to discover 26 Thai food favorites that go beyond Thailand’s famous noodle dish.
Thailand stole a piece of our hearts with its warm people, spiritual temples and stunning beaches. However, our favorite part about traveling to Thailand is eating Thai food at the source.
Food in Thailand is everywhere and it’s almost always good. This is a country with a seemingly never-ending supply of food available at all hours of the day and night. Sure, you can eat Thai food all over the world, but there’s nothing like slurping down a bowl of Khao Soi in the Land of Smiles.
We’ve traveled to more than 40 countries and Thailand stands out for both the quality and quantity of its food. Options run the gamut from warm and comforting to hot and spicy, and that’s not contemplating Thai desserts which can be fruity, fried and fun.
During our multiple visits, we’ve eaten Thai food at restaurants, shopping malls, street markets and literally on the street. We’ve also sipped coffee out of plastic baggies and indulged in international cuisine normally found in Taiwan, Italy and the United States.
What Is Thai Cuisine?
Ask ten westerners to name their favorite Thai dish and Pad Thai will likely be the most common answer. It’s inevitable. But Pad Thai is just one dish in a diverse cuisine that incorporates all types of proteins as well a bounty of vegetables, herbs, rice and noodles.
While many Thai food dishes are more modern inventions and incorporate influences from Asian countries like China, India and European countries like France and Great Britain, others date back centuries, passed down from generation to generation, to the kingdoms of Siam and Lanna.
Thai food has a reputation for being spicy. Although peppers are a popular Thai food ingredient, not all Thai food is as spicy as many travelers expect. Instead, Thai cooks combine bitter, salty, sweet and piquant flavors in their dishes.
It’s important to remember Thailand’s tropical locale. This is a cuisine where chilies meet coconut milk and where tropical kaffir/makrut limes meet palm sugar. It’s a cuisine of rice. It’s a cuisine of noodles. It’s a country filled with great seafood, but it’s also a country filled with great pork, beef, chicken and vegetarian food.
Our History with Thai Food
Our history with Thai food dates back to 2002 when Mindi first visited Thailand as part of a 3-month solo backpacking trip in Southeast Asia. She kept returning to Thailand during that trip with stays in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Koh Lanta and Kho Phi Phi.
Memories of eating street food on Khao San Road and getting her PADI open water diving certification in Khao Lak became legendary in her mind. She eventually returned with Daryl for an immersive month in 2016.
We spent much of that month eating and working in Chiang Mai, a mecca for digital nomads like us. When we got tired of eating Thai food, we ate international foods like hamburgers, pizza and soup dumplings. But that was rare because we rarely tired of local food available at the city’s many night markets.
We never used our Airbnb kitchen once during an entire month in Chiang Mai. Eating out in Thailand was too cheap and too tasty to skip even once. However, we stocked up on Thai snack foods at local supermarkets and convenience stores.
Our most recent visit to Thailand in 2018 took us back to Chiang Mai and ended with a week in Bangkok. Not letting any dust settle under our feet or in our mouths, we toured temples, ate copious amounts of street food and took a cooking class.
This trip introduced allowed us to revisit some of our favorite Chiang Mai spots while we discovered some (new-to-us) Thai food favorites at a floating market and hawker stalls throughout Bangkok. Instead of fulfilling our cravings, this trip further ignited our Thai food passion.
We can’t wait to return to Thailand and eat more of… everything. Until then, we’re scratching our Thai food itch by cooking red, green and panang curries at home in Lisbon.
Thai Food Favorites You Should Not Miss
Eating every single Thai dish is impossible whether you spend days, weeks or months in Thailand. Thai cuisine is that vast. However, there are certain Thai foods that you won’t want to miss during your visit.
Our guide highlights authentic Thai dishes that we love to eat when we’re in Thailand. We’ve separated these foods into the following categories for ease of use:
We recommend that you start with our the food in our guide and then expand your horizons based on your own sense of culinary exploration. We have our Thai food favorites and you’ll develop your picks for the best Thai food too.
Traditional Thai Dishes
You’ve probably eaten Thai food before. When Thai food hit the international radar, it was specific to larger cities like Las Vegas, London and Los Angeles with their nascent Thai communities. Today, however, Thai restaurants are are easier to find in cities both big and small.
This spread is likely due to several reasons including globalization, Thai government support and TV shows like Netflix’s Chef’s Table. Whatever the exact reason or reasons, there’s no debate that it’s now easier to eat Thai dishes all over the world.
But, unfortunately, we have to face reality – Thai food tastes best in Thailand where it’s made with the freshest indigenous Thai ingredients and products like fresh galangal, holy basil and fingerroot. We recommend that you expand your Thailand food journey beyond Pad Thai and dip your toes into some of Thailand’s greatest dishes to discover what makes Thai cuisine world famous.
The Scoop on Utensils in Thailand
Most Thai people don’t use chopsticks to scoop their food. Accordingly, it’s perfectly acceptable to opt for either chopsticks or western utensils in Thai restaurants. However, you’ll definitely want to use a spoon when you slurp soup in Thailand.
1. Pad Thai (Fried Thai Noodles)
For many including us, Pad Thai is the gateway food to Thai cuisine. Not only is Thailand’s #1 food favorite served in practically every Thai restaurant in the world, but it’s also highly accessible thanks to familiar ingredients like stir fried rice noodles, fresh bean sprouts, eggs, firm tofu and peanuts.
Don’t count out Pad Thai despite its popularity and cheap eats pricing. It’s a solid option to order at both street stalls and in restaurants. As a bonus, protein options include chicken, shrimp and tofu, making the attractive to vegetarian travelers.
Squeeze on some fresh lime sauce regardless of your protein choice. The tart citrus flavor completes the dish.
2. Pad See Ew (Fried Wide Noodles with Soy Sauce)
Pad See Ew is the Thai noodle dish for people who like rice wide noodles. Mindi loves this type of noodle whether she’s in Thailand, China or Vietnam. When she’s in Thailand, she typically orders Pad See Ew as a quick dish on the go.
Beyond its wide noodles, Pad See Ew gets its flavors from soy sauce (both light and dark) and fresh garlic. Meats like beef, chicken and pork provide the protein while veggies like Chinese broccoli and cabbage provide the crunch.
Add a spoonful of dried chili flakes and vinegar for extra flavor and heat.
3. Khao Soi (Coconut Curry Noodle Soup)
We first fell for Khao Soi when we slurped Northern Thailand’s coconut curry noodle soup at Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok restaurant in Portland. A few months later, our infatuation turned to love when we ate the best Chiang Mai Khao Soi. We even filmed a YouTube video about the tasty dish.
But what is Khao Soi? With Islamic origins in Burma and elements from Yunnan, China, Khao Soi marries fried and boiled noodles and combines them with a unique curry, coconut milk and meaty broth. Cooked low and slow, this highly slurpable Thai soup is a must-eat for any visit to Chiang Mai.
Garnish your Khao Soi with pickled veggies, sliced shallot and fresh lime juice for maximum enjoyment.
4. Tom Yum (Hot and Sour Soup)
We don’t know Tom but we agree that his soup is yum. All jokes aside, while there is no Tom, there is plenty of yum in this dish. Tom actually refers to the boiling process used to make this dish.
Traditional Tom Yum soup contains typical Thai ingredients like kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, Thai chilies and galangal (i.e. Thai ginger). Adding prawns upgrades Tom Yum to Tom Yum Goong, a move that we’ve never regretted making in Thailand..
Order Tom Kha Gai instead of Tom Yum if you’re craving a richer Thai soup.
5. Tom Kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Soup)
It would be easy to describe Tom Kha Gai as a ramped up Tom Yum. Sure, both soups share ingredients like chilies, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. But that wouldn’t be fair to the other ‘tom’.
Coconut milk gives Tom Kha Gai its richer, creamier texture. Adding mushrooms and chicken turns this bowl of soup into a meal.
Request a side of rice if the restaurant doesn’t automatically give you a small bowl with this soup.
6. Kuay Teaw Nua (Beef Noodle Soup)
Kuay Teaw Nua is a popular Thai soup that hasn’t achieved the global fame enjoyed by both Tom Yum and Tom Kha Gai. But don’t count this meat-forward soup out when you’re hungry for a morning meal in Bangkok.
A soup with a story, customers originally ordered Kuay Teaw Nua from boat vendors on Bangkok’s canals. While that experience is still possible, most people just eat Kuay Teaw Nua at food stalls around the city.
We ate savory bowls on dry land near Bangkok’s oldest operating market. Daryl’s bowl was filled with aromatic broth, brisket, offals and wide noodles. Mindi’s had all of that except for the offals. We both added fish sauce, pickled chilies and sugar to our bowls to make the soup even tastier.
You can order Kuay Teaw with chicken or pork if you don’t eat beef. If you don’t eat any of these three proteins, you should order a different soup.
7. Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
Easily the most popular Thai dish to originate in Northeatern Thailand’s Isaan Province, Som Tam is Thailand most iconic salad. However, this salad isn’t like the ones served in western countries.
Instead of lettuce and croutons, Som Tam’s ingredients include shredded and pounded green papaya, carrots, tomatoes, beans and peanuts. Additional ingredients like chili peppers, garlic, palm sugar, tamarind, fish sauce and lime juice give the crunchy salad a burst of complex flavor.
Don’t be confused by ingredients like papaya and palm sugar. The mixture of sweet and sour flavors are integral to the Thai flavor profile.
8. Gaeng (Curry)
In Thailand, curry is both an ingredient and a dish. The ingredient (curry paste) comes in different varieties that impact both the color and flavor of the dish. Thai curries (the dish) contain ingredients like coconut milk, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, proteins and curry paste.
These are the five curries to try in Thailand:
You’ll want to try all five of these curries in Thailand. Start with red and green curries if you like spicy food or yellow curry if you prefer milder dishes. Both massaman and panang curries skew mild and thick compared to their colorfully named counterparts.
9. Goong Ob Woonsen (Shrimp & Glass Noodles)
Goong Ob Woonsen may not be as famous as Thai dishes like Pad Thai and Tom Yum, but you’ll want to give it a try. In the flavorful dish, shrimp and glass noodles are stir fried in a clay pot with ingredients like ginger, garlic, soy sauce (both dark and light) and oyster sauce.
Glass noodles differentiate this dish from Thai dishes like Pad Thai that use rice noodles. Also called cellophane noodles due to their transparent appearance when cooked, glass noodles are made with starch (typically mung bean, potato or tapioca) instead of rice.
Be aware that the Goong Ob Woonsen recipe sometimes includes bacon or pork belly. This could be a positive or negative factor depending on your diet and flavor preferences.
10. Khao Kha Moo (Pork Leg and Rice)
Khao Kha Moo looks like a simple dish but its tastes are both complex than its appearance. Thai cooks assemble this dish by slowly stewing pork leg and serving it over rice.
Be sure to say yes when offered sides with your Khao Kha Moo. Options like hard boiled eggs, pickled mustard greens and garlic chili sauce complete the dish.
Don’t miss eating Khao Kha Moo at the Chang Phuak night market near the Chang Phuak (a/k/a Elephant) Gate. The ‘Cowboy Lady’ is famous for her fine version of Thai braised pork leg and rice.
11. Khao Man Gai (Chicken and Rice)
Originally invented in Hainan, China and hugely popular in Singapore where it’s considered a national dish, this simple dish pairs poached chicken with rice cooked in a rich chicken broth. We almost always order chicken and rice when we see it on a menu whether we’re in Da Nang, Las Vegas, Portland or Shanghai. Chiang Mai was no exception to this rule.
Thailand’s version, known as Khao Man Gai, is a Thailand street food staple. Most vendors serve the dish with sides of chicken soup and chili dipping sauce.
Don’t skip the chili sauce which adds a zip of flavor to the boiled chicken.
12. Gai Yang (Grilled Chicken)
Gai Yang is proof that not all Thai chicken is poached and served with rice. This dish takes a different approach by marinating chicken with lemongrass and garlic before roasting the bird on a grill.
We’ve eaten grilled chicken all over Thailand. Our favorite versions have been in Chiang Mai at Cherng Doi Roast Chicken and SP Chicken. You guessed it – we liked Gai Yang so much that we filmed a YouTube video about Thai roast chicken.
Pair your Gai Yang with Som Tam (spicy green papaya salad).
12. Kai Jeow (Thai Omelet) and Khanom Bueang Yuan (Crispy Omelet)
When we eat omelets at home, we roll them like they do in France. Thailand’s omelets are totally different from those omelets but no less satisfying.
Probably the most typical Thai-style omelette, Kai Jeow is as brown and crispy as a French omelet is buttery and fluffy. Thailand’s version starts with eggs and fish sauce before adding a myriad of potential ingredients like green onions, onions, tomato, garlic, chili, pork, shrimp and even crab meat.
Inspired by Vietnam’s Bánh Xèo, Khanom Bueang Yuan is a crispy egg crepe found in Bangkok. Street vendors like Bangkok’s Khanom Bueang Yuan Ya Cham create this crispy omelet with ingredients like peanuts, shrimp, onions, chilies and ginger. Sides like bean sprouts and sweet cucumber relish complete the dish.
Omelets aren’t just a breakfast food in Thailand. You can find and eat them at street food stands and stalls at all hours of the day and night.
13. Pla Pao (Baked Fish)
On first impression, this grilled swimmer coated in salt may have been the ugliest fish we’ve ever seen. After a few bites at Bangkok’s Khlong Lad Mayom Floating Market, we agreed that the Pla Pao was as tasty as it was ugly.
Removing the fish’s salty outer layer revealed flaky, tender flesh seasoned with a stuffed packet of herbs wrapped in a banana leaf. While flakes of salt provided plenty of flavor, we dipped the fish into chili sauce to enhance the flavor even more.
You don’t need to travel to a floating market to eat Pla Pao. We found salt encrusted whole fish at hawker stalls throughout Bangkok including one near our Airbnb apartment.
14. Larb (Meat Salad)
Like Som Tam, Larb is a spicy salad with Isaan roots. However, this dish’s main ingredient is minced meat instead of green papaya. Yes, Larb is a meat salad seasoned with typical Thai ingredients like fish sauce, red chilis and fresh herbs.
After first eating Larb at Andy Ricker’s restaurants in both Brooklyn and Portland, we were curious to see how Larb would taste in its homeland. While we enjoyed eating lettuce wraps stuffed with Larb in Chiang Mai, we liked eating Nam Prik Ong, a spicy, meaty dip with both pork and tomato, even more.
Larb is one of the most popular dishes to eat in Laos, Thailand’s Southeast Asia neighbor.
15. Kanom Pakkaad (Stir Fried Turnip Cakes)
While it’s relatively easy to find Kanom Pakkaad in Bangkok, the Thai street food isn’t globally famous like Pad Thai. We were happy to discover the dish during a Bangkok street food tour.
Though we initially thought it odd to eat stir fried turnip cakes, our skepticism faded away after just one bite into the crunchy snack with a chewy center. In this dish, ingredients like soy sauce, eggs and garlic chives came together in perfect Thai food harmony.
Feel free to order Kanom Pakaad if you’re a vegetarian. Unlike many Thai dishes, this one doesn’t incorporate meat or fish sauce.
16. Sai Krok (Fermented Sausage)
Street food fans won’t want to miss Sai Krok in Thailand. Yet another Thai dish with Isaan roots, this fermented sausage made with pork and rice is served on sticks at markets and street food stands throughout the country.
We first encountered the fermented sausage at a Chiang Mai night market and were thrilled to find (and eat) it again at a floating market in Bangkok. While locals often eat Sai Krok with sides of sticky rice, we were content to eat juicy ours on sticks.
Expand your Thai sausage horizons by trying Sai Ua, spicy sausage spiced with curry paste and flavored with lemongrass. You can find this Northern Thailand pork product at Chiang Mai night markets.
Thai cuisine includes dozens if not hundreds of desserts. Called Khanom in Thai, these sugary sweet desserts typically contain local ingredients like sticky rice, local fruit and coconut cream.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the variety of Khanom in Thailand, we recommend that you satisfy your sweet tooth with the following sweet treats:
17. Khanom Khrok (Coconut Rice Dumplings)
Khanom Krok, a street food favorite in Thailand, surprised us in two different ways…
First, we thought that the little dumplings were savory but quickly found out otherwise when we requested hot sauce. And second, we love Khanom Krok even though we’re not normally fans of coconut desserts.
These little cakes made with rice flour, sugar and coconut milk and topped with sliced green onions became our go-to dessert during the month we lived in Chiang Mai. We later baked the miniature sweet treats at a Thai cooking class.
As we learned the hard way, hot sauce is not an appropriate Khnom Khruk topping,
18. Khao Niao Mamuang (Mango Sticky Rice)
You won’t have to look far to find Khao Niao Mamuang in Thailand. The prolific dessert is served almost everywhere from street food stands to upscale restaurants. This popularity makes sense considering the prevalence of both rice and mangoes in Thailand.
In addition to sliced mangos and sticky rice, Khao Niao Mamuang’s ingredient list includes sweet coconut milk and a sprinkling of fried mung beans. The end result is a refreshing indulgence.
You can find mango sticky rice at Thai restaurants around the world.
19. Thong Yip (Gold Egg Yolk Tarts)
Made with egg yolks, sugar and jasmine-flavored water, the Thong Yip pastry will look familiar to anybody who has eaten sweet, eggy Portuguese desserts. As it turns out, the roots of Thong Yip are in the coastal Iberian nation. However, after a few centuries, Thong Yip is now a proper Thai dessert.
Not an everyday treat, Thong Yip pastries are popular at Thai weddings and special occasions. The pastry’s gold color symbolizes prosperity and good fortune while its shape resembles a flower.
You can try Thong Yip at the Nang Loeng Market if you’re not invited to a Thai wedding.
20. Kanom Tuay (Coconut Milk Custard)
Locals love eating little porcelain bowls filled with Khanom Tuay, a Thai dessert made with coconut milk, rice flour and sugar. Who can blame them? Not only is this coconut custard tasty, but its price is also ridiculously cheap.
We greedily spooned the smooth custard during a market visit in Bangkok. Sweet and petite, the dessert cleansed our palates from all the spicy food we had just eaten.
Bowls of Khanom Tuay are easy to find at Thai street stands. When you see tiny porcelain bowls, you’ve probably found the custard treat.
21. Banana Roti
While Roti is a savory flatbread in India, the Thai version is a dessert made with sweet dough and filled with items like banana and eggs. Vendors serve buttery Banana Roti to the masses from carts all over Thailand.
The traditional Banana Roti topping is sweet condensed milk. However, most vendors offer a range of options that includes honey, chocolate sauce and Nutella.
Eat your Banana Roti while it’s hot. This is not a dessert to save for later.
The number of Thai drinks is overwhelming with options including crafted cocktails, Singha beer and Cha Yen, a super sweet Thai iced tea with generous amounts of both milk and sugar.
Beyond imbibing these popular drinks, you should also try our favorite Thai beverages.
Locals drink a lot of Thai iced coffee, a sweet drink not so different from Vietnamese iced coffee. The Thai version provides a jolt with ingredients that include coffee (often instant), sweet condensed milk and evaporated milk.
You may fall in love with Thai iced coffee; however, it’s not our thing. Instead, we’re big fans of the specialty coffee scenes in both Bangkok and Chiang Mai. The number of excellent baristas in Thailand is impressive, though the best can be found at Ristr8to in Chiang Mai.
Digital nomads can kill two birds with one stone at Thailand coffee shops. Better cafes serve fast internet along with flat whites and cappuccinos.
23. Juices and Smoothies
Juices and smoothies are incredibly refreshing to drink on hot Thailand days. Options go beyond the typical to include more exotic logan and sugarcane juices.
When we’re not in the mood for coffee in Thailand, we typically drink smoothies. For us, the frothy, fruity beverages served as both a thirst quencher and dessert.
Push your beverage boundaries and try some juice flavors that you’ve never tried before. However, we won’t judge you if you order a tasty pineapple smoothie instead.
Unique Thai Food Experiences
Eating food at restaurants and street stands is just one way to experience Thai cuisine. Those with culinary curiosity will want to roll up their sleeves and dig deeper by participating in the following Thai food experiences:
24. Cooking Classes
Good cooking classes provide a fun way to learn how to cook local food. Better cooking classes provide more than kitchen tips and recipe guidance. They also draw participants into local culture using food as a conduit.
Taking a high quality cooking class in Thailand provides an accelerated education about herbs, ingredients and Thai food. It also allows travelers to meet local entrepreneurs who happen to excel at Thai cookery.
Do advance research to find a Thai cooking class that fits your individual goals and skill set.
25. Food Markets
Shopping at Thai food markets is fascinating even for travelers who don’t have access to a kitchen. The options are extensive with all kinds of meat, seafood, vegetables and fruit available for purchase.
Wandering through Thai markets gives us a feel for how locals shop for food. We enjoy hobnobbing with chefs and home cooks. Plus, markets are always great spots for taking photos.
Bring a canvas bag to carry any potential market purchases.
26. Night Markets
Thailand’s night markets are great places to sample a variety of Thai street food. They’re also great spots for souvenir shopping and people watching.
Plan to eat dinner when you shop at a night market in Thailand. Most have designated dining areas where you can eat your purchases while sitting on little plastic chairs or stools.
Plan Your Thailand Stay
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About the Authors
Daryl & Mindi Hirsch
Saveur Magazine’s BEST TRAVEL BLOG award winners Daryl and Mindi Hirsch share their culinary travel experiences and recipes on the 2foodtrippers website and YouTube. The married Food and Travel content creators live in Lisbon, Portugal.
We update our articles regularly. Some updates are major while others are minor link changes and spelling corrections. Let us know if you see anything that needs to be updated in this article.