Food is at the very heart of Thai culture. There is a saying in Thailand that if a Thai person isn’t actually eating food then they will be thinking about what to eat. And in Thai small talk, you don’t have to wait very long before you hear the phrase ‘kin khao riang?’ (have you eaten yet?). Some of the most memorable experiences you will have in Thailand revolve around food and the people you meet and the smiles you share at markets and street stalls. When you travel to Thailand bring an open mind and a big appetite and delve into the delights of Thai food.
Thai dishes to try
There is a misconception that all Thai food is spicy. While it’s true that there are plenty of dishes that pack in the chillies, there are a number to choose from which are less spicy. There is also more flexibility about where and when to eat compared to the West. Fancy curry for breakfast? No problem! In Thailand life is sabai sabai so go with the flow and order whatever you like the look of regardless of what time of day it is.
Som tam (papaya salad) is a classic Thai dish that every visitor to Thailand should try at least once. If you find it’s too spicy for your liking, opt instead for something like khao man gai (chicken and rice) or khao ka moo (braised pork with rice). For breakfast, khao tom or jok are both excellent choices and if you prefer something lighter, try pa tong go (Thai-style doughnuts) washed down with hot soy milk or coffee.
Check out this selection of 10 of the most popular Thai street food dishes
Where to eat
If you’re visiting Thailand you can grab some healthy tropical fruit for breakfast, chow down on street food for lunch and enjoy a refined dinner at a rooftop restaurant. The huge variety of different venues is part of the fun of eating out in Thailand. Whether it’s a plush five-star restaurant or a simple roadside stall with plastic chairs, Thailand is a haven for foodies.
You don’t have to spend much to enjoy an amazing meal in Thailand. Some of the best food you can find is available at street markets and hawker carts. Food courts at shopping malls are another good introduction to Thai food. At most food courts you pay for coupons which are then exchanged for the food. Any unused coupons can be changed back to cash. On the other end of the scale you can find an array of top class restaurants all around the country. Check out the Thailand Michelin Guide for ideas for somewhere special to dine. Such is the high esteem in which Thai street food is held, a number of famous street food restaurants also get a mention amongst the high-society venues.
Food etiquette in Thailand
Food is integral to life in Thailand and eating out is often a communal experience. Although you will see people eating alone, it’s considered mai sanuk (not fun) and the food mai aroy (not delicious) when dining by yourself. When a family or group of friends are eating out, they will usually order a range of dishes to be shared. Typically this may include fish, curry or soup, a meat dish, vegetables, and rice. Although people help themselves, it’s polite to only take one or two spoonfuls at a time from the shared dishes to add to your individual portion of rice. To recognise the importance of rice, it’s also polite to eat a spoonful of rice first before you eat anything else.
Most dishes in Thailand are eaten with a spoon and fork. Chopsticks and a spoon may be used with some noodle dishes (e.g. khao soi). In North and North-East Thailand, sticky rice may be served instead of plain rice. This can be eaten by rolling it into a small ball with your fingers (use your right hand) before sampling with the other food you have added to your plate.
Thai street food tips
If you’re a first time visitor to Thailand, you may find that your body and stomach need a little time to adapt to the food. For frequent visitors to Thailand, eating Thai food at street stalls is one of those simple, but unmissable treats. But it can also be intimidating the first time you do it so here are some tips to help:
- When you first arrive in Thailand, opt for freshly cooked food while you get used to new dishes and ease yourself gently into the delights of Thai street food.
- Do as the locals do and give utensils a wipe over with one of the paper napkins you’ll find on most tables.
- As a general rule of thumb, look for vendors and restaurants that are popular with Thai people. At the same time, don’t dismiss somewhere just because it’s quiet. That street stall with no customers at 2pm may have been packed with Thai office workers at midday.
- Food courts at shopping malls can be an excellent introduction into Thai food culture with the added bonus of air-conditioning to keep you cool while you eat.
- Keep hydrated throughout the day. Very often a stomach upset that is attributed to eating ‘something dodgy’, is due to not keeping properly hydrated.
- Don’t drink tap water in Thailand. Water served in restaurants and at street stalls will be bottled water.
- Ice in Thailand is hygienically produced from clean water and ice cubes at restaurants and food stalls are safe. To be extra cautious look for the round ice cubes instead of crushed ice.
- Don’t be afraid to get out of your comfort zone. There are countless hawker stalls and restaurants in Thailand and part of the enjoyment of eating is discovering new places for yourself.
- Many stalls and restaurants in popular tourist areas will often have English language menus so don’t be afraid to try something new. If you don’t like it you’ve only spent around 40 Baht, but you may also discover your new favourite dish.
- Don’t worry if the big bowl of noodles you order appears to be only half-full; this is to make it easier to mix in the condiments.
- Different condiments will be on the table depending on where you are eating and what you have ordered. The most common condiment is nam pla phrik, a small dish containing chillies in fish sauce. At noodles stalls you are likely to see ground red pepper, ground peanuts, vinegar with chillies, and sugar. Add as required to suit your taste preference.
- Not all staff speak English and in some cases (especially away from main tourist areas), people serving may be too shy to take the order from the foreigner! Smile and don’t get annoyed if it happens.
- Help the vendors out and pay with small notes. Don’t try to pay for a 40 baht dish with a 1,000 baht note.
Handy Thai food phrases
- aroy = delicious
- aroy mak = very delicious
- meh-nuu = menu
- kep tang = the bill (translates as ‘take money’)
- gai = chicken
- nua = beef
- moo = pork
- bped = duck
- pak = vegetables
- phet = spicy
- mai phet = not spicy
- thammada = normal portion
- pii-set = special/large portion
- sai-tung/klap baan = take-away/take home
- nam plao = water
- nam keng = ice
- jaan = plate
- chaam = bowl
- chawn = spoon
- sawm = fork
- takiap = chopsticks
- sen yai = big/wide noodles
- sen lek = small/thin noodles
- haeng = dry (some noodle dishes can be ordered dry without the broth)
- mii arai pii-set? = what do you have that’s special?
- phet = spicy
- phet nit noy = a little bit spicy
- mai phet = not spicy
- ponlamai = fruit
- phom kin jeh = I’m vegetarian (male)
- dichan kin jeh = I’m vegetarian (female)
When using Thai language, remember to add the polite ‘khap‘ if you are male and ‘ka‘ if you are female. For example, when asking for the bill say, ‘kep tang khap‘ or ‘kep tang ka‘. If you want your dish to be cooked so it is only a little bit spicy, you would say ‘phet nit noy khap‘ if you are male and ‘phet nit noy ka‘ if you are female. If you do eat something that is too spicy, a spoonful of plain rice is more effective at quenching the heat than drinking water.
Food tours and advice from locals
Whether you’ve visited Thailand before or not, a food tour with locals is the perfect way to try new dishes and discover some of the best places to eat. Co-owner of the Bangkok tour and experience company, Expique, Khun Peresa, says, “For a true street food experience you can’t beat sitting down at a roadside jim-jum restaurant. Jim-jum (translates as ‘dip-dunk’) is an Isaan (North-East Thailand) style hotpot, where you cook your meat, seafood and vegetables yourself in a clay pot of boiling broth. Jim-jum vendors serve a range of other typical Isaan dishes, so they are the perfect place to sit down for a leisurely street food feast. Even better accompanied with a cold beer!”
In Bangkok, Khun Peresa recommends a visit to Lad Ya Road on the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River. Here you will find several restaurants all next to each other, with the most popular being the appropriately named Jim Jum Lad Ya. Take an evening food tuk-tuk tour with Expique and this is one of the venues you can visit.
Take a look at these other food experiences on your next visit to Thailand:
17 of the best food experiences in Bangkok
Thailand cooking schools: Learn how to make Thai food
10 of the most popular Thai street food dishes
And if you’re missing Thailand and Thai food, try out these Thai recipes at home.
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