This article will teach you about Thai food if you are a beginner. And even if you are an expert, I hope you will find this article entertaining. I have lived in Thailand for many years. I still often find myself surprised by the diversity and complexity of Thai food. This article contains an overview of some of my favorite dishes, and introduces some of the basics and hopefully give you a few ideas about what to order. Although it’s often possible to get lucky by guessing and pointing at dishes in restaurants and at street stalls, it’s also easy to miss out on some of the best Thai dishes if you don’t know what you’re ordering or what exactly you’re looking for.
Thai cuisine is full of food fantasies, dishes filled with fresh herbs, and ingredients that magically come together into perfect combinations of spicy, sweet, sour and salty.
Purpose of this beginners guide to Thai food
Most of us have eaten Thai food in a restaurant at least once, but if you travel to Thailand you will face a totally new dimension of Thai food. This guide will help you to reduce the shock you will inevitably experience after you land to Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok, especially if you travel outside the big cities and tourist major destinations. Maybe you would like to try cooking Thai food and you do not know where to start. Or maybe you are visiting a Thai restaurant for the first time and need to know what to order. I hope this Thai food for beginners’ guide can help you.
Let’s start with the basics
Let’s start with the basic Thai dishes. There is huge variation in how cooks prepare dishes, no two ever make an identical meal. You will find the basic dishes below all over Thailand but there are also regional specialties to look out for, such as Khao Soi, synonymous with Chiang Mai.
There is a lot of bad Thai food around the world and some of the food served in Thailand is bad too, but done right it’s incredible. Many people consider it the most delicious food in the world. It’s light, healthy, delicately fragrant and full of vegetables. It’s not necessarily fiery hot.
Not All Chillies are Created Equal
Don’t be scared of the chilies! You do find chilies in just about every dish but they’re not always hot. The bigger ones are just another mild vegetable. They’re full of vitamin C so eat up. It’s the little ones you’ve got to watch. Often you add your mild own chili to taste. The best places to eat have plenty of condiments to adapt your dish whichever way you like. You’ll see small devilish chilies in fish sauce ( Prik Nam Pla ) or vinegar and ground dried chilies and pastes. Make your own Thai condiments here. Restaurants that serve tourists quite often assume the farangs aren’t up to the heat, you have to ask for your food spicy or with chili.
Thai soups are served as part of the main meal, not as a starter. They’re filling enough in themselves, but sometimes people order rice on the side.
Your soup will contain sticks and leaves, you’re generally not supposed to eat them, although kaffir lime leaves are yum. Just take out the pieces of lemongrass, galangal ( galangal is far more woody than ginger), lime leaves, tamarind pods, etc. The two main soups you’ll find are Tom Ka ( or Tom Kha) and Tom Yam ( or Tom Yum).
If I want a soup as a stand-alone meal, I usually go for something sweet and milder like tom kha gai, which is made with chicken, coconut milk, lemongrass, and galangal.
Tom yum is one of the most common Thai soups, which is made with lemongrass, galangal, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, and crushed chili peppers. Tom yum goong is a popular version of this soup that includes prawns (goong). If you like spicy dishes, tom yum is filling enough to be eaten as a meal, particularly if you have it with a side of rice.
This Thai dish maybe isn’t for beginners, fiery hot tom yum, but delicious! Tom yum is hot with chilies and sour with lime. It doesn’t normally contain coconut, the stock is almost clear sometimes.
Tom Ka is a highly fragrant thin coconut soup. It can be totally spice and chili free. Sometimes it has chilies. The key ingredients are the galangal and lemongrass. Kaffir lime leaves and fresh basil add more fragrance. Tom Ka often features delicious Asian mushrooms.
It’s kind of impossible to write about Thai noodles without mentioning pad thai. Like most Thai dishes, pad thai is a little different everywhere you order it. The other famous noodle dish is pad siew, rice noodles, chicken and Chinese broccoli, stir-fried in soy sauce.
Pad Siew ( or Pad See Ew)
These are fat, slippery rice noodles fried with soy sauce ( the siew) and vegetables, with or without meat. Pad Siew contains greens, kale, Chinese broccoli, or similar.
Probably the food most often consumed by tourists in Thailand and certainly a Thai food for beginners. Pad Thai can be delicious if you eat it at the Street Food stalls or dodgy if you eat it at a restaurant.
Normally Pad Thai has thin rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and small pieces of firm tofu. Its flavored comes from tamarind, fish sauce, tiny dried shrimps, garlic or shallots, chilies, and sugar. It should be served with lime and peanuts. Sometimes there are vegetables, I think the best Pad Thai has plenty of bean sprouts. You can order it with meat or prawns sometimes.
Thai curries are made with coconut milk. Thai curries have a completely different taste compared to Indian curries because they generally incorporate herbs, leaves and other fresh ingredients, rather than spices.
The coconut milk is made from the flesh of the coconut and can be thick or thin. The colors of the curry come from the curry paste, all contain chilies and aromats. The curries all come with a choice of protein or straight vegetable. The main curries you will find are green curry, red curry, yellow curry, massaman curry, and penang curry.
The green curry paste is green because of the green chili content. Fresh coriander, basil and kaffir lime leaf can enhance the paste’s greenness. Thai green curry almost always features various mini green aubergines, sometimes quartered, sometimes whole.
Thai red curry paste is made from fresh and dried red chilies.
Yellow curry is richer and creamier than red or green curries because of the coconut cream content. The yellow comes from fresh turmeric in the paste, making it slightly Indian-like.
Massaman means Muslim. This curry is filling with potatoes, lots of sugar and peanuts and is about the heaviest dish you’ll find.
Penang curry is similar to red curry but sweeter. Coconut cream makes is heavier and richer.
These usually come in chicken, vegetable, prawn or tofu varieties. The sauces contain a little garlic, soy, and sugar.
Chicken with basil and chili
Delicious and a Thai classic.
Chicken with cashew nuts
A delicious dish of fried chicken with cashew nuts.
Chicken with vegetables
Vegetables vary and are seasonal. You will find normally baby corn and cooked cucumber in Thailand.
Chicken with ginger
It contains loads of shredded fresh ginger, onion, and other vegetables
It’s often the cheapest thing on the menu. Thai omelets are very delicious for breakfast with the right condiments.
Thai filled omelet
Stuffed with a meat and herb mix are amazing!
Larb is a meat salad with finely chopped meat, usually cooked, mixed with herbs. The meat is sometimes served raw. Thais add mint, lime juice, and fish sauce. It could also contain chopped toasted rice. Thais normally eat it with sticky rice and raw vegetables and chilies served on the side.
Thai salads are great Shredded green papaya is a major ingredient, along with the fish sauce.
Thai Food Culture
In Thailand, food is a reason to celebrate and the basis of any social occasion. Due to the social manner in which food is eaten, Thai dishes are typically shared around the table with no one dish being designated to a certain person- everyone shares everything. Throwing food away will make Thais anger so when eating Thai food, you need to be sure to clean your plate!
While Thai dishes often feature ingredients placed on top of a big pile of rice, the food components are generally kept separate. So, if you have a plate with beef, vegetables, and rice, eat each par separately rather than mixing everything together- that is the Thai way!
While you may find chopsticks in some Thai homes, Western cutlery is actually preferred in most of Thailand. However, Thai people typically ditch the knife and opt to hold a fork and spoon to help with the delicious broths that accompany many dishes.
There are a few things to know about Thai eating etiquette.
No chopsticks. No knives.
Use Fork, spoon, and fingers.
Don’t put the fork in your mouth. Use the fork to scoop the food into the spoon and eat from the spoon.
It is customary to eat rice by rolling it into a bite-sized ball with your fingers using only your right hand.
Yes. Thais eat bugs. And I found some of them to be delicious. They are quite commonly found fried up at markets. Do not be a tourist just taking photos of videos in the market. Be a traveler and give it a try. Actually, the essence of some bugs is commonly used in the delicious Nam Pla Prik chile sauce.
There’s no breakfast as we know it in the West in Thailand. While we might be familiar with eggs for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and steak and potatoes for dinner, there is little contrast in the types of food served throughout the day in Thailand.
Breakfast offerings typically include savory items like noodle soups or a plastic bag of pork or beef with sticky rice. If you can’t wrap your head around soup for breakfast, pick up some fresh fruit, a fruit smoothie or a Thai iced coffee.
All Thai dishes strive to have all of the main tastes combined on one plate. That means all those dishes are sweet, salty, sour, bitter and spicy. Thai cuisine also relies heavily on spices and aromatics.
With a wide array of Thai dishes, it is best to look at the food category to really understand the ingredients as a whole. While foods will vary from region to region, the ingredients in Thai dishes are at the core of every menu.
There are chilies in about every Thai dish however, that doesn’t mean that every dish is going to be spicy! There is a wide range of spice in Thai chilis and the larger chilis are really just like big vegetables rather than a spice. There are about 5 main types of chilies used in Thai cuisine and a good rule of thumb is the smaller the chili, the spicier it is! It is typical of Thai dishes to be served with a bowl of chopped chilies on the side, like a condiment, so that you can adjust the spice level to your liking.
Tom Yum is hot and sour, made with chilies and limes. Tom Ka is a thinner, coconut soup that features ginger and lemongrass.
You will frequently find pieces of lemongrass, kaffir leaves, galangal ginger or whole tamarind pods in your soup – these are not for eating. The seasonings are left in the soup to intensify the flavors but remove the sticks and leaves before you eat or leave them at the bottom of your bowl.
The main ingredients used are, of course, noodles, soy sauce, kale, broccoli and occasionally meat. For Pad Thai, the ingredients are thin rice noodles, stir-fried egg, firm tofu, tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp and garlic.
Thai curries are all coconut milk-based so they have a creamy, slightly tropical taste right from the start. The variation in color comes from the spices added to that coconut base. Green curry is green thanks to the green chilies used in the mix. Green curry is typically sweet and made with fresh coriander, Thai basil, and kafir lime leaves. Red chili features spicy, dried red chilies while the yellow curry is richer and creamier than both red and green and is colored thanks to turmeric paste. Massaman Curry is made with potatoes, peanuts, and sugar.
With fresh fruits being so widely available in Thailand, many desserts are simply made from cut-up fruits paired with simple sauces. Mango slices over sticky rice with coconut cream is a classic that you will find everywhere.
Some Valuable Tips
Thai Food for Vegans and Vegetarians
It may seem that Thailand is a paradise for vegans and vegetarians with every meat dish having a tofu-based alternative, but think again. Thai food, although tofu-based, wasn’t created with vegans in mind, you will find dried shrimp, fish sauce and oyster sauce fairly ubiquitous and will need to ask specifically for your dish to not contain these animal products.
Fast Food in Thailand
You can find whatever food you like in Thailand, pizzas, fries, sandwiches, it’s all here. If you’re coming to Thailand and don’t fancy Thai food, you’re not going to starve. But do yourself a favor, give it a go. Thai food is heaven. Delicious food!
Somethings are not supposed to be eaten
Thai soups are often flavored with ingredients like galangal and lemongrass, which you’re not supposed to eat. You can spoon these ingredients out of the soup or just eat around them as you go.
Thai Rice Dishes
Many Thai rice dishes you see at street stalls are just simply different kinds of meat served over plain rice. It’s therefore useful to know the most common meat words in Thai: gai is chicken, moo is pork, neua wua is beef, and plah is fish. If you’re a vegetarian, you can order a dish “mai sai neua” (without meat).
If you are on a budget
One of the cheapest dishes, wherever you go, is omelet rice, which is basically a fried egg served over rice. Thai omelets are really different from the French version: Instead of being light and fluffy, they’re golden-colored and crispy on the outside, but soft on the inside. Add Thailand’s ever-present condiments to create a satisfying meal. You will always find on your table sliced chilies in vinegar, dried red chili, sugar, fish sauce and, ground peanuts.
Easily one of the best things about eating in Thailand is the widely-available fresh fruit, which makes for an awesome, cheap dessert or snack. You’ll see street vendors everywhere selling little bags of juicy pineapple and sweet bananas.
Thai street food is cheap. Even street vendors that get a lot of tourist traffic typically won’t charge more than 30-60 baht ($1-2 USD) for their offerings.
If you venture into a truly Thai market void of tourists, you can eat like a king for just a few dollars. Eating from street vendors helped me manage a budget of $20 a day in Thailand!
Be easy with the chilies
Eating Thai food with the locals is an entirely different level of HOT. It can cause you to tear up and cough uncontrollably. If you wanna play it safe, order without spice and add some chili sauce later.
Thai food culture is all about customization. On your table, you’ll notice a caddy of four condiment jars filled with some interesting concoctions.
Typically, you’ll find jars of sugar, fish sauce, a chili/garlic/vinegar sauce and dried chili flakes. You can also request Nam Pla Prik which is a fish sauce with chiles, garlic, and lime.
Too much sweet
When ordering a Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee, they normally add a ton of sweetened condensed milk. You can request a “little” bit of the sweetener, taste test, then ask for more if you wish.
Thai iced tea (cha yen) is not like American iced tea. It’s a creamy orange-colored beverage sent from heaven and it might just change your life.
If you have a sweet tooth, you’re in luck! Thai desserts can be found in every color and shape imaginable, but you might not immediately recognize them as sweets.
Thai marzipan is made from mung beans and is sculpted and painted to look like little glossy fruits and vegetables.
Sticky rice is covered in coconut milk and served with fresh slices of mango. And rice is topped with a sweet custard and served up like a little present inside a banana leaf.
Do you have a favorite Thai dish?
If you have a favorite Thai dish, please comment below. Also please feel free to add a link to your website or YouTube channel if they are related to food and recipes. All others will be automatically deleted (the beauty of machine learning!).
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Now that you are well versed in the basics of Thai cuisine, you are ready to embark on a Thai food journey. You now have a little background into the dishes, how to eat certain meals, the spice essentials and the main types of dishes you will encounter in Thai cuisine. So get on a plane to Thailand and maybe I will see you there in your Thai adventure!