Over the last ten or twenty years, Thailand has really built up a strong reputation for its array of delicious, unique and varied cuisine. Thai food is now so popular amongst many people throughout the world that it is generally considered to be some of the finest there is.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the popularity of Thai food is partly due to the fact that it takes its influences from various different cultures, most notably Asian and European, yet it still successfully manages to retain its own distinctive flavours and style.
The food in Thailand is just one of the many reasons why so many people choose to visit the country year after year. It might sound obvious but if you like Thai food then you really should go to Thailand in order to experience some authentic Thai dishes, the vast majority of are far superior to the same dishes that will be made abroad.
Part of the reason for this is that authentic Thai food is made from the freshest produce and ingredients available, much of which you would simply struggle to get hold of in other countries, particularly in the west.
For example, some of the chillies, herbs and spices that help to give Thai food its distinctive flavour are only native to Thailand, some are even only native to particular areas of Thailand and it is these ingredients that are often substituted for something else when Thai dishes are made abroad. Therefore, lovers of Thai food can expect their favourite Thai dishes to taste ten times better if they have been made in Thailand, with authentic ingredients.
A key element of Thai food is the balance between many of the important flavours and tastes that are used in Thai cuisine. Most notably, these are sour, spicy, salty and sweet.
In most Thai dishes these four elements are always present can be really quite strong, especially to Western taste buds and foreigners often find these flavours quite difficult to come to terms with. However, each of these tastes can be easily adjusted accordingly to personal preference and you definitely get used to these flavours the more you eat authentic Thai food.
Another great thing about eating in Thailand is the huge diversity that is offered by Thai cuisine. People who haven’t visited Thailand before often think that all Thai food is really spicy but this simply isn’t the case. Thai cuisine is so varied that it caters for all tastes and for all budgets, which ranges from international fine dining to traditional cheap Thai street food.
Sampling a bit of traditional Thai cuisine in an absolute must when visiting Thailand and can be a real highlight of your visit to the country. One thing that is for sure with Thai cuisine is that there are always new flavours, ingredients and exciting new dishes to discover.
How To Eat Thai Food
You might not realise it now but eating in Thailand can be quite different to how people eat in the west, particularly when it comes to table manners or dinner table etiquette. The fact is that Thais have their own unique style of eating when it comes to meal times. This is something that will become apparent pretty early on during your visit to the country.
In Thailand you can forget about having a small arsenal of cutlery tools or freshly cleaned napkins at the dinner table and you don’t need to worry about old fashioned, posh table manners either.
The table manners here tend to be much relaxed and practical and are really aimed with communal or group eating very much in mind. This dates back to the times when the food at meal times would be collectively shared by families or large groups of people as it was considered to be a really important gift that should be shared and gratefully received. The sharing of food at meal times is something that is still an important part of Thai culture today.
If you happen to be eating out with Thai friends or as a group which includes Thai people, then forget about ordering a great big steak or pizza and eating it all to yourself. For a start, there will be a slim chance that you will get a chance to order anything yourself as it is usually a task which is the responsibility of the most senior woman of the group that you happen to be with. It will also be more than likely that you will be expected to share whatever food there is, as is the traditional way of eating in Thailand.
When eating out in Thailand the responsibility of being the most senior woman in the group is not something that should be taken lightly as it is her job to ensure that all tastes are catered for. This usually means that she will make sure that she orders dishes containing chicken, pork, fish and seafood, as well as making sure that any vegetarians in the group are also not forgotten about.
All of the main flavours that generally make up Thai food such as sweet, spicy, salty and sour (as mentioned above) will normally be represented in each dish. Also, unlike in the west, don’t expect all the dishes to be served at once. One of the great things about eating Thai food with a large group of people is that the dishes will almost always be staggered, which means that food just keeps on coming!
When the food starts to arrive, don’t expect to see everyone diving right in and eating their food like they haven’t eaten for a couple days. At meal times, Thai people like to take things slowly, enjoy their food whilst chatting amongst one another and enjoying the company of their friends and family.
Just before you start to dig into what might seem like a mountain of food, someone will probably hand you a plate of rice and a small bowl which they will ladle some soup in for you. As your mouth starts to water and your belly continues to rumble, it is now about time for you to get stuck into the incredible spread that is laid out in front of you.
But wait just a moment. Don’t dive straight in and go shovelling massive amounts of you food onto your plate. In Thailand, the polite way is to only put enough food on your plate for a couple of mouthfuls and wait until you eat this before going back for more. Thai people usually like to pick at their dishes, helping themselves a little bit at a time until they have tried tasted all of the food that is on offer.
Paying For the Bill
After eating in Thailand, when it comes to picking up the bill, things operate a little differently than they do in western countries. First of all, the bill is always left to the wealthiest and most important person in the group to pay for. If you happen to be that person then take it very much as a compliment. Don’t think that the Thais you are eating with are being rude or trying to make you pay for everything. This is simply the way things are done in Thailand, as it is meant to be shown as a sign of respect in two ways. One, for recognising the people who are wealthy and successful amongst the group and two, for those that can, to be able to look after the stomachs of others who might be less fortunate.
Generally, food is very cheap in Thailand and it is certainly much cheaper than it will be it your country of residence. Even if there are a large number of people to pay for, it probably won’t break the bank.
One final thing to remember about paying the bill is that there will rarely be a big fuss made when it comes to payment, as this will always be taken care of discreetly.
Using a Fork and a Spoon
Contrary to popular belief, particularly in the west, Thai people rarely use chopsticks to eat and instead use a fork and a spoon when eating the vast majority of Thai dishes. Originally, chopsticks were an import from China and are only used to eat noodle dishes.
Whist using a fork and a spoon to eat might seem a little strange to foreigners at first, it is a technique that works surprisingly well when it comes to eating most Thai dishes. When eating Thai food, the fork is mainly used only to push food onto the spoon.
The use of the fork and spoon is said to have been popularised King Chulalongkorn (Rama V) after he observed English dignitaries eating at an official banquet. As he watched the dignitaries using a knife and fork to eat with, the King decided that as the majority of Thai food had already been chopped up, so there would be no need to use a knife and instead, a fork and spoon would more than suffice.
Even to this day, knives are rarely used by Thais to eat with and it is rare that you will see them in traditional Thai restaurants. However, knives will normally be available in the restaurants and hotels in popular tourist destination, or when eating steak and other such dishes.
As a foreign visitor to Thailand you won’t automatically be expected to know every bit of Thai dining etiquette but it might be beneficial to be aware of the important factors, as discussed here. For example, using a fork and spoon, even if a little tricky at first, is certainly the easiest way to eat Thai food.
Other than the things mentioned above the main points to remember about eating in Thailand or dining etiquette is that most of all, people are friendly, laid back and relaxed at the dining table, with all food being shared and enjoyed amongst everyone who is eating.
Different Types of Thai Food
Before you sample some authentic Thai food, don’t just think that all Thai food is spicy and therefore, not palatable to western tastes, because it is not. Whilst it is true that chillies are used extensively in many dishes, there are also plenty that only use small amounts of chilli and some which use none at all. As well as chillies, many Thai dishes will often contain ingredients such as garlic, fish sauce, lime juice and lemon grass. It is these ingredients that help to give Thai food its distinctive flavour of spicy, sweet, sour and salty.
Speciality dishes or different types of food are also associated with each individual region in Thailand. For example, you will probably come across ‘khao nee-o’ (sticky rice), which originates from the north, during your visit to Thailand.
Traditionally, people in the rural areas of Thailand would often eat fried insects such as grasshoppers, crickets, cockroaches and ant larvae as a popular snack. Even in tourist hot spots such as Koh Samui, you will see local vendors serving up deep fried insects at many of the islands night markets.
Spicy salads are amongst some of the most popular food with Thai people. Probably the most commonly known and certainly one of the most popular is Som Tam (papaya salad). This salad can often be very spicy and it usually contains unripe green papaya which is finely chopped or shredded, garlic, tomatoes, chillies, lime juice, fish sauce, sugar, peanuts, small dried shrimps and sometimes crab.
Many people consider Som Tam to be the best example of a dish that contains all the traditional flavours that can be found in Thai cuisine, such as spicy, sweet, salty and sour.
Som Tam or papaya salad is definitely worth trying if you visit Thailand and if you are feeling brave, order a regular version of the salad, just as the locals do. But be warned, it will be very spicy! If you want to sample Som Tam without it being too spicy then order it with less chilli. Absolutely delicious!
You can usually order Som Tam from many street vendors, where the salad will be freshly made in front of you for about 40 Baht and is great when served with barbecued chicken.
Stir Fried Food
Another great thing about Thai food is that many dishes can be cooked very quickly, none more so than if you order something like chicken and cashew nuts, stir fried beef with basil leaves and chilli or a stir fired noodle dish.
Pad Thai is probably the most famous stir fired noodle dish and you won’t have to walk for very long through any town in Thailand before you come to a street vendor selling this simple, yet delicious stir fried noodle dish. Pad Thai contains either red pork, which is thinly sliced, or seafood and is also normally served with bean sprouts, spring onions and wedges of lime.
Thailand’s famous curries and soups are probably the most famous export of all of its cuisine and there is a good chance that many foreign visitors will already have tried a Thai curry of some description in their country of residence.
Served with rice, some of the most popular curries in Thailand are known simply as Green, Yellow or Red curry. These curries are normally made with coconut milk and can contain chicken, pork or shrimp. Other ingredients that make up a Thai curry include chilli, garlic, lemon grass, onion and other Thai herbs and spices.
Another popular curry in Thailand is Massaman curry, which is Indian in its origin and translates to mean ‘Muslim’ curry. Massaman curry is made from coconut milk but also includes potatoes, beef and peanuts.
Upon visiting Thailand you could be almost spoilt for choice with the array of fresh and exotic fruit that is available for you to buy. Fruit such as bananas, water melon, guava, mango and pineapple are sold just about everywhere by street vendors. The fruit is usually sliced into chunks and put into plastic bags, where you are then given a wooden skewer to eat it with; all of which will cost you about 20 Baht.
More exotic fruits, some you might not have seen before, such as durian, rambutan, jack fruit, rose apples, longans and papayas can all be bought at the local markets and sometimes even sold from the back of pickup trucks on the side of the road.
Where to Eat in Thailand
Today, Thailand probably offers as wider dining options as any other destination in the world, from 5 star fine dining to roadside cafes and just about everything in between, Thailand has it all. It is very much the case that inexpensive, tasty and fresh food can be found just about anywhere.
In order to experience really truly great Thai cuisine then it can be worth trying to locate where many of the Thai locals eat and some of the best food in Thailand can nearly always be found in street or roadside restaurants.
At first, some of these kinds of restaurants might not look like the sort of place where you will want to go for an evening meal, with many looking a little grotty and even quite uninspiring, certainly when compared to some of the fine dining options.
For this reason many foreign tourists often decide to give the street or roadside restaurants a miss, probably because they do not think that they will be up to the same standards of what they might have come to expect back home. Therefore, they often miss out on what could be an unbeatable culinary experience.
In order to sample some of the great food that is on offer from roadside restaurants throughout Thailand it is always a good idea to look for places that have lots of plastic chairs outside, rolls of toilet paper on each table and plenty of Thai customers. If you find a place that has all three of these points, then you certainly won’t be disappointed.
Some of the roadside restaurants might be a little difficult to locate during the day but come the evening they seem to spring up all over the place, particularly around the bazaars and night markets.
Tourists Restaurants & International Food
In every popular tourist destination, particularly in places like Koh Samui you will find plenty of restaurants that will cater for absolutely all tastes and even though the price can a little bit higher than what you could find elsewhere in Thailand you will still be able to find a great selection of Thai food and food from other areas of the world.
It might be that when you visit Thailand you don’t want to be eating Thai food all time. If this is the case then don’t worry as you can find superb western and international food quite easily, especially if you are visiting a popular tourist destination within Thailand.
In fact, almost every nations food can be found in Thailand and although Thai people tend not to eat too much foreign food, restaurateurs in the country understand that foreign tourists want something other to eat apart from the local cuisine.
For example, Koh Samui has some pretty incredible choices when it comes to dining and you will almost certainly be able to find something nice to eat during your stay on the island.