Thai food has astonishing complexity and variety to easily rival the great cuisines of China and India. A definitive taste to try on the Thailand holidays is the Thai curries that are flavoured with rich pastes sourced from ground-chillies, spices, roots and herbs.
A central feature of the local Thai dish is the rice, which is sticky glutinous rice or fragrant jasmine rice and appreciated as a cool counterpoint to the intense heat and flavour of the Thai stir-fries and curries. While the entire menu is not spicy, most of the recognised and popular Thai dishes will be.
Thai cuisine includes five basic tastes – sweetness, saltiness, bitterness, sourness and spiciness – and by eating a variety of dishes it easy to benefit from complementary textures and a balance of flavours. Fermented fish sauce, coconut milk, lime juice, garlic, chilli, galangal, coriander, and lemon grass are a few of the elements that help to bring the cuisine to life.
Curries and soups
Thai curries are built on a foundation of curry pastes that are created using an elaborate blend of chilli peppers, shallots, garlic, spices and herbs that are placed in a pestle and mortar and ground together. The original use of a few of these spices started in India. Coconut cream is a further feature in the curries and leads to a consistency that is thinner and less sweet, and much like a soup.
The curries can range from the traditional like kaeng matsaman (meat-usually beef, peanuts and potatoes) and kaeng karii (yellow and mild), while there are other that are most distinct to Thailand, such as the kaeng phanaeng (savoury and thick with peanuts), kaeng phet (hot and red), and kaeng khiaw wan (green and sweet).
A dish of Kaeng som includes fish as a main ingredient and comes with a distinct sour taste thanks to the inclusion of okra leaves or tamarind. Kaeng liang is a great dish for the cool season with its hot and aromatic peppercorns that help to liven up bland vegetables.
Thai soups often accompany other dishes. Most include galangal, kaffir lime leaves and lemon grass, while others include chilli for the extremely spicy tang. Popular soups include tom yam kung (sour and hot prawn soup with no coconut milk) and tom kha kai (chicken and coconut). Also, the Khao tom (starchy rice soup) is a great choice for the mornings.
Thai cuisine includes the less-known delights such as salad or yam, which has plenty of the regular flavours in a refreshing and unusual harmony. Yam is widely available in several variations – with vegetables, seafood, meat or noodles – but most include a fiery sprinkling of chilli and a liberal squirt of lime juice. Some of the favoured salads to try on the Thailand family tour include yam plaa duk foo (fluffy deep-fried catfish), yam hua plee (banana flowers) and yam som oh (pomelo).
Rice and noodle dishes
Noodles are a common sight on the street food scene and come in plenty of varieties, including stir-fried (phat, fried or haeng, dry), doused in gravy (rat na), boiled up as soups (nam), ba mii (egg noodles), and kway tiaw (made with rice flour). One of the most popular noodle dishes is phat thai (Thai fry-up), which combines the kway tiaw noodles with spring onions, tofu, egg and given a light sprinkle of lime and ground peanuts, as well as spiking with tiny pieces of dried shrimp.
The food stalls also service popular one-dish meals such as khao kaeng (with curry) and steamed rice and fried rice (khao phat).
Many of the specialty dishes in northern Thailand first appeared on the scene from Myanmar, with popular choices including kaeng hang lay (pork curry with tamarind, turmeric and ginger) and khao soi (crispy and boiled egg noodles with pork, chicken, or beef with a curried coconut soup). Plus, plenty of dishes are accompanied with a spicy dipping sauce like nam phrik ong.
The southern Thai cuisine has a lot more emphasis on seafood, but does also have a noticeable Muslim and Malaysian aspect with the closeness to the border. A common dish is khao mok kai which is a regional version of a biryani. A visit to the southern markets on the Thailand tours makes it possible to buy great midday snacks like an appetizing salad of grated coconut, dried shrimp, and dried cooked rice served with a sweet sauce. Plus, there are a few types of flatbread, which is referred to as roti.
Desserts aren’t a major feature on the restaurant menus, although there are a couple of choices such as luk taan cheum which is a bowl of syrup with palm or lotus seeds that is scented with aromatic flowers like jasmine. Other options include sangkhayaa (coconut custard) which is cooked while inside a pumpkin, khao niaw mamuang (mango with sticky rice), and coconut ice cream.
Tap water is best to avoid (it is not even drunk by the locals), so there is cheap bottled water (about $0.25) to be found across the country, and even available to buy in the smallest villages. Ice should also be avoided unless eating in the high-end restaurants. Also, the large towns like Chiang Mai can have roadside water dispensing machines which are really cheap and just need to supply your own bottle.
Most of the restaurants, guesthouses and night markets offer a great selection of freshly squeezed juice with orange (nam som) and lime (nam manao) popular choices. Other soft drinks include fruit shakes which is blending pineapples (nam sapparot), papayas (nam malakaw), bananas (nam kluay), or similar with condensed milk or liquid sugar. A glass of coconut water (nam maprao) is great for quenching the thirst. Also, the sickeningly sweet sugar-cane juice (nam awy) is widely available.
Tea and coffee
Strong western and Chinese teas are available at most of the high-end restaurants, while a cup of weak Chinese tea (nam chaa) is common in the roadside cafes and Chinese restaurants. A cup of traditional Thai coffee is easily sourced on the Thailand tour packages by visiting the outdoor markets or Chinese-style cafés in the southern part of the country. Also, the cafes in larger towns are likely to have the espresso machines, which mean the Western-style coffee like cappuccino, espresso, and similar are widely available.