The first time I had Thai food was in college and I equated it with fanciness and being very cultured (I was from a small-town, so anything that didn’t involve a farm seemed cultured). My friends and I would dress up, sit in plush seats, and lay thick, white napkins on our lap in anticipation for curries served in silver bowls.
Now that I live in Thailand, I usually eat Thai food barefoot, in a corrugated metal shack, while mosquitos dine on my blood. I’ve realized Thai food isn’t all that fancy, unless you’re in a resort or Westernized restaurant, but it’s even more delicious than I could have realized. I’ve only hit the tip of the iceberg, but here are some of my favorite dishes so far.
It’s cliche, everyone knows it, everyone orders like, but damn, if everyone doesn’t love it. Pad Thai is popular for a reason. It’s tame enough for foreigner taste buds, the mixture of lime, crushed peanut, cilantro, fish sauce, and noodles is addicting, and the fat, juicy shrimps placed on top make you feel like a queen. If you are easing your way into Thai food, this is the only place to start. Just don’t get stuck in a “pad thai rut”.
Khao Soi Curry
Photo by Franz Schuier
It was never debatable that I wouldn’t love this curry dish, as it has a fair amount of coconut milk (my favorite) in it. Khao Soi comes from Chiang Mai and although you can get it elsewhere, I wouldn’t recommend it. The northerns make it perfectly spicy and crunchy, with bits of deep-fried noodles sticking out of it, as if it were an art piece. It’s best served with beef and a cold Singha.
Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
Photo by Jessica Spengler
Thais looooooove their papaya salad spicy, which is bad news for me, because whenever I eat it, I have silent tears rolling down my cheeks. The things we do for love. I’m a California girl, so like, salads are the best, but som tam is nothing like the salads from home. Fresh papaya, green beans, and tomatoes, chili, lime juice, fish sauce, a bit of sugar, and peanuts all pounded with a mortar and pestle. It’s simple, healthy, and worth crying over.
Photo by Vanessa Pike-Russell
My friends who came to visit became obsessed with this curry. It’s a crowd-pleaser, as the coconut milk keeps it mild, and the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves give it a unique and exciting taste. This is the kind of curry that you order more rice for because you want to mop up every bit of sauce. I could eat this every day and lucky for me, they sell the paste all over Thailand, so I can make it at home.
Tom Yam Goong
Photo by Amrufun
Honestly, I would have never had this, if my school didn’t serve it all the time. I’m not a soup person. Soups make me think of middle-aged people or having the flu. But ok, it’s actually quite good and with spice like that, no way do you feel middle-aged or sick eating this stuff. The big chunks of tomatoes and cilantro keep me feeling healthy as anything.
Chicken Fried Rice (Khao Phat)
Photo by jo.sau
Possibly more cliche than pad thai, but just as popular. Safe, almost always delicious, and you won’t be hungry afterwards. I absolutely love getting a plate with that perfect dome of fried rice, decorated with slices of cucumber, lime, and a saucer of chili and vinegar on the side. It’s Thai comfort food for me and once you find a place that makes it how you like it, you’re sure to become a regular.
No, it’s not a food, but fruit shakes can replace a meal every so often. Coconut fruit shakes are sometimes the main reason I go to the beach and since strawberries are rare and expensive here, I use strawberry fruit shakes to get my fill. They’re cheap, sugared-up as fuck, and you’ll feel like a million dollars after you suck one down. If you want to keep things healthy, ask for less sugar or find a stall that doesn’t pour in an actual cup of sugar. I’ve seen it and was horrified (but it didn’t deter me).
So, come to Thailand with an empty stomach and get ready to EAT!