The best street food in Thailand
Street food in Thailand is everywhere. Hawker stalls are so ubiquitous in the country that they have replaced home cooking in many places. Some of the best Thai food is made fresh on the streets and is perfectly safe to eat. Sampling street food truly is the best way to tuck into the culinary heart of the Land of Smiles.
Pad Thai is the national dish, popularised by Prime Minister Plaek Pibulsonggram (or Phibun) as part of his campaign to establish and promote Thai nationalism. It is a stir fry of rice noodles cooked with eggs, fish sauce, garlic, shallots, bean sprouts, coriander leaves, tofu or chicken, tamarind pulp and served with spring onions, crushed nuts and lime juice.
Pad Thai became popular during the economically harsh 1930s when rice noodles were discovered as a cheap and filling source of carbohydrates. Mixed with vegetables and an inexpensive protein, this made a complete meal. Phibun decreed this dish be promoted to improve the national diet, strengthen the Thai economy and inspire a national “Thai” image. During this period, Phibun also changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, banned local dialects in favour of the Thai language and promoted the use of the Thai word Sawasdee as a greeting.
The dish is known throughout the world and for good reason. It’s incredibly delicious, nutritious and very easy to make.
Som Tam spicy papaya salad
Som Tam is the spicy green papaya salad, a staple on the Thai street food scene. You will commonly see an (usually) old, yet fiery lady pounding away at a large pestle and mortar.
Som Tam is made from shredded papaya, blended with lime juice, palm sugar, chilli, garlic, shrimp, nuts, tomatoes, lime juice, fish sauce, bean sprouts and green beans. It originated in North East Thailand (Isan). It was traditionally a salad of fresh green papayas due to the abundance of fruit in the region and was known for its strong spicy flavours without palm sugar. It was later popularised post-WW2 throughout Thailand when palm sugar was added as one of the main ingredients.
A word of caution: even if you think you have a tolerance for spicy food, always ask for your Som Tam to be prepared without chilli. When you grind chilli into a paste in the pestle and mortar, some of the paste will inevitably remain in the mortar after it is served and the new Som Tam prepared. And it is strong! So when ordering a Som Tam ask for no chillies: the leftover chilli paste in the mortar will still give it a kick.
Street food in Thailand is popular for its rainbow assortment of curries, named according to the colour of the chilli paste used: green, yellow or red.
Green curry gets its colour from green chillies and also the variety of herbs used, like fresh coriander, kaffir lime and basil leaves. On the spicy scale, this is the mildest of the 3. Yellow curry has more of a South Asian influence, using yellow chillies and turmeric, which give it its unique golden/yellow colour. This is medium on the spice scale. Red curry takes its flavour from a large number of red chillies used. Traditional Thai chefs can use up to 20! The modern red curry uses red chilli powder instead, which enhances the red colour and gives it a deeper flavour. This is the spiciest of the 3, so handle with caution!
Massaman curry gets its own mention because it was crowned not only king of curries, but of all foods in CNN’s top 50 delicious foods. It is a mild Thai curry with a nod to the Muslim influence in the country. It is thought to have originated in Central Thailand at the Court of Ayutthaya in the 1500s via a Persian merchant.
It is also unique because unlike the rainbow curries above, it is based on dried herbs and spices rather than fresh ones. The meat used is slowly cooked in coconut milk with onions, cashew nuts, potatoes, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, star anise, palm sugar, fish sauce, chilli and tamarind sauce. Due to its Muslim roots and Islamic dietary laws, Massaman curry usually contains beef, but can also be made with duck, tofu or chicken (rarely pork). It one of the more common street foods of Thailand in the South where there’s a large Muslim population.
Mango coconut sticky rice
No visit to Thailand is complete until you’ve tried mango sticky rice swimming in coconut milk. This is a culinary paradise. Sticky rice is made from glutinous rice, sometimes white or purple in colour. The rice is then served with a mix of coconut milk and palm sugar. Mango is added to sweeten it even more and to make you think you’re balancing all the naughtiness with a portion of fruit.
Mango sticky rice with coconut milk is one of our favourite street foods of Thailand and any day during our travels in the country without one was incomplete.
Tom Yam Goong soup
Thai tom yam is one of the popular street foods you will encounter mixing salty, spicy and sour flavours. It is a spicy shrimp (goong) based soup cooked with spices unique to Southeast Asia, in particular, galangal (like ginger but with longer roots), lemongrass (a grey-green grass that smells like lemon) and kaffir lime leaves.
The dish is so famous that a Thai martial arts film about a Vietnamese gangster who runs a Thai restaurant in Sydney was named after it.
Hungry? Make your own Tom Yam soup, or try your hand at one of the other Thai street food-inspired dishes by Nomadic Boys.
Photo: Nomadic Boys
Red curry | Photo: Nomadic Boys
Tom Yam Goong soup | Photo: Nomadic Boys
Mango sticky rice | Photo: Nomadic Boys
Som Tam spicy papaya salad | Photo: Nomadic Boys