The best Thai Cuisine dishes you simply have to try

To really experience a place you’ve got to taste it on your tongue and to let it linger. And where better to open your mouth to new sensations and flavours than Thailand, where the national palette comes accustomed to sour, spicy and sublime. Knowing what Thailand food to try before you travel is a must to avoid being overwhelmed by the scrawling lettering and catalogue menus you’ll find on many a street corner. While pointing wildly at the picture is one way to go, try learning the names of some of the best Thai dishes below to impress the locals.

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Gaeng Keow Wan Gai, Green Curry | Photo: Huahom

1. Gaeng Keow Wan Gai (Green Curry with Chicken)

Coming in hot with one of Thailand’s spiciest specialities is the Gaeng Keow Wan Gai, a green curry dish made with coconut milk and a cluster of Thai basil, ginger, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves. A central Thailand delicacy, the green curry balances the spice of green chillies with the creaminess of the milk, all bulked up with eggplant, mushrooms, and other veggies, all served with steamed rice. Though switching from chicken to beef or a vegetarian option is easy enough, to get a milder level of spice, opt for the yellow curry which is made from fewer chillies and more dried shrimp, galangal, coriander and garlic.

2. Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup)

An acquired taste to some, Tom Yum Goong is a Thai staple, blending the cutting acidity of citrus and fish sauce with a powerful chilli base. Most often served with as a clear soup, the big fat shrimp and mushrooms inside are the main prize, complemented by a strong hit of lemongrass and galangal. For a creamier version, get the chef to add a glug of coconut milk.

Photo: Cottonbro

Photo: Benjamin Sow

3. Som Tum (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)

A light side dish perfect to enjoy in the heat of the day is Som Tum, otherwise known as spicy green papaya salad. The unripe papaya gives the dish its crunch and a certain tangy sweetness dressed up with fish sauce, lime juice, garlic and tamarind as well as substantial amount of crushed chilli. Originating from the ethnic Laos people as ‘tam maak hoong’, this sweet and sour salad is eaten across Southeast Asia is myriad variations (bok l’hong in Cambodia and gỏi đu đủ in Vietnam), most often tossed with fresh tomatoes, carrots, peanuts, dried shrimp and runner beans to give it its vibrant appearance.

4. Pla Nueng Manow (Steamed Fish with Spicy Lime Sauce)

As a nation with a fair few islands, Thailand features seafood quite heavily on the menu. Freshwater fish from the Mekong River is also very popular among locals. Pla Nueng Manow is how fish should be done, by soaking fresh snapper with a sauce of chili, garlic, coriander, fish sauce, lime juice and broth and steaming it on a pan. For the ultimate experience, find a Bangkok restaurant on the riverside where you can watch the fish cook in front of you.

5. Pad Thai

If you’ve heard of any Thai foods, you’ve surely heard of Pad Thai, a westernised take on the more traditional noodle dishes. Stir-fried with a choice of chicken or shrimp and tossed through with peanuts, beansprouts, tofu and eggs, Pad Thai is your go-to for when you forget the names of all the others. This is one of the Thai dishes available worldwide, from ultra-cheap street vendors to Michelin-starred eateries, but of course, Thailand has really mastered the art at a fraction of the price.

Pad Thai | Photo: Sharon Ang

Thailand | Photo: Javon Swaby

6. Khao Soi (Thai Coconut Curry Noodle Soup)

Famous up north and especially so in Chiang Mai, Khao Soi is the coconut curry of choice for both meat-eaters and vegetarians, inspired from Burmese recipes and a must-try while sightseeing in the country’s second city. Expect your egg noodles to come immersed in a fragrant curry base, served with your choice of meat or veggies and garnished with deep-fried noodles, pickled greens, chillies and limes.

7. Kao Phad (Fried Rice)

A staple throughout Asia, Kao Phad is the Thai version of fried rice, and the simplest meal you can get. Usually made in a wok and including some kind of meat, egg, garlic and onions, Kao Phad is hard to dislike, served up at pretty much every restaurant as a side-dish or carb-heavy main.

Thai Noodle Soup | Photo: Huahom

Photo: Cottonbro

8. Tom Kha Kai (Thai Chicken Coconut Soup)

More similar to a Tom Yum than a Khao Soi, this Thai soup uses strong ingredients of galangal, shallots, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves to cut through its creamy coconut base. Add to that succulent strips of chicken and aromatic Asian mushrooms and you’ve got yourself a steaming bowl of heaven, perfect for those not so keen on the spiciness of the Tom Yum.

9. Pad See Ew (Flat Noodles Stir-Fried with Soy Sauce)

A saltier and saucier take on the Pad Thai, Pad See Ew elevates its flat noodles with a tasty base of soy and oyster sauce, all fried up with a mix of garlic, onion, egg, seasonal greens and meat. A safe choice for sufferers of heartburn, Pad See Ew comes low in spice but high in flavour allowing you to move out of your Pad Thai comfort zone.

Bangkok, Thailand | Photo: Alejandro Cartagena

10. Mah Hor (Galloping Horses)

More of a snack than a meal, Mah Hor is a particularly memorable appetiser you should keep a look out for on street sides across the country. Made with orange or pineapple and topped with a savoury mix of meat, peanuts, pepper and coriander, Mah Hor is certainly a taste experience, combining a balance of both sweet and salty that originated inside the royal palace.

11. Nam Prik Ong (Spicy Pork and Tomato Dip with Vegetables)

One for the meat lovers is Nam Prik Ong, most common in northern Thailand. Essentially a crudité dip, the dish is best eaten as an appetizer, satisfying your need for raw fresh veggies and made moreish with its tangy cherry tomato and minced pork sauce on the side.

12. Gaeng Massaman Gai (Massaman Chicken Curry)

Derived from Persian and Indian recipes, the Gaeng Massaman Gai is a non-native dish offering a more Middle Eastern flavour, made with a paste of cinnamon, nutmeg, cumin and other imported spices. Softer than your green, yellow or red curries, the Massaman is both mild and slightly sweet, most commonly found in southern Thailand near the border to Malaysia, from where the term ‘massaman’ originated in the 19th century.

Photo: Michael Burrows

Thai Curry Massaman | Photo: Dan Hussey

13. Khao Pad Sapparod (Pineapple Fried Rice)

If you’re a fan of pineapple on pizza, then the Khao Pad Sapparod is likely one for you; a dish that adds juicy chunks of fresh pineapple to an otherwise customary fried rice recipe. More saucy than some, this dish combines shrimp, curry powder and oyster sauce to give off a sophisticated flavour at full freshness and little cost.

14. Mookata Thai BBQ

For the experience if nothing else, the Mookata Thai BBQ is a must-try with friends or family. At many of the street-side BBQ restaurants in Thailand, you can cook your food at the centre of your table in a sombrero-shaped dish that allows you to grill your meats and boil your veggies in tandem. As you cook, the meat juices will make for a flavourful broth, perfect for balancing out the bottles of cheap beer you’ll be cheers-ing.

Thailand | Photo: David Egon

15. Gai Med Ma Moung (Chicken Cashew Nuts)

Nutty and with a hefty level of spice is the Gai Med Ma Moung, a chicken dish stir-fried with veggies and cashews to be served alongside rice. Ask for less spice if it’s your first time trying the Med Ma Moung, then adding dried chilli flakes as you wish for more of a punch.

16. Guay Tiew Reua (Noodle Soup)

Dressed up or pared down, the Guay Tiew Reua is a light meal for any occasion. The name covers all types of noodle soup dishes, mostly with meat but sometimes without, originally served from boats operating out of Bangkok’s canal. A simple choice for any time of day, your Guay Tiew will come perfectly fragrant with egg noodles and maybe some wonton in a broth flavoured with sugar, chillies, lime juice and fish sauce.

17. Pad Kra Pao Moo (Minced Pork Stir-Fried with Thai Basil)

A meaty favourite in Thai restaurants around the world, the Pad Kra Pao Moo takes a big helping of minced pork and combines it with fish sauce, oyster sauce, shallots, chilli and garlic before adding the key greenery of Thai basil. Served with egg or without, totally your choice.

Street food Thailand | Photo: Markus Winkler

Photo: Streetwindy

18. Pak Boong (Morning Glory)

Adding some healthy choices to your vacation diet is key to being your best self. If ever you’re wanting some fresh veggies, ask the waiter for Pak Boong, a crunchy spinach-like vegetable known as morning glory that comes fried and seasoned in soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic, chillies and more. If looking for the vegetarian variation, you can try for Pak Boong without oyster sauce.

19. Kao Niew Ma Muang (Mango Sticky Rice)

Now for the most important activity of the day’s itinerary; dessert. Enter the king of desserts; Kao Niew Ma Muang otherwise known as Mango Sticky Rice. With only three ingredients – glutinous rice, fresh mango and lashings of sweet coconut milk – how one dish can be so simple yet so moreish is beyond me. Eat with a spoon or your bare hands if you don’t mind getting super sticky, as is the way across southeast and south Asia. For the best flavours, try this one in peak mango season between April and May.

Mango Sticky Rice | Photo: Huahom

20. Banana Roti (Banana Pancake)

One last sweet treat in the offing is Banana Roti, a staple served up specifically to cater to backpackers and sweet-toothed locals. Think of a banana crepe dripping with vanilla sauce then consider all the possible variations besides banana. Chocolate spread, strawberry sauce, orange, hazelnut… there’s a new flavour for everyday of your vacation. Surely it’d be rude not to try them all?

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Phi Phi Islands, Thailand | Photo: Alexandr Podvalny

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