9 must-try Thai dishes

Food is a quintessential part of the Thai travel experience. Whether you opt to enjoy it from a restaurant, street market or food stall, eating Thai food can be a treat for all the senses. In this round-up of nine must-try Thai dishes, Dawn Jorgensen selects some of the most famous Thai dishes to try.

No flavour is forgotten in the making of Thai food with spicy, sweet, salty and sour undertones guaranteed to make an appearance. Thailand has countless street vendors and many impressive award-winning restaurants from which to choose and the country’s vibrant culinary scene never fails to impress. Thai food is so tantalising that many visitors go on to cook Thai-inspired dishes for friends once they return home. It is therefore highly recommended that you do a Thai cooking class whilst in Thailand.

Thai food influences

Thai cuisine was greatly influenced over the centuries by immigrants from southern China who likely first introduced the wok and a variety of noodle dishes to Bangkok and the rest of the country. Similarly, Muslims from Malaysia and Indonesia are thought to have first visited Thailand in the late 14th century, bringing with them a dried-spice and meat-based style of cooking that would make its way to the south of Thailand and up to Bangkok. With the royal court adopting a sophisticated and refined take on staple Thai dishes for almost 300 years, as well as influences from the country’s rural area that were brought to the capital, it’s understandable that for a relatively small country, Thailand’s cuisine is astoundingly distinct, delicious and interesting.

Here (in no particular order) is a guide to nine famous Thai dishes you really must try.

1) Pad Thai

Thailand’s most famous dish and a Bangkok street food essential, Pad Thai is a stir-fried rice noodle dish commonly made with shrimp, chicken, beef or tofu, peanuts, scrambled egg and bean sprouts, among other vegetables. It is traditionally served with lime halves and a few Chinese chives and a sliced banana flower. Cooking Pad Thai is no easy task as each ingredient must be meticulously added, and the dish prepared and served immediately to ensure it is hot and flavoursome. In Bangkok, the decades-old and usually packed Thip Samai restaurant is undoubtedly the Thai capital’s most celebrated destination for this dish.

Pad Thai
(Photo: Shutterstock)

2) Tom yum kung

Combining lemongrass, galangal ginger, lime leaves, mushrooms, chillies, and tomatoes in one flavourful soup, tom yum kung is a hot and sour prawn soup not to be missed. Kung (also written as goong) means shrimp, but you can enjoy this savoury soup with chicken or opt to make the meal vegetarian instead. This dish can be found in Thai restaurants around the world but is at its best in Thailand.

Tom yum kung with extra seafood
(Photo: Shutterstock)

3) Khao niao mamuang

Don’t visit Thailand without stopping for some khao niao mamuang or mango with sticky rice. Sweet tooth or not, you’ll be unable to resist this dessert dish found that’s on offer on almost every street in the city. Coconut milk is slowly cooked with sugar and salt before being poured over freshly made sticky rice. After the milk settles, cold ripe mango is peeled, sliced, and added to the warm platter. Available as a takeaway, you’re likely to find a preferred local and frequent it, a lot.

Mango and sticky rice
(Photo: Shutterstock)

4) Som Tam

For the som tam salad, thin, crunchy strips of papaya are bruised with a mortar and pestle along with tomatoes, long beans, garlic, chillies, lime, fish sauce and tamarind juice for the making of this mouth-watering salad. Som tam has its origins in Thailand’s rural northeast and when migrant labourers brought it to Bangkok, it became popular among Thais who love the spicy hit it provides. One of the most unique dishes in Thailand, it is a perfect light refreshing meal, especially at lunchtime.

Som tam
(Photo: Shutterstock)

5) Massaman curry 

While Thailand has its fair share of curries, none quite rival the delicious gaeng Massaman (Massaman curry). Usually containing coconut milk, roasted peanuts, tender potatoes, onions, bay leaves, cardamom pods, cinnamon, palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind sauce. The dish is cooked to perfection with the sauce thickening with flavour before being poured over rice. It is often made with chicken or beef. This is a southern Thai dish, but can be found in many areas of the country and is a must-try during your travels. 

Chicken Massaman curry
(Photo: Nawamin Pinpathomrat)

6) Kuay tiao reua

Kuay tiao reua translates as ‘boat noodles’, with the name derived from the small bowls previously used to serve boats along the canals and rivers of Bangkok and central Thailand. Based on a dark, slow-cooked broth that includes meat, herbs and dried spices, these pork or beef-based bowls are among the most full-flavoured Thai noodle dishes. 

Kuay tiao reua
(Photo: Shutterstock)

7) Pad kaprao 

While Pad Thai may be the official dish of Thailand, pad kaprao is the unofficial national dish. This ubiquitous and spicy street food dish can be found throughout Thailand. The main ingredient is usually pork (moo) or chicken (gai). This is stir-fried with holy basil (kaprao) in oyster and soy sauce together with a combination of chillies, garlic and green beans. Served with rice and an optional fried egg (khai dao) on top, this is a go-to lunchtime dish for many Thai people.

Pad kaprao
(Photo: Shutterstock)

8) Tom kha gai

Tom kha gai or chicken coconut soup is a spicy and sour hot soup that is cooked in creamy coconut milk. It is light yet creamy, sweet yet tart, and layered with flavour. Made with coconut milk, lemongrass, ginger, galangal, garlic, chillies, lime juice, fish sauce, mushrooms and chicken, it is likely to become one of your favourite go-to dishes.

Tom kha gai
(Photo: Shutterstock)

9) Satay skewers

A staple in a number of South-East Asian countries and probably brought to Thailand via Malaysia or Indonesia, satay grilled skewers of meat are today often served with a slightly sweet peanut-based dipping sauce that accompanies them. Satay is widely available street-side in many areas of Thailand and is a convenient, nourishing and very tasty on-the-go option.

Chicken satay
(Photo: Shutterstock)

Dawn Jorgensen

The Incidental Tourist

An advocate of sustainable travel, Dawn’s mantra is ‘Travel Better. Not Less’. Dawn is an award-winning travel writer who has frequently travelled to Thailand. When she’s not on the road, Dawn lives in Cape Town.

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