Thai cuisine is celebrated around the world, the mixture of spicy, salty, sour, and sweet delighting tastebuds and satisfying appetites. The nation is known for its abundance of street food and there are many regional dishes to try in addition to well-known favourites. But there are some things you should probably try to avoid.
The base of this soup-like dish is raw pig’s blood. The blood is mixed with spices and may also contain various pieces of offal. The thick concoction is eaten with noodles. However, the chances of developing a bacterial infection after eating the blood can be quite high; there’s a chance that the infection can be fatal.
Koi pla is a popular dish in Northeast Thailand. The salad is made from ground raw fish flavoured with lime, chilli, and spices. While one plate probably won’t hurt you, the dish is thought to have carcinogenic properties. The fish can contain parasites that cause cancer of the bile duct. While cooking the fish would kill the parasites, eating the raw dish enables parasites to enter the body.
Larb leuat neua
Another delicacy from Isan, larb leuat neua is made from raw beef with a liberal helping of uncooked blood. The minced meat is mixed with mint and spring onion and usually served with sticky rice. It’s a popular bar snack, said to go especially well with a glass of ice-cold beer. There is a high risk of food poisoning from any uncooked meats, and upset stomachs are common for those unused to such dishes in their diet. The meat can also contain parasites.
Larb dib is yet another raw-meat salad from Thailand’s northeast. It can be made from raw beef or pork, and is usually flavoured with mint and other seasonings. As with larb leuat neua, it can contain parasites and / or bacteria. The key takeaway point: don’t eat raw meat in Thailand. Or anywhere!
Shark fin soup
A speciality in some Thai-Chinese restaurants, shark fin soup is often considered a luxury. The soup has a long history. Although the fins themselves are pretty tasteless and bland, with the soup’s flavour coming from the broth, they are used to create a jelly-like texture. Over-fishing of sharks is leading to some species becoming endangered. Environmentalists strongly discourage the consumption of shark fin soup. Artificial versions are available if you’re curious.
Yum Khai Maeng Da
This salad uses horseshoe crab, an ancient creature that has links to spiders and scorpions. The only edible part of the crab is its eggs, or roe. Some salads mix just the eggs with strips of unripe mango and seasonings; this dish is generally fine to eat and is said by many to be delicious. Problems may arise when the salad contains the actual body of the creature, with the roe served inside the shell. Although there is no flesh to eat, part of the Asian horseshoe crab contains toxic substances, which can be lethal if the crab is not prepared properly and the toxin is ingested. In the past, there was a large poisoning case in Thailand, caused by consumption of horseshoe crab. Many people fell seriously ill and some died.
Thailand has many edible bugs and creepy crawlies, and deep-fried scorpion may be one of the most badge-of-honour-worthy snacks. If you really can’t resist, do make sure that the sting has been removed before crunching down on it. The sting, located in the tail, is filled with venom, which is highly dangerous if ingested. Although the vast majority of cooked scorpions are safe to eat, oversights can happen!
Okay, so deep-fried foods are abundant in Thailand and there’s little imminent risk when tucking into some fried chicken, fried fish, tempura, and so on. The health risks come from long-term consumption. In addition to concerns around fat and cholesterol, the cooking oil is often reused many times by vendors, to help keep costs down. The chemical composition and structure of oil changes as it is heated and cooled, with much reused oil containing triglyceride. This substance is not only an unhealthy type of fat but it may also cause cancer over the long-term. Mix and match your deep-fried goodies with grilled meats, stir-fried dishes, soups, and salads.
You’ll likely notice many beautifully carved fruits and vegetables in Thailand, with some ending up on the side of your plate. These may look pretty, but think about the amount of handling they have gone through to get those fine details. Plus, they are sometimes reused, going from plate to plate. A fair number of people get sick after eating ornamental fruit and veg; stick to taking pictures for Instagram and leave it on the dish.
Homemade lao khao
Lao khao is the name given to a Thai liquor distilled from rice. Potent and strong, lao khao often burns when drank and leaves a bitter aftertaste. Although illegal, there are many moonshine distilleries around the country, with lao khao readily available to buy in a variety of recycled bottles. Those semi-hidden bottles of Hong Thong, M150, and Est may not contain what you think they do! The problems with homemade lao khao stem from the metal of the stills used in the distilling process; a reaction with tin and aluminium can produce a form of methanol. Consuming a lot of methanol can lead to blindness and / or death.
Compared with raw meat salads, methanol-laced moonshine, and toxic creatures, tap water seems pretty harmless. Nonetheless, visitors should avoid drinking the tap water in Thailand. Although the local authorities in Bangkok say the tap water is drinkable, the same cannot be said for other parts of the country. Plus, the water may be potable at source. But after it has travelled through pipes and a system that is often poorly maintained, by the time it reaches your tap it could be filled with microbes and other nasties that can make you ill. Stick to bottled water or, to be more environmentally friendly, refill bottles at filtration machines that are widely available along the streets.
The kratom tree grows in the forests in Southern Thailand. The leaves have a long history of being used as a stimulant, either by chewing the leaves to a pulp or by creating a drink like a tea or stew. Cheap and easy to prepare, it’s especially popular with rural poor in the south. It is, however, illegal, and messing with illegal substances in Thailand is never a clever idea.