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Seafood in Chinatown, Bangkok  | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson
Seafood in Chinatown, Bangkok | © Courtesy of Kelly Iverson
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An Insider's Guide to Thai Food, Region by Region

Picture of Kelly Iverson
Updated: 6 June 2017
Thai dishes are always changing and adapting for a number of different reasons. One of the biggest factors that affects the cuisine is geography. Here, a guide to Thai food, region by region.

Northern Region

Thai food in the north is like nothing visitors have ever seen before. Even those who have visited Thailand will be surprised as they make their way across, noting that many of the popular dishes readily available throughout the rest of the country are nowhere to be found in the north. Fret not, the food in the north of Thailand is both noteworthy and unique and will leave visitors full and content.

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Northern Thailand | © Courtesy of Pixabay

Thailand is bordered by both Laos and Myanmar in the north, so much of its food reflects these particular country’s cuisines, as well as of China. Much of the cuisine also largely differs because of the northern region’s unique climate, which is both comfortable and cool, making it an ideal place to grow a number of different vegetables and herbs.

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Khao Soi | © Courtesy of T.Tseng/Flickr

Saltiness is largely utilized in many Thai dishes, however, this is not the case in the north of Thailand. Fish sauce is sometimes used to bring out a salty taste, but because seafood is not in abundance in this particular region, the food is not as salty. The two main flavors that are found in most dishes in the north are bitter and sour.

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Minced meat Isaan food | © Courtesy of Pixabay

Khao niaow (sticky rice) is the staple of the Thai diet in the north and northeastern regions of the country, as opposed to white rice. It can be served both hot and cold and is used for a number of main courses as well as desserts. Sticky rice is best devoured with a red or green chili dip and a side dish. One of the most popular dishes in the north to pair sticky rice with is som tum (papaya salad).

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Papaya Salad | © Courtesy of Scott Dexter/Flickr

In addition to sticky rice, noodles play a huge role in many of the region’s dishes. Khao soi, one of the most popular of Thai dishes, has both egg noodles and deep-fried crispy egg noodles, and the concoction is one visitors simply can’t get enough of. Coconut milk usually does not make an appearance in northern Thai dishes, but khao soi is the exception. Some of the other more popular dishes here include larb (Thai meat salad), gaang hang lair (northern Thai curry), and sai oua (northern Thai sausage).

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ไส้กรอก อีสาน sai krok isan — Isaan style fermented pork and rice sausage | © Courtesy of Ron Dollete/Flickr

Northeastern Region

The northeastern region, also commonly known as Isaan, is the least visited region of the country. It is often hard to make the trip to this area, and it is more remote and caters less to tourists than its counterparts. That being said, Isaan food is incredibly unique, with dishes that are oftentimes not found or made elsewhere.

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Little Cow | © Courtesy of Witcha Suyara/Flickr

The food in this region is usually boiled or grilled as opposed to fried, making it a bit healthier in comparison to popular dishes in the central region. While the people in this area of Thailand do enjoy powerful tastes, they do not particularly like any dishes that are too spicy or salty.

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© Courtesy of Vee Satayamas/Flickr

Those looking to put their taste buds to the test and devour something more unusual should head to Isaan. The people here are incredibly resourceful, and eat things that are readily available and easy to catch. For example, frogs and a variety of insects are not an uncommon speciality in northeastern Thailand.

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© Courtesy of Brian Jeffery Beggerly/Flickr

Central Region

Central Thai cuisine is the most unique. This region is lucky in that it can pull from all of its surrounding geographic regions. Specialities from both the north and the south of Thailand are often utilized in central Thai cuisine, allowing vendors and cooks to tweak dishes as they please as many of the same ingredients are readily available. The flavors here are usually a bit milder in comparison to other regions.

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Wat Chai Watthanaram | © Courtesy of Pixabay

Bangkok is certainly the largest and most well-known city in the central region of Thailand. While it is technically central, it certainly has its own unique spin on food because of the city’s accessibility to ingredients and cuisine from all over the world.

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Bangkok | © Courtesy of Pixabay

Thai meals normally consist of four to five different courses in the central region. These dishes include a type of soup, a fried dish, a spicy salad, a curry or some type of fish, and vegetables. Thai people usually eat and order meals family-style, so all of these dishes are shared amongst a number of people.

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Bangkok Street Food | © Courtesy of Pixabay

It is also very common for Bangkokians to order a signature Thai dessert with this full course meal. The desserts are normally quite sweet here, and some of the most popular desserts visitors will likely come across in the central region include thong yod (gold drop) and thong yip (to pick up gold). Both of these are famous for apparently bringing luck to the diner.

Southern Region

As we head south of Bangkok, the food changes almost as drastically as the landscaping. From rural northern Thailand to the busy city of Bangkok, we have finally made our way to the south of Thailand. This region may be famous for its beaches, but the food here is certainly just as noteworthy. This region’s cuisine is oftentimes overlooked when compared to the seemingly strange dishes in the north; however, the southern region’s spicy curries, soups, and salads certainly give its northern neighbor a run for its money.

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Southern Thailand Coastline | © Courtesy of John Shedrick/Flickr

Those looking for intense flavor should head to the south of Thailand. It is here the dishes are not only the spiciest but also the saltiest. Fish sauce is used in a number of dishes here, and seafood is in abundance in the south of Thailand: the seafood export industry in Thailand is the fourth largest in the world. This is certainly reflected in the dishes here.

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Thai seafood dish | © Courtesy of Pixabay

Curries are extremely popular in Thailand, but the most delicious and flavorful ones will be found in the south. Unlike the north, the curries here tend to be extremely thick, flavorsome, and very spicy. Instead of using yogurt like in India, the curries in Thailand are made with coconut milk, which makes them a bit thinner. Curries in the north, however, normally use a broth or stock, so southern curries are still thicker in comparison. This region is also known for drawing upon flavors that originate from nearby countries. For example, it utilizes flavors and ingredients from Malaysia and Indonesia.

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ข้าว ยำ สงขลา khao yam Songkhla — Songkhla-style rice salad | © Courtesy of Ron Dollete/Flickr

Coconut is found in as many of the dishes in the south as it is readily available in nature. Coconut milk is used to create a number of this region’s signature dishes, including curries and soups. It is oftentimes used in place of different types of cooking oils as well, and it makes dishes thicker and creamier. Coconuts are not the only thing found in abundance here: pineapples also flourish in the climate, making them a common item in dishes available.

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Kua Kling Phat Tha Lung | © Courtesy of TheDeliciousLife/Flickr