Pad thai – which translates to “fried Thai” – reportedly dates back to the 1930s when it was created as the country’s national dish to modernise the local cuisine. Noodles, tofu, egg, dried shrimp and a variety of vegetables and protein such as spring onions, beansprouts and prawns are stir-fried and seasoned with palm sugar, vinegar, fish sauce, chilli flakes and lime before being served up; traditionally the sweet, sharp noodles were served in a banana leaf. Pad thai stalls can be found everywhere, but the noodles from Thipsamai in Bangkok have a strong following.
Phat kaphrao is the local go-to at stir-fry stalls. This spicy combination of minced or diced meat and fragrant holy basil leaves is served over steamed rice with a crispy-edged, runny-yolked fried egg. Head to the Michelin-starred Raan Jay Fai in Bangkok for an impressive offering that lives up to the hype.
Juicy, fatty morsels of barbecued pork are a true delight. Makeshift grills turn out mu ping pork skewers (tenderised with coconut milk and seasoned in a variety of ways) with sticky rice on every street corner, although the dish is primarily eaten for breakfast on the morning commute. For a late-night snack, Hea Owen on the corner of Silom’s Convent Road in Bangkok draws a crowd.
Some would argue northeastern Thailand’s som tam is the true national dish. This salad of shredded unripe green papaya is pounded with chillies, garlic, lime and anything from tiny prawns to pungent fermented fish. Try it with other northeastern dishes like pork larb (a minced meat salad associated with Laos) and plenty of sticky rice at Bangkok’s open-fronted shophouse Larb 89.
Southern Thailand’s creamy satay skewers are influenced by Indonesian and Malaysian cuisine. Richly marinated meat is barbecued over hot coals and served with a red-curry-based peanut sauce and often with a sharp pickle salad. Most Thai satay is pork or chicken, but the irresistibly tender beef skewers at Halal-friendly Areesaa Rote Dee in Bangkok come highly-rated.
Relatively new on the tourist radar, khao soi is a Myanmar-influenced northern Thai curry noodle soup with crispy deep-fried noodles sprinkled over the top for good measure. Chiang Mai is especially famous for its khao soi, and you’ll find none better than at low-key Khao Soi Khun Yai on Sri Poom Road (after Sri Poom 8 Alley).
Hoi thod, a comforting oyster and mussel dish similar to an omelette or pancake, is less well-known than pad thai but extremely popular among locals. Order it extra crispy for the contrast of the juicy seafood with rich greasiness, cut through with fiery chilli sauce. Try it at Nai Mong Hoi Thod in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
If Thailand has one world-famous dessert, it’s mango sticky rice. Known locally as khaoniao mamuang, this plant-based sweet treat features slices of Thailand’s ripest mangoes, paired with sticky coconut rice and a creamy coconut-cream sauce. Head to old-town Bangkok’s Kor Panich for the real deal.
Tom yum is a world-famous hot-and-sour soup – with a lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime base – that’s a Thai family meal staple served at street stalls across the country. But you won’t find a match for the creaminess, deep flavour or humungous servings that can be found at Bangkok’s Tom Yum Goong Banglamphu.
Noodle soup crops up all over Asia, but it’s the pig’s-blood-thickened, gravy-like broth that makes Thai kuai tiao nam tok so satisfying. So-called Boat Noodle Alley at Bangkok’s Victory Monument is an accessible spot to try it if you dare – just be sure to throw in plenty of extra beansprouts and Thai basil.
Roti stands are everywhere: on streets, beaches and even boats. Most serve sweet banana pancakes, but in Thailand’s south you can find roti bread as it was intended: slathered in curry sauce. Even the Michelin guide appreciates the fabulously flaky roti and beef curry at Phuket’s Roti Taew Nam.
Where some other Thai curries pursue pure heat, the Indian- and Middle East-influenced massaman envelops your tastebuds in its warm spices. Two blocks from Bangkok party central Khao San Road, Roti Mataba – in business since the 1940s – serves up a simple chicken massaman that glistens with rich oil as all good currys of this sort do.
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