Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the country’s big culinary centres, boasting the cream of gourmet Thai restaurants and the best international cuisines. The rest of the country is by no means a gastronomic wasteland, however, and you can eat well and cheaply in even the smallest provincial towns, many of which offer the additional attraction of regional specialities. In fact you could eat more than adequately without ever entering a restaurant, as itinerant food vendors hawking hot and cold snacks materialize in even the most remote spots, as well as on trains and buses – and night markets often serve customers from dusk until dawn.
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Hygiene is a consideration when eating anywhere in Thailand, but being too cautious means you’ll end up spending a lot of money and missing out on some real local treats. Wean your stomach gently by avoiding excessive amounts of chillies and too much fresh fruit in the first few days.
You can be pretty sure that any noodle stall or curry shop that’s permanently packed with customers is a safe bet. Furthermore, because most Thai dishes can be cooked in under five minutes, you’ll rarely have to contend with stuff that’s been left to smoulder and stew. Foods that are generally considered high risk include salads, ice cream, shellfish and raw or undercooked meat, fish or eggs. If you’re really concerned about health standards you could stick to restaurants and food stalls displaying a “Clean Food Good Taste” sign, part of a food sanitation project set up by the Ministry of Public Health, TAT and the Ministry of the Interior.
Most restaurants in Thailand are open every day for lunch and dinner; we’ve given full opening hours throughout the Guide. In a few of the country’s most expensive restaurants, mostly in Bangkok, a ten percent service charge and possibly even seven percent VAT may be added to your bill.
For those interested in learning Thai cookery, short courses designed for visitors are held in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and dozens of other tourist centres around the country.
Where to eat
A lot of tourists eschew the huge range of Thai places to eat, despite their obvious attractions, and opt instead for the much “safer” restaurants in guesthouses and hotels. Almost all tourist accommodation has a kitchen, and while some are excellent, the vast majority serve up bland imitations of Western fare alongside equally pale versions of common Thai dishes. Having said that, it can be a relief to get your teeth into a processed-cheese sandwich after five days’ trekking in the jungle, and guesthouses do serve comfortingly familiar Western breakfasts.
Throughout the country most inexpensive Thai restaurants and cafés specialize in one general food type or preparation method, charging around B40–50 a dish – a “noodle shop”, for example, will do fried noodles and/or noodle soups, plus maybe a basic fried rice, but they won’t have curries or meat or fish dishes. Similarly, a restaurant displaying whole roast chickens and ducks in its window will offer these sliced, usually with chillies and sauces and served over rice, but their menu probably won’t extend to noodles or fish, while in “curry shops” your options are limited to the vats of curries stewing away in the hot cabinet.
To get a wider array of low-cost food, it’s sometimes best to head for the local night market (talaat yen), a term for the gatherings of open-air night-time kitchens found in every town. Sometimes operating from 6pm to 6am, they are typically to be found on permanent patches close to the fruit and vegetable market or the bus station, and as often as not they’re the best and most entertaining places to eat, not to mention the least expensive – after a lip-smacking feast of savoury dishes, a fruit drink and a dessert you’ll come away no more than B150 poorer.
A typical night market has maybe thirty-odd “specialist” pushcart kitchens (rot khen) jumbled together, each fronted by several sets of tables and stools. Noodle and fried-rice vendors always feature prominently, as do sweets stalls, heaped high with sticky rice cakes wrapped in banana leaves or thick with bags of tiny sweetcorn pancakes hot from the griddle – and no night market is complete without its fruit-drink stall, offering banana shakes and freshly squeezed orange, lemon and tomato juices. In the best setups you’ll find a lot more besides: curries, barbecued sweetcorn, satay sticks of pork and chicken, deep-fried insects, fresh pineapple, watermelon and mango and – if the town’s by a river or near the sea – heaps of fresh fish. Having decided what you want, you order from the cook (or the cook’s dogsbody) and sit down at the nearest table; there is no territorialism about night markets, so it’s normal to eat several dishes from separate stalls and rely on the nearest cook to sort out the bill.
Some large markets, particularly in Bangkok, have separate food court areas where you buy coupons first and select food and drink to their value at the stalls of your choice. This is also usually the modus operandi in the food courts found in department stores and shopping centres across the country.
For a more relaxing ambience, Bangkok and the larger towns have a range of upmarket restaurants, some specializing in “royal” Thai cuisine, which is differentiated mainly by the quality of the ingredients, the complexity of preparation and the way the food is presented. Great care is taken over how individual dishes look: they are served in small portions and decorated with carved fruit and vegetables in a way that used to be the prerogative of royal cooks, but has now filtered down to the common folk. The cost of such delights is not prohibitive, either – a meal in one of these places is unlikely to cost more than B500 per person.
How to eat
Thai food is eaten with a fork (left hand) and a spoon (right hand); there is no need for a knife as food is served in bite-sized chunks, which are forked onto the spoon and fed into the mouth. Cutlery is often delivered to the table wrapped in a perplexingly tiny pink napkin: Thais use this, not for their lap, but to give their fork, spoon and plate an extra wipe-down before they eat. Steamed rice (khao) is served with most meals, and indeed the most commonly heard phrase for “to eat” is kin khao (literally, “eat rice”). Chopsticks are provided only for noodle dishes, and northeastern sticky-rice dishes are always eaten with the fingers of your right hand. Never eat with the fingers of your left hand, which is used for washing after going to the toilet.
So that complementary taste combinations can be enjoyed, the dishes in a Thai meal are served all at once, even the soup, and shared communally. The more people, the more taste and texture sensations; if there are only two of you, it’s normal to order three dishes, plus your own individual plates of steamed rice, while three diners would order four dishes, and so on. Only put a serving of one dish on your rice plate each time, and then only one or two spoonfuls.
Bland food is anathema to Thais, and restaurant tables everywhere come decked out with condiment sets featuring the four basic flavours (salty, sour, sweet and spicy): usually fish sauce with chopped chillies; vinegar with chopped chillies; sugar; and dried chillies – and often extra bowls of ground peanuts and a bottle of chilli ketchup as well. Similarly, many individual Thai dishes are served with their own specific, usually spicy, condiment dip (nam jim). If you do bite into a chilli, the way to combat the searing heat is to take a mouthful of plain rice and/or beer: swigging water just exacerbates the sensation.
What to eat
Five fundamental tastes are identified in Thai cuisine – spiciness, sourness, bitterness, saltiness and sweetness – and diners aim to share a variety of dishes that impart a balance of these flavours, along with complementary textures. Lemon grass, basil, coriander, galangal, chilli, garlic, lime juice, coconut milk and fermented fish sauce are just some of the distinctive components that bring these tastes to life. A detailed food and drink glossary can be found at the end of “Contexts”.
Curries and soups
Thai curries (kaeng) have a variety of curry pastes as their foundation: elaborate blends of herbs, spices, garlic, shallots and chilli peppers ground together with pestle and mortar. The use of some of these spices, as well as coconut cream, was imported from India long ago; curries that don’t use coconut cream are naturally less sweet and thinner, with the consistency of soups. While some curries, such as kaeng karii (mild and yellow) and kaeng matsaman (“Muslim curry”, with potatoes, peanuts and usually beef), still show their roots, others have been adapted into quintessentially Thai dishes, notably kaeng khiaw wan (sweet and green), kaeng phet (red and hot) and kaeng phanaeng (thick and savoury, with peanuts). Kaeng som generally contains fish and takes its distinctive sourness from the addition of tamarind or, in the northeast, okra leaves. Traditionally eaten during the cool season, kaeng liang uses up bland vegetables, but is made aromatic with hot peppercorns.
Eaten simultaneously with other dishes, not as a starter, Thai soups often have the tang of lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal, and are sometimes made extremely spicy with chillies. Two favourites are tom kha kai, a creamy coconut chicken soup; and tom yam kung, a hot and sour prawn soup without coconut milk. Khao tom, a starchy rice soup that’s generally eaten for breakfast, meets the approval of few Westerners, except as a traditional hangover cure.
One of the lesser-known delights of Thai cuisine is the yam or salad, which imparts most of the fundamental flavours in an unusual and refreshing harmony. Yam come in many permutations – with noodles, meat, seafood or vegetables – but at the heart of every variety is a liberal squirt of lime juice and a fiery sprinkling of chillies. Salads to look out for include yam som oh (pomelo), yam hua plee (banana flowers) and yam plaa duk foo (fluffy deep-fried catfish).
Noodle and rice dishes
Sold on street stalls everywhere, noodles come in assorted varieties – including kway tiaw (made with rice flour) and ba mii (egg noodles) – and get boiled up as soups (nam), doused in gravy (rat na) or stir-fried (haeng, “dry”, or phat, “fried”). Most famous of all is phat thai (“Thai fry-up”), a delicious combination of noodles (usually kway tiaw), egg, tofu and spring onions, sprinkled with ground peanuts and lime, and often spiked with tiny dried shrimps. Other faithful standbys include fried rice (khao phat) and cheap, one-dish meals served on a bed of steamed rice, notably khao kaeng (with curry).
Many of the specialities of northern Thailand originated in Burma, including khao soi, featuring both boiled and crispy egg noodles plus beef, chicken or pork in a curried coconut soup; and kaeng hang lay, a pork curry with ginger, turmeric and tamarind. Also look out for spicy dipping sauces such as nam phrik ong, made with minced pork, roast tomatoes and lemon grass, and served with crisp cucumber slices.
The crop most suited to the infertile lands of Isaan is sticky rice (khao niaw), which replaces the standard grain as the staple for northeasterners. Served in a rattan basket, it’s usually eaten with the fingers, rolled up into small balls and dipped into chilli sauces. It’s perfect with such spicy local delicacies as som tam, a green-papaya salad with raw chillies, green beans, tomatoes, peanuts and dried shrimps (or fresh crab). Although you’ll find basted barbecued chicken on a stick (kai yaang) all over Thailand, it originated in Isaan and is especially tasty in its home region. Raw minced pork, beef or chicken is the basis of another popular Isaan and northern dish, laap, a salad that’s subtly flavoured with mint and lime. A similar northeastern salad is nam tok, featuring grilled beef or pork and roasted rice powder, which takes its name, “waterfall”, from its refreshing blend of complex tastes.
Aside from putting a greater emphasis on seafood, southern Thai cuisine displays a marked Malaysian and Muslim aspect as you near the border, notably in khao mok kai, the local version of a biryani: chicken and rice cooked with turmeric and other Indian spices, and served with chicken soup. Southern markets often serve khao yam for breakfast or lunch, a delicious salad of dried cooked rice, dried shrimp and grated coconut served with a sweet sauce. You’ll also find many types of roti, a flatbread sold from pushcart griddles and, in its plain form, rolled with condensed milk. Other versions include savoury mataba, with minced chicken or beef, and roti kaeng, served with curry sauce for breakfast. A huge variety of curries are also dished up in the south, many substituting shrimp paste for fish sauce. Two of the most distinctive are kaeng luang, “yellow curry”, featuring fish, turmeric, pineapple, squash, beans and green papaya; and kaeng tai plaa, a powerful combination of fish stomach with potatoes, beans, pickled bamboo shoots and turmeric.
Desserts (khanom) don’t really figure on most restaurant menus, but a few places offer bowls of luk taan cheum, a jellied concoction of lotus or palm seeds floating in a syrup scented with jasmine or other aromatic flowers. Coconut milk is a feature of most other desserts, notably delicious coconut ice cream, khao niaw mamuang (sticky rice with mango), and a royal Thai cuisine special of coconut custard (sangkhayaa) cooked inside a small pumpkin, whose flesh you can also eat.
Thais don’t drink water straight from the tap, and nor should you; plastic bottles of drinking water (nam plao) are sold countrywide, in even the smallest villages, for around B10 and should be used even when brushing your teeth. Cheap restaurants and hotels generally serve free jugs of boiled water, which should be fine to drink, though they are not as foolproof as the bottles. In some large towns, notably Chiang Mai, you’ll come across blue-and-white roadside machines that dispense purified water for B1 for 1–2 litres (bring your own bottle).
Night markets, guesthouses and restaurants do a good line in freshly squeezed fruit juices such as lime (nam manao) and orange (nam som), which often come with salt and sugar already added, particularly upcountry. The same places will usually do fruit shakes as well, blending bananas (nam kluay), papayas (nam malakaw), pineapples (nam sapparot) and others with liquid sugar or condensed milk (or yoghurt, to make lassi). Fresh coconut water (nam maprao) is another great thirst-quencher – you buy the whole fruit dehusked, decapitated and chilled – as is pandanus-leaf juice (bai toey); Thais are also very partial to freshly squeezed sugar-cane juice (nam awy), which is sickeningly sweet.
Bottled and canned brand-name soft drinks are sold all over the place, with a particularly wide range in the ubiquitous 7-Eleven chain stores. Glass soft-drink bottles are returnable, so some shops and drink stalls have a system of pouring the contents into a small plastic bag (fastened with an elastic band and with a straw inserted) rather than charging you the extra for taking away the bottle. The larger restaurants keep their soft drinks refrigerated, but smaller cafés and shops add ice (nam khaeng) to glasses and bags. Most ice is produced commercially under hygienic conditions, but it might become less pure in transit so be wary (ice cubes are generally a better bet than shaved ice) – and don’t take ice if you have diarrhoea. For those travelling with children, or just partial themselves to dairy products, UHT-preserved milk and chilled yoghurt drinks are widely available (especially at 7-Eleven stores), as are a variety of soya drinks.
Weak Chinese tea (nam chaa) makes a refreshing alternative to water and often gets served in Chinese restaurants and roadside cafés, while posher restaurants keep stronger Chinese and Western-style teas. Instant Nescafé is usually the coffee (kaafae) offered to farangs, even if freshly ground Thai-grown coffee – notably several excellent kinds of coffee from the mountains of the north – is available. If you would like to try traditional Thai coffee, most commonly found at Chinese-style cafés in the south of the country or at outdoor markets, and prepared through filtering the grounds through a cloth, ask for kaafae thung (literally, “bag coffee”; sometimes known as kaafae boran – “traditional coffee” – or kopii), normally served very bitter with sugar as well as sweetened condensed milk alongside a glass of black or Chinese tea to wash it down with. Fresh Western-style coffee (kaafae sot) in the form of Italian espresso, cappuccino and other derivatives has recently become popular among Thais, so you’ll now come across espresso machines in large towns all over the country (though some of these new coffee bars, frustratingly, don’t open for breakfast, as locals tend to get their fix later in the day).
The two most famous local beers (bia) are Singha (ask for “bia sing”) and Chang, though many travellers find Singha’s weaker brew, Leo, more palatable than either. In shops you can expect to pay around B30 for a 330ml bottle of these beers, B50 for a 660ml bottle. All manner of slightly pricier foreign beers are now brewed in Thailand, including Heineken and Asahi, and in the most touristy areas you’ll find expensive imported bottles from all over the world.
Wine is now found on plenty of upmarket and tourist-oriented restaurant menus, but expect to be disappointed by both quality and price, which is jacked up by heavy taxation. Thai wine is now produced at several vineyards, including at Château de Loei near Phu Reua National Park in the northeast, which produces quite tasty reds, whites including a dessert wine, a rosé and brandy (see Nam Nao National Park).
At about B80 for a hip-flask-sized 375ml bottle, the local whisky is a lot better value, and Thais think nothing of consuming a bottle a night, heavily diluted with ice and soda or Coke. The most palatable and widely available of these is Mekong, which is very pleasant once you’ve stopped expecting it to taste like Scotch; distilled from rice, Mekong is 35 percent proof, deep gold in colour and tastes slightly sweet. If that’s not to your taste, a pricier Thai rum is also available, Sang Som, made from sugar cane, and even stronger than the whisky at forty percent proof. Check the menu carefully when ordering a bottle of Mekong from a bar in a tourist area, as they often ask up to five times more than you’d pay in a guesthouse or shop. A hugely popular way to enjoy whisky or rum at beach resorts is to pick up a bucket, containing a quarter-bottle of spirit, a mixer, Red Bull, ice and several straws, for around B200: that way you get to share with your friends and build a sandcastle afterwards.
You can buy beer and whisky in food stores, guesthouses and most restaurants; bars aren’t strictly an indigenous feature as Thais traditionally don’t drink out without eating, but you’ll find plenty of Western-style drinking holes in Bangkok and larger centres elsewhere in the country, ranging from ultra-hip haunts in the capital to basic, open-to-the-elements “bar-beers”.