Thai cuisine is known for its bold flavors, fresh ingredients, and complex blend of sweet, sour, salty and spicy flavors. Whether you're a foodie or a curious traveler, discovering Thailand's many cuisines is an experience not to be missed. With so many different dishes to try, it's hard to know where to start. That's why we've put together a list of the top 10 Thai dishes, ranging from beloved classics to lesser-known delicacies.
In this article, we'll dive into Thailand's rich food culture and explore the many flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques that make Thai cuisine unique. In addition to the 10 must-try dishes, we will also explore the regional variations of Thai cuisine and the vegetarian and vegan options available, highlighting the variety and complexity of Thai cuisine. .
Whether you are a meat lover or a plant eater, Thai cuisine has something for everyone. So let's dive in and discover the best food to eat in Thailand!
Top 23 Must-Try Thai Dishes
Tom Yam, also known as sour Thai soup in English-language menus, is a herb-forward broth with a spicy and tart flavor. The shrimp version, Tom Yam Kung, is especially popular due to the combination of fatty prawns and the unique taste of the soup.
Phat Thai (Pad Thai)
Pad Thai, a dish of thin rice noodles stir-fried with egg, tofu, and shrimp, is an invention of a Chinese-Thai chef from the 1930s. As one of Thailand's national dishes, Pad Thai is a go-to for tourists who are starting their Thai cuisine exploration. Available with shrimp or chicken, it is also possible to order the vegetarian option, and it is a cheap and tasty meal that can be found on almost every street corner.
Laap, also known as Larb, is a rustic dish that represents Thailand's northeast. It is made of minced meat seasoned with roasted rice powder, fresh herbs, lime juice, and fish sauce. Eating it with sticky rice, which is short, fat grains of rice that are eaten by hand, is recommended.
Khao soi (creamy coconut curry noodle soup)
Khao Soi is a unique, curry-based noodle soup that is a quintessential northern Thai dish. It is available in chicken, beef, pork, or vegetarian options and features a rich coconut curry base, boiled egg noodles, and garnishes such as deep-fried crispy egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime, and ground chilies fried in oil. The combination of a spicy and creamy broth, along with soft wheat-and-egg noodles, creates a deliciously satisfying taste that should be on every traveler's 'must eat' list in northern Thailand, especially in Chiang Mai, which is considered the Khao Soi mecca.
Som Tam is a dish with roots in Thailand's rural northeast. It consists of strips of crunchy unripe papaya, bruised in a mortar and pestle with tomato, long beans, chili, lime, and fish sauce. This dish is popular throughout the country and can be paired with sticky rice for a light yet flavorful meal. The classic version of som tam is made with shredded green papaya, tomatoes, carrots, peanuts, dried shrimp, runner beans, palm sugar, tamarind pulp, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, and plenty of chilies. The ingredients are combined in a mortar and pestle, which enhances the flavors and creates a delicious dish.
Phat kaphrao is a street food staple that combines flash-fried meat with holy basil (kaphrao) and a generous amount of fresh chili and garlic. It is usually served over rice and topped with a fried egg, making it the perfect Thai-style one-dish meal.
Guay Teow (Noodle Soup)
Guay Teow, a type of noodle soup, is one of the most popular Thai dishes and can be found almost everywhere. It is usually made with either rice noodles or egg noodles and can be served with chicken, pork, or beef. Vendors may also add wontons or meatballs to the broth, which is best topped with a selection of condiments like sugar, dried chili peppers, lime juice, and fish sauce. Guay Teow is a delicious option for any time of day, particularly as a late-night snack.
Tom Kha Gai (Chicken in Coconut Soup)
Tom Kha Gai is related to Tom Yum but is less spicy and often includes creamy coconut milk to create a rich, sweet soup. It is a great alternative for those who have a lower tolerance for spicy food. Like most Thai dishes, vegetarian options are available by substituting a few ingredients.
Yam Pla Dook Foo (Fried Catfish with Green Mango Salad)
This dish can be best described as 'fluffy' and 'crispy'. The catfish is fried into tiny pieces which are blown up, resulting in an airy and scrumptious fish salad. The secret of this dish lies in the combination of the crispy fish with a sweet, sour, and spicy green mango salad. It is recommended to be enjoyed as an appetizer with friends or as a beer snack.
Yam Talay (Spicy Seafood Salad)
Yam Talay is a mixed seafood salad that is not only delicious but also a healthy meal option. It consists of a combination of squid, shrimp, mussels, scallops or crabmeat, tomatoes, onions, and rice glass noodles.
Laab (Spicy Salad)
Laab is a northeastern-style salad with meat or mushroom and mint originating from the province of Isan. It comes in various styles including chicken, pork, and mushroom but is not recommended for those who cannot handle spice.
Pad Phuk Tong (Stir-Fried Pumpkin)
Pad Phuk Tong, also known as stir-fried pumpkin, is an excellent vegetarian-friendly dish in Thailand. Although it is less common than Pad Thai, it is worth trying and can be paired with brown rice.
Thick Noodle Dish - Pad See Eiw
This dish features wide rice noodles stir-fried in thick, dark soy sauce with your choice of chicken, pork, or beef, as well as Chinese broccoli or cabbage. It's a flavorful yet safe option for those who prefer less spicy Thai dishes, and a great way to explore beyond the classic pad thai. If you like a little more heat, adding dried chili flakes or vinegar can kick it up a notch.
Morning Glory - Pak Boong
Known for its health benefits, morning glory is a spinach-like vegetable that's typically fried and seasoned with soybean paste, soy sauce, garlic, and chilies. It's salty, spicy, sour, and crunchy all at once, making it a satisfying dish for any palate. While oyster sauce is commonly used, it's also easy to prepare a vegetarian option.
Fried Rice - Khao Pad
Fried rice, or khao pad, is a staple of Thai cuisine that's comparable to England's love of sandwiches. It's a simple dish made with rice, egg, onion, and little else. Cucumber slices are often served on the side for garnish, and plenty of condiments are available to customize the taste to your liking.
Fried Basil - Pad Krapow
Pad krapow is a stir-fry dish typically made with minced pork or chicken (or tofu) and Thai basil, with plenty of chilies for a spicy kick. The basil has a sharp, peppery flavor, while the chilies add extra heat. If you prefer milder dishes, ask for it "pet nit noi" (a little spicy). The dish is often served with white rice and a fried egg, which blends into the rest of the dish for a delicious and memorable taste experience.
Panang (Thai Curry)
Panang curry is a popular Thai dish that's milder compared to other curry dishes in Thailand. It's a safe option for tourists who prefer to stay away from overly spicy foods. The dish is typically served with shrimp, although vegetarian options are also popular.
Gaeng Keow Wan (Green Curry)
Originating from central Thailand, green curry is the spiciest of all curries, with a perfect balance of sweetness from the added coconut milk. Made with fresh green chillies, ginger, eggplant, and plenty of coconut milk, it's a mouthwatering dish that's best eaten with lots of steamed rice to bring down the spice level.
Gai Tod (Fried Chicken)
Although not uniquely Thai, fried chicken is extremely popular in Thailand. Gai Tod is prepared by marinating chicken wings or drumsticks in a blend of spices and rice flour before deep frying the whole mixture. It's usually served with a spicy dipping sauce like "nam jim" and sticky rice, making it a perfect on-the-go snack.
Pad Phak (Fried Vegetables)
For vegetarians and carnivores alike, Pad Phak is a classic Thai dish that's full of flavor. The stir-fried vegetables are mixed with a perfectly harmonious blend of sugar, salt, and spices, creating a dish that's worth savoring.
Kai Med Ma Muang (Chicken with Cashew Nuts)
One of the local and foreigner favorites is the Kai Med Ma Muang, a stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts, soy sauce, honey, onions, chilies, pepper, mushrooms, and other available vegetables. Despite its simplicity, this dish is packed with a sweet and flavorful taste.
Kai Jeow (Thai Omelette)
For a quick protein-rich meal or side dish, try the Kai Jeow, a Thai omelette served with rice and sweet chili sauce. Those who prefer vegetables can ask for "kai jeow pak." If you haven't tried "jok" or Thai rice soup for breakfast, the Kai Jeow can be an excellent way to start the day.
Kao Niew Ma Muang (Mango and Sticky Rice)
If you're looking for a delicious dessert, go for Kao Niew Ma Muang, a simple but extremely tasty dish made with sticky rice, fresh mango slices, and sweet condensed milk. This all-time crowd-pleaser is sure to satisfy your sweet tooth.
Regional Variations of Thai Cuisine
Thailand is a country with diverse geography, and each region has its own unique culinary traditions that reflect its history, culture, and natural resources. From the north to the south, there are many variations of Thai cuisine that offer different flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques.
In the north, the cuisine is heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Myanmar and China, as well as the cooler climate and mountainous terrain. One of the most famous dishes from this region is khao soi, a rich and creamy curry noodle soup that's made with coconut milk, chicken, and spices. Other popular northern dishes include nam prik noom, a spicy green chili dip served with vegetables, and sai ua, a grilled sausage made with pork and herbs. Northern Thai cuisine is known for its use of sticky rice, herbs, and earthy flavors like turmeric and ginger.
In the northeast, the cuisine is influenced by the neighboring country of Laos, as well as the dry and hot climate. The most famous dish from this region is som tam, a spicy and sour green papaya salad that's made with chili, lime, and peanuts. Other popular northeastern dishes include larb, a spicy minced meat salad, and gai yang, a grilled chicken dish marinated in garlic, coriander, and turmeric. Northeastern Thai cuisine is known for its use of fresh herbs and spices, as well as its love of bold and fiery flavors.
In the central region, which includes Bangkok, the cuisine is a blend of influences from all over the country, as well as from Chinese and Indian cuisine. The most famous dish from this region is pad Thai, a stir-fried noodle dish with shrimp, tofu, and peanuts. Other popular central Thai dishes include tom yum goong, a hot and sour soup with shrimp and lemongrass, and massaman curry, a mild and sweet curry with potatoes and peanuts. Central Thai cuisine is known for its use of fresh herbs like coriander and basil, as well as its emphasis on balancing sweet, sour, salty, and spicy flavors.
In the south, the cuisine is heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as the coastal climate and abundance of seafood. The most famous dish from this region is gaeng som, a sour and spicy curry with fish or shrimp and vegetables. Other popular southern Thai dishes include tom kha gai, a coconut milk soup with chicken, galangal, and lime leaves, and satay, grilled meat skewers with a peanut dipping sauce. Southern Thai cuisine is known for its use of seafood, spices like turmeric and cumin, and sweet and sour flavors.
Overall, exploring the regional variations of Thai cuisine is a must-do experience for anyone who loves food. Whether you're in the north, northeast, central, or south, you'll find a wealth of unique and delicious dishes that offer a glimpse into the rich culinary culture of Thailand.
Vegetarian and Vegan Options
Thai cuisine is known for its diverse flavors and ingredients, and this holds true even for those following a vegetarian or vegan diet. With a wide range of vegetable-based dishes, meat substitutes, and plant-based proteins, there's something for everyone to enjoy. Here are some specific points to consider when exploring vegetarian and vegan options in Thai cuisine:
Tofu and tempeh: These soy-based products are commonly used as meat substitutes in many Thai dishes, providing a similar texture and protein content. Tofu is a staple ingredient in many stir-fries, curries, and soups, while tempeh is often used in grilled or fried dishes.
Vegetable-based curries: Many Thai curries are naturally vegetarian or can be easily modified to be vegan by omitting meat or fish sauce. For example, the popular green curry can be made with a variety of vegetables, such as eggplant, bell peppers, and snow peas, and is typically served with rice or noodles.
Stir-fries and noodle dishes: Thai stir-fries and noodle dishes can also be easily modified to be vegetarian or vegan by swapping out meat or seafood for tofu or vegetables. Dishes like Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, and Drunken Noodles are all popular options.
Salads and appetizers: Many Thai salads and appetizers are naturally vegetarian or can be made vegan with a few simple modifications. For example, Som Tam, or green papaya salad, can be made without fish sauce, and vegetable spring rolls are a tasty and protein-packed option.
Desserts: Even the desserts in Thai cuisine can be enjoyed by vegetarians and vegans. Mango Sticky Rice, for example, is a delicious and simple dessert made with sticky rice, coconut milk, and fresh mango.
Overall, exploring the vegetarian and vegan options in Thai cuisine is a great way to experience the diverse flavors and ingredients of this rich culinary culture. With so many options available, it's easy to find something to suit your tastes and dietary preferences.
Thai cuisine is a diverse and complex culinary tradition that offers a wealth of flavors, ingredients, and cooking techniques to explore. We hope that our list of the top 10 must-try Thai dishes has inspired you to try new flavors and dishes on your next culinary adventure.
In addition to the top 10 dishes, we've also explored the regional variations of Thai cuisine and the vegetarian and vegan options available, providing a more comprehensive view of the breadth of Thai food. By understanding the unique flavors and ingredients of each region and the plant-based options available, you'll be able to fully appreciate the diversity and complexity of Thai cuisine.
Remember, the best way to truly experience Thai food is to try as many dishes as possible, from street food stalls to high-end restaurants. Whether you're savoring a bowl of hot and sour tom yum soup or indulging in a sweet and creamy mango sticky rice dessert, each bite offers a new adventure for your taste buds.
We hope this article has given you a taste of the many delights of Thai cuisine and inspired you to explore the rich culinary culture of Thailand. For further reading and resources on Thai food, be sure to check out our recommended books and websites.
We hope this article has helped you discover the top 10 must-try Thai dishes and inspired you to explore the rich culinary culture of Thailand. If you're planning a trip to Thailand and want to experience the best of its cuisine, we at Travel Thailand are here to help. As a local tour operator with over 15 years of experience in the tourism industry, we can provide you with expert guidance and planning to create the perfect Thai food tour tailored to your preferences. Whether you're looking for street food adventures or high-end dining experiences, we can help make your culinary dreams a reality. Please feel free to contact us for more information or to book a tour. One of our travel experts will get back to you shortly to help you plan the trip of your dreams. Please rest assured that you are free to change the schedule to suit your needs, and we offer the quoted tour completely free of charge. Thank you for reading, and we look forward to hearing from you soon!