One of the things that excites us most when travelling is the local cuisine. Trying new things and learning about the food culture of a country is a big part of exploring a new country. Before we visited Thailand we had eaten Thai food in Australia and Europe and were familiar with dishes like Thai Green curry and Pad Thai. We’d also heard from friends that Thai food is insanely spicy and that we, although we love spicy food, would certainly struggle with the degree of spice in Thailand. So coconut milk based curries and spice was what we expected. But it turned out that Thai food in Thailand is quite different!
The backpackers favourite
The first dish you will encounter when travelling Thailand is Pad Thai. A stir-fried rice noodle dish with vegetables, egg and shrimps amongst other ingredients and served with sugar, lime and peanuts. There are different versions, like vegetarian Pad Thai or Pad Thai with chicken. We soon came to realise that Pad Thai is the dish of choice for backpackers, it’s not spicy and it has flavours most people are familiar with. On every food market, the Thai vendors would immediately offer us Pad Thai seeing we are Westerners. And although Pad Thai is a tasty dish, we wanted to try different things.
Then we found the curries. But they were quite different from any Thai curry we had had before. Not as heavy on the coconut milk and with many different varieties to choose from these curries made for delicious dinners. For about 50 Baht ($1,40 US) you’d get a portion of rice and a choice of two curries. On the table would often be a plate with fresh greens like cucumber and haricots verts and a small bowl of spicy chilli dip. We also tried the famous Thai green curry at a very local food market, located well out of the city centre of Chiang Mai. They served up bowls of curry for 20 Baht. Again the greens were for free to take as much as you wanted.
One of the great things about Southeast Asia are all the little food stalls along the street serving up all kinds of delicious snacks. We found out the Thais are great at deep-frying! Especially the fried seafood was amazing. Whole prawns were battered and deep-fried, from head to tail. Crispy deliciousness!
A big surprise was all the meat on sticks, an immensely popular snack, barbecued by the side of the road. From the early morning till late at night, in Thailand you can always get meat on a stick. There were meatballs, sausages and unidentifiable pieces of meat. We tried a few different meat sticks and our favourite by far were the spicy sausages you can get in the North of Thailand. Packed with chilli, herbs and spices they were something we’d never expected in Thai cuisine. One thing we did not find at local markets was satay with peanut sauce. We’d heard this Indonesian dish was popular in Thailand as well but it seems that the meat on sticks in Thailand aren’t eaten with sauce, at least not by the locals.
A bit lighter and healthier than all those sausages were the salads. Som Tam Thai was our favourite, a salad made from unripe shredded papaya and with a surprising combination of flavours. Sour from lime, spicy from chillies, savoury from fish sauce and little dried shrimp and sweet from palm sugar it’s a real flavour explosion. Papaya salad originates in Laos but is very popular in Thailand as well.
Night market surprise
One dish I have to mention because we absolutely loved it, is Hoy Tod. Again a dish we had never heard of and we would have never found out about it if it hadn’t been for a couple of Thai schoolgirls keen to practice their English. After a full day of train travel we had arrived at Phitsanulok, a city north of Bangkok. Hungry for a proper meal we ventured out to the night market. While looking for the food stands a local girl started talking to us, she really wanted to practice English because she was studying languages at school. After a bit of a chat she took us to a food stall on a dark parking lot behind the market. The menu was only in Thai and she suggested she’d order for us. We were so hungry we’d eat anything and happily agreed. Her choice did not disappoint, we were served a big plate of Hoy Tod each, a sort of seafood omelet, crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. A delicious chilli sauce with herbs was served with it. This was one of those experiences that make travelling so wonderful!
Thai food in Thailand
Thai food is one of the most popular Asian cuisines in the world. Famous for its delicacy and detail and its balance of different flavours. In certain Thai dishes we could see this. The Papaya salad for instance, was a real treat for the taste buds. As was the Hoy Tod. However, we also found that a lot of the common street food was quite simple. Rice with a stir fry of some meat and vegetables and basil was a dish we often ate at street food markets.
As for the spiciness of the food, it was not as we’d expected. Although there were always nice condiments on the table to add spice to your dish, the food itself was not incredibly spicy. We did get some great ideas though, like serving a little bowl with soy sauce and freshly chopped chilli alongside a plate of rice. Delicious!
All in all Thailand turned out to be an interesting culinary journey for us. We tried delicious dishes, learned new things and got some inspiration for our own cooking. And our idea of what Thai food is like has certainly changed since eating it in Thailand.