Dining In Thailand: What You Need To Know
Thailand is one of those places that is known mostly for their mouth watering street vendors and backstreet restaurants.
Being a major agricultural country, grains, vegetables and meat are produced here at quite ridiculous prices. On top of that, aquatic and marine animals are easily acquired from the sea and many rivers meaning that Thai cuisine has an abundance of flavours, smells and textures. Thai people are extremely passionate about their cuisine, and you’ll see in almost every home the young children helping their mothers and grandmothers cook. Thai cooking is completely identifiable in its own right, incorporating all 5 tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy. Contrary to belief, chopsticks are not commonly used in Thailand, however older generations and more traditional households will often still favour to eat with their right hand, seated on colourful mats around the table.
One of the best experiences we had in our South East Asia travels was the time we inadvertently pulled over to roadside shop to buy a bottle of water, and ended up staying for dinner with the owners and sleeping in their wooden cabins in their garden. It sound’s weird, but trust me it really wasn’t! (Ok, it was a little bit.)
We parked up our oversized truck (lovingly named Queen Bee, who turned out to be severely disabled) on the road and headed inside the shack-like shop to stock up on liquids for the onward drive of the Mae Hong Son Loop. We’d hired Queen Bee back in Chiang Mai for around 20 euro’s a day, and mainly wanted to check out Pai and the Karen Hill tribes, located only a few hours north of our hotel. We ended up grabbing an ice coffee and began chatting with Pele, a middle-aged Thai woman who had an incredible level of English (considering we appeared to be in the middle of fucking nowhere.) We talked for hours, us conversing about our trip highs and lows, and Pele telling us all about how she ended up running a road-side shop, living the quiet life (I should probably note at this point we nicknamed her Crazy Pele, as she had a fantastically contagious vivacity and animation about her). She then introduced us to Pete – an older gentleman, who had some of the most gobsmacking back-stories we’d ever heard – so much so that I’ll cover this later on a separate post. We explained we should really head off as it was getting late, to which they responded ‘why don’t you stay here the night?’ We looked at one another and thought, why the hell not, this is exactly what travelling is all about. Pele showed us around the back, to where they had multiple huts dotted on the grass with tiny puppies darting around, running a mock. Once we’d dumped our bags in our new home for the night, Pete superbly suggested we had a BBQ, which of course received a gleeful response from all of us. Whilst Pete headed out to stock up for the night, Pele excitedly told us she wanted to show us something. Not ones to turn down an adventure, we immediately hopped in the car. We drove for about 20 minutes through the neighbouring jungle before arriving at a remarkable volcanic lake tucked away, high up in the forest.
The lake was teaming with giiiiaaaannnt fish – luckily we had ample stocks of bread for them to devour whilst we sat judiciously on the edge of the water. Once the fish were sufficiently plump, we left and headed back to the house, appetites in toe. After dinner, which was a lip-smacking combination of juicy chicken thighs and spicy Thai sausages, Pete and Pele wanted to take us to a festival going on at a local village (funnily enough, just the place we were originally heading). There were live performances, beauty competitions amongst the hill tribe, Muy Thai matches, carnival games and tons of little snacks and treats to try. We were of course the talk of the town, and spent the evening taking photos with the villagers and smiling ear to ear about the awesomeness of our day. The next morning, (after a gruesomely cold night in the huts) we were treated to a cooking lesson by Pele, showing us how to make our all-time-favourite Thai dish known as Phad Ka Prao Gai (Chicken with Basil and Chillies.)
Phad Ka Prao (Gai)
If you have never tried this particular dish, expect to experience a slightly crunchy, slightly salty, sweet, and spicy dish that comes with a fantastic aroma of Thai holy basil. Thai holy basil is the real movie star of this dish, which unfortunately proves to be quite difficult when trying to locate it outside of Thailand. You can most definitely substitute it for normal basil – it’ll just have a slightly less authentic taste. You can make Phad Kra Prow with almost everything – Tofu, Squid, Prawns, Chicken, pork, beef – most of which are ground, but again no qualms if you can’t get your hands on this. The rest of the ingredients are a delectable combination of fresh red chillies, green beans and garlic, washed together with splashes of soy, fish and oyster sauce.
No matter where we go in Thailand nor how many times, the first dish Thibault and I order is Phad Ka Prao.
As we left our friends Pele and Pete later that afternoon, we realised how truly blessed we really were to have shared such an unforgettable experience with them. They opened their home to us, showed us things we only could have dreamt of, and let us in on the secrets of cooking an authentic Thai dish.
To pay homage to the amazing Pele and Pete, we’ve compiled a list of the rest of our not-to-be-missed Thai dishes that you can find all over the land of smiles!
Som Tum (Papaya Salad)
I LOVE PAPAYA SALAD. A northeastern dish often accompanied with sticky rice, Papaya salad is the most popular of all salads in Thailand. Most methods include either dried shrimp (Som Tum Thai) or salted crab (Som Tum Pbooh), but personally I like it without either. It’s a combination of chillies, cherry tomatoes, fish sauce, garlic, green beans, shredded green papaya, lime juice, sugar and toasted peanuts. The flavours released when you crunch down on your first bite of Papaya salad are intense, salty, sweet, and sharp. Definitely not one to miss on a trip to Thailand.
Phad Thai (Stir-Fry Noodles)
This is Thibault’s request to be featured. Phad Thai isn’t really something that gets me too excited, I’m much more into strong, almost overpowering flavours. A true Phad Thai is dry and light bodied, with a fresh, complex, balanced flavour. It should be reddish and brownish in colour – not bright red and oily like you’ll find in many thai restaurants in the west. It can be made as both a vegetarian and a chicken dish – involving rice noodles, bean sprouts, Chinese chives, shallots, tamarind paste, sugar, peanuts, limes, preserved turnips, garlic, fish sauce, dried chilli peppers and sometimes shrimps and tofu. It’s most commonly seen as a street food dish, and you can grab a huge plate for as little as 30baht (around 0.70€).
Thai Satay (Barbecued Meat Sticks)
Mmmmm….strolling the streets of Bangkok I remember vividly breathing in and smelling the glorious barbecued, peanuty smell of a fresh batch of satay sticks being thrown onto the grill. Although the sticks would more often than not have quite small amounts of meat on them, the taste sensation is totally worth it. At around 5-10baht per stick (let’s say around 0.15€) you can’t go far wrong, especially with tasty ingredients like peanut butter, apple or white vinegar, sugar, unsweetened coconut milk and curry paste. After a night out, it’s almost impossible to resist a barbecue full of these bad boys.
Laab (Spicy Meat Salad)
It took me a long time to accept Laab, but once I did I was forever grateful. Laab is essentially a Thai meat salad which uses either minced chicken or pork. Laab is wonderfully seasoned with fish sauce, chilli flakes, lime juice, toasted sticky rice to give it some crunchy texture, and a wonderful assortment of fresh herbs to bring it all together. The dish has a very strange yet intense flavour, which is why it’s definitely not on most tourists favourite list. It packs a whooolle load of heat too, which is also the reason some people aren’t a fan. In fact, the reason I originally disliked it was not for the spice, but for the taste of cilantro – which I later found out that it’s quite easy to ask for it without!
MOO KROB (Crispy Pork Belly)
Moo Krob is Crispy Deep Fried Pork Belly that is usually served as the meat ingredient in one of several different Thai dishes. However, it’s so good that some people will just eat it all by itself or with one of our dipping sauces for meat. This dish simply has to feature on my rundown due to one, impeccable roadside restaurant named Krua Kritsana on the island of Koh Lanta.
Oh My God.
This place is crazy.
So we turned up to Koh Lanta one day with no hotels booked, assuming it would be super easy to find something on arrival in our budget. Nope. We walked the streets for hours – literally – and couldn’t find a single hostel or hotel with free beds. After about 2 hours of being rejected at every welcome gate, we were on the cuff of giving up, until we thought let’s try just oonnneee more. It was a little bit out of the tourist area, just off of a main road actually, but unbelievably they had availability. We elatedly paid for our night stay (which we extended a few times) and went on the search for food (by the time we’d finally found a place and dumped our bags, it was already dark.) Not wanting to execute another unsuccessful mission, we saw a little restaurant right across the road from our hotel which would suffice. At a glance, it was a basic roadside restaurant. But on closer inspection, this place was positively darling. Little wooden huts lit with nothing but fairy lights and tea candles, with bright, decorative pillows graced upon every seat. I ordered a dish that was a combination of Papaya Salad and Moo Krob, and ohhh lordy. I did not expect that. This dish was singlehandedly the best meal I had in all my years living in Thailand.
The pork itself is pretty simple to make – not needing more than pork belly, white vinegar salt and oil. You can cook the pork in the oven or grill – whatever you have easy access to. I believe it was lightly brushed with some spicy oils before serving at Krua Kritsana, which gave it the most amazing aroma and punchy taste.
As a rule of thumb, avoid western-style restaurants in Thailand as they generally don’t taste too great and come with a significant price tag. Western food for Thai people is considered bland and boring, so they often overcompensate or fiddle around with ingredients and quantities to get their approved taste.
There are COUNTLESS Thai dishes that I would recommend, but these are at the top of the list for Thib and I. Other dishes you should definitely give a whirl are the three curries – Panang, Massaman and Green Curry, Chicken with Cashews (Kai Med Ma Muang) and not forgetting the famous soups such as Tom Yum Goong (Sour & Spicy Lemongrass Shrimp Soup) and Kuay Teaw Nua (Beef Noodle Soup.)
Oh and heres a little tip: Nik Noi Phed means LITTLE bit spicy, and Mai Phed means NO spice. You might need this 🙂