Thailand is known around the world for its warm people, beautiful mountains, and serene beaches. But if there’s one thing that Thailand is perhaps most famous for, it’s the food.
Thai cuisine is beloved for its beautiful balance of flavors and fresh ingredients. The endless variety of stir-fries, curries, soups, and salads means there is truly something for everyone. Keep reading to learn more about 12 of the best-known Thai foods.
Perhaps the most famous of all Thai dishes, Pad Thai is a delicious stir fry of rice noodles, tofu, and egg. The sauce consists of tamarind juice, garlic, fish sauce, chilies, and a bit of sugar for a nice balance of sweet, savory, and spicy. It’s then usually accompanied by a protein such as shrimp, pork, or chicken.
There are often a variety of toppings that can be added to adjust things according to taste such as roasted peanuts, bean sprouts, dried shrimp, or a squeeze of lime. While Pad Thai’s reputation might lead you to believe that it’s a meal deeply embedded in Thai culture going back centuries, it was actually created in the 1930s.
In an attempt to unify his people and strengthen Thai cultural identity, then Prime Minister Plaek Phibunsongkhram encouraged the nation to make and consume this new unique Thai dish that mixed traditional Chinese and Thai ingredients.
Taking into consideration the large ethnic Chinese population in Thailand, the Prime Minister wanted to create a new dish that everyone could get behind. Pad Thai has endured down to our day and is enjoyed not only throughout Thailand but all over the world.
Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Noodles)
Pad Kee Mao literally translates to, “drunken stir fry” and is often called Drunken Noodles in restaurants outside of Thailand. Despite the name, there’s no alcohol used in the making of Pad Kee Mao.
One theory as to how this dish got its name is that Pad Kee Mao is a meal that is often consumed late at night by customers after a night of drinking. At the end of the night, ingredients might be more limited, so often the cook will use whatever they have on hand to make the stir fry we know as Drunken Noodles.
This suggested origin for the name Pad Kee Mao might explain why there is no consistent recipe for the dish. While the flavor and sauce of Pad Kee Mao will often be similar, many times the vegetables in the dish will vary from restaurant to restaurant.
The sauce is generally quite spicy consisting of a mix of garlic, chilies, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and black pepper pods. Additionally, baby corn, carrots, broccoli, and green beans are often added. Pad Kee Mao is often made with wide rice noodles, hence the name Drunken Noodles, however, it can also be eaten over rice.
Pad See Ew
Another popular Thai dish that you may be familiar with is Pad See Ew. The dish’s name translates to, “soy sauce stir fry” and is usually made with two different soy sauces. The first is a light soy sauce that’s comparable to the soy sauce most of us are familiar with, and the second is a dark soy sauce that’s a bit thicker.
These two soy sauces add a caramelized effect to the dish that you can both see and taste. Pad See Ew uses many similar ingredients as the aforementioned Pad Kee Mao such as fish sauce, oyster sauce, sugar, and garlic.
The difference with Pad See Ew is the addition of a few ingredients unique to the dish such as eggs, two soy sauces, white pepper, and Chinese broccoli. Pad See Ew is made with wide rice noodles and is often served with beef or another protein such as chicken or pork.
Pad Gra Prao
Pad Gra Prao is another Thai dish that’s name indicates the main ingredient. Pad Gra Prao means, “holy basil stir fry” and is one of the most popular dishes in Thailand amongst locals. It’s a spicy, meat-focused meal that consists of garlic, sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce, Thai chili, and of course, holy basil.
Usually served with rice, Pad Gra Prao is spicy, aromatic, and delicious. Many locals order their Pad Gra Prao with a Kai Dao, or fried egg to add a creamy and fatty element that helps to balance the generous use of the Thai chilies.
Larb is a dish that originates in the regions of Northern Thailand and the nearby country of Laos but is eaten throughout Thailand. It’s usually made of ground chicken or pork mixed with lime juice, fish sauce, and fresh herbs.
Mixed with Thai chilies and mint, the dish is usually served with sticky rice and cold raw vegetables on the side. Larb can be served at room temperature or warm and with its lovely mix of herbs, spice, and citrus, is incredibly refreshing on a warm day in Thailand.
Another Thai food with origins up north, Khao Soi is a coconut-based curry soup served with egg noodles and usually topped with pickled mustard greens, shallots, cilantro, chili sauce, crispy fried egg noodles, and fresh lime. A protein such as chicken is often added in the form of a drumstick in the bowl.
Consumed mostly in Northern Thailand, Khao Soi is a bit harder to find in other parts of the country as well as abroad. If you happen to find a restaurant that serves Khao Soi, you’ll be treated to a delicious coconut-based curry that’s thinner than your average curry but not lacking in flavor.
The lime and mustard greens provide a touch of acid while the chili sauce and curry provide spice. The fat of the coconut milk and the crunch of the crispy fried egg noddles round things out to make this a well-balanced dish. It’s not a surprise that many who have had the opportunity to try Khao Soi crown it as their favorite Thai dish.
Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)
Som Tam is also known as green papaya salad and is a dish that beautifully balances sweet, sour, spicy, and salty flavors. Green papaya is sliced into long thin pieces and then combined with lime, fish sauce, palm sugar, and chili.
A mortar and pestle, called a pok pok, is used to mix the ingredients together. Som Tam is often served alongside sticky rice and can be topped with a variety of ingredients such as dried shrimp, peanuts, cherry tomatoes, or Thai eggplant. Seafood, such as crab, can also be added.
Tom Yum is a fragrant sweet and sour soup that is often made with fish, shrimp, pork, or chicken. The base of the soup is made with lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal (a plant in the ginger family), fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, cilantro, and chili peppers.
This results in a soup that is packed with flavor yet still well-balanced with its acid, heat, and sweetness.
Similar to Tom Yum, Tom Kha is another sweet and sour soup that is usually served with chicken. The ingredients are similar to Tom Yum in that they also include lemongrass, kaffir lime, galangal, fish sauce, lime juice, sugar, and Thai chilies.
One of the major differences is that coconut milk is added to the broth resulting in a creamier soup base. The added fat of the coconut can serve as a nice balance to the otherwise spicy and sour elements of the dish.
Green Curry is another coconut-based soup that gets its color from the green chilies used in the curry paste that makes this soup. Garlic, galangal, lemongrass, kaffir lime, cilantro, cumin, shallots, and shrimp paste are added to the green chilies and then pounded in a pok pok to make the curry paste.
Coconut milk is then added to create the base of the soup. Thai eggplant, basil, and slices of fresh chilies are included in the broth along with a protein such as chicken.
Massaman Curry is a soup that combines ingredients from the Indian subcontinent such as cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, cumin, and nutmeg with traditional Thai flavors. Blending the spices with lemongrass, garlic, galangal, peppercorns, shrimp paste, and chilies, the massaman curry paste is made.
Coconut milk is then added to create a delicious and fragrant soup base. Potatoes and onions are thrown into the soup along with a protein such as chicken or beef. Massaman Curry has roots in Muslim cuisine, therefore this dish is rarely made with pork.
Mango Sticky Rice
One of the most popular desserts in Thailand, Mango Sticky Rice is a delicious twist on the traditional sticky rice featured heavily in Thai cuisine. Coconut milk, salt, and sugar are mixed together and then added to traditional sticky rice. It’s then served with fresh mango on the side.
More of the coconut milk, salt, and sugar mixture is then poured on top of the rice at the time of serving. This results in sweet, creamy, chewy rice that pairs perfectly with the bright, slightly acidic taste of the yellow mango. Mango Sticky Rice is the perfect ending to any Thai meal.
Yes, Thailand has a reputation for some of the most delicious food in the world and it’s easy to see why. From deliciously spicy stir-fries to rich creamy curries, Thai food is wonderfully diverse and packed with flavor. With great hospitality and irresistible cuisine, you can’t go wrong in planning your next trip to Thailand to experience it for yourself.