In addition to being by far the most popular Southeastern Asia country for expats, Thailand also has by far the most famous food in the region as well. The Thai restaurants that have popped up around the globe do reflect much of the cuisine that is available in Thailand itself, but anyone who’s been to Thailand also knows that those restaurants in no way reflect the way it’s normally eaten.
In the past we’ve discussed eating customs in Thailand, and that information will come in handy if you are actually going to be dining alongside the locals. Here we’ll instead discuss the most common food items and how they tend to be served to the expats, locals in cities, and the tourists.
Very few city dwellers cook at home
Last year I spent three months living in Bangkok and nearly as long living in Chiang Mai, and perhaps the biggest surprise for me was that very little cooking appears to be done in homes, at least compared to in most of the world. The thing is that it’s so incredibly hot and humid most of the time, in Bangkok in particular, that the notion of firing up a grill or even a boiling pot inside of an apartment is quite unappealing.
Instead, there are small camps of food vendors in every neighborhood, within easy walking distance of every citizen. They do all the grilling and cooking outdoors so the locals just walk over and buy a grilled chicken or fish plus a salad or other dishes to take home with them in convenient plastic bags. Prices tend to be shockingly cheap, even in tourist areas, so it’s usually possible to buy an expertly grilled chicken for about the same price as a raw chicken from a supermarket. In other words, there’s no reason to cook much at home or store great quantities of foods, which also explains the small and simple kitchens in most Thai apartments.
Probably the spiciest food in the world
One of the most popular dishes you’ll find being prepared in these street camps is “som tam” which is a salad made mostly of shreds of unripened papaya. When I’d order it I’d ask for it “very spicy” and the vendors would usually start laughing and asking me if I wanted it “farang (foreigner) spicy” or “Thai spicy.” I asked for Thai spicy, but still they’d only add two ground-up peppers to the thing most of the time. And it was damn spicy.
But I pride myself on loving or at least tolerating very spicy food, so I eventually got them to make som tam with five chilies, which was the standard for real “Thai spicy.” Needless to say, it was almost impossible to eat, and I was reminded of the meal the following day as well. The bottom line is that Thais don’t mess around with the heat, and very few foreigners are wise to even attempt to keep up.
Popular local dishes
There are literally hundreds of Thai dishes that you can find if you look around, but here are the most popular ones you’ll see at nearly every street food camp.
Grilled chicken or fish
In the Thai countryside they might not eat quite as much protein, but in the big cities you’ll see big grill carts everywhere. There is usually a variety of fish to choose from, and quartered chicken parts as well. As mentioned above, prices are similar to supermarket prices, so a US$2 portion is meal size even for larger tourists or a while Thai family. You can always buy a small bag of sticky rice or two as a side dish, plus you’ll get a spicy red sauce in a small bag to heat things up quite a bit.
This spicy salad mentioned above is also found just about everywhere. The shredded unripened papaya looks a bit like cabbage until you try it, and it’s usually mixed with bean sprouts, tomatoes, dried tiny shrimp, sugar, garlic, and lemon juice. Every recipe is different, but they do all go through a ritual of putting it together in a mortar with a pestle, to mix it freshly while you wait.
That’s right, hot dogs. This is something people rarely seem to actually discuss, but Thai people seem to love hot dogs. In the big supermarkets down to the 7-Elevens on every block, hot dogs of various forms are by far the most popular meat item. The locals rarely eat them with a bun though, and quite a few interesting flavors and varieties are available.
Guay teow (noodle soup)
Easily my favorite meal in Thailand is this noodle soup that is often eaten for breakfast and lunch, but hard to find at night. You get to pick your size of soft noodles, which are quickly boiled and then added to broth, veggies, and chicken if you like. Then you get to spoon chilies or other sauces into the mix yourself to customize things. It’s served in a large bowl if you are eating it there, or in a plastic bag if you are taking it home. A huge portion with chicken is usually under US$1, and definitely a full meal.
What you won’t find as often as you might think
By far the most popular dish in Thai restaurants everywhere, pad Thai is available in restaurants in Thai cities, but it’s mainly only found in the tourist areas on the street. In other words, every other cart on Khaosan Road serves it, but it’s hard to find where locals live. A bit surprisingly, the stuff in the tourist areas is very cheap, and still quite good, so if you like the stuff in restaurants there’s no reason to hold back on the street.
It’s true that some Thai people eat insects for protein. Those people almost all live in the farm areas of the northeastern part of the country, so it’s mostly a regional thing that is quite foreign in Bangkok or Chiang Mai. Still, especially since there are many laborers (and bar girls) from that part of Thailand who are working in Bangkok, you can find insects at street stalls if you look around enough. Chinatown in particular has many carts selling them, but don’t expect to find them just anywhere.