Before arriving in Thailand I was excited about the dining adventures surely awaiting me here, but my taste buds have been given the ride of their life these past couple months. Well-known Pad Thai and Pad See Ew are merely mundane tips of the culinary iceberg that is Thai cuisine.
Food is an integral part of Thai culture. Everyone is always concerned with whether you have eaten; in fact, the traditional way to greet people here is “Gin kow reu yang?” (Have you eaten yet?). The first words I learned in Thai were all about food: kao (rice), gai (chicken), gaeng (curry), the ever-confusing moo (pork, not beef), aroy mahk mahk (very very delicious!), and the essential “im laao” (full already!), because if you don’t say this more food will be forced upon your already dangerously engorged stomach.
Yes, Thai food is spicy. Especially in the south of Thailand where I have spent the majority of time except for a few days of travel up in Chiang Mai. I don’t think I was quite prepared for the fire of Thai chilis when I bit into a seemingly innocuous papaya salad (called Som Tum) at lunch one of my first days here. Immediately my throat clenched, my nose started running, my eyes watered, and sweat dripped down my face as I tried to gulp down water and rice as fast as I could. I felt like I could breathe fire. I had eaten an entire Thai chili by accident, and the bad news was that 3 more were hiding in my salad somewhere. Thai chilies may be tiny, but they are HOT.
Many Thai people wait in gleeful anticipation for your first bite after you ask for spicy food because they think foreigners’ bodies will self-destruct after one mouthful (not entirely inaccurate). You will win their respect if you manage to eat it without breaking into a sweat (so far I’ve managed to control the sweating, but my nose still runs every time). After devouring a particularly spicy curry at a party with the local health volunteers, they now brag to everyone in the village about how I am able to “eat all the food in Thailand”, apparently a great compliment.
Thai food seems to center around 4 flavors: spicy, salty, sour, and sweet. Warning: salt is not used here as fish sauce is used for salty flavor, so any jar of white granules you find on the table is not salt, but sugar (and if they’re yellowish then it’s MSG). Thai dishes seem to have a combination of one or more of these 4 strong flavors; it is difficult to find a bland dish in Thailand. In the case of Thai desserts, the sugar level is overwhelmingly sweet for my taste (and that’s before they add coconut and sweetened condensed milk on top), so for sweets I prefer just eating one of the incredible varieties of tropical fruits that grow here.
Thailand has its curry game on lockdown. From Green and Red, to sweet Panang and peanutty Massaman, to pineapple-fish and sour mystery ones; each curry has its own unique flavor. Many street vendors have huge bowls of colorful curries sitting out in a row that you just point to; they’ll ladle it over a plate of rice and you’re good to go. Thais eat curry with raw vegetables, like long beans and cucumber, to balance out the heat. Thai green curry, or Gaeng Keow Wan, is one of the most famous Thai curries. Though it’s the spiciest one, the coconut milk, small round eggplants, and green veggies help break up the heat.
I will definitely miss the street food when I go back to the US. Whether it’s chicken satay, grilled pork skewers, or spicy squid chunks, one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t go wrong with meat on a stick. Some street food has a distinct Chinese influence, my particular favorites being delicious meat-filled steam buns and seafood dumplings (especially “poo” dumplings! Poo means crab). The Thai-style fried chicken (Gai Tod) is some of the best I’ve ever had (particularly hard for a Southerner to say). Marinated in lemongrass and spices, it is fried extra crispy and served with an addictive spicy sweet and sour sauce (aka “crack sauce”). Be careful at the chicken carts, because chicken necks are served right alongside the drumsticks and it can be difficult to tell the difference at nighttime.
Another popular street snack is roti (Thai pancake), a fried thin circle of eggy bread that is folded (sometimes with bananas) and doused with sweetened condensed milk and sugar. If someone set up a fried chicken or roti street cart in downtown Ann Arbor, I’m convinced they would make bank.
Though the list is endless, here are some more of my favorite foods I’ve had so far:
- Kao Clook Gapi (Fried rice mixed with shrimp paste)- Not your typical fried rice, it’s tossed with a paste made from tiny shrimps that gives it a great flavor. The best part, however, is the surrounding toppings: fresh chopped cucumber, green mango, long beans, shallots, green & red Thai chilis, sweetened pork, a shredded Thai omelette, and a squeeze of lime. Paired with an icy pineapple shake, this is my absolute favorite lunch dish: crunchy, fresh, and filling.
- Tom Yum Goong (Thai hot and sour soup with shrimp)- This might be my favorite soup of all time. You can smell it coming; the broth is intensely flavored with lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, and plenty of chilis, with big floating chunks of tomatoes, onions, mushrooms, and shrimp. If spicy food isn’t your thing, don’t get this dish (this is another dish that will make your nose run). Each tom yum soup I’ve tried has tasted slightly different and it’s fun to compare each recipe.
- Ratna Moo (Thai-style noodles in gravy with pork)- Thailand has a lot of noodle soups, but this one is unique. It consists of wide rice noodles in a warm thick “gravy” sauce with juicy pork, dark leafy greens, mushrooms, baby corn, and carrots; it has a very sticky, oozy texture and is easily slurpable. You can add peppers or vinegar to get the heat/sourness to your liking. I want to learn how to make this comforting dish to get me through the upcoming Michigan winter.
- Pad Grapao Moo Kai Dow (Spicy pork with Thai basil and a fried egg on top)- this is a quintessential (and extremely popular) Thai dish. After a long morning of working and sweating in the tropical heat, this lunch gives you a protein punch with the stir-fried pork, freshness from the basil, a blast of peppery spiciness, and the fried egg brings it all together once you break into the oozy yolk and mix it all up.
- Lahp (minced meat salad)- This Northern dish is usually made with minced pork (pork seems to be the most popular meat in Thailand), chopped shallots, cilantro, mint, some magical mix of spices, and lime juice. It’s a bright fresh contrast to the heavier stir-fries and curries I eat daily.
If you can’t tell from the descriptions above, Thai food is very meat-heavy with rice or noodles in almost every meal. People have asked what food I miss the most. Without question, bread and cheese. I reached a point where I had a dream about a sandwich. Not just any sandwich, but the veggie sandwich from Alon’s Bakery in Atlanta (my hometown): thick fresh-baked bread, slices of roasted red pepper, eggplant, and tomato, garlicky basil pesto, and the pièce de résistance, a mile high slice of fresh mozzarella cheese. I woke up from this dream with drool running out of my mouth and the drool has returned full-force at this very moment (I wish I was joking).
Trying so many new foods has been a lot of fun, despite the fact that most of the time I have no idea what I’m ordering or pointing to. Even if it looks questionable, I’ve learned to drop any hesitations and dig into it because odds are, in Thailand, it will be delicious. I just make sure to have a glass of water ready in case a sneaky Thai chili is lurking!