Thailand Food Culture: Thai Cuisine’s 9 Best Dishes

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Thai food is one of the world’s most famous and most popular cuisines, and it’s no surprise why. Flavorsome, fresh, and fragrant, Thai food is a culmination of the country’s unique history and geography and has so much variety that there are bound to be an ample amount of dishes that appeal to every palette. Taking influences from the cuisines of China, Japan, and neighboring Laos, Thailand’s culinary reputation is one that has taken the world by storm.

With such a wide array of ingredients and flavors in Thai cuisine, it can be hard to know which Thai dishes are the best ones to try when you visit Thailand. Of course, when in Thailand you will want to try and eat as many Thai dishes as possible. However, there isn’t a vacation long enough to be able to sample all of Thailand’s incredible cuisine, so we have curated a list of 9 of the very best dishes that make up the Thailand food culture.

You may think you know Thai cuisine, or even have your own list of what the best Thai dishes are, but our selection is the perfect blend of the authentic and the downright delicious.

1. Pad Thai

Traditional Pad Thai
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Pad Thai is commonly heralded as the national dish of Thailand. Despite its global acclaim as one of the most delicious, and most quintessential dishes of Thai cuisine, pad thai was actually an invention of the 20th century and is made using Chinese rice noodles. However, this kind of borrowing from other culture’s food is precisely what makes the Thailand food culture so utterly delicious and unique. Furthermore, pad thai has become the singularly most iconic dish of Thailand and can now be found in restaurants all over the world thanks to its universal appeal and status as one of Thailand’s most important dishes.

Simply put, pad thai is an iteration of a classic stir fry. Though you can find all sorts of different versions of pad thai all over the country, and indeed the world, the basic ingredients often remain the same: stir-fried rice noodles, tamarind, fish sauce, lime juice, garlic, sugar, fresh cilantro, and chopped peanuts. Dried shrimp is often an important ingredient in the dish, too, to add a savory depth of flavor. You may find vegetarian versions that differ slightly, as well as versions with chicken, pork, fish, tofu, or a mixture of all of them. However, what rarely changes about a pad thai is how satisfyingly tasty it is.

2. Tom Yam

Tom Yam Tom Yum Traditional Thai Soup Dish
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You have almost definitely heard of tom yam, or tom yum, but probably did not know that it was a Thai dish. Often sold in the West at Chinese restaurants, this is another dish that blurs cultural and culinary boundaries but has its origins firmly in Thailand. In fact, the name tom yam actually derives from the Thai, referring to the cooking process of the soup. When you pay Thailand a visit, you will soon discover that there are many different iterations of this soup in Thai food culture, so it might be hard to limit yourself to trying just one version.

Depending on the region of Thailand you are in, you will come across different versions of tom yam from chicken, to fish, mixed seafood, or even pork. The spirit of tom yam soup, however, is a hot, sour, and refreshing soup made using a base of roasted red chili peppers, shallots, and garlic. Of course, being such a key component of Thai cuisine, fragrant herbs are equally as essential to making this soup, such as lemongrass, fresh cilantro, and kaffir lime leaves. You will surely have no problem finding an unforgettable tom yam soup when you pay Thailand a visit.

3. Khao Pad Goong

Khao Pad Goong Thai Fried Rice
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It would be borderline sacrilegious to write a post on the best dishes in Thai cuisine and not include some form of delicious Thai-style fried rice. Whether you’re on a luxury honeymoon in Thailand or exploring Bangkok on a budget, fried rice will undoubtedly become one of your staple favorite dishes in Thailand. Although, like many other Thai dishes, you will find a lot of variants all over the country, khao pad goong is possibly the most popular version of Thai fried rice you can find in the country.

Basically, khao pad goong is fried rice with shrimp. Once again, this is another Thai dish that was born out of Chinese, specifically Cantonese, cooking styles. The basis of this deliciously comforting dish is fragrant jasmine rice fried with garlic, shrimp, onion, scallions, and, of course, chilis. The key to this dish’s moreish flavor, however, is the mix of fish sauce, chili, and lime, which help to make every mouthful a real punch of flavor.

You will often find that this dish is served with plenty of fresh cilantro too, which really freshens the dish. If you’re eager to discover this dish before you taker a trip to Thailand, you can find plenty of recipes online for khao pad goong.

4. Gaeng Keow Wan Gai (Thai Green Curry)

Gaeng Keow Wan Gai Thai Green Curry
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One of my personal favorite Thai dishes is the humble, but exceptional, Thai green curry. Or, in Thai, Gaeng Keow Wan Gai. This dish is thought to have evolved in the early 20th Century in Central Thailand but, unsurprisingly, there is no fixed recipe for this popular curry. In fact, Thai green curry is just one of many popular curries that make up the Thailand food culture, and offers a more robust flavor than a Thai red curry, for instance.

You have probably eaten your fair share of Thai green curry in your local Thai restaurant, or even tried your hand at making one at home, so you already know that you can kind of play fast and loose with the protein you choose to include: king prawns, chicken, tofu, pork. It might be that you don’t know what makes up the base flavors, however, of a Thai green curry, either because you’ve only ordered them out, or perhaps you buy the pre-made Thai green curry paste from the supermarket. As delicious as both of these are, you will soon realize that it can never compete with the real thing when you order one at a restaurant in Thailand.

The simple Thai green curry is green thanks to the green chilis included in its base, along with shallots, garlic, galangal (a root closely related to ginger), lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro shoots, and shrimp paste (unless you’re choosing a vegetarian option). This paste is what carries the aroma and taste of the curry, and is mellowed out with coconut milk and the addition of any number of vegetables, such as eggplant or bamboo shoots.

5. Massaman Curry

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Massaman curry is yet another classic Thai dish that would not have been possible without foreign influences. This particular curry is a fusion between the already established Thai methods and ingredients, with spices and influences from traders from the Indian subcontinent and Malaysia. In fact, its very name derives from an archaic word for Muslim because of its history. Due to its Muslim heritage, this curry is most commonly made using chicken or beef, with pork being a less common option and not eaten by Thai Muslims because it is considered to be haram.

When you order your first massaman curry in Thailand, you will be able to taste how its culinary influences are different from those of other classic Thai dishes. The curry paste that forms the base of the massaman curry includes less common spices in Thailand, such as cardamom, cloves, star anise, bay leaves, cumin, and nutmeg, which, historically, would have been brought over to Thailand from other parts of Asia. Where the fusion occurs is when this fragrant paste is mixed with authentic Thai flavors, such as coconut milk, lemongrass, fish sauce, tamarind, cilantro, galangal, shallots, and garlic.

As with all iconic dishes, there is obviously a myriad of different recipes that include extra ingredients and omit others. At its core, massaman curry is a true fusion dish that takes an important place in the Thai food culture.

6. Kuai-Tiao Ruea (Boat Noodles)

Thai Boat Noodles
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Boat noodles are arguably one of the country’s most delicious dishes, but many Western tourists may be put off by them once they hear the ingredients. Don’t be. If you are traveling and want to make the most of your time there, it is my personal opinion that you have to be as open-minded as possible – especially when it comes to sampling the cuisine. Eating the country’s authentic food is one of the best ways you can get to know a country and its culture, and also discover some new things. Who knows? You might surprise yourself!

This dish is called boat noodles because, historically, they were sold and served by merchants who worked on boats that traveled along the canal in Bangkok. Nowadays, you will find restaurants on dry land serving up bowls of these boat noodles, but they often maintain the traditions established by selling them on boats. For instance, they traditionally come in small bowls for the ease of transfer from boat merchant to customers on the quayside. Despite this dish’s whimsical past and reputation for being rich and delicious, some people can be wary when they learn that the broth of the soup is thickened and seasoned with a paste made primarily of either cow’s or pig’s blood.

The dish is also often served with liver, so people who don’t like offal may be discouraged. However, if you’re open-minded you will discover one of Thailand’s most delicious dishes: a hot and savory noodle broth flavored with dark soy, garlic, radish, cinnamon, umami meaty flavors, and a welcome zing from the inclusion of a pickled, fermented, cheese-style tofu. It also often contains fresh parsley and sweet basil to really give the dish a lift.

7. Larb

Larb Thai Dish
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Larb is actually better known to be the unofficial national dish of Laos, with its roots firmly planted on that side of the border. However, larb has also made its way onto the Thai food scene, particularly in the Northeast region of the country where the majority of the population there is ethnically Lao. If you really want to extend your Asian culinary tour, you could always hop across the border to the often-overlooked origin of larb: the perfectly safe Laos. If not, you will find plenty of delicious versions of larb in the Isan region of Thailand, though this recipe differs from that served across the border.

At the heart of it all, larb is a mixture of savory meat, rice, and fresh vegetables, akin to a salad. Usually made using minced meat, usually beef, chicken, or pork, it also can be made with fish or mushrooms. Whatever base protein is chosen, this is then seasoned with fresh lime, fish sauce, fresh mint, and fresh chili, and can either be fried or left to be eaten raw with some lightly toasted rice, fresh vegetables, and sticky rice as an accompaniment. However, where this rough basis might differ in parts of Thailand is that they may omit sour flavors such as lime juice, and instead mix the meat with a combination of warm spices such as cloves, cinnamon, cumin, and star anise to give the dish a more distinctive, regional flavor. Also, as is common in many Thai dishes, the blood and other by-products of the animal may also be used in the preparation process, but the larb may still be eaten uncooked.

8. Gaeng Daeng (Thai Red Curry)

Thai Red Curry
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The other of Thailand’s famous and delicious curries is, of course, the gaeng daeng, or Thai red curry. Not surprisingly, Thai red curry gets both its name and its signature color thanks to the red chilis used in the red curry paste that forms the base of this spicy, aromatic curry. This is yet another classic Thai dish that you are probably already familiar with thanks to its commercialization in restaurants and supermarkets, so you may already be aware of what it tastes like and what its primary flavors are. However, also unsurprisingly, this is yet another classic Thai dish that really cannot be fairly judged until you’ve tasted the real thing.

Its name literally means ‘spicy curry’, so don’t be surprised if you order a red curry in Thailand and struggle with the spice more than you would with a green. Despite this, its ingredients are fairly similar to that of a Thai green curry, with the red curry paste consisting of Thai red chilis, garlic, shallots, galangal, shrimp paste, cilantro roots, lemongrass, and kaffir lime leaves. However, the flavors also differ slightly in that this paste also includes both cilantro and cumin seeds that have been ground in a mortar and pestle, helping to create a more complex level of spice in the red curry. It is then prepared in a similar way to green curry: the paste is fried until aromatic and then mixed with coconut milk, the protein of your choice (chicken, prawns, tofu, etc), vegetables such as bamboo shoots and eggplant, before being served with a side of steaming white rice.

9. Thai Suki

Thai Suki Hot Pot
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One of Thailand’s most sociable and exciting culinary traditions is the Thai Suki – Thailand’s take on the classic Chinese hot pot. Hot pot is a staple of East Asian culture and most countries have their own versions of it. Certainly, you must take part in this ritualistic meal of coming together and sharing some of the most nourishing, wholesome, and delicious food of the region with your loved ones, your traveling partners, or simply the people you have met while over there. Whoever you find yourself among, eating a hot pot together is more than just a delicious meal, but it’s an event that you will cherish when you look back on your memories of Thailand.

Thai suki is the official name of the Thai version of hot pot, which is thought to have originated under the Zhou dynasty in China, before spreading throughout the rest of East Asia. There is a mammoth list of ingredients to choose from when making or eating a Thai hot pot. The base is generally a hot and spicy, water-based broth with noodles, which vary depending on the country you’re trying hot pot in. Then, you can completely customize which vegetables and proteins you are going to include: anything from chicken, quail’s eggs, king prawns and tofu, to fish balls, pork brain, tripe and short ribs when it comes to the protein, and vegetables such as scallions, pak choy, spinach, carrots, cabbage, mushrooms and potatoes. Then, there is also a plethora of condiments you can have it served with.

When it comes to Thai suki, however, you will usually find it garnished with plenty of fresh cilantro as well as a traditional Thai dipping sauce of sweet chilli, lime juice, and more cilantro. Better still, in Thailand you will often find that the broth base for Thai suki is based on tom yam soup, packing an extra punch of flavor.

Thailand Thai Food
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FAQs

What is the national dish in Thailand?

Thailand’s national dish is Pad Thai. The history of Pad Thai is recent, but very interesting. This flavorsome dish became the natinal dish of Thailand following an attempt to reunify the country under its new name of Thailand from Siam, and so this dish was created to bring the country together.

What is special about Thai food?

Thai food is special thanks to its unique blend of flavors and influences from other cultures. Thanks to its natural abundance of fragrant fresh ingredients, like citrus, chili, and herbs, as well as spices it has inherited from other parts of East Asia and South Asia, the resulting Thai cuisine is a balance between heat, sweetness, and sharpness.

Is Thai food healthy?

Thai food can be healthy thanks to the amount of lean protein and fresh vegetables that are included in traditional Thai dishes. Thai food is certainly nutritious and balanced but, like all cuisines, there are also Thai dishes that aren’t too healthy because of the inclusion of fattier cuts of meat, as well as frying.

What is the most famous dish in Thailand?

In Thailand, tom yam is probably the most popular and most consumed dish. Pad Thai maybe their national dish, but tom yam is a dish with a much longer heritage as part of the Thailand food culture and doesn’t look like it’s going anywhere.