Thai food is famous for seeking to combine five flavours perfectly: salt, sweet, sour, spicy and bitter. One dish might lean more heavily on one flavour, but another will balance it. This is a pretty explosive idea for a Brit who’s been brought up on yummy, but quite bland dishes, like baked potato and tuna mayo, and pasta, and pie.
I work for Daughters Rising, and live in Chiang Mai. I've been in Thailand long enough that I've had my fill of Pad Thai, green and red curry, and chicken satay. I've had plenty of cashew chicken and Tom Yum and found the best place for Khao Soi in Chiang Mai. Now I'm starting to venture into new territories to get my fix of those incredible Thai flavours. These are my favourites so far...
Please note, this list is totally subjective and is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what's on offer here in Thailand. I apologise in advance to any vegetarian readers, too - this isn't the most veggie-packed list!
Pad Krapow Kai Dao
Krapow is absolute Thai comfort food. Thai Holy basil, garlic and chilli briskly fried with ground meat or tofu - quick and delicious, it's one dish most Thais know how to cook in their sleep. It should come with rice that's a little bit tackier than normal jasmine rice, sort of half way to sticky rice. On top of the rice sits a perfect crispy fried egg. Pop the yolk over the rice and enjoy the resulting deliciousness.
Originating from the South Thailand in the Muslim community, this curry is one of the fanciest foods in my list. Because it takes a long time to prepare, and uses an incredible host of herbs and spices, it's often only served on special occasions in Thai households. Cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves, nutmeg and mace join dried chili peppers, coriander seeds, lemongrass, galangal, white pepper, shrimp paste, shallots and garlic to make curry paste. This paste is first fried with coconut cream, and then meat (usually chicken), potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind paste, sugar, coconut milk and peanuts are added. Quite a complicated process, but definitely worth it.
This very popular dish originates in Isaan and Laos and is not to be missed. Lime, coriander, mint and chili bring a serious zing to any ground meat. Laab moo (pork) and laab gai (chicken) are the most common. There's a very delicious version made with raw fermented pork which is uber northern, but if I eat it I'm sure to drink some rice whiskey (lao khao) alongside, which Thais recommend to kill off any bugs lingering in the meat. Same goes for raw buffalo laab which honestly is so delicious, and kind of reminiscent of steak tartare.
Gai Yang, Khao Niaow, and Som Tum
So I get that this is kind of cheating because I'm sneaking in three foods in one. But this is like the holy trinity of Thai streetfood - three simple dishes that complement each other so perfectly it's as if they were made with each other in mind. Gai Yang is grilled chicken, fatty and juicy with crispy sweet skin. Khao Niaow is of course sticky rice, dense and flavourful, great as streetfood because you can eat it with your hands as you walk. And Som Tum is papaya salad made with grated green papaya, lime, fish sauce, peanuts, tomatoes and green beans - made to order, so you can choose how spicy you like it. This is the lunch of your dreams.
Plaa Kapung Neung Manao
There are many, many wonderful ways to eat Plaa - fish - in Thailand, but this is definitely worth a mention. In this dish, the fish is steamed in a marinade made with limes, coriander, chilli and garlic. It's light and refreshing. The fish is super tender. It feels a little healthier than many Thai dishes so it's great if you're feeling like you've overdone it a bit (which is basically all the time, since every meal is so good it's hard not to stuff yourself way past satiety).
The veggie option. I love this mild and flavourful curry with a slightly unfortunate name (although better than anything cooked with green pumpkin, which, since green is 'see kiew' is called 'fuk kiew' - hilarious). It's made with pumpkin that's cooked slowly with coconut milk, turmeric and kaffir lime leaves until it's soft and tender and mushy. It's wholesome and comforting and I could eat it every day.
I haven’t seen this much on the street but our cook at Chai Lai, New, makes it really well. So I’m going to say it’s a thing.
Ok, I'm definitely cheating with this one, too. Interestingly, Thais don't tend to eat dessert that often - something I find hard to understand since there's so many wonderful sweets to be found, of every colour and texture. Some are made with coconut milk and meat, others with young rice powder, and some with egg yolk.
I love them all but you've really got to try these: Khao Lam, sticky rice mixed with coconut milk, poured into bamboo pieces and roasted in the fire; Khanom Krok, tiny coconut pancakes served with sweetcorn or taro; and Sang Kaya Fuk Tong, pumpkin custard. And Nam Khaeng Sai deserves a special mention. When I was little my siblings used to tell me about their horrible experience of eating Ice Kacang in Singapore - it sold itself as 'all your favourite goodies' at the bottom of a big pile of flavoured ice, and they were horrified to find that the 'goodies' were mung beans, sweetcorn and grass jelly. Nam Khaeng Sai is like the Thai version of Ice Kacang but I love it! You fill your bowl with palm toddy, grass jelly, water chestnuts, taro balls, sweetcorn, basil seeds and and green worm things made out of rice flour (I think?), top the assortment with ice and drown the lot in neon sugar syrup and condensed milk. It's amazing, and it makes you feel like a kid again. I also really love Kluai Buat Chii, bananas stewed in coconut milk and served hot. Great in winter.
Nam Tok is a recipe which uses fish sauce, lime juice, shallots and mint leaves, ground roasted rice for crunch, and ground dried chillies - quite similar to laab, but this time the meat is grilled. The word Nam Tok means waterfall and I never understood why that had any relevance to this dish, so I spent a little time on google. One theory is that the meat makes the sizzling sound of a waterfall when it is ready to be removed from the grill and sliced - another is that there is still 'water' (blood) in the meat when it is served. I think I prefer the former explanation.
Khao Kha Moo
I've been a big fan of Khao Man Gai, or Hainanese chicken, for a long time, but only recently tried Khao Ka Moo on a roadtrip to Mae Hong Son. As with Khao Man Gai, it's simple and wholesome and relies on slow cooking the meat until it's really tender. The pork is stewed in a broth flavoured with Soy sauce, chilli, ginger, vinegar, cinnamon, star anise, Chinese five spice, and palm sugar. The meat is served over rice with an egg, also cooked in the broth, a chilli sauce, pickled greens, and a bowl of broth.
A snack which is just as much fun to make as it is to eat. These are like little green flavour bombs. Miang Kham is sold with its component parts unmixed and it is your job to put everything together. First, you take a betel leaf as use it as a wrap. Chunks of lime, ginger, chilli, shallots and raw garlic, a few tiny dried shrimps, some toasted coconut flakes, and chopped peanuts all go inside. Then add honey or a salty-sweet dollop of sticky sauce made with palm sugar and fish sauce and wrap it all up. Eat in one go - after all, the name Miang Kham translates to "one bite wrap"!
Well. That's my ten current favourites! Ask me next week and I'll probably have a couple more to add to the list...
Happy eating from one foodie to another!
(Click through on images to see image source)