It’s all too easy for western restaurants to become overly creative with a Thai menu. Especially when Thai cuisine enjoys splashes of influence from nearby Laos, Myanmar, and Cambodia. Add a touch of European and Japanese flavours in modern Thai cookery, restaurant-style Thai food is easily muddled by the diverse ingredients, complex spices, and exotic herbs required to assemble a single dish.
When in Thailand, dine like the locals by seeking out these top 10 authentic Thai recipes while journeying between Bangkok and Chiang Mai or island-hopping from Phuket. From restaurants on Sukhumvit Road to beachside tables, you can find these must-try traditional Thai food almost anywhere in the “Land of Smiles”:
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No one has yet to pin down where exactly this rustic curry dish came from. Some historians believe it was brought over from Malaysia through Middle Eastern traders, as the name massaman originated from the archaic Thai word for Muslim, while others point to its history in the Thai royal court. Either way, massaman sets itself apart from other Thai curries by having less commonly used spices like cardamom, cinnamon, and anise. Coupled with its aromatic and complex paste usually fried in a pan with coconut cream and tamarind paste, you can expect a dish that packs both spicy and savoury flavours.
Pad Kra Prao
The go-to dish for a Thai local when he is unsure about what to eat on a night out, this minced pork and rice à la carte dish can be eaten at any time of the day. Typically served alongside steamed jasmine rice, Pad Kra Prao comes with a side of fatty minced pork stir-fried with Thai holy basil and seasoned with fish sauce and chopped chilli. Other variations include beef, chicken, or seafood ingredients stir-fried with basil, cowpeas, bamboo shoots, and topped with a fried egg.
Kao Ka Moo
A spectacle to behold when watching it prepped at a Thai food cart on the streets, this slow-braised stewed pork leg on rice dish is a crowd-pleaser at night markets. At roadside stalls, you’ll find Kao Ka Moo simmered in large aluminum pots with soy sauce and five-spice powder until the meat is succulent enough to slide off the bone. The braised meat is then chopped to thin strips on a large cutting board with cleavers and served on a bed of rice alongside bok choi, pickled vegetables, and boiled eggs with custardy yolk.
An iconic Northern Thai staple, this yellow curry rice noodle soup comes in many different styles and can be found almost anywhere in Chiang Mai from roadside kitchens to fine-dining restaurants. With roots in nearby Myanmar and Laos, Northern Thai khao soi’s soup shares a similar spicy, coconut flavour as massaman curry. In a single bowl, both boiled egg noodles and deep-fried egg noodles are steeped in curry soup with green shallots, pickled cabbage, minced pork or chicken leg as toppings. Each serving usually comes with condiments like oil-fried chilli paste, coriander, and lime on the side. With hundreds of variations spread across Thailand, you’ll find the debate for the best Khao Soi in the country, especially in Chiang Mai, to be quite heated but with no apparent winner.
Yam Nua (Beef Salad)
A popular salad to make in a Phuket cooking class, this spicy and zesty salad is a refreshing alternative to the ubiquitous mango salad. Made with thinly sliced grilled beef tenderloin strips, tossed alongside sprigs of fresh spearmint, chopped shallots, onions, garlic, chilis, and seasoned with lime juice and fish sauce, yam nua excites the palate with both heat and acidity.
Pad Woon Sen (Stir-fried Glass Noodles)
Although not as flashy as pad thai, this classic stir-fried glass noodle dish has been around for just as long. Made from mung beans, cellophane noodles are highly versatile and pairs well with a wide variety of ingredients. When used to make a plate pad woon sen, the pre-soaked noodles are stir-fried in a wok with prawns, shallots, garlic cloves, vegetables, and scrambled eggs. After adding a dash of oyster sauce for seasoning, the finished noodles are typically garnished with mung bean sprouts or chopped coriander. When in Thailand, think twice before shrugging this simple dish off, and you’ll be surprised by the endless variety woon sen can come in.
Kway Teow (noodle soup)
As simple as a bowl of kway toew appears to the average diner, ordering one in Thailand can be an eye-opening experience. For those stumbling across a crowded roadside kitchen in Bangkok, you’ll usually find menus on the walls listing different types of noodles, soup, seasoning, and ingredients. Diners can mix and match these combinations however they want. But the most commonly ordered kway teow moo comes with rice noodles, pork tenderloins, offal, minced meat, fish balls, and vegetables. Each bowl is served alongside a plate of condiments including bean sprouts, chilli paste, lime, and chopped coriander.
Hor Mok Ma Prow Awn (seafood coconut curry)
It’s not every day you get to eat curry straight out of a whole coconut. With hor mok prow awn, you can dig into a hollowed out coconut for spoonfuls of seafood red curry. After steamed cook for a short period of time, the finished bowl fills the room with the fragrant aroma of coconut, spices, and curry ingredients. Within the bubbling bowl, you'll find prawns, chopped squid, and coconut flesh mixed with kaffir lime leaves and galangals.
Pla Kapung Neung Manao (Steamed lime fish)
A favourite both at home and abroad, authentic Thai food lovers know Pla Kapung Neung Manao well as “steam lime fish”. Take one whole Asian seabass steamed until the fillet is moist and fluffy, then soaked in lime soup and served with diced garlic, chilis, and cilantro. Get this classic dish fresh anywhere in Thailand and pair it with a side of jasmine rice.
Mango Sticky Rice
The final highlight of any authentic Thai meal, this popular traditional dessert is a breath of fresh air after downing several heavily spiced dishes. Deceptively simple, mango sticky rice is a dish made by pairing two seemingly unlikely ingredients: mango slices and sweet glutinous rice. But when eaten together, the sourness of the mango is gently balanced out by the coconut milk infused sticky rice, offering a mild, creamy flavour similar to rice pudding. Some variations come with the sticky rice drizzled with sweet coconut cream, topped with a few sprinkles of roasted mung beans or sesame.
Hoping to grab these traditional Thai dishes on the streets of Bangkok, Chiang Mai, or Phuket? Let our Travel Experts help you in-store, online, or call today at 1-877-967-5302, and ask about Better Beach.