When getting ready to travel somewhere, a lot of people like to do some research about the country they will visit. They will, look at pictures of tourist attractions and see what the food is like. However, no matter how much we research, we will always be surprised when we reach our destination.
Thai food, famous in Western countries, won't fail to surprise you. There is always something unknown, something we never thought could exist. For example, the lack of baked food, or putting ice in a glass of beer; or some dishes that even Thai people find strange; or the dining etiquette.
Read our quick guide and learn some interesting facts about Thai food.
- Many dishes are regional, and it can be hard to find them outside their place of origin
- Baked food is not really a thing in Thailand; it will be hard to find it
- Drinking beer with ice is not something strange in Thailand
- Etiquette is important; always try to respect your host
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1. No baked food, thanks!
You will have a hard time finding baked food in Thailand. Thai people almost never use an oven, but they love to stir-fry, deep fry and grill their food.
The only traditional bakeries are in the Thai Chinese areas and they mainly sell Chinese bread and filled buns. You will also find Western bakeries here and there because of the high demand from tourists. If you want to enjoy the real Thai experience, though, and get your taste buds used to Thai flavors, stick to traditionally-cooked food, you won't regret it.
2. Regional differences? Of course!
There are a few dishes that are ubiquitous in Thailand: Pad Thai, papaya salad, mango, and sticky rice, green curry, etc. However, some dishes are strictly regional, and it will be almost impossible to find them elsewhere. Learn about the best 30 dishes to order in Thailand.
For example, traveling in the North you will come across Gaeng Hanglay (Northern Thai curry) and maybe fall in love with it, but it will be difficult to find it in other places.
In Chiang Mai, everyone loves khao soi, a coconut-based curry soup made with blanched egg noodles and topped with crispy fried egg noodles. Khao soi is the most eaten dish in the Lanna region of Northern Thailand.
Classic Northern Thai food: Khao Soi
In the south of Thailand, the dishes tend to be hot and sour. Gaeng tai pla, a sour, searingly hot soup made with fish organs and vegetables is a regional specialty and is not something you will find in the north. If eating fish organs doesn't sound very appetizing, try southern gaeng som (which, confusingly, isn't the same as gaeng som in Central Thailand). It's a delicious sour orange curry made with fresh local fish and green papaya.
In Central Thailand (Bangkok), you must try a traditional green curry but do as the locals do and eat it with khanom jeen (fresh fermented rice noodles), which is a tradition in the capital and, in our opinion, the best way to enjoy the most famous Thai curry.
People elsewhere might not have heard of these dishes but there is still hope! Just look extensively, and you will probably find all the dishes you are looking for.
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3. Beer On the Rocks
Something that might sound unthinkable to many is the delight of a lot of Thai people. It is common to find Thai people sitting in a restaurant, sipping their beer with ice in it. It is just a way to fight the brutal heat of Thailand's daytime.
It is common to drink Chang, Leo, or Tiger on the rocks, and many foreigners start liking this new method to drink beer. Not only does the ice keep the beer cool but it also waters it down slightly, meaning you won't get too drunk too quickly. Learn everything you need to know about Thai Drinks.
Beer "on the rock" in Thailand
4. Sugar is widely used
Thai cuisine likes to combine different flavors: spicy, sour, salty, and, last but not least, sweet. Many dishes, also those you wouldn't expect, have sugar in them. From Pad Thai to green papaya salad, it is pretty common to add a couple of spoonfuls of sugar during the preparation.You can ask for the sweetness to be tweaked to suit your preferences and if you don't want your food to be too sweet, just say 'waan noi', which means slightly sweet.
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5. Chili is not in every dish
Spicy food is extremely easy to find, and one might think that it is impossible to avoid. This is of course no true. While a lot of dishes come with a good amount of spices, many others don't. Spicy dishes are usually indicated on the menu, and most of the time the word 'spicy' is in the title itself. And the waiters always ask how spicy you prefer your food.
Kway teow (noodle soup) is one of the most popular dishes in Thailand. There are lots of different types but, typically, the dish is quite mild and you are left to flavor the soup with the condiments provided to suit your taste preferences. Dried chili flakes (prik bon) and chili vinegar (prik nam som) are always left on the table so you can get your chili hit when you need it but you can also eat it with people who don't like their food too hot.
So, if you don't love spicy food, don't worry! You will still be perfectly able to enjoy Thai food.
6. Some dishes require experience
Thai food is everywhere, and everyone loves it. It is so omnipresent that a lot of people would know at least one dish for every part of the meal, and they could order from a menu without any help. This doesn't mean that Thai cuisine ends here.
There are some dishes that are so strange that also Thai people think of them as an acquired taste:
- Larb Dib: a salad made with ground, raw beef. It often comes with a lot of blood.
- Som Tam Pla Ra: a variation of the beloved papaya salad with fermented and unpleasantly smelly fish or crab.
- Khaaw Niaw Thu Rian: another way to eat the famous stinky durian, a smelly fruit banned in hotels, taxis, and public buses. It is eaten with sticky rice and with the addition of sweet coconut milk.
- Yum Khai Maeng Daa: a salad of roes or mantis shrimp eggs served inside the shell of a horseshoe crab.
- Gaeng tai pla: a sour and hot soup made with fish organs and vegetables.
- Gaeng pa gob: Also known as 'jungle curry with frog', this is a hot curry soup made without coconut milk.
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7. Food is important
To Thai people, food matters. A lot! One of the first questions a Thai can ask you is: 'Have you eaten?' Eating is seen as a sort of celebration, a reason to be happy, a moment to share with you and the ones you love. It is common to see big tables of people eating together; all dishes have to be shared, everyone must have the chance to enjoy them. Eating alone is a sign of bad luck.
Not surprisingly, the formal presentation of food is an important aspect of Thai culture. It was developed initially to please the King, and nowadays the formal presentation is extremely delicate, with richly designed cutlery and wares.
8. (Almost) No chopsticks
This might be a surprise to many, but Thai people don't use chopsticks to eat Thai food. Chopsticks are used only to eat noodles, and never to eat rice. Thai people use a fork and a spoon. This is how it's done: Use the fork to push the food on the spoon, and then use that to eat your food. The fork is used only for items not eaten with rice (chunks of fruit, for example).
Food comes to the table already cut into bite-size pieces, and there are no knives on the table. If a dish includes glutinous sticky rice (usually served in a small basket), eat it using your right hand. Compress a small ball of rice with your fingers and use it to eat sauces and the like.
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9. Respect seniority
Thailand is no different from other Asian countries; age and social status are really important. The most senior or highest ranking person is the one that usually organizes the dinner. He chooses his seat before everyone else, and he is usually the one who starts the meal. Wait for his signal before eating, or, if he doesn't say anything, simply wait for them before starting to eat.
10. Desserts aren't served cold
Unlike desserts in the West, traditional Thai sweet treats (khanom waan) aren't served cold, unless it's coconut ice cream. This is because until fairly recently, most people didn't have refrigerators and, even if they did, electricity wasn't cheap in Thailand.
Thailand dessert: coconut icecream
To keep costs down, desserts are made fresh daily, typically using palm sugar sweetened coconut milk with various different toppings. Tub tib krok, for example, is made using water chestnuts and pandan.
You will also find a few toppings that may seem a little strange at first, such as red kidney beans or sweetcorn, which most Westerners would see as being more of a savory snack. Keep persevering, however, and you are bound to find something that you like. Pumpkin in coconut milk (fak thong gang buad) combines salty and sweet flavors, and is always a firm favorite with anyone trying Thai sweets for the first time.
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11. Eat where the locals eat
If you want a truly memorable dining experience in Thailand, you have to get off the beaten path and eat where the locals eat. Food served in hotels and shopping malls can be fantastic at times but the flavors of the dishes are often changed to suit tourists' palates.
Do your research and find out where the best local restaurants and street stalls are in the area, then get outside and start exploring. If a place is full of Thais, it's usually a good sign.
Food tourism has grown in Thailand over the last few years and there are a number of great street food tours available, especially in Bangkok. If you are not comfortable finding local places to eat on your own, you can always join a group and let a local expert lead the way. Learn more about the best 20 Thai street food you can't miss and the best street food area in Bangkok.
12.No one cooks!
Home cooking isn't that common in Thailand, especially in the big cities, such as Bangkok. People don't tend to have big kitchens and condos rarely have ovens. A lot of Thais work long hours and are much more likely to get together at a local restaurant or at a street food stall than go home and cook.
Thailand food in street restaurant
It's also a lot cheaper to eat locally than to buy ingredients to take home and cook yourself, as a typical street dish in Thailand can cost as little as $1. Also, as mentioned earlier, Thais don't like to eat by themselves!
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