5 Thai food dishes to try on a trip to Bangkok
Thailand is famed worldwide for its delicious cuisine – and there’s no better place to try its most popular and flavour-packed dishes than in Bangkok, or indeed elsewhere in the country. But what should you sample first, what should you expect, and where you head to begin your culinary experience? Here’s our guide to the Thai dishes we recommend sampling as you kick off your Thai food journey.
Thailand’s signature soup is well-known around the world. This hot, spicy and sour concoction derives its vibrant flavour profile from the bruised herbs – principally lemongrass and galangal – that make up its base. Tom yum also includes a healthy dose of kaffir lime leaves for an additional sour touch, and of course there are plenty of fiery Thai chillies thrown into the mix, too, plus a smattering of vegetables like tomatoes and straw mushrooms.
Tom yum is most famously served with prawns, to make up the name tom yum kung, by which it is possibly even better recognised – but take a while to eat your way around the food stalls and restaurants of Bangkok and elsewhere in Thailand, and you’ll find this popular soup made with just about every kind of protein you can imagine. Tom yum soup with chicken is especially prevalent, as are versions with fish, squid, and more generic mixes of seafood and whatever other fresh and delicious ingredients might be on hand.
Tom yum is relatively quick to whip up, so you’ll find it available at many stir-fry stalls on the street, as well as at shophouse eateries (often Thai-Chinese-run, and frequently with a particular focus on seafood dishes) that feel more like informal restaurants than street stalls – tom yum is also makes a regular appearance as a sure-fire crowd-pleasing dish on the menus of higher-end restaurants. Enjoy it as part of a spread of Thai dishes accompanied by steamed rice.
In Bangkok’s old town, Tom Yum Kung Banglamphu is the street stall on the lips of foodies in the know, for its large portions of rich, creamy and stupendously seasoned tom yum kung soup, all the more enhanced by the extraction of all the delicious fats and oils in the heads of the super-sized freshwater river prawns that go into the mix. Elsewhere, for a twist on more conventional tom yum kung soup, try the tom yum noodle soup at P’Aor restaurant on Phetchaburi Soi 5, a short distance fro the Pratunam and Siam areas of downtown Bangkok.
Here’s the one we would argue is Thailand’s national dish (sorry pad thai!) – somtum, hailing from the northeastern region of Thailand known as Isaan, is the salad that fuels the nation. Pounded together in a pestle and mortar, this sweet, sour, salty and spicy medley is made up of strands of crisp, unripe green papaya – typically, and for the best texture of all, hacked out of the papaya with a sharp knife, deft technique and steady hand – along with garlic, chillies, fish sauce, lime juice, and all manner of flavours and additions like fermented fish, crab, pickled cockles, and salted egg.
Like so many other popular Thai dishes, you’ll find somtum being touted at street carts and stalls, as well as in fancier restaurant settings, all over Bangkok and across Thailand – just keep an ear out for the familiar ‘pok, pok, pok’ sound of the pestle hitting the sides of the clay mortar as the papaya salad magic happens. Eat somtum with a generous portion of sticky rice – take a ball of the rice in your fingers, and dip it in the juices of the papaya salad – along with a spread of other Isaan dishes, like laab and namtok meat-based salads, jerky-style grilled or fried beef or pork, fried chicken, and grilled catfish, plus soups like hot and spicy tom saap and herbaceous, dill-heavy gaeng om.
For recommended somtum street stalls and restaurants, take a look at Expique’s post on where to find the very best somtum in Bangkok.
Pad krapao is the go-to street food staple for Thais all over the country. This quick, easy and delicious stir-fry is a spicy and salty combination of minced or diced meat (most commonly pork, chicken, or beef) fried with chillies, garlic, and a generous helping of fresh holy basil leaves – known as krapao in Thai, and lending their name to the dish pad krapao.
While pad krapao can be enjoyed as one of a spread of dishes eaten with friends or family alongside a separate plate of rice, it’s most commonly served directly over steamed rice as a one-plate dish, most often with a fried egg on top to perfectly round things out. Wherever you are in Thailand, you’ll find a stir-fry stall serving pad krapao and other similar dishes on just about every street corner.
Another internationally renowned Thai food dish that simply doesn’t taste better anywhere than it does when enjoyed in its birthplace of Thailand, green curry sees some regional variations in its preparation but is generally a sweet and moderately spicy favourite that combines green curry paste, coconut milk, protein of some description, and – crucially – plenty of aniseed-like sweet basil, known in Thai as horapa.
Some purists like to keep it to little more than that in the way of ingredients, but even this author will concede that additions like baby aubergines (also known as apple aubergines), tiny pea aubergines, and – for more adventurous eaters – chunks of congealed pig or chicken blood can transform a fairly average green curry to something much closer to life-changing.
Just like in the west, green curry in Thailand is most often served with chicken – and the very best versions of chicken green curry see all sorts of chicken parts thrown in, from filleted chunks of meat to juicy mini-drumsticks and wings, all the way to the feet, plus the congealed blood mentioned above. That said, you’ll also commonly see it made with beef, while versions with pork and various types of fish and seafood also make an occasional appearance. Green curry is usually eaten with steamed rice – either as a single-serve portion ladled right over the top, or as a larger portion in its own bowl, to be eaten alongside several other dishes as part of a wider meal set. In the south of Thailand in particular, it’s also common to eat green curry (as well as other Thai curries) with roti, while across the country it's also spooned over rice noodles.
What round-up of Thailand’s most famous dishes, and those most worthy of binging on while visiting, could neglect to mention pad thai? We might argue that its significance as a staple is rather overplayed overseas, particularly on the menus of Thai restaurants abroad; we might also dispute that it’s truly Thailand’s national dish, a gong we would much more willingly award to somtum papaya salad (see above) – but there’s little denying that pad thai is nevertheless a dish that screams Thailand with every mouthful.
Pad thai is product of post-WW2 efforts to boost nationalism in Thailand, and at its heart it’s a fry-up of rice noodles (strictly ‘sen chan’ noodles from Chanthaburi, if we’re being puritanical), protein that’s traditionally tail-on prawns but increasingly substituted for the likes of chicken or tofu, eggs, beansprouts, more tofu, and preserved radish. While tastes differ, pad thai is a dish that aims – like all the best Thai classics – to create the perfect balance of sweet, sour, salty, and spicy. It’s in the seasoning stage that this magic happens, usually at the table and by the diners themselves, when fish sauce, sugar, vinegar, lime, and dried or toasted chillies get thrown on top in various levels of abundance.
The question of which restaurant or street food stall in Bangkok serves the best pad thai is a hotly debated one – that’s a massive understatement, in fact. But Thipsamai, in Bangkok’s old town, often takes the top gong among foodies, and it’s as good a place as any to start your discovery of the complexities of pad thai – Expique’s Bangkok Night Lights tuk tuk tour stops there (and we even queue up for you in advance, so you can skip the inevitably long line!), making for a convenient way to begin your noodle pilgrimage. For more background on pad thai as a Thai classic, take a look at Expique’s handy primer.
Do you fancy learning how to cook some of these dishes?
If the answer is yes, then why not check out a Thai cooking class with us at The Market Experience
All photos by Chris Wotton.