Thailand for Foodies: Where to Eat in the Land of Smiles

Calling all foodies! You won’t want to miss out on “Thailand for Foodies” – the ultimate guide to Thai cuisine. Discover the must-knows about Thai food and take your taste buds on a journey they will remember. Join us as we explore the delicious flavors and exotic ingredients that make Thai cuisine so unique. Get ready to indulge in a culinary adventure like no other!

by Oak Mahavan·Mon 22 Jan 2024

Thailand has been a powerhouse for tourists seeking incredible experiences for decades, for a good reason. For many, Bangkok is the first Asian city they visit. Did you know Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, was the world’s most visited city before the COVID-19 pandemic? Bangkok held that title four years in a row. Well, you can be sure the food quality plays some role in earning that title! If you have never been or need a refresher – check out our “Thailand Travel for First-Timers” article. 

Andrew Zimmern, a famous TV foodie, picked Bangkok as one of the world’s top food destinations. Mark Wiens, one of YouTube’s most recognizable foodies, also resides in Thailand. Thai cuisine draws significant attention from international food experts.

What Makes Thai Food Unique?

Thai food stands out from many other cuisines for a few reasons:  

Thailand’s location, surrounded by its famously flavourful neighbors, plays a significant role in shaping its diverse and influential cuisine. The country enjoys a tropical climate, consistent heat, abundant sunshine, and plenty of rainfall. This creates an ideal environment for agriculture, with 52% of its 127 million acres of land suitable for crop cultivation. Incredibly, over 62% of Thailand’s 70+ million population is involved in agriculture.

Rice is a staple in Thai cuisine, with Jasmine, red, brown, sticky, and glutinous rice as the foundation of the country’s culinary identity. Thais ask, “How are you?” by inquiring, “Gin khao ru yung (have you eaten rice yet?)”, showcasing the importance of rice in their culture.

Why Does Thai Food Taste So Good?

When first trying authentic Thai cuisine, many visitors are surprised by the explosion of flavors. This cuisine usually combines sour, salty, sweet, spicy, and bitter tastes, making it quite different from the typical cheeseburgers and fries. Thai dishes are prepared using fresh and locally sourced ingredients, often featuring various colors and textures, creating a visually stunning presentation. Thai people often buy their produce from local markets to ensure maximum freshness, as they tend to consume what they purchase on the same day. This contrasts with many Western countries, where bulk shopping at supermarkets is more common.

What Are the Best Thai Dishes?

Deciding on the best Thai dishes can be both easy and challenging, as there are numerous options to choose from. The definition of “best” may vary from one person to another. To begin with, let’s take a culinary tour of Thailand and discover what distinguishes the food of each region.

Best Northern Thailand Food

Northern Thai cuisine is heavily influenced by neighboring countries such as Laos, Myanmar, India, and China, although it shares many characteristics with the rest of Thailand’s culinary landscape.

Here are some things to mention about Northern Thai cuisine:

  1. It tends to be spicy but usually less hot than Southern Thai food.
  2. Compared to Central and Southern Thai food, Northern Thai cuisine does not use coconut-based ingredients, as coconuts do not grow well in the mountainous region.
  3. Ingredients used in Northern Thai food are sourced from the jungles, hills, mountains, rivers, lakes, and fields.
  4. Pork is the most commonly used meat in Northern Thailand.
  5. Red curry and green curry are not typically found in Northern Thailand, although they are some of the most popular Thai dishes outside of Thailand.
  6. Western chefs have recently discovered two unique ingredients: Jungle Caviar and Round Thai Truffle. These ingredients are found by foraging and are considered hidden gems of Northern Thai cuisine.

Northern Thailand offers a variety of delicious cuisine. Here are some popular dishes:

One of the most well-known dishes in Northern Thailand is Khao Soi. It consists of a creamy coconut curry broth with soft egg noodles at the bottom and crispy egg noodles on top, typically served with chicken. It’s a really impressive dish! If you want to try one of the best Northern Thai restaurants outside of Thailand, you should check out The Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas. This restaurant is considered the #1 Thai restaurant in America!

If you’re looking to explore new food options, Sai Oua is a popular choice that you shouldn’t miss. It is a northern Thai sausage packed with a delicious blend of herbs, spices, and seasoning. You can enjoy it grilled, stuffed, or deep-fried for a perfect taste. The sausage is easily available at most street food stalls in the northern region. Trust me, you haven’t experienced a sausage until you’ve tasted Sai Oua. It is best paired with steamed sticky rice. If you’re feeling adventurous, some restaurants also offer Italian/American fusion dishes like Sai Oua burger patties and Sai Oua sausage spaghetti.

The most essential collection of Northern Thai food sets usually includes:

Gaeng Hung Lay (Northern Burmese Ginger Pork Curry): This dish is a mildly spicy braised pork stew with ginger shards and pickled pork garlic. It has a sweet flavor and goes well with sticky rice.

Larb Nuay (Northern Spicy Herb Pork Salad): This dish is a unique version of Thai larb, made with minced pork, jungle-style herbs, and roasted rice. It has a strong peppery sensation and is best enjoyed with fresh vegetables and sticky rice.Nam Prik Noom (Roasted Chili Dip): This dish is similar to salsa but pounded in a stone mortar for a pastier texture. It consists of roasted peppers, shallots, and tomatoes and is spicy. It is best enjoyed with crispy North Thai Pork Rinds (Kaep Moo).Kaep Moo (Pork Rinds/Chicharrones/Pork Belly): Northern Thais love a variety of pork rinds to snack on and enjoy with their chili dips in meals. This dish can come in various types, including Non-Skin Pork Rinds, Thick and Rich Crispy, and Light-and-Slim Pork Rinds. Check out fresh markets for specialty Pork Rinds that are unique in flavor and textures.Nam Prik Ong (Red Chili Dip): This chili paste is made with ground pork and roast cherry tomatoes, topped with cilantro. It is suitable to enjoy with sticky rice and fresh vegetables.Fried Chicken: Yes, fried chicken! This dish is made with a limited flour batter and mild spices and is best enjoyed hot with sticky rice and Thai sweet chili sauce.Tum Kanoon (Jackfruit Salad) and Gaeng Kanoon (Jackfruit Curry): Northern Thais have enjoyed this dish for centuries. The salad and curry usually consist of pork base meat, herbs, tomatoes, and curry paste and are appreciated with sticky rice.

Dinner and Show? Enjoy an Authentic Khan Toke Dinner in Chiang Mai.

In 1971, the First Khan Toke Dinner and Cultural Show in the world opened at the Old Chiangmai Cultural Center. The concept originated from a Northern Thai travel agent who was mesmerized by the Hawaiian Luau Cultural dinner show from the United States. After her trip, she returned to Chiang Mai to introduce these ideas and obtain the support to create the first and original Khan Toke Dinner. The dinner consists of original Northern Thai cuisine (sticky rice, Hung Lay ginger curry, fried chicken, jack fruit salad, Nam Prik Noom chili dip, and fried crispy bananas coated with sesame) served on a rounded Lanna Rattan wooden table. The guests enjoy the food while seated on the Thai Triangular Cushion and watch performances such as Fawn Gai (chicken dance), Fawn Leb (claw dance), Fawn Darb (sword dance), and various Northern Hill Tribe dances. In addition, after the dinner, guests can enjoy the outdoor performances, including the fire dances and Hill Tribe Folk dances.

Best Northeastern Thailand Food

The food from Northeastern Thailand (or Isaan food) is the most unique in the country, with shared influences from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. This region brings the best of meat-grilling BBQ, tangy sauces and salads, and good finger-licking picnic-style foods. Tantalizingly delicious (“Sapp” in Northeastern Thai) is the best description when you think about Northeastern Thai cuisine, where all flavors are balanced and give you a one-of-a-kind explosive flavor experience “SAPP.” Below are some of the famous dishes from Northeastern Thai dishes:

  • Crying Tiger Grilled Steak with Spicy “Jael” dipping sauce
  • BBQ charcoal grilled chicken marinated with herbs and coconut milk cumin
  • Som Tum Papaya salad (Thai style, Lao style, pickled crab style, etc.)
  • Sun-dried fried beef or pork jerky Spicy “Jael” dipping sauce
  • Larb anything, pretty much any spicy flavored herbal salads with grilled meats or minced meats.

A staple ingredient commonly used here that creates fiercely divided opinions is called Pla Ra (pronounced like “palaa”). Pla Ra is fish fermented for at least six months or more based on premium preparation and levels of flavor. Then, it’s combined with salt and rice flour, which is nothing short of intense!👃🏾 Pla ra is undoubtedly an acquired taste for many tourists outside of Southeast Asia. It’s a case of too much fierce umami flavor being hard to handle, but a small amount can bring food to another dimension of life. Pla Ra is equivalent to the umami ingredients from fermentation, such as cheese, dried seafood, and pickled vegetables in the West and East. Despite the strong smell, this is one of the secrets to bringing the best flavors out of a dish.

It’s common to have Pla Ra mixed through salad and noodle dishes found throughout Isaan (eastern Thailand). If you plan on traveling to Isaan, I encourage you to learn the following phrase. It may not be 100% grammatically correct, but it’ll get you by:

“Ra Nit Noi Kup” (if you’re a man)

“Ra Nit Noi Ka” (if you’re a woman) 

This means you’re only asking for “a little bit of pla ra” in your meal.

Another must-try meal in Isaan is Som Tum. Som Tum is a sweet, salty, sour, and spicy green papaya salad encompassing almost everything about Thai food.

Best Central Thailand Food

Central Thailand, where you’ll find Bangkok, dominates the global gastronomic scene. So many famous Thai food dishes known worldwide call central Thailand home. Pad Thai, anyone? Everything you can imagine about Thai food or expect to experience can be found in this cosmopolitan megacity. 

Yes, Pad Thai is a foodie favorite. It’s delicious and not overly intimidating compared to other Thai food, but some central Thailand dishes you’ll also want to sink your teeth into include Pad Krapao and Tom Yum:

  • Pad Kra Pao is one of the most common dishes found throughout Thailand simply because most love it. It’s minced pork stir-fried with lots of basil leaves, chilis, garlic, etc. Served with rice, the best thing you can do is get a fried egg on top to make it perfect. Below is my favorite to die for…”Pad Kra Pao Bpoo.” Instead of typical minced meat, I have it with peeled crab meat with twin sunny-side fried eggs.
  • Tom Yum is a sour soup packed with flavor and healthy ingredients such as lemon grass, shallots, and galangal. It’s common to see Tom Yum served with prawns, but chicken is a good alternative. If you’re fighting a cold, forget basic chicken soup – have some Tom Yum!

Moo Krob (หมูกรอบ) is crispy pork served with rice and eggs. It is a Cantonese-influenced dish, a trendy street vendor dish in Bangkok.

Craving chicken soup? Tom Kha Gai has you covered. This is a common, delicious soup consisting of chicken with coconut milk that is an influence of neighboring Laos.

Best Southern Thailand Food

Southern Thailand is a dream destination for travelers seeking amazing beaches, epic sunsets, and a GREAT party. But if it’s the food you’re after, you’ll be happy with what’s available in this magical region.

Southern Thai Food Can Vary Greatly from The Rest of Thailand

  1. Having direct access to the ocean means fresh seafood, and if you’re a seafood lover, southern Thai food is for you, but there are plenty of other delicious choices regardless.
  2. Southern Thai food takes some influences from its neighbor, Malaysia. This results in some amazing curries and diverse ingredients and flavors.

Some Excellent Southern Thailand Food Includes:

  • Yum Talay – a hot and spicy seafood salad. The words translate into “hot + sour” = Yum; Talay = “the sea.”
  • Moo Hong – a Chinese-influenced sweet pork belly stew prepared with black pepper, soy sauce, sugar, and coriander roots
  • Khao Mok Gai – marinated turmeric-flavored chicken on a bed of yellow rice. The Malay influence is strong with this one and is very popular within the Thai Muslim community.  
  • Spicy fried chicken with crispy shallots – If you’re a fried chicken lover, the Southern Thai Hat Yai fried chicken is a must! You can find any of these Halal styles packed with flavor and technique. Getting them hot from the fryer is perfection!
  • Hor Mok – Steam curry cakes. These are creamy, spicy curry cakes filled with herbs, fish, crab, or seafood, steamed to perfection, and perfectly eaten with rice.

7 of the Best Thailand Restaurants for Foodies

Chiang Mai Restaurants for Foodies

  • Kiew Kai Ka has been a Michelin Guide-recommended restaurant for five years running. Located in expat-friendly One Nimman, it’s an easy restaurant to find for those visiting Chiang Mai. They serve a range of popular Thai dishes. It’s not the cheapest food around, but it’s definitely delicious. Find Kiew Kai Ka at: l Room D116 & D120, One Nimman l, 1 Nimmanahaeminda Road, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50200, Thailand.
  • Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm – Best Khao Soi in Chiang Mai? It’s been praised by Mark Wiens as one of the very best around. Khao Soi has to be on your foodie to-do list, and you’ll struggle to find better than right here. Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm is slightly south of the old city and offers a truly authentic local experience. Find Khao Soi Lung Prakit Kaat Gorm at: 53 Suriyawong 5 Rd, Tambon Hai Ya, Mueang Chiang Mai District, Chiang Mai 50100, Thailand.

Nakhon Ratchasima (Eastern Thailand) Restaurants for Foodies

  • Laeb Som Pith in Nakhon Ratchasima is the place for excellent Isaan food and is central and easy to find for tourists on the Thai food trail. You can expect authentic Eastern Thai food. Find Laeb Som Pith at 169 Jant Rd, Tambon Nai Mueang, Mueang Nakhon Ratchasima District, Nakhon Ratchasima 30000, Thailand.

Bangkok Restaurants for Foodies

  • Jay Fai is an inspiration. This is one of only two street food stalls in the world to hold a Michelin star, and it’s all because of the passion of one remarkable woman, Bangkok’s queen of street food: Supinya Junsuta. Now in her mid-70s, her world-renowned food has seen tourists come from near and far to taste her food. Perhaps the most epic crab omelet you could imagine. Jay Fai is costly compared to regular Thai food. So be prepared to pay more, particularly her world-famous crab omelet at 1200 Thai Baht. Find Jay Fai at 327 Maha Chai Rd, Samran Rat, Phra Nakhon, Bangkok 10200.
  • Phed Mark – Mark Wiens may be the most famous foodie on YouTube; he’s been everywhere and eaten everything! Mark opened his own restaurant, Phed Mark, serving only Pad Kra Pao. It is either served with beef or pork and various spice levels. Prices are slightly higher than your typical local restaurant, but the food is good, and being in Phed Mark makes for a good Instagram photo. Find Phed Mark at 300 Sukhumvit Rd, Phra Khanong, Khlong Toei, Bangkok 10110

Phuket Restaurants for Foodies

  • Baan Ama is located very close to Phuket airport. If you’re staying at a nearby resort, this local restaurant is a relaxing place to eat away from typical tourist spots. They serve a great selection of southern Thai food, so expect excellent flavors. Don’t miss their soft-shell crab! Find Baan Ama at: 50 Mai Khao, Thalang District, Phuket 83110.
  • Tumz Seafood Restaurant – located on the western side of Phuket town, Tumz Seafood Restaurant is a must if you’re up for eating some of the best seafood in southern Thailand. The restaurant can be found in the Naka weekend market, giving you a chance to eat a plethora of great food, shop for cheap clothes, and explore local crafts for sale. Find Tumz Seafood Restaurant at: 63/672, Alley 4, Soi 22 Shops 67,68, 69,70 Wirat Hong Yok 3 Rd, Wichit, Mueang Phuket District, Phuket 83000.

Is Food in Thailand Affordable?

One of the many benefits of eating your way around Thailand is that it’s very affordable! This is one of the reasons people love to travel to Thailand – your money goes a long way. But of course, prices will vary depending on what and where you eat. So instead of frequenting Western-style restaurants, stick to authentic Thai food and benefit from the much lower prices. The variety and options are everywhere.

Heading into rural Thailand will give you even lower prices:

  • It’s not rare to find a bowl of delicious noodles for only 35-70 Baht.
  • Famous Thai food dishes such as Pad Thai, Khao Soi, or Pad Krapao usually sell for anywhere between 45 and 70 Thai Baht. 
  • At fruit stands, expect a freshly squeezed bottle of pomegranate juice for around 50 baht.
  • It’s common to find fresh fruits and vegetables very cheap; a bunch of bananas may be 20 Thai Baht, and a bag of fresh tomatoes may even be 10 Thai Baht.

Yes, Thai food is relatively cheap, and if you can eat as locally as possible and shop from local markets, you’ll see your money go even further. 👍🏾 

Things to Know About Eating Thai Food

Before you pack up your bags and fly straight to Thailand, here are a few things you may need to know ahead of time:

  1. Eating Thai street food is a great way to keep costs down; street food is what many people live on.
  2. Rice is the staple food in Thailand. It’s important to note that many Thai people only consider a meal complete if it involves rice. Rice can be made for sweet and savory desserts and snacks.
  3. It’s common to use your hands to eat. Don’t be afraid or put off by this. It’s totally normal! Please wash your hands before and after a meal. Note: Sticky rice, fried food, and salads are perfect for using your hands.
  4. Thai food is spicy! So don’t be surprised to find chilies in your food; most dishes use them. If you cannot handle spicy food, please request “mai ped” (non-spicy) when in Thailand. Many dishes are non-spicy; you just need to ask around and request.
  5. If you’re into fruit, you’ll be pleased to know that Thailand has an unbelievable amount of fruit to eat. It’s super fresh, super tasty, and super cheap. The best period to enjoy the best tropical fruits in season is the monsoon rainy season (June-October).
  6. If you’re vegan or vegetarian, then don’t panic. The quantity and quality of vegan-friendly food and ingredients in Thailand are impressive. 
  7. Thailand has some exotic food items, but not for the faint-hearted. However, you’ll not be bored if you’re an adventurous eater!
  8. Sometimes, dishes are cooked using all the animal or plant parts. This can catch tourists off guard but makes for an enjoyable Thai food experience.
  9. It’s not common to eat with a knife and fork in Thailand. So, more often than not, you’ll be given a spoon and fork for rice dishes and chopsticks and soup spoon for noodle dishes.
  10. Thailand is a cash-based economy. Don’t expect Thai street food stalls or local Thai restaurants to accept credit cards. Some will, but most won’t. Always have enough cash. It is recommended to get enough change ahead to avoid delays when purchasing with a larger amount bill.
  11. Take advantage of the generous options and flavors of tropical fruits (whether in season or not).
  12. Lastly, durian is a thing here; try it!

Fun Foodie Activities in Thailand

Attend a Thai Cooking Class

Thai cooking classes are a great way to learn how Thai food is made (and you will also get an amazing lunch or dinner). You’ll learn the recipes of the most famous Thai dishes, which means you can take what you’ve discovered and show it off to your friends and family back home. In addition, by learning Thai recipes, you’ll be well-equipped to enjoy Thai cuisine at home. There are many simple Thai recipes you can learn quickly and easily. 

Take a Foodie Tour

You’ll find a selection of market and street food tours in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. These tours can show you where to find the best produce at the best prices and can also show you where to find the best street food to eat. Thai street food just about embodies everything that makes Thai food unique. So no matter where you go in Thailand, you’ll always be close to a delicious meal!

Ready for your Thailand Foodie Adventure? 

Check out B.A.G. Travel’s posted global tour events, or contact us for a customized group tour. 

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