Many travellers come to Thailand and never experience anything but mediocre watered down Thai food. As a result they leave with the impression that Thai food is pad thai and red curry and they miss out on experiencing Thailand’s rich culinary heritage.
The food of the north is governed by some of the most pronounced temperature changes and diverse terrain in Thailand. The climate ranges from dry and cool during the winter season to wet and warm during the monsoon, making the region well-suited for growing a wide range of vegetables, fruits and plants, including many that are only found in temperate climes.
One of the best places to experience the diversity and abundance of produce in the north is at the local municipality markets in cities across the region. Local farmers harvest their crop during the day and bring the produce to commercial centres such as Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai where it is available for purchase late at night or early in the morning. Savour sweet strawberries or tart plums or bring back fresh leafy greens or fragrant herbs and spices.
Of all the local delicacies, the ubiquitous khao soi is perhaps the most popular. One of the only dishes in the north to use coconut milk, it consists of a rich and creamy soup with a mix of boiled and deep fried egg noodles and braised chicken, beef or pork, served with shallots, lime and pickled cabbage. The north is also known for its many fiery nam prik, or chilli dips, which are eaten with khao niaw (sticky rice), kap moo (crispy fried pork skin) and vegetables.
Other must try dishes are gaeng hang lay moo (an aromatic curry with silky pork belly, pickled garlic and fresh ginger), sai oua (piquant pork sausage spiced with lemongrass, galangal, chilli, turmeric, garlic and kaffir lime leaves) and kanom jeen nam ngiaw (fermented rice noodles topped with a mild tomato-based soup with pieces of pork and blood cakes and served with green beans, bean sprouts, fried shallots and fresh coriander).
Nowhere in Thailand are the seasons as pronounced as in the northeast, commonly referred to as Isan. The climate varies from dry during the winter and hot seasons when the fields lay barren and drought-stricken to wet during the monsoon when heavy rainfall and flooding render the fields equally difficult to cultivate. As a result, agricultural output in northeastern Thailand is lower than elsewhere in the country and the people of Isan have become experts in making good use of whatever produce they do cultivate.
The staple best suited for these extreme conditions is glutinous rice, or sticky rice as it is called for its glue-like texture. Rolled into bite sized morsels, it is used to scoop up the liquid from spicy salads or soups, as an accompaniment to grilled meats or as a ladle for pungent nam priks (dips). Bold flavours dominate and many of the famous salads from this region use a tangy combination of garlic, lime, chilli, sugar and fish sauce. Herbs also play a vital role in flavouring and as a condiment.
Few other regional cuisines have spread throughout the country as widely as that of northeastern Thailand. Som tam, or green papaya salad made with lime juice, fish sauce, chilli, garlic, palm sugar, dried shrimp and roasted peanuts, can be found all over the country, as can larb (minced pork, chicken, beef or duck seasoned with fresh herbs, shallots, chilli, lime juice, palm sugar and toasted rice powder), gaeng hed (a fragrant soup with plenty of mushrooms, fresh herbs and cubes of pumpkin) and gai yang (grilled chicken).
The central plains of Thailand are perfectly suited for growing a wide range of agricultural produce. Void of the mountains of the north and experiencing neither extreme drought nor excessive flooding, the region is well irrigated and drained and benefits from easy access to the Gulf of Thailand and its wealth of aquatic produce.
As the economic centre of the country, the central region attracts people from all corners of Thailand, and the food scene is all the more varied and vibrant for it. On the streets of Bangkok, female vendors wearing hi jabs can be seen selling roti (pancake, with banana, egg and condensed milk) right next to vendors selling bami moo daeng (egg noodles with marinated barbecued pork) or khao kha moo (pork shank stewed in a fragrant, Chinese-inspired five spice broth and served with steamed rice, Chinese broccoli, hard-boiled egg and pickled mustard greens). Curries are common and some of the most widely known dishes outside of Thailand such as pad thai (stir fried noodles with egg, tofu and bean sprouts), gaeng kiaw wan (green curry) and tom yum goong (sour and spicy soup with prawns), all have their origin in this part of the country.
One of the go-to dishes throughout central Thailand is kuay tiaw, or noodles, in every shape and kind imaginable. Kuay tiaw reua (boat noodles) is particularly popular, its broth thickened by cow’s or pig’s blood and flavoured with sweet basil, white pepper, herbs and pork crackling. The dish derives its name from the time it was sold from small wooden boats in Bangkok’s canals.
The southern region is the hottest, wettest and most sunny part of Thailand and its food has a superlative of its own; it is the spiciest of all the regional cuisines. With the sea never far away, aquatic life such as fish, crab, lobster, prawn, squid, mussels and scallops are widely used and the tropical climate renders the region perfect for cultivating a wide range of fruit and vegetables.
Coconut in all its forms features heavily; its milk or cream is used as liquid in soups and curries, the oil used for frying, the dried, grated meat is used for desserts and decoration, the shoots and hearts of the palm are used as a vegetables in curries, soups and stir fries, and the water in the young coconut makes for a healthy refreshment. Even the coconut husks are utilised; when used as firewood it lends a characteristic aroma to meat and fish.
The south is home to the majority of Thailand’s Muslims, most of which are Malay of origin, and the region also has a significant Chinese minority. The food reflects this diversity and in many provinces breakfast consists of either Chinese dim sum and kopi (the Hokkien term for coffee) or roti mataba (an Indian style pancake stuffed with curried meat and vegetable) along with a warm tea tarik (sweet and fragrant pulled tea that originated in Malaysia).
Curries are the order of the day in the south. Generally speaking, Muslim curries that originated in Malaysia or India tend to be sweeter and more aromatic from the use of dried powder, while Thai curries and soups in the south are more fiery, hot and salty, made from fresh herbs and spices. Gaeng som (a sour fish soup with pineapple or coconut shoots) and gaeng tai pla (strongly flavoured, fermented curry with fish stomach) are both good examples of local Thai curries.
- For some excellent khao soi, head to Khao Soi Khun Yai just along the city wall in Chiang Mai.
- Pla ra is a pungent condiment used in many dishes throughout Thailand as a flavour enhancer. It is specifically common in the food from the northeast. An acquired taste, it is made from pickled fish mixed with salt and rice bran and fermented for up to two years.
- In the south, the use of turmeric is common, giving food from this region its distinctive yellow hue. Turmeric is said to have many benefits; it is supposed to be a good remedy to keep the skin tight.