As with any country in the world, Thai food will vary by region, sometimes quite significantly. With this understanding, there is no ‘one’ Thai food, but varieties of it where dishes will change based on local tastes and ingredients. Many of the dishes are also influenced by other cultures that have interacted with Thailand over the centuries. Sampling regional delights you may find incredible flavours and diversity you never dreamed possible in Thai food.
Regional Thai cuisine in the north
The north, called Lanna, has been heavily influenced by its neighbours with respect to food. The region’s cuisine can be typified as preferring curries and soups called gaeng. They also make heavy use of fragrant, spicy chili dips called ‘naam prik’. Northerners tend to prefer the tastes of salty, sour, and bitter, and use very little sugar. They add depth to their curries and naam priks with kapi (fermented shrimp paste) or naam poo (fermented crab paste). Traditionally they ate these curries and chili dips with sticky rice, fresh herbs and vegetables.
The north has originated its own unique cuisine such as the everything–but–the–kitchen–sink gaeng ho, which has stir–fried vegetables, meats, woon sen noodles plus ample amounts of curry powder and turmeric. Another local favorite is jo pak kard, which stews kale and pork before a dash of sour tamarind is added. The result is a fragrant cabbage–type soup with a gentle sourness to it. However, some dishes are outright transplants of Burmese culture like gaeng hang le, a stewed pork curry with ginger. In the levels of flavour in gaeng hang le you can taste the spices of Burma, which are also a carry–over from India.
Visitors are invited to try any of the various naam prik chili dips available in the region when they have the chance. A small selection of naam prik is usually served at khantoke dinners where you see a show of native Lanna costumes, music and dance. Many khantoke dinners serve naam prik num (roasted green chili dip), and naam prik ong (tomato and pork chili dip) which suit Western tastes rather well. Deep northern foods such as naam prik poo made with fermented field crabs, garlic and herbs is likely to prove a challenge for Westerners both for tastes and smell. Whatever chili dips or curries you eat, however, northern food is sure to leave an impression on you.
Regional Thai cuisine from the northeastern Isaan region
The northeast, called Isaan, is renowned for its delicious food across Thailand. As poverty has sent many of its people throughout the country looking for a better life, they have brought their food culture with them. One staple Isaan dish the country has embraced is ‘som tam’ papaya salad.
Typically, garlic and chilies are pounded with a few tomatoes and long beans, then threads of green unripe papayas are added. The recipe can vary greatly, but you can bet that an authentic Isaan som tam will be hot, salty and musky with plenty of mashed field crabs, and pla raa (fermented fish paste) thrown into the mix. Be forewarned that the version Thais eat among themselves is vastly different from what foreigners eat in restaurants!
Another Isaan staple that is everywhere in the country is gai yang – grilled marinated chicken. The chicken is highly flavoured by soaking in various secret concoctions, usually consisting of fish sauce, garlic, palm sugar and crushed coriander seeds. The meat is then slowly roasted over coals until slightly dry and maybe even chewy. It makes a great meal when combined with som tam and hearty servings of khao niaw (sticky rice).
Any treatment of Isaan cuisine is incomplete without mentioning their use of insects as food. Insects were historically a cheap and quick source of protein in the Isaan area which often suffered from droughts and poverty. As meat from animals was in short supply, insect eating became part of the culture. Most Isaan people eat insects without giving it a second thought, even craving them.
In street stalls you will find a variety of fried insects reflecting what is in season at the moment. Favourites in Isaan are grasshoppers, crickets, giant water beetles and scorpions. Most are relatively light on flavour and more like a crunchy chip, the main factor for Westerners being psychological barrier. Those looking for a thrill or some exotic adventure will find eating insects a necessity.
Regional Thai cuisine from central Thailand
The Middle Kingdom, which includes Bangkok and Ayutthaya, has been the seat of the royal throne for centuries, so its preferences have been shaped by the refined tastes of the royal court as well as the various cultures surrounding it. Central Thai food is that which foreigners tend to take to most readily because of its use of sugar to balance the hot, sour, and spicy flavours that the other regions prefer unabatted. The central Thais also prefer fluffy white rice (khao suay) to the sticky rice (khao niaow) enjoyed by the northern regions. In addition, the region’s relative wealth and refinement has led to a more Westernised cuisine, with less use of odd ingredients like insects and the powerful herbs found in the countryside.
Central Thai food has produced a few food ambassadors known worldwide which combine the best of all other surrounding regions. Typical to restaurants, buffets, and foodstalls in the area are red curry ‘gaeng phet’ and green curry ‘gaeng kiaw waan’. They are made mild by the use of coconut milk, and vary by colour according to the chilies used in the paste.
Perhaps the jewel of red curries is the royally influenced ‘gaeng phet pet yang’ – roasted red duck curry. In keeping with Middle Kingdom affluence and royal refinement, this dish puts luxurious pieces of duck in a sweet, spicy, red coconut curry with pineapple and cherry tomatoes. It is a must-try dish while in Thailand, and is often found in restaurants and hotels, rarely on the streets.
Central Thais also enjoy their noodles. They are a mainstay in stirfries and soups. Particularly enjoyable fried are pad thai – small noodles with peanuts and a squeeze of lime, and pad see–ew – wide noodles fried with soy sauce and greens. A particularly mild dish they eat is rad naa, which is wide noodles served with a pork based (usually) sauce with slices of tender pork mixed in. The dish is savory and soothing, with just enough sauce to be more like a gravy. Other times, noodles show up abundantly in soups. Virtually anything imaginable can be combined with noodles to make a soup. It is all up to you to find what suits you best.
Regional Thai cuisine from southern Thailand
Southern Thai food is spicy and colorful, with influences from the Malay peninsula and the local Islamic community. Food in the south has an emphasis on seafood and vegetables, which are both in abundance in the region. It offers all of the tropical flavours that foreigners come to expect from Thai food, and then an extra dose of hot chilies for good measure.
Several dishes from the south are favourites among Westerners. One is the hearty meat–and–potatoes Muslim curry gaeng massaman. Traditionally, coconut milk and red curry paste are simmered with beef or chicken and potatoes. The resulting thick curry is sweet, spicy, and slightly creamy. It is a must–eat during your visit. Khao mok gai is another chicken recipe with Islamic influence by way of India. Saffron garlic rice is served with herb baked chicken for a tasty Thai–Middle Eastern treat.
The south also offers up some very strong flavours that are famous among Thais, though perhaps not to Western tastes. Shrimp fried with satoh beans – pad ped satoh sai gung – is a staple as much for the shrimp as for the use of the seasonal satoh bean. These pungent pulses with their unique smell and taste make this dish perfect for the adventurous. Those looking for a bigger thrill may attempt to eat gaeng tai pla, pickled fish intestine soup. This is the dish most Thais think of and swear by when they think of southern food. The obvious catch for the visitor is the list of strong flavoured ingredients such as pickled fish stomachs and sometimes pickled bamboo shoots as well. This is a delicious, hot, sweet and sour curry if you dare. The south has many delicious things to offer, whether looking for tame or exotic fare.