Navigating the regions and fragrant foods of Thailand
I passed two years living and traveling in Thailand and Southeast Asia it shaped my love of Thai food and their spirit. I had countless morning meals with food hawkers, and I’d like to offer up the best regional Thai dishes and 7 must-try classics for you below. Whether an impromptu stop at a street stall bringing me in with smells or late-night missions across the city for pork bone soup. The northern cuisine definitely had an influence on my personal exposure to Thai flavore. It’s had an immense impact shifting my culinary style in a positive direction.
Let’s start off by talking about the difference in regional Thai cuisines, their dishes and where some of their influences are rooted. The Country is considered to be broken into four different regions. All having access to different ingredients, cultures, traditions and, borders. A big influence on the regional Thai dishes and how they translate onto the plate.
In Northern Thailand, Chiang Mai and regions around are bordered by Laos and Burma [Myanmar]. A mountainous, lush region with rich soils. The food is herbaceous, heavily spiced, and heartier with bitter tones in the flavor profiles. Proteins include freshwater fish, fowl, and offals while pork is the dominant staple of the north.
A huge rice-farming region of the country, It boasts the fifth-largest amount of land under cultivation in the world and is the world’s second-largest exporter. With sticky rice being served at most tables for every meal as it pairs with all Thai dishes.
Coconut being not as abundant up north historically, the old-school, traditional food everyone thinks of when you think Thai is a southern trend. Northern cuisine tends to be more brothy, steamed, or braised stews. Hung Lay Curry being a very typical northern dish it consists of a braised meat stew, lots of spices, potatoes, and hearty vegetables.
1. Sia Ua Sausage
A Northern Thai creation is a grilled pork sausage with roots in northeastern Burma. In many of the provinces, it is typically served as an appetizer. Accompanied with steamed potato, pumpkin, crack moo (fried pork skin), fresh herbs, and of course sticky rice. very popular in the rest of Thailand as well because of its bold bright flavors.
Its name in Thai comes from sai (intestine) and from ua (to stuff). Sai ua contains ground or minced pork, lemongrass, galanga (young ginger), spices, and shrimp paste. It varies from kitchen to kitchen with everyone’s grandmother having their own family recipe for Sia Ua. This is one of my favorite northern Thai creations and goes great with an ice-cold Singha beer on a balmy day in the North.
2. Khoa Soi Soup
Khao soi a wide-ranging dish across different countries. It’s served in Myanmar, Laos and Northern Thailand. The name means ‘swing rice’, although it is possible that it is just a combination of the Burmese word for noodle “khao swè” which may explain for the hybrid word (soi being a street in Thai). Traditionally, after steaming a large sheet noodle it is then rolled out and cut with scissors.
Lao khao so is however made with the traditional rice noodle, and in some markets still, cut by hand. These traditionally cut noodles can also be found, but uncommon in northern Thailand, where most noodles are made from eggs.
There are two common versions of khao soi:
Laotian style khao soi, in Luang Prabang, Lao khao soi is a soup with broad rice noodles. It typically contains coarsely chopped pork, tomato, fermented soybeans, chiles. It’s topped with pork rind, bean sprout, and chopped coriander. Though Northern Laotians have a particular way of preparing this dish, different versions of it can be found at Lao restaurants.
Northern Thai khao soi is closer to the Burmese style being a soup-like dish. It’s constructed with a mix of fried crispy egg noodles, boiled egg noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallot, lime and braised meats. It sits in a curry soup containing coconut milk and toasted rice powder. The curry is fairly similar to that of yellow or Massaman curry, but of a thinner viscosity.
A popular as a street dish eaten by the Thai people, though not frequently served in Thai restaurants overseas. There is cause to believe that this version of khao soi was influenced by Chinese Muslims that migrated to Thailand. As it is frequently served with chicken or beef as the protein. Different forms are produced without any coconut milk and rice noodles instead of egg noodles. These are mainly eaten in the eastern half of northern Thailand.
It was a great breakfast and always brightened my mornings. I have yet to discover a version here in Los Angeles that brings me back to the streets of Chiang Mai.
Isaan (Eastern Thailand)
Northeastern Thailand consists of twenty different providences also referred to as “Isaan”. Forming up the largest region of Thailand the people are descendent’s Lao and Khmer. Isaan borders these two states separated only by the mighty Mekong river. The climate is susceptible to drought, while the level terrain of the plateau is regularly flooded in the rainy season. With a tendency to flood rendering a vast proportion of the land wrong for cultivation.
Isaan food tends to be rather simple and spicy. Barbecued meats, clear broth soups, and many offals and river creatures pepper their traditional cuisine. Glutinous rice is also the staple at every meal. They favor something called pla ra or padaek, which is the fermented freshwater fish that’s quite funky in most Isaan dishes. They create a funky fermented fish paste out of it (can you tell I’m not a fan?).
One of the most iconic dishes that hails from the region is Som Tum. A green papaya salad containing chiles, tomato, pla ra, lime and typically baby river crab.
3. Som Tum
The presence of fresh fruits and vegetables is glaringly obvious in Thai food. One of the most famous dishes that showcase this is Som Tum. While it’s thought to originate from Lao it has been widely adopted and is seen as a Thai dish these days.
Nonnative crops were brought to Southeast Asia during the 14th-15th century through trading ports on the edges of the country. This is when papaya, tomato, corn, and pineapples were introduced to the ecosystem and integrated into the cuisine. Som Tum can be found everywhere in Thailand, from restaurants to food stalls and everywhere in between.
4. Nham Tok Mu
Nham Tok Mu, a Thai salad, which the origins are traced to Isaan is quite popular as it’s easy to prepare. Crafted from grilled pork, cut into thin portions and flavored with chili, chopped shallots, toasted and ground rice powder, lime, fish sauce, and fresh herbs. Its flavor combines sour, salty, sweet and highly spiced similarly to traditional laarb.
One of my favorite dishes in all of Thailand, it’s simple, but when seasoned correctly, everything just pops with an astonishing balance of flavors.
The seat of power, the royal palace has a huge influence on the food of Thailand. Known as central cuisine or royal cuisine in Thailand.
Traditional food was eaten with the hands, seated on mats or carpets on the ground. These customs are still broadly followed within the more traditional houses. Today, nonetheless, most Thais devour with a fork and spoon, tables and chairs were added as a part of a broader Westernization.
Important to Thai dining is the practice of fusing the flavors and textures of different dishes. It is a common use for both the Thais and the hill tribe peoples to eat sticky rice. They shape it into small and often flattened, a ball that might then be dipped into sauces and side dishes.
Bangkok is in the essence of the Chao Phraya River delta, and a lot of the country’s vegetables and fruits are grown in this region. The cuisine tends to be more graceful, with a heavy influence from Chinese immigrants.
5. Pad See Eww
Pad see ew is made with flat rice noodles known as sen yai. These are very similar rice noodles the Chinese use in many of their stir fry dishes. Noodles are prepared with rice and tapioca flour, steamed, then greased with oil to prevent binding. The dish has a great balance of sweet and salty flavors utilizing two different types of soy, dark soy being more viscous consistency with a tinge of sweetness. The noodles are stir-fried traditionally with Chinese broccoli, egg, fish sauce and meat. The nutty aroma and flavor profile and make a great late-night bite.
6.Pad Kra Pow
Pad Krapow is the go-to dish in Thailand. When you can’t figure out what to order its always on the menu and doesn’t disappoint. While Pad Krapow is versatile its typically ground pork or chicken. Pad, meaning fried and Krapow being basil, chilies, garlic and fish sauce completes this dish. Often served with steamed white rice and a fried hen egg, break the yolk and dig into the unctuousness.
Starting in peninsular Southern Thailand, the people have obvious roots in Mayala flavors and spices. The dialect is different in the south as in most parts of Thailand. The food tends to be very spicy in the southern regions with a profound emphasis on coconut.
This is where most of the coconut groves are, they produce coconut cream and other connected products. Traditionally very deep, rich coconut curries with a lot of spice. Seafood is abundant and widely applied in southern cuisine as well.
Influences from Malaysian classics can be broadly seen around the area, from rice Biyraini to Massaman curry the two countries parallel not only in the borders but traditional foods.
7. Boo Paht Pong Karee
One of my favorite Southern dishes has to be Boo Paht Pong Karee (yellow curry crab). Traditionally in Thailand, they fix the whole crab shell and all. Its braised in a yellow curry paste and coconut milk and finished with fresh herbs. The soft texture and subtle amount of curry blend so perfectly. It’s eaten up with lime juice and fresh herbs and served with steamed rice.
A Feast of Sights and Smells
The sights and smells of Thailand will leave a permanent mark on anyone who travels there. The cuisine and its people opened up my world to a whole new swath of exploration in the kitchen. From the vast jungles of the north to the warm beaches in the southward there is plenty to see, do and eat!
I would enjoy hearing your tales of Thailand and any takeaways you had while exploring this amazing country. Leave your comments down below or send me an email. Interested in reading about the agricultural revolution!? Check it out HERE