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Beginner’s Guide to Thai Food

tom yum
tom yum
Thai food is perhaps Thailand’s biggest cultural export. Fresh and full of flavor, Thai food is well-known throughout the world — and for good reason.

The most defining characteristic of Thai food is the balance of four characteristics: spicy, sour, salty and sweet. All dishes should include these four flavors in varying degrees of boldness. Some combinations can be difficult for foreigners at first: salty fruit smoothies or chili powder sprinkled on mango slices are both good examples of pairings that unfamiliar taste buds don’t know what to do with. Keep an open mind, and pay attention to the delicate balance of flavors.

Getting started

One of the best things to do to acquaint yourself with Thai food before your trip is to go to a reputable Thai restaurant or two at home and sample a few menu items. Doing this will help you familiarize yourself with dishes that are popular with foreigners and aide you in ordering once you’re in Thailand. Plus, these are usually made less spicy than they are in-country, which means that you can get a grasp on your spice tolerance (and even build it up a bit).

Foreigner favorite foods

Getting to know some of the foods that foreigners tend to gravitate towards will ensure a sort of consistency in your eating; dishes such as red and green curries, pad thai, tom kha (all explained below) are on virtually every traveler-centric menu in Thailand. Once you feel comfortable with these dishes, you can explore regional and less-common ones. Following is a list and a brief explanation of each popular dish:

pad thai: This dish of stir-fried rice noodles, eggs, peanuts, fish and soy sauces and bean sprouts is the quintessential Thai dish. Red chili flakes add heat, but at most food carts you add your own, which means you can spice it up just as you like. This is definitely a good dish to start out with, as it’s foreign enough to be unfamiliar (as opposed to, say, fried rice) and generally well-liked. In fact, if pad thai were in a pageant, it would probably win Miss Congeniality.

Curry: “Curry,” by definition, simply means spices blended together to form a sauce. By this definition, spaghetti sauce is a curry, so you have nothing to fear! What distinguishes Thai curries from others is the addition of coconut milk, which adds a sweet and creamy flavor. There are a handful of Thai curries, but for now we’ll focus on red and green. Both are almost always served as a soup filled with veggies and meat and a side of rice. Red curry is made with red chiles and is usually fairly spicy. Green curry is made with — you guessed it — green chiles and though it kicks the same spicy punch as its red sibling, it’s also noticeably sweeter. Thai basil and kaffir lime leaves add even more distinct flavoring.

In addition to red and green, you’ll also find Massaman, penang, yellow and khao soi curries.

tom kha: A wonderful coconut soup often served with chicken (“gai”). The main flavors, besides coconut, are lemongrass and galangal (a type of ginger). Also added are kaffir lime leaves, chilis, mushrooms, and fish sauce. Like pad thai, tom kha is an entry-level favorite, because it’s unique enough for you to feel as though you’re being adventurous (and you are!) but doesn’t have anything too unfamiliar in it. It’s also not too spicy.

tom yum: Another common soup in Thailand, tom yum is made with a clear broth that is sour and spicy. Prawns are usually the protein, though you’ll see it made with chicken and other meats. It has many of the same ingredients as tom kha, with the notable absence of galangal and coconut milk. For this reason, tom yum is much less sweeter than tom kha. Fresh cilantro is usually chopped and placed on top of the soup.

These are only a few of the most common Thai dishes, and ones that you are certain to see on menus back home. They are intended to help you gently enter the unfamiliar territory of Thai cuisine. Good luck and happy eating!

[Photo credit: adactio, Flickr]