You know how people always say that the Westernized versions of various worldwide cuisines are dramatically different from the authentic cuisine? The stock saying that food in China, for example, is nothing like Chinese food in North America? Well, this maxim definitely holds true in Thailand. Before coming to Thailand, I would have said I like Thai food, but then I arrived here and realized that I had no clue what Thai food really is.
I also found out that it’s one thing to boldly sample local cuisine when you’re on the road, but it’s an entirely different situation when that unfamiliar food becomes your basic diet. The thing about living in the-middle-of-nowhere Thailand is that the street stalls aren’t cooking up truckloads of Pad Thai and spring rolls (known foreigner favourites) the way they are in more touristy cities, like Bangkok and Chiang Mai. At first, living in a place with few English speakers, where menus are entirely in Thai (barring those few rare and precious places with picture menus) made it challenging to navigate the world of Thai food. During my first few months in Thailand I found myself either pointing uncertainly at the street stall selections, with no clue what I was ordering, or defaulting to flat khao pad gai (chicken fried rice) because I didn’t know how to ask for anything else.
I was raised on a relatively bland meat-and-potatoes diet, and no matter how hard I try, there’s only so much spiciness I can handle in any given meal and still find it enjoyable. So, for everyone else who wants to branch out from Pad Thai without involving copious quantities of chili peppers, here’s my guide to the most delicious, non-spicy Thai foods:
This is a whole tilapia fish, which can be served boiled (tom) or deep fried (thawt). Once I got over the guilt of having the dead fish face stare at me whilst I consumed it, I realized that this is a pretty delicious dish. The best part is that it seems to be a little different everywhere I eat it, with each restaurant preparing it with a unique blend of spices, and serving it with various kinds of sauces.
Gai Pad Sapparod
Call me easily impressed, but even after having this dish countless times, I still get excited by its presentation in a hollowed-out pineapple. The pineapple is filled with peppers, tomatoes, onions, and other veggies, along with cashew nuts and chicken in a sweet and sour sauce. It’s tasty both on its own, or served over rice.
Pad See Eiw
This dish of wide rice noodles, chicken and Chinese broccoli fried in soy sauce is reminiscent of Pad Thai. It’s a good fall back when you’re not sure what to order because virtually all restaurants and street stalls have the ingredients to make it. Plus, considering that I consume gallons of rice on a weekly basis, it’s kind of nice to mix it up with noodles every once in a while.
Pad Pak Ruam Mitr
With so many Thai meals consisting mainly of meat and rice, this is how I get my veggie fix. “Ruam mitr” literally means “everything mixed together”, so you’ll basically get a mixture of whatever veggies the restaurant or stall has on hand, all stir-fried in oyster sauce. We tend to order a plate of this with almost every meal just to add some leafy greens into our day-to-day diet.
This is barbequed pork covered with a sweet, red sauce. A restaurant close to our home serves it with a sprinkling of garlic, which is a particularly tasty addition. Order this along with pad pak ruam mitr, and either khao pad kai (fried rice with an egg) or khao plao (plain white rice), and you’ve got an awesome dinner.
Khao Kha Moo
This is a basic, but tasty dish consisting of braised pork leg served on a bed of rice. It’s an easy meal to spot when you’re perusing street stalls due to the fairly conspicuous large pork leg stewing in a enormous pot of soy sauce. I like to ask for mine “Mai aow nang”, or without skin, because despite my carnivorousness, skin kind of creeps me out.
Sometimes I complain that too many foods in Thailand are deep fried, but warm, deep fried bananas are one greasy treat with which I have absolutely no qualms. There is a particular food stall near our home, where the lovely owner fries the bananas with honey, creating a perfect, sweet snack that I’ve been known to eat an ungodly amount of. This is one indulgence that I will mostly certainly miss when we leave.
Cha Nom Yen
A drink consisting of tea mixed with condensed milk and served on ice. This sweet drink couldn’t be more perfect for those sticky, humid Thai afternoons. If you want a show with your drink, at JJ market in Bangkok, you can see skilled Thai tea makers preparing the drink with extra style and flourish.
You’ll see no shortage of smoothie stands in Thailand, where it’s pronounced “smooty” because Thai doesn’t really incorporate the “th” sound. These stands usually have a variety of fresh fruits and syrups on display, allowing you to point to whichever ones you want, and then have it all blended together. It can be a good light breakfast option if you don’t feel like starting your day with rice and chicken.
Thai people are generally pretty entertained when Westerners attempt to speak Thai, so compliment your meal by saying “arroy” (the “r” sounds more like an “l” depending on the region), which means delicious, and you’ll find yourself being congratulated on having mastered the Thai language.
What are some of your Thai food favourites?