One thing we can agree on is that traditional Thai food is amazing. And while that should be a good thing, trying to come up with a list of thai dishes that are our all-time favorites is a bit harder.
For those not familiar with Thai food we will start with a quick overview of the various regions around the country that influence this incredible cuisine. Then we will take a dive into the top 20 most popular traditional Thai dishes.
Regional Culinary Influences of Traditional Thai Food
Thailand sits at the conjunction of many cultures, including Chinese, Lao, Vietnamese, Malaysian and Indian. Different regions in Thailand also contribute to variety in the cuisine – given the topography of forests, rivers and the sea. Here are the main regional influences:
Northern Thailand Cuisine
Known for milder flavored cuisine, with strong influences from Burma (Myanmar). Sticky rice, kneaded into small balls, is common. Signature dishes include Khao Soi (Egg Noodles).
Northeastern Thailand Cuisine
Thai cuisine in the northeast is strongly influenced by Laos. As such, the food is highly spiced. Sticky rice is a staple here, along with various shrimp and freshwater fish (in lieu of meat which was scarce here). The fish were often fermented for preservation. Dishes include Som tam, Nam Tok and Larb.
Central Thailand Cuisine
The Central region was home to the Royal Palace. As such, the cooking uses all types of ingredients and is more elaborate in preparation and presentation. Jasmine rice is more common than sticky rice here. The popular Pad Thai (Rice Noodles), as well as Tom Yam and Khao Phat all originated there.
Southern Thailand Cuisine
The southern parts of Thailand are strongly influenced by contact with the outside world, most of the popular curry and stir-fry dishes come from there. There is a significant amount of coconut milk used, sometimes coconut flesh is used as garnish. Cashews grow plentifully here and are often made part of dishes. This includes the Panang region, strongly influenced by Malaysia, which has produced dishes such as Massaman Curry and Panang Curry.
List of 20 Traditional Thai Foods
Many of the dishes below use a type of curry base as the starting point. The extra ingredients added are usually to taste, though some are common to every kind of Thai curry base.
1. Gaeng-Keow-Waan (Sweet Green Curry)
Thai green curry is both intensely hot, with a hint of sweetness. The classic recipe calls for using beef with baby eggplant cut in halves, green peas, sliced green chilies, mushrooms and coconut milk. Besides green curry paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and sweet basil leaves are used. Salt is added to taste – given the taste, the amount of salt produces subtle variations. Here’s a recipe.
2. Kaeng Phet (Red Curry)
Classic red curry is made with chicken or shrimp, with potatoes (occasionally), dried mushrooms, bamboo shoots and green peas added in. Besides red chili paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and salt are added to coconut milk. Here’s a recipe.
3. Kaeng lueang (Yellow Curry)
The main ingredient of yellow curry is of course turmeric. This dish is closest to Indian curry. The curry base will use the Yellow Curry Paste mentioned above, adding a main ingredient along with potatoes and bamboo shoots as the main ingredients. Lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and salt are also added to the coconut milk used in the base. The usual main ingredients include duck, tofu, fish, meat or vegetables. It is called “sour curry” in Southern Thailand due to its tangy flavor and is also spicier and sharper.
4. Massaman Curry
To make Massaman curry with Chicken, start with the base paste described above. Boneless chicken paste and roasted peanuts are the main ingredients, along with mushrooms and potatoes. Bamboo shoots may also be added, along with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Authentic Massaman Curry is cooked with coconut oil and coconut milk is added to the base.
5. Panang Curry with Chicken
Panang Curry with Chicken uses boneless chicken pieces, palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves along with Panang Curry Paste, stir fried at first then boiled in coconut milk.
6. Pad Prik Khing (Spicy Dry Curry)
Pad Prik is a drier curry than most other Thai curries, since It does not use coconut milk to create a gravy. Instead, the ingredients are stir-fried dry. Alternatively, coconut milk itself is fried till it releases oil – then the ingredients poured in. The curry is bright red, due to the presence of Thai chili peppers. Red curry paste is also used at times. Besides those, garlic, lemongrass and galangal are the main ingredient. Inspite of khing in the name, ginger is actually not used. Among main ingredients, meat or shrimp is frequently used and green beans are usually added.
7. Pladuk Pad Ped (Spicy Stir-Fried Catfish)
This is one of the most delicious dishes available from an authentic Thai kitchen. The recipe calls for chopped catfish (usually deboned and lightly fried), red curry paste, plenty of basil leaves, mild jalapeno style pepper, young green peppercorns, shredded ginger, kaffir lime leaves shredded, palm sugar, fish sauce and vegetable oil.
8. Goong Kai Wan (Thai Shrimp Curry)
Traditional Thai Shrimp Curry is made with plump shrimp in green curry paste, simmered in a coconut milk sauce along with green chilies, fresh ginger to taste, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and scallions.
9. Pla Kaphng Daeng (Crispy Red Snapper)
This dish features grilled fish (Red Snapper can be substituted by other white fishes such as Trout or Sea Bass) salted twice and grilled. The main flavors are added by the sauce, which contains tamarind paste, garlic, brown sugar, galangal, fresh cilantro (roots and stems), red bell pepper, red chilies and fish sauce. If deep fried, vegetable oil is used.
10. Lemongrass Chicken with Sweet Lime Sauce
This dish is a twist on roasted chicken, fresh from Thailand. Chicken quarter pieces are marinated in fresh lemongrass, onion, garlic, galangal fresh red chilies minced, fish sauce, soy sauce, brown sugar and coconut milk – the mix is rubbed on to the chicken as it is being roasted or broasted. Lime wedges may be served as garnish.
11. Pad Kra Pow (Pork and Holy Basil Stir Fry)
This grilled dish contains shredded pork, holy basil leaves and Thai chilies as its main ingredients. The other parts are relatively basic, with shallots, garlic, light and dark soy sauce, oyster sauce and chicken broth added. Sugar and salt are added to taste.
12. Seua Rong Hai (Tiger Cried)
This Thai style grilled steak, usually served medium rare, is served with a savory Thai Dried Chili Dipping Sauce (Jaew) made from dried chili powder and toasted-rice powder. The New York style steak pieces are marinated in oyster sauce, dark soy sauce, brown sugar and vegetable oil before grilling.
13. Grilled Chicken Satay
Satay can be made with chicken or pork. The meat is basted in coconut milk and grilled on skewers. Spices used include toasted coriander seeds and cumin seeds, white peppercorns, chopped lemongrass, galangal, turmeric, ground cinnamon and clove, brown sugar, salt and vinegar. Satay is served with peanut sauce and cucumber pickle.
14. Px Peiya (Fresh Spring Rolls)
These classic fresh rolls are made with either shrimp or pork wrapped with carrot shards, sliced cabbage, bean noodles and thin onion strips, all wrapped in a rice roll. The ingredients are simple – salt, fish sauce and white pepper.
16. Somtum (Green Papaya Salad)
The classic som tam salad is made with green papaya strips, peanuts, dried shrimp and palm sugar, served with spicy sauces and vinegar. Fresh lime is often squeezed on top.
17. Tom kha Gai (Chicken Coconut Milk Soup)
This flavorful soup subdues the heat and spiciness of the preparation with a coconut milk base. Other ingredients, besides Chicken (traditionally) are galangal, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, Thai chill, coriander, straw (or shitake) mushrooms, fish sauce and lime juice added to taste. Fried chilis may be added in some versions.
18. Tom Yum Koong (Spicy Hot and Sour Soup)
This may be one of the hottest Thai soup preparations and is not tempered by coconut milk. Usually cooked with shrimp, the broth (could be fish or shrimp stock) is spiced up with chili peppers, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lime juice and fish sauce.
19. Khao Pad Sapparod (Pineapple Fried Rice)
The main ingredients, besides rice and meat/shrimp, are garlic, onions, curry powder, fish sauce, soy sauce, onions, scallions, salt and pepper. Pineapple pieces are added before the rice is mixed and prepared (fried) with vegetable oil. This rice is often served in a scooped out half pineapple.
20. Pad Thai (Noodles Stir Fry)
The main ingredient is rice noodles which can be served vegetarian, or with chicken or shrimp. The other ingredients are tofu, eggs, fish sauce, tamarind paste, dried shrimp and palm sugar. The noodles are fried with vegetable oil (often) and drizzled with a spicy, sweet and sour sauce.
There are variations of many of the dishes outlined above.
Let’s “Thai” Things Up …
No matter which Thai food you love the most you really can’t go wrong. The important thing is to try new dishes. You never know what you’re missing.