When visiting other countries, one of the best things to try out is their unique street food. One of the most famous countries for its street food is Thailand: visitors to the country flock to the food stalls lining its streets, which sell a delicious variety of food at bargain prices.
How good is Thailand street food? Thailand has some of the best street food in the world. It is famous for delicious fare including noodles, grilled pork skewers, and a variety of fried dishes, seasoned with spices such as curry, coriander, and lemongrass.
There are so many tasty street food options in Thailand just waiting for you to try, but where do you even start? In the remainder of this article, we’ll talk about the unique flavors and types of street food available that’s worth checking out.
The Flavors of Thailand Street Food
If you love spicy food, you will be in heaven among the smells and the flavors of Thailand’s street food vendors. Red, yellow, and green curry, garlic, coriander, chili, lemongrass, turmeric, basil, and galangal are among the spices most commonly found in Thai food.
The spices used in Thai food give it its distinctive balance of salty, sour, creamy, and sweet. This mix of flavors is further enriched by a variety of “heats” (the degree of “spiciness” found in the dish.) Almost all Thai recipes begin with a paste, featuring a combination of these flavors and spices.
The secret to Thai food is the perfect balance of these flavors. As you sample various street foods in Thailand, you will experience many of these ideal blends of flavors that have been developed over centuries of cooking in the country.
Many nations have discovered the wonders of Thai food and feature Thai restaurants in their own cities. However, whereas popular Thai dishes are often sold in U.S. cities for somewhere between 12 and 20 dollars, in Thailand, these same delicious foods are no luxury but are their street foods, available for just 30-60 baht, or $1-2. It is no wonder that in 2012, Forbes named Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city, the number one location for street food.
Varieties of Thai Food
In the stalls along the streets of Bangkok and other cities in Thailand, vendors sell a variety of street foods, and these options can be overwhelming for those who are not familiar with the types of foods that are sold.
Food stalls in Thailand will often specialize in one type of dish: curry, a particular kind of noodle, meat, or snacks, and desserts. If you’re unsure what kind of food the stall is selling, you should be able to figure it out by looking at the ingredients they are working with.
But to do that, you will need to gain a basic familiarity with the types of dishes popular in Thailand.
“Main Courses” in Thailand Street Food
Main course street foods in Thailand are made up primarily of noodle dishes and curries, as well as different varieties of meat dishes. While a couple of these meals are popular and well-known in America (such as Pad Thai), there is a wide variety of these dishes with an extreme range of flavors and ingredients.
Here are some of the dishes you may find food stands specializing in:
- Pad Thai: A rice noodle dish with a rich, vibrant sauce, eggs, and often various vegetables or meats
- Rat Na: A dish of flat noodles drenched in a delicious gravy, with pork, beef, or chicken and vegetables
- Phat Si-io: The same noodles as in rat na, but fried in soy sauce, vegetables, meat, and chili (instead of gravy)
- Khanom Chin: A spicy and sour dish made of fermented Thai rice noodles
- Khao Mun Gai: A (comparatively) simple dish of steamed chicken on rice
- Pad Kra Pao: A popular dish among locals, made of stir-fried pork (or chicken) and basil. Usually topped with an egg and eaten with rice.
- Curry: A category of meat dishes served in an aromatic gravy of red, yellow, or green curry. A favorite curry street food dish in Thailand is Massaman Gai, a red curry flavored with roasted peanuts, cinnamon, bay leaves, tamarind sauce, and sugar.
Alongside these “main course” dishes, you may find food stalls offering these classic Thai sides:
- Som Tam: A green papaya salad usually served with sticky rice, and often eaten alongside grilled chicken
- Tom Yum Kung: A sour soup made with shrimp, garlic, chiles, peanuts, lime juice, sour green papaya, and a variety of other spices, traditionally ground together with a mortar and pestle to bring out all of the flavors.
- Khao Pad: A fried rice dish. Rice is cooked in a wok with meat, egg, vegetables, and garlic.
- Malang Tod: The most adventurous traveler may want to try out this dish, which, quite appropriately, translates to “fried insects.” Crickets, worms, and grasshoppers are fried in pepper and soy sauce and served as a snack.
For a list of even more traditional Thai street food dishes, check out this article.
Just when you think you’ve mastered all of these various dishes, you’ll realize that there is even more intricacy to the ingredients that go into them, particularly the different noodle dishes. In fact, many of the street stalls you visit will specialize just one or two types of noodles.
Distinguishing and choosing between all of the various types of noodles can be tricky, so here is a list of most of the varieties you are likely to see on the street:
- Sen Yai: A wide, flat rice noodle
- Sen Mii: A small, thin rice noodle
- Sen Lek: A medium-sized, flat rice noodle (this is the kind of noodle that you will find in Pad Thai and similar dishes)
- Bah Mii: A yellow noodle made of egg and wheat
- Woon Sen (glass noodle): A thin, transparent, stringy noodle with a soybean base
- Gieow (wonton): Boiled minced pork wrapped in yellow dough
Some of these noodles are always featured in one of the main course dishes listed above (for example, the medium-sized Sen Lek rice noodles will always be served in Pad Thai). However, if you visit a noodle stall, you will often select the type of noodle you would like, and build the dish from there.
Noodles can be ordered alone (dry), or as a soup (in a broth). You will also choose what meat you would like to be included in your noodle dish: pork, chicken, beef, duck, etc.
How Spicy Is Thailand’s Street Food?
Even for those accustomed to spicy food, Thailand’s seasoned offerings can come as quite the fiery surprise to the palate not accustomed to them. If you are ordering from a very authentic local vendor, it might be worthwhile to order the dish without the spices (or light on the spices) the first time around, and add chile sauce or flakes if you decide you want the food a little spicier.
Food in Thailand is all about flavor, and the endless varieties and combinations of it. In Thai restaurants and food stalls, you will often find four condiment jars available for you to play with and adjust the taste of your dish.
You’ll usually find sugar, dried chile flakes, a vinegar sauce with chili and garlic, and a fish sauce. Experiment by adding different amounts of these seasonings to the food you sample, and you’ll have an endless variety of combinations and flavors during your visit.
What About Dessert?
It may come as no surprise that the food in Thailand is extremely spicy. But Thai food is as dedicated to strong flavor in the area of desserts as it is in its savory foods. Thailand has a wonderful variety of classic desserts, and, yup, you guessed it — they are very sweet.
Be sure to find a way to taste all of these treats while you’re there:
- Khao Niow Ma Muang (mango with sticky rice): Imagine rice drizzled with coconut milk and topped with fresh, ripe mango slices. Then imagine that a dollop of sweet custard is placed on top of all of that. It’s as good as it sounds.
- Khao Niow Sang Kaya (sticky rice with custard): Want to skip the mango? This rich and creamy Thai dessert features sticky rice topped with sweet custard.
- Bua Loy: Sticky rice dumplings floating in a warm soup of coconut milk.
- Thai iced coffee/tea: Similar to the iced tea or coffee that you’re used to, except with a whole lot of thick, syrupy sweetened condensed milk stirred in. Perfect for someone with a love of coffee or tea, and a major sweet tooth.
- Marzipan fruits: Marzipan, a paste made from mung beans and sweetened, is shaped and painted with a glaze to look like bright, glossy little fruits and vegetables.
After reading about these common Thailand street foods, you are all set to explore a row of Bangkok food stalls on your own. Enjoy, and remember not to overestimate your spice tolerance!