Thai food is adored across the world. A varied national menu is built around the four fundamental flavours: spicy, sweet, salty and sour and, although Bangkok and Chiang Mai are the country’s big culinary centres, you are guaranteed a feast in even the smallest provincial towns.
Making local menus even more appealing are the regional specialities and Thailand’s renowned street food scene, prevalent across the entire country, is one of the best ways to experience both Thai culture and cuisine. With this in mind, we round-up the dishes you need to try when on a charter vacation in Thailand.
Although one of the best-known examples of Thai cuisine, pad thai is still a must-eat when in Thailand. Invented in the 1930s by a Chinese-Thai chef, the national dish is readily found across the country, from the mountains in the north to the bustling streets of Bangkok.
Thin rice noodles are stir fried with egg and shrimp and seasoned with fish sauce, sugar, tamarind, vinegar and dried chilli. A generous helping of crushed peanuts are sprinkled on top, with a wedge of lime and a pile of bean sprouts on the side. The shrimp can usually be swapped for either chicken or tofu.
Kaeng Kio Waan
Another good starting point for Thai food novices is geng kheaw wan gai, otherwise known as green curry. The dish is a perfect example of the cuisine’s blend of sweet and spicy flavours which, in this case, are green chillies and rich, creamy coconut milk.
The name green curry derives from the colour of the dish with green or whitish vegetables such as Thai eggplant or pea aubergine included alongside a form of meat, usually chicken or fish. The dish is typically eaten with rice and garnished with basil, kaffir lime leaves and sliced chillies.
Tom Yum Goog
Tom Yum Goog is a shrimp soup characterised by its distinct hot and sour flavour. Succulent shrimps are added to a clear broth cooked with lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and galangal and it’s this combination of fish and seasoning that gives the dish its deliciously tart yet spicy taste.
The soup developed in central Thailand when there was an abundance of freshwater shrimp. To balance out the fishy flavour, chefs started adding local Thai herbs. Today, either coconut milk or condensed milk can be added for a sweeter, thicker broth and then becomes known as tom yum nam khon.
Hot and crunchy, this staple Thai salad is made from strips of raw papaya pounded in a pestle and mortar with tomato, long beans, chilli, lime and fish sauce. This process blends the flavours beautifully and Som Tam even made it to a list of the world's 50 most delicious foods - the only salad to do so.
A garnish of crushed peanuts adds to the crunch and, depending on your tolerance levels, it may be best to ask for it ‘mai pet’ – not spicy – as the dish is typically quite hot. There are a number of variations, including some cooked with fermented fish sauce or a salted preserved egg.
Khao Soi is a wonderfully creamy and slightly spicy curry dish unique to northern Thailand. A blend of yellow and red curry spices, soy sauce, sugar and coconut milk are added to a chicken broth, which is slowly simmered to develop the flavour.
Long cut noodles, a hearty piece of slow cooked chicken and a large spoonful of the broth are then served topped with a tangle of crispy noodles and freshly diced cilantro. A small dish of chopped red onion, pickled greens and a smoky chilli paste are typically served on the side.
Phat kaphrao or pat ka phrao combines meat flash-fried with holy basil – kaphrao – and a generous helping of fresh chilli and garlic. Served over rice, the street food regular is often crowned with a fried egg, making it the epitome of the Thai-style one dish meal.
Thai basil has a very sharp, peppery flavour, while the chillies add a hefty dose of spice, so this isn’t a dish for picky eaters, but is extremely popular among locals. The meat used is usually either pork or chicken.
This simple Thai staple may appear unexciting, but once you try the combination of jasmine rice wok-fried with meat, egg, vegetables, green onions, garlic and fish sauce, you’ll be hooked. For many Thais, fried rice is their comfort food and there are many regional variations.
Normally, the meat used is either chicken, shrimp or crab, while there are coconut, pineapple and basil fried dishes more suited to vegetarians. For something fancier, order khao op sapparot, a fried rice dish with nuts and raisins served inside a cut-out pineapple.
Kluay Tod – or deep fried bananas – are one of the most popular sweet treats in Thailand and served at street food vendors and restaurants across the country.
Burro bananas are thinly sliced and lightly covered with a batter made of rice flour, shredded coconut and white sesame seeds. The bananas are then deep fried until they turn golden brown.
They can be eaten on their own, but are delicious served as a desert with vanilla or coconut milk ice cream. Vendors serving up these delicious treats will usually serve other deep fried foods, such as sweet potato – mun tod – or taros – puak tod.
Once you try the combination of jasmine rice wok-fried with meat, egg, vegetables, green onions, garlic and fish sauce, you’ll be hooked
Khao Niew Ma Muang
Another traditional Thai desert goes by the name of kao niew ma muang. Sticky rice, fresh mango slices and coconut cream combine to create a wonderfully soft texture and mild, sweet taste.
In English, the dish is known as mango sticky rice and it is a favoured desert among locals and travellers alike. It is particularly popular during peak mango season – April and May – but street stalls serve it up all year long.
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