One of the most complex cuisines in the world in terms of balancing complexity of flavours, colour, texture, colour, health benefits, and – of course – taste, Thai food has also become one of the most popular foods globally. In fact, there are restaurants outside of Thailand that are vying for the title of best Thai restaurant in the world. The harmonious balance of the entire spectrum of flavours – spicy, salty, sweet and sour – is the key to an unforgettable Thai meal.
If you’re new to Thai cuisine, we’ve provided a list of dishes that time and again prove to be the most popular – regardless of where they’re made. You could check them out at your local Thai restaurant, of if you’re feeling more adventurous, maybe try making them yourself. For the even more adventurous still, we’ve listed some of the most highly rated Thai restaurants in Bangkok.
If you’re a Thai rookie and wondering where to start on your culinary adventure, take a look at this list of dishes. Maybe pick two or three to start with and try them all at different restaurants, giving them a rating each time you try a new chef. After deciding on the best restaurant version, close out the quest by making the dishes yourself at home. There are Thai cooking schools in most capital cities in Australia. Why not immerse yourself in the flavours and techniques without even leaving your home town?
Som Tum (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
Originating in Thailand’s rural northeast, this fresh and crunchy salad combines all five flavours of Thai cuisine. With sour lime, hot chili, salty fish sauce and sweet palm sugar, together with the added tanginess of unripe papaya, and crunchiness of peanuts, Som Tum has been mooted as the world’s best salad. Variations include the addition of cherry tomatoes or beans. Som Tum is often served with sticky rice and grilled chicken and can also be eaten with fresh rice noodles.
Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup)
The combination of spicy and sour in this signature Thai broth really is a taste sensation. Lemongrass, galangal, chili, and lime leaves combined with luscious prawns create a flavour explosion in your mouth. If you’re looking for a relatively simple recipe to start testing your Thai cooking exploits, this might be a good place to begin. Check out world renowned Thai chef David Thompson’s easy tom yum goong recipe.
Pad Thai (Thai style Fried Noodles)
If hot and spicy is not really your thing, this is the Thai dish for you. Thin or wide rice noodles are dropped in a searing hot wok, together with your preferred combination of chicken, prawns, pork, or tofu. Mingled with crispy beansprouts, onion, and egg, and topped with crunchy ground peanuts, this delicious and colourful combination of flavours and textures arrives on your plate within minutes of it first hitting the pan. Season it to your personal taste with fresh lime juice, tamarind paste, fish sauce, palm sugar and chilli powder.
If you’re eating out, choose your restaurant carefully, though. As what is probably the most popular Thai dish ever, pad thai has become quite generic – and will vary between places.
Thai Massaman Curry
There are two theories about the origins of this dish. Some claim that it originated in 17th century Central Thailand, while others contend that it is a Southern Thai dish, influenced by Malay and Indian cuisine. Either way, this rich and hearty dish never fails to please and is a real Asian comfort food.
Usually made with coconut milk, the curry uses beef or chicken, together with potato, peanuts or cashews, and flavourful spices like bay leaves, cardamom and cinnamon. To ensure all the elements are included, there is also palm sugar, fish sauce, chili and tamarind sauce. The starch from the potato gives the sauce a lovely, thick texture. Together with rice – or for a real treat, try it with coconut rice – this is a very hearty meal.
Yam Nua (Spicy Beef Salad)
‘Yam’ is the generic Thai reference for what we Westerners would call a salad. Combining meat and a tart and spicy dressing with fresh herbs, yam is light, spicy and delicious. Thai beef salad – or ‘yam nua’ usually combines onion, coriander, spearmint, lime, and dried chili together with tender strips of rare beef.
Often served as an entrée, side dish, or even a drinking snack, there are endless combinations of flavours and textures used in yam. While beef is a very popular choice a good introduction is yam wun sen - which tosses glass noodles with minced pork and shrimp. If you’re keen to try your own yam inspired dish, check out this Thai shredded chicken, bean and lemongrass salad.
About to head off on an overseas adventure? Check out these highly regarded restaurants in and around Bangkok.
Named as the best restaurant in Asia, David Thompson’s Nahm is famous, not only for its incredible food, but for its unique fine dining experience. There are no spring rolls or pad thai here. In fact, there is probably nothing on this menu that you would have eaten at your local Thai take-away.
Based in the luxurious Como Metropolitan hotel in Bangkok, the restaurant offers dishes like: mo hor, (minced prawns and chicken simmered in palm sugar with deep fried shallots garlic and peanuts); yam kamin orn, (a salad of white turmeric with prawns, pork and chicken); and the sensational geng sap nok gradtaa, (a red curry featuring quail, ginger, green beans and Thai basil).
You can make your own selection from the a la carte menu, but the other – highly recommended – option is to simply order the ‘Traditional Thai Meal’ which offers guests the house appetiser of the day and then the choice of one dish each from categories including starter, soup, salad, curry and main. All dishes are served family style for sharing, with the incredible detailed attention and service that you would expect from a high end establishment.
At the other end of the scale, Café Bangrak is a hidden gem in the middle of a busy alley in Silom, Bangkok. Serving authentic local food in a relaxed atmosphere and funky vibe, there is often live music and even the occasional art exhibition. Bangrak is known for its reasonable prices, alcoholic fruit smoothies, and – curiously – the shrimps wrapped in crispy bacon. Doesn’t sound very Thai, but wait ‘til you try them! Also sample the red curry chicken and glass noodle squid. The serves are not large, so you can try a few different things and experiment
Issaya Siamese Club
For something completely different, head out to Rama IV Road and wind your way through the narrow streets of Klong Toey to discover this historic, two storey house, nestled in the midst of an expansive tropical garden. With lots of little nooks and private salons for private dining groups, the house is a spectacular nod to colonial Siam.
With an expansive wine list, exceptional service and a contemporary take on traditional Thai cuisine, you will be richly rewarded for your efforts to go off the beaten track.