Thai Food in Thailand: A Guide for the Faint of Heart

Some tourists come to Bangkok solely to experience Thailand’s infamous, fiery food first hand. Others visit Thailand merely hopeful that they can successfully point to a dish that won’t make them ill or set their mouths ablaze. Almost every backpacker in Thailand has one food related story fraught with mayhem, tears and a new-found respect for Imodium AD. The best advice you’ll hear is to be prepared, be adventurous and try not to cry too much at the dinner table when you accidentally pop a spoonful of Jungle curry into your mouth.

Keep in mind that the more you eat spicy foods, the more your tolerance will build until you start getting ideas about adding pepper spray as a seasoning. For anyone who thinks that the hot mustard sauce at McDonald’s is bad, this should be enough to bluff your way through Bangkok’s food scene until you can handle the full force of Thai cuisine.

Beginner’s advice

Spring rolls

Spring rolls

Stomach problems happen when you first get to Thailand, but you’re body does eventually get accustomed to it.  As far as finding a clean place, there seems to be one really good rule of thumb – if you can watch the food being cooked, it’s probably fine. This is especially true for street food. Avoid anything that appears to have been sitting in the open, and try to find places with a decent number of other customers.

If you want to be really careful, examine the ice before you drink anything. Thai people will probably look at you like you’ve lost your mind, but for anyone dead-set on playing it safe, it’s a good idea to check the shape. Circular cubes with holes in them are ideal because they’ve definitely been made from clean water – be cautious with anything else. Some people have Thai water and nothing happens, but others accidentally get a mouthful in the shower and spend hours locked in a bathroom afterwards – avoid it if at all possible. Bottled water is cheap and available everywhere.

“Why you not eat?”

Don’t be surprised if you go out with a Thai person, and they find it odd you won’t try anything that’s been sitting out. The best way to handle it is to say you’ve already tried it and want something new, then steer them towards a safer looking restaurant. I know at least one woman who openly calls her European boyfriend a “weakling” because he is afraid the food will make him sick.

Don’t make a big deal out of it, just remember that you don’t want to waste a day in the hotel with food poisoning.

Things to take with you

I don’t think it can be said enough – carry a spare roll of toilet paper with you everywhere you go. You’ll avoid some very embarrassing dashes from bathroom to bathroom looking for it because many local restaurants don’t keep it well stocked. Keep in mind that asking for a “bathroom” in Thailand will usually be answered with a blank stare. Ask for either “toilet” or “hong nam”.

Try to bring a supply of Pepto Bismol or Imodium AD for the first few days, and it’s also a good idea to bring anti-bacterial wipes or hand soap. Occasionally you will eat with your hands, and many local restaurants don’t keep soap well stocked either.

Don’t fight with the monkeys

You may possibly visit an area of Thailand where monkeys run wild and generally create chaos everywhere they go. It’s likely that they will jump on your head, grab your bag of coke and start drinking it right in front of you. There is a reason why people call them cheeky. If this happens, let the monkeys have whatever they want. Nothing is worse than having to make a hospital run to get a monkey bite checked out.

Also, Thailand is filled with stray dogs that will often stare at you until you give them a bit from your plate. Use your best judgment, and be prepared for them to keep asking for more and more if you get them started.

Paying the bill

There’s some debate about how it should be handled, but if you’re in a local restaurant, don’t count on them being able to separate it depending on what everyone ordered. If you’re out with Thai friends, there is a decent chance that the bill will find it’s way to the most successful or oldest person at the table. Don’t take offense it comes to you.

Tipping is not usually expected in Thailand, but it’s appreciated. In touristy areas, it’ll be added to the bill as a service charge. It’s common to leave the change from bills as a tip (anywhere from 5 to 40 baht depending on the total).

Picking an eatery

food-stall-on-wheelsFood stalls in Thailand are remarkably compact and occasionally you’ll see an entire restaurant (chairs and table included) tottering along on a motorbike like a top heavy snail. These places set up shop on the sidewalk or the side of the road, and if you’re looking for a quick, cheap lunch, it’s definitely the best place to go. Local restaurants are also ridiculously cheap (a full meal goes between $1 and $3), and the food is usually good enough to distract from unairconditioned spaces.

A Thai street market can be overwhelming the first time around with the stench of fish (possibly alive and still flipping), the huddled crowds, and the inexplicable slow walkers that always end up in front of you. There will be sights you aren’t accustomed to seeing. Pigs hooves will hang from some stalls along with snouts and possibly an entire head on occasion. For anyone that hasn’t worked in a butcher shop, it can be a little off-putting, so be prepared. However, street markets house some of the best food in Bangkok, so be sure to schedule at least one run-through before you leave.

Fast food in Thailand

In Bangkok, a McDonald’s burger can be as much as triple the cost of the average Thai meal. Fast food takes on a completely different meaning when you start looking at street stalls filled with spring rolls, satay sticks and deep fried bananas for less than a dollar. These are usually not spicy and perfect for snacks on the go.

Spring rolls are often served up with a sweet, nutty sauce drizzled on top. Vendors sometimes add chili sauce, so make sure to say the magic words – not spicy (mai pit). Deep fried bananas (glue-eye-thod) are surprisingly tangy, and they fill you enough to possibly be a meal (something to remember in case you run low on funds). Chicken satay is usually a safe option because you can get it straight off the grill.

Are those real bugs?

Yes. You will see edible bugs. I usually see them in the suburbs – almost never in touristy locations. Just remember that even in the U.S., it’s possible to find chocolate covered grasshoppers, so don’t freak out when you see a stall that’s filled with a wide variety of insects to dine on.

Don’t lose faith in street vendors based on the bugs alone. Thai vendors have a solid reputation for cleanliness, and they are a great way to keep within a budget while backpacking.

Classic Thai dishes for everyone

pad see you

pad see you

Everyone visiting Thailand must try at least one dish of Pad Thai during their holiday. Even if you didn’t like the Pad Thai back home, it’s a completely different dish in Bangkok. Traditionally, it’s made with rice noodles, eggs, fish sauce, tamarind juice, tofu and seafood. Some vendors make it with chicken instead, and Pad Thai woon sen (Pad Thai with glass noodles) comes highly recommended.

Another favorite for those who can’t handle scary spiciness is Thai River Noodles (pad see you). It’s made with marinated strips of beef, vegetables and wide, flat noodles. Lad Na is almost exactly the same meal, but a thick gravy is added to transform it into comfort soup.

If you want something that really blends the savory and the sweet, try kai yut sai. This is basically a large omelet stuffed with carrots, beef, union, possibly shrimp, tomatoes and mushrooms. Be ready for a burst of tomato sauce, and don’t be afraid to ask them to add or subtract ingredients (check below for a list of words you might need to accomplish this).

The importance of rice

If you’ve never had sticky rice, book a plane ticket to Thailand immediately. You can try it with grilled chicken (gai yaang) or the ever-famous spicy papaya salad (tom mak hung). It’s served in a bamboo box to keep it fresh, and you should eat it with your hands by rolling it into a little ball and dipping it into sauce.

Keep in mind that some of the best meals in Thailand are wonderfully simple. Fried rice (cow pad) is always welcome after a week of new and exotic lunches. You can order it with chicken, pork, seafood or beef.

Fruits and desserts

fruitMango sticky rice (cow nee ow ma muang) is quite possibly the most well-known Thai dessert around the world. It’s served up with coconut milk, a juicy sliced mango and sticky rice. When Durian is in season, you may find it in place of the mango.

Thai pancakes (roti) are dense, fried pieces of sugar coated goodness. Ask them to add an egg in the middle for something resembling french toast. They can be filled with chocolate, Nutella, bananas, peanut butter and a load of other goodies the vendor has lying around.

Fruit in Thailand looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. The brown, spiky, football-sized fruit is called durian. It is well known throughout Thailand for it’s sweet taste and awful scent. You’ll hear it described as ice cream that smells of rotten eggs. Rambutans are the furry red fruits (they look like they’ve just been imported from Mars), roughly the size of a plum. Once peeled, you’ll find it’s somewhere between a pear and a peach. Lynchee, the fruit that looks like dried strawberries, is very similar to rambutans and quite cheap in street markets.

If you want to be really adventurous. . .

It probably goes without saying that if you can’t handle watered down Tabasco sauce, don’t attempt the curry on your own. Go out with friends, order several dishes and try a spoonful of curry loaded down with rice to cut the spice.

Thai hot and sour lemongrass soup (Tom Yam) is supposedly a balanced combination of spicy, sour, sweet and bitter tastes. This isn’t for the faint of heart – probably the equivalent of straight chili sauce mixed with wasabi. It gives new meaning to the term ‘explosion of flavor’ and you should not attempt without a large glass of water, a box of tissues and some green vegetables to help your tongue recover.

Drinks

Thai iced tea, in a bag

Thai iced tea, in a bag

It’s always fun watching someone order a drink to go with a street vendor for the first time. If you aren’t in a touristy area, it’s often in a bag overflowing with ice. Don’t try to set it down anywhere, it’ll spill.

Drinking Thai iced tea (chai yen) is one of the few ways to ensure you’ll stay refreshed in Thailand’s boiling heat. Vendors often have stacks of condensed milk cans lining the booth – you can spot them a mile away. Be careful of the calories. Another tasty option is Thai iced coffee (conveniently called gawfee yen).

You’ll also see stacks of young coconuts at street markets. It’s quite fun to watch the vendor slice off the top with a cleaver and hand you the entire coconut with a straw.

A quick note about drinking in Thailand – magic mushroom shakes may be readily available, but they can be dangerous to try in large crowded places like Koh Phangan during Full Moon. Rumors abound of young women who are caught streaking through the beach after trying a “special” shake or omelet. It’s impossible to tell how a person will react, so be extremely cautious.

Also, don’t be surprised to ask for a Vodka Red Bull and be handed a bucket filled with liquor, ice and straws. The southern islands are accustomed to dedicated partiers with a high tolerance for alcohol.

A crash course in Thai dining vocabulary

  • Tow arai – How much is it?
  • Cow – Rice
  • Pad – Fried
  • Cow nee ow – Sticky rice
  • Woon Sen – Clear noodles
  • Gai – Chicken
  • Moo – Pork
  • Kai Dow – Fried Egg
  • Mai Pit – Not spicy
  • Sai Gong – To go
  • When combining these words, just remember to say everything backwards.
  • Chicken and fried rice – Cow Pad Gai
  • Also, if you want to ask for something to be taken out – add mai.
  • Chicken and fried rice without garlic – Cow Pad Gai Mai Gratiem

Links to learn more:

Good general Thai food site: http://www.sawadee.com/thailand/food/index.htm

Thailand travel site with good food section: http://www.thaizer.com/

Another good Thai site with a nice food section: http://www.1stopthailand.com/thai-food/

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Older comments on Thai Food in Thailand: A Guide for the Faint of Heart

Nancy Rheingold
29 November 2009

Very helpful especially as I am here now and experiencing food culture shock. Even though I am adventurous.