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A guide to Thai cuisine

Kieran Meeke / 04 January 2017 ( 23 May 2022 )

Want to know what you eat for breakfast in Thailand or find out about popular Thai food ingredients? Recognised as one of the world's greatest, Thai cuisine is filled with flavour, colour and fragrance. Read our guide to Thai cuisine here.

Tom Yung Goong
Tom Yam Goong, a hot and sour soup with prawns, is a traditional Thai dish.

Thai cuisine is recognised as one of the world’s greatest and owes much of its depth to influences from China, India, Burma, Laos, Indonesia and other neighbours.

Ingredients from the west, such as the chillies that came from the Americas via Portuguese missionaries, are also essential to the mix.

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The history of Thai food

Ingredients used for Thai food, lemongrass, spring onions, ginger and chillies

The Thai people arrived in their present homeland from southern China around 2,000 years ago. Most came from what is now Yunnan, still noted for its spicy food, which was a good antidote to the cold weather there.

As well as this taste for heat, they brought rice as a staple crop, used also in noodles, and soy sauce.

The Buddhist religion arrived from India, and missionaries from there also brought curries and spices such as cumin, coriander and cardamom. And, along the coast, contact with Malays brought coconut, which replaced the ghee of Indian food, and grilled satay dishes.

The basis of Thai food, however, remains the Chinese concept of five flavours: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot. With no refrigeration, pickling and fermenting was used to preserve food, giving a local taste for some flavours that are alien to the European palate.

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Thai cusine and Buddhism

Thai food Noodle soup with beef

Many of us think of Buddhists as vegetarian but the Theravada Buddhism of Thailand is much more pragmatic than that. If it has already been killed, where is the harm in eating it?

Large cuts of meat are avoided however, which is one reason why pork, beef or chicken is cut so fine (and heavily flavoured with fresh herbs and spices).

Another is the fast fry method introduced from China. These fine cuts mean no knife is needed at the table, so Thais eat with a spoon and use a fork only to push food onto it. Chopsticks are used only for noodles (see below).

Almost every Thai meal, apart from snacks, is about the Buddhist idea of community. It’s preferably a meal shared with family or friends and being with them is the important part, not the food itself.

This dictates such etiquette as helping others before yourself at communal dishes, if only by taking small portions at a time, and not leaving food uneaten on your plate.

Thailand: history and culture

What do you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner in Thailand?

Khao Tom Moo' Thai Breakfast - Boiled Rice with Mince Pork

Thais love to eat and can seem to be eating all day. While snacking is common, there are three major meals, with evening dinner being the main one.

Breakfast is often made from food left over from the night before, so fried rice is a common base.  Lunch is usually a one-dish meal, with noodles or rice.

Dinner is a communal meal made up of several dishes that might include a soup, curry, vegetables and spicy salad. Each diner has an individual bowl of rice and then shares the rest of the food.

Drinking Food

Neua Nam Tok – grilled beef salad is a popular drinking food

As well as not eating alone, Thais prefer to do their drinking in groups and there is a range of foods to share in such a setting.

Kap klaem, or “Drinking Food”, has its origins in a rural work setting, so traditionally featured such basic foods as snake or eels.

Nowadays, it’s usually more sophisticated but can range from deep fried cashews to chargrilled dried cuttlefish and is sometimes served as an appetiser before a bigger meal.

Typical dish: Neua Nam Tok – grilled beef salad. Beef marinated in black pepper is grilled, sliced, then mixed with lime juice, fish sauce and chilli flakes.

Then some toasted sticky rice powder is added to give a smoky flavour and some crunch.

Thai cuisine and chillies

Selection of chilies used in Thai cuisine

Chilli arrived in Thailand during the 16th century, replacing India’s green peppercorns, but since then its heat has been tempered with ingredients such as coconut.

Fresh herbs such as lemongrass and galangal are used to boost flavour instead, leading to a subtle curry that burns intensely but not for long, unlike the Indian variety.

Thai meals are always balanced, so a curry should be eaten alongside something milder as well, such as a salad or dip. Harmony is important and there is no striving for extreme flavours within the meal or any individual dish.

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Thai cuisine and rice

Thai sticky rice in a bamboo wooden style box

Rice, as noted above, arrived from China and has a special place at the Thai table. There are still some 16 million rice farmers in Thailand and it is the world’s second-largest rice exporter.

Its importance in the culture can be gathered by the fact that the common Thai greeting, “Kin khaaw lu’yang?”, means “Have you eaten (rice) yet?” It is found in almost every meal, as a grain and/or in the form of noodles, dumplings and desserts.

Although there are actually thousands of varieties, the two types you meet at the table are standard white rice and sticky rice. This last is not a means of cooking but a range of varieties which become glutinous when cooked.

It is preferred in northern Thailand, while the rest of the country, er, sticks to the non-glutinous varieties. It is acceptable to eat sticky rice by rolling it into a ball with your right hand.

The hard work involved in farming rice is recognised in some Thai etiquette. Eating with a spoon is one way not to drop rice grains on the table – the Thai aversion to this is not about neatness.

You should also keep rice “clean” by not mixing it around with other food on your plate. You will note that rice is usually served in a separate bowl, not on the same plate as your food.

Leaving a few grains in your bowl is polite as it shows you have had enough to eat and resonates with the Buddhist philosophy of self control, as does the idea of small dishes or portions.

Typical dish: Khao Pad – fried rice. Fried rice, with egg, onion and a few herbs is garnished with anything from prawn to chicken, basically a good way to use up leftovers and a popular lunchtime meal.

Thai cuisine and noodles

Thai food Pad thai , Stir fry noodles in padthai style

Noodles are a lunchtime food, or a snack. Like pasta, they come in a wide range of styles: thick, thin, wide, long, fresh and dried.

They are made from rice flour, except for the “Cellophane” noodles or Wun Sen made from mung beans. Thais believe that long noodles symbolise long life, an idea inherited from China.

Chopsticks are often, but not always, used to eat noodles. If they come in a bowl, yes. If they come on plate, then you use your spoon. This is an acquired skill but involves piling a mouthful on with your fork.

Typical dish: Guay Jab – peppery rice noodles. These flat noodles are cut into one-inch chips from a sheet but roll up like cigars when cooked.

They are added to a broth with various cuts of pork, shallots and lots of black pepper, a dish that shouts its Chinese origins.

Thai fish Sauce

Thai fish sauce, Nam Phrik Pla, fish sauce and chilli

This sauce is made by fermenting fish in heavily salted brine for up to a year and was once a staple of Roman cooking as much as it is now of Thai cuisine.

Known as nam pla or “fish water” in Thai, the local version is usually made from anchovies or other small ocean fish. 

The smell is off-putting to those unfamiliar with it but it adds an essential umami flavour to dishes, similar to Worcester sauce. It is often paired with lime juice in recipes, as that counters the smell.

Kapi, shrimp paste, is another essential in the Thai kitchen and used as an umami base for curries. It’s made from tiny salted shrimp left to ferment in the sun and again owes its origins to a preservation technique predating refrigeration.

Typical dish: Nam Phrik Pla – Thai table sauce. An equal mix of fish sauce and chillies, with lime juice, brown sugar and garlic makes a spicy flavouring for rice. Sweet, sour, salty, bitter and hot in one sauce.

Popular places to visit in Thailand

Thai soups

Tom Yam Goong, a Thai hot and sour soup with prawns

Soup can be a snack or a lunchtime meal when supplemented with a bowl of rice. In the evening, it is served not as a starter but as an accompaniment to the meal and supped throughout. 

The Thai passion for fresh herbs, and the mix of sweet, sour, hot, bitter and salty flavours is seen at its best in what at first glance seems like a simple dish.

Typical dish: Tom Yam Goong – hot and sour soup with prawns. Jumbo soup and mushrooms are added to broth rich with fish sauce, galangal, lemongrass, lime leaves and shallots.

Thai desserts

Khao Neeo Mamuang, a Thai dessert of Mango with sticky rice

With the balance of flavours in a meal, including sweet ones, desserts are not as important as in western meals where they save as a palate cleanser.

The abundant fresh tropical fruit such as mango, papaya and custard apple makes a simple dessert and more elaborate ones are made from coconut milk and shredded coconut.

Desserts are eaten at lunch time or even breakfast but seldom with the evening meal.

Typical dish: Khao Neeo Mamuang – mango and sticky rice. Chilled fresh mangos are sliced, then served on hot sticky rice and drenched in coconut milk thickened with sugar and tapioca flour.

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