Last Updated on November 11, 2021 by Chef
What are the best Thai dishes to try? There are thousands of Thai dishes beyond pad Thai and green curry and we explain more about them in this post. Thai dishes include vegetable dishes, fish, meat, desserts, and street food snacks. Thai dishes aren’t necessarily very spicy, some are mild and my kids love Thai food. Most of us know something about Thai dishes these days. Many have eaten Thai cuisine in a restaurant at least once, others have been to Thailand. If you’re visiting a Thai restaurant for the first time and need to know which Thai dishes to order and how to eat Thai food, this guide to Thai dishes is for you.
Some Thai dishes served in Thailand are bad and some Thai restaurants in the US, Europe, and Australia are also bad. But done right Thai dishes can be incredible. Many consider Thai cuisine to be the most delicious in the world. It is often light, fresh, healthy, delicately fragrant with cunning spices and chili pastes, and full of fresh vegetables. Thai dishes aren’t always fiery hot, what some refer to as “spicy.”
I want to give you Thai dishes for beginners, for anyone new to Thai food and wondering which Thai dishes are best to try for beginners, in Thailand, or in a Thai restaurant.
What Are Thai Dishes?
Thai dishes normally contain the tropical fruits and vegetables of the region along with whatever fish is in the sea and animals in the farmyard, The Thai people eat many fruits and vegetables, usually finely chopped or shredded making them easier to eat with chopsticks or a spoon.
Knives and forks are rare in Thailand. Everything is cut small enough to eat before cooking.
The flavors in Thai dishes are a balance of acid (citrus or vinegar), salt, and sweet. Prominent tastes include coconut milk, Thai basil, palm sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, and lime.
Heat comes from hot chili peppers, in the dish, or added to taste by the diner. It’s common to add sugar to savory food as a condiment too.
The abundant protein options in Thailand include tofu, chicken (gai), pork (moo), beef, peanuts, shrimp (goong), and fish. You will occasionally see more exotic animals on menus such as frogs, bugs, or scorpions grilled over an open flame for the tourists.
In Thai markets, vendors sell salted crispy crickets to locals as snacks. You’ll also see these in packets on the shelves of the 7-11 convenience stores.
In creating this guide to Thai dishes we’ve eaten at many street food stalls, markets, and restaurants in Thailand and tasted everything on the menu. We’ll start with basic Thai dishes.
Different cooks and chefs prepare dishes in different ways, no two meals in different restaurants are ever the same. The “best” version of a dish will depend on you. Eat at different eateries to find the dishes you like best.
You will find the basic Thai dishes in most places in Thailand and on most Thai restaurant menus but there are regional specialties and variations too. In Thailand food varies by region for instance Khao Soi, from the north is what to eat in Chiang Mai along with special Thai sausages. Around the coast look for seafood dishes.
Thai Dishes (Video)
We made this video to show some Thai dishes and foods, in Thailand.
Much of the footage we filmed in markets and floating markets, along with cookery courses we’ve attended over the years. You’ll see the insects and arachnids, along with which dishes Thai people really eat.
Is Thai Food Expensive?
Dishes in Thailand are cheap, delicious, and widely available. In western Thai restaurants, you will undoubtedly pay a lot more, particularly if you order luxurious seafood dishes, giant prawns, and lobster.
In Thailand, you can order a good meal for $1 to $2 per person if you stick to basics and eat where the locals eat. In Thai restaurants aimed at tourists, you’ll pay a lot more for the same basic dishes. In the west expect typical restaurant prices.
Chilies. Is Thai Food “Hot” or “Spicy”
Don’t fear the chilies! You do find chilies in a lot of Thai cuisine but they’re not always very hot. The bigger ones are just another vegetable, so mild my children love them. They’re full of vitamin C and fiber, they’re nutritious food not just flavoring. It’s the chilies, bird’s eye chilies, and other Thai chilies that you’ve got to look out for if you can’t handle spicy food.
Diners add chili or spicy condiments to taste, at the table, sometimes. The best places to eat Thai food will present a variety of condiments, sauces, and powders to adapt your dish however you like it. These condiments may include small hot chilies in vinegar or fish sauce (Prik Nam Pla), ground dried chili flakes, and paste, plus sugar, peanuts, and a squeeze of lime or lemon. You can make simple condiments for Thai dishes like these at home, easily.
Ordering Thai Dishes
Thai restaurants serving foreign tourists or farangs sometimes think the foreigners can’t eat spicy food. In this case, you may ask for your meal to be spicy, hot, or with chili (prik in Thai). In some restaurants for westerners, your server may ask if you like your food to be served mild, medium, or spicy. It’s best to start with mild if you’re unsure. Mild can mean no chilies at all.
The dishes served in a large Thai meal or banquet might contain the four food elements below:
- Wet – curries and soups
- Dry – fried dishes without a thick soup or sauce.
- Spicy – could be a soup or dish with plenty of hot peppers.
- Yum – light and fresh, like a salad. (Thai green papaya salad is popular) Balancing lime, sugar, and salt to freshen or cleans your palette.
If you order this many dishes for one diner it will be too much food unless you have an extra-large appetite.
One curry dish, soup, stir-fry or salad is usually enough food to order in a reastaurant. You can order rice with soups and curries or sometimes they will be “over rice” or stir-fried with rice, mixed with rice already.
In western restaurants you’ll often see the menu divided up into starters, mains, entrees, deserts, etc. If so, you may order a small dish like Thai spring rolls as a starter, or order a selection of Thai delicacies to share.
Sticky rice is sometimes found in Thailand. You can order it to go with your soup or curry. Fried noodle dishes contain rice noodles of different kinds so you wouldn’t order rice with those. It’s also OK to not order rice at all. Some dishes will come with rice, some without.
You’ll also see sticky rice in desserts such as mango and sticky rice. Sticky rice is a different species of rice, the glutinous texture is not just down to cooking. It is best eaten with a spoon or your fingers.
Best Mild Thai Dishes
Mild Thai dishes include some soups, stir-fries, and noodle dishes. Mild means not containing many hot chili peppers, or not “spicy”. If I wanted to order a mild Thai dish I’d order tom kha gai, a coconut-based chicken soup with fragrant lime leaves, lemongrass, and ginger (galangal), or a noodle dish like pad see-ew or pad Thai. You could also try something like chicken with ginger, stir-fried.
On some Thai food menus, you’ll see indicators as to whether a dish is “hot” or “mild”. Remember that no two Thai dishes are the same and how hot your dish is will depend on the chef. Sometimes your waiter will ask if you’d prefer hot or mild.
If you’re looking for a mild vegetarian Thai dish, try a tom kha vegetables or tofu, or a tofu stir fry of some sort. If you’re vegan you’ll have to be certain the dish doesn’t contain fish sauce, shrimp paste, or dried fish. Some pad Thai can contain tiny dried shrimps and fish sauce is widely used.
Fish Sauce, Shrimp Pastes, Dried Fish and Squid
The fish ingredients in Thai dishes can be unusual or taste bad to a western palette. Fish sauce is used similarly to soy sauce, as salt. It’s made from fermented fish and is an acquired and pungent, strong taste.
Other fish ingredients like shrimp and fish pastes can taste and smell bad to us too. There are also tiny dried shrimp that can be found in dishes such as pad Thai often. Food sold to tourists generally doesn’t contain these ingredients.
Thai Side Dishes
Most Thai dishes contain a lot of vegetables so Thai side dishes aren’t so common. You could consider rice, plain, or sticky rice to be a side dish of course. One Thai side dish that we order often is stir-fried morning glory.
This green vegetable is usually stirfried with garlic and soy sauce and is rarely “spicy”. You can treat any green vegetable in the same way, think water spinach (kang kong) or even pumpkin shoots.
You could order a fried rice instead of plain rice, in which case it is likely to contain egg, vegetables or meat. Coconut fried rice is another variation.
Thai salads, like green papaya salad, we normally eat as a main meal, spring rolls and thai fish cakes, likewise, or you can order these items as a starter. It’s common to order a selection of small fritters and spring rolls to share but usually Thai food comes all at once.
Eating Thai Dishes
I was told that Thai people don’t put forks or knives in their mouths because it is dangerous. Instead, they eat with special bowl-shaped spoons and chopsticks.
In Thai food preparation meats, tofu, and vegetables are cut up before cooking, making the finished dish easy to eat with an Asian soup spoon or chopsticks. Chopsticks are usually presented wrapped in paper, clean, and fresh. They are usually made of wood of some sort. When eating Vietnamese food in Vietnam, diners always wipe their chopsticks with pieces of paper cut up on each table.
In some Thai food courts in shopping malls, you can sterilize your utensils in vats of boiling water. Just take your tray and cutlery to the sterilisation spots.
If you can’t use chopsticks, somebody will usually be able to find you a western spoon or fork. Items like spoons and chopstick sets are popular souvenirs to take home after your culinary tour of Thailand.
Thai soup is part of the main meal, not normally a starter. They’re filling enough in themselves, but sometimes people order rice on the side. With rice or without, either is OK, nobody will think you’re weird.
Your soup will contain sticks and leaves and you’re generally not supposed to eat them, although very young kaffir lime leaves are edible. Just take out the pieces of lemongrass, galangal (galangal is far more woody than ginger), lime leaves, tamarind pods etc.
The two main soups you’ll find are Tom Ka (or Tom Kha) and Tom Yam (or Tom Yum). I can’t recall ever eating clear noodle soups in Thailand, unlike in neighbouring Vietnam or Laos where they have been common. Khao Soi is a noodle soup, but the broth is rich, thick creamy coconut curry, not a clear noodle soup at all. This is a regional dish, found in the north, but sometimes you can find it elsewhere.
This bowl on Tom Tum Goong (prawn) is the best I’ve ever eaten. Bought from a tiny backstreet restaurant in Hua Hin, I have never had another Tom Yum that could measure up. I dream of this soup!
Tom yum is hot with chillies and sour with lime. It doesn’t normally contain coconut, the stock is almost clear sometimes.
Tom Ka or Kha
Tom Ka is a highly fragrant thin coconut soup. It can be totally spice and chili-free, my children love it that way. Sometimes it has chillies. The key ingredients are the galangal and lemongrass. Kaffir lime leaves and fresh Thai basil add more fragrance.
Tom Ka often features delicious Asian mushrooms. Our current favourite restaurant uses celery leaf, they’re a great addition. Tom kha gai or khai is chicken tom ka, but you also should be able to find tofu, vegetable or prawn (shrimp) versions.
Fried Noodles and Noodle Dishes
There are many different types of noodles in Thailand, from fine rice vermicelli to fat wide noodles in pad siew. You’ll also see sheets and clumps of noodle material if you find very authentic floating markets like Tha Kha floating market. Every noodle has its own ideal dish or use.
Pad Siew (or Pad See Ew)
I must have seen this spelled a dozen different ways. Spelling for everything varies immensely in Thailand. Pad Siew is one is Chef’s favourite. Fat, slippery rice noodles fried with soy sauce ( the siew) and vegetables, with or without meat. Good pad siew contains greens, kale, Chinese broccoli, or similar. This is my husband’s absolute favourite dish in Thailand if it’s done well. The trick is a blisteringly hot pan.
Probably the food most often consumed by tourists in Thailand and certainly a Thai food for beginners. Pad Thai can be delicious or dodgy. The one above, bought at a street-side restaurant in Bangkok was incredibly good. I’ve also had some that I just couldn’t eat, greasy with pig fat and some sort of toxic orange sauce.
A real Pad Thai has thin rice noodles stir-fried with eggs and small pieces of firm tofu. Its flavored comes from tamarind, fish sauce, tiny dried shrimps, garlic or shallots, chilies, and sugar. It should be served with lime and peanuts. Sometimes there are vegetables, I think the best Pad Thai has plenty of bean sprouts. You can usually order it with meat, tofu or prawns. Done right, pad thai is a noodle dish you’ll want to eat every day.
Know Your Thai Curries.
Thai curries are usually coconut milk-based. Coconut milk isn’t the clear liquid inside a drinking coconut, that’s coconut water. Coconut milk is made from the flesh of the coconut and can be thick or thin. The eponymous colours of the curry come from the curry paste, all contain chillies and aromatics. The curries all come with a choice of protein, which can be tofu, or straight vegetable. The main curries you will find are:
The green curry paste is green because of the green chili content. Green curry is normally sweeter than red curry, but I’ve not noticed. Fresh coriander, basil and kaffir lime leaf can enhance the paste’s greenness. Thai green curry almost always features various mini green aubergines, sometimes quartered, sometimes whole. I love them!
Thai red curry paste is made from fresh and dried red chillies.
Yellow curry is richer and creamier than red or green curries because of the coconut cream content. The yellow comes from fresh turmeric in the paste, making it slightly Indian-like.
Massaman refers to Muslims. This curry is filling with potatoes, lots of sugar and peanuts and is about the heaviest dish you’ll find, I think. Chef loves this one.
Panang or Penang Curry.
Penang curry is similar to red curry but sweeter. Coconut cream makes is heavier and richer.
Various Fried Dishes.
These usually come in chicken, vegetable, prawn or tofu varieties. They’re all good and this is the stuff that my children love to eat. The sauces contain a little garlic, soy, and sugar. Sometimes we order them with rice if we’re really hungry. They’re not greasy, or shouldn’t be.
Chicken with basil and chili.
Don’t ask for this without heat, the chili makes the dish. Delicious and a Thai classic. Thai basil is similar to European but the leaf is smaller. Beef or pork can be served the same way. Order this with rice, it’s too hot to eat alone. Sometimes people order a fried egg served on the top of these dishes.
Chicken (or other) with cashew nuts.
I love vegetables with cashews, or tofu with cashews, I’m not much of a meat eater and non animal protein is hard to find sometimes. Pork with cashew is also quite common.
Chicken with vegetables.
It’s good, vegetables vary and are seasonal. They’re very fond of baby corn and cooked cucumber in Thailand.
Chicken with ginger
This is a family favourite with us and contains loads of shredded fresh ginger, as a vegetable, not a flavouring. You’ll also have a lot of onion and sometimes other vegetables
Other Thai Dishes.
Thai-style omelets are one of my favourites. Filled Thai Omelettes stuffed with ground meat, oysters, veg or tofu are delicious but the basic version above is cheap and tasty.
Omelette rice is the budget traveller’s friend. It’s often the cheapest thing on the menu. It may not sound very exciting but it’s good when you hit it with the condiments (Prik Nam Pla especialy
Thai spring rolls generally contain fine clear noodles. These are glass noodles or cellophane noodles. The fried roll will also contain finely shredded vegetables such as carrot, bean sprouts and cabbage. Vegetable spring rolls are common but shrimp, chicken, pork or tofu versions exist. They taste best with prik nam pla but sometimes come with syrupy commercial sweet chilli sauce.
A budget fall-back and an easy dish for kids, Thai fried rice is easy to find. Vegetable fried rice is common but meat or seafood versions exist. Sometimes fried rice contains egg, sometimes not. It’s just a mix-up of cooked white rice, veg, and proteins. I would never order this if there was something better available. We quite often order fried rice for breakfast for the kids.
Morning glory is a favourite vegetable in Thailand. It is very good stir-fried with garlic. Morning glory is a climbing plant from the sweet potato family and the leaves are delicious and nutritious. You’ll often see morning glory with garlic on a menu, in which case we would order it to share or be eaten alongside a soup or curry. I really love this dish and we ate it often in the hill tribe villages, the leaves picked fresh from the jungle.
Larp or Larb
Larb is a meat salad. Finely chopped meat (or tofu or mushrooms for a vegetarian version), usually cooked, mixed with herbs. This dish sometimes contains raw meat. I had raw minced pork this way years ago, which wasn’t clever.
Larb is really zingy with mint, lime juice, and fish sauce. If your larp is crunchy or grainy, it contains chopped toasted rice. You normally have sticky rice and raw vegetables and chilies served on the side. They do great laarp in Laos if you can find a good restaurant.
Thai salads are great but I haven’t had one in years because I love the soups and curries so much! We made a few on our cookery course and they were an absolute revelation. Shredded green papaya is a major ingredient, along with fish sauce, lime, and sometimes fearsom little dried shrimp. People will often call these dishes green papaya salads. Look for som tam on menus.
Thai Food for Vegans and Vegetarians
On the face of it, it may seem that Thailand is a paradise for vegans and vegetarians with every meat dish having a tofu-based alternative, but think again. Thai food, although often tofu-based, wasn’t created with vegans in mind and dried shrimp, fish sauce and oyster sauce are fairly ubiquitous. You will need to ask specifically for your dish to not contain these animal products.
There are plenty of vegan and vegetarian cafés and restaurants in Thailand now. However, they tend to be for tourists so prices are higher. There are exceptions, of course, there are some vegan and vegetarian food outlets aimed at local Thai people. More and more are opening as locals embrace veganism. There are few near the Hindu temple in Sukhumvit and one near the north wall in Chiang Mai, but you’ll need to hunt for them. Look out for yellow signs for vegetarian food restaurants. The Thai expressions for “no fish sauce please” and more, can be found here.
Which Thai Dishes to Order if You Don’t Like Spicy Food?
Order a tom kha soup, these are normally very mild. Alternatively, ask for a pad thai or a pad see ew. Both are fried noodle dishes that rarely contain much chili. Thai fried spring rolls are also a fairy safe non-spicy dish. You could also ask for your food to be served “mild”.
Thai Dishes Summary
Back in 1999, when I went to Thailand for the first time, I had never tried Thai cuisine other than dishes I had cooked myself. I’d religiously watched Keith Floyd and his Far Flung Floyd TV series bought his book and tried a few recipes.
I thought I was doing something wrong. I knew my Indian curries so the thin, soupy Thai curries just didn’t seem right to me. They were delicious, but maybe they needed thickening?
I got used to them on that trip to Thailand and I tried just about every new dish I found. A couple of years later we took a 3 day Thai cookery course in Chiang Mai. I’ve got a certificate to prove I can smash my own home made curry pastes, not that I ever do.
We’d never eaten so well as on that course. If you get the chance, take a Thai cooking class or multi-day course. You’ll find cookery courses all over Thailand, starting at just half a day. We’ve since taken several more cookery classes, along with our kids.
You can find whatever food you like in Thailand, pizzas, fries, sandwiches it’s all here. If you’re coming to Thailand and don’t fancy Thai food, you’re not going to starve. But give it a go. What is Thai food? Delicious!