What do you order? What can you order? The need to eat is essential no matter where you are in the world, but this can be tricky in a foreign country, especially if you don’t know what you’re looking at. Whether you’re a foodie, an adventurous eater, or just want to learn more about what’s available in Thailand, learn some of the following vocabulary and phrases so you are equipped to get what’s really important: food!
For the most authentic experience, street food is the way to go. There is no shortage of this anywhere in Thailand. These stalls usually specialize in just one dish that can be made in a number of ways, and can be found literally by the road or at a mall food court. Think stalls dedicated to just pad thai, roasted duck that can be put over rice or noodles, Hainanese chicken, or papaya salad. This specialization allows the vendor to make sure what they’re selling is really really good, rather than selling a bunch of dishes that are just… so-so. Of course, there are street vendors and little restaurants that are a-haan dam sang (literally “food that follows the order”). These small eateries have a few more seats and tables and here, you can order almost anything and they will make it, provided they have the ingredients for it. These are the restaurants you can get khao pad (fried rice), gaeng (curry), and pad gaprao (holy basil stir fries) at, all under one roof. Starting at just 30-40 baht (just a little over $1 USD), street food is also the cheapest way to go.
Many of the aforementioned dishes can also be found in “proper” restaurants. These restaurants are air-conditioned and are often more pricey due to rent and, unlike street stalls, the need to hire staff for serving, cooking, and cleaning. This is the same for non-Thai cuisine. At street stalls, it’s usually just a couple of people that run the entire show. These places are generally also much cleaner and have less of a chance to give you food poisoning. Many who are not as well-traveled experience something called “Bangkok belly” when they eat street food – digestive issues that are related to food poisoning. Of course, this is not to say that eating at “proper” restaurants will have you in the clear when it comes to feeling sick. Many who experience symptoms of food poisoning haven’t digested improperly stored or prepared food – their stomachs are just not used to the bacteria on the local food and their bodies are reacting to the foreign vegetables and proteins.
For your safety, always check out the place before you start ordering. Look to see if perishables are on ice or safely stored away, and if the person cooking is also the same person handling money. Are they washing their hands? Are there a lot of people? Most places with lots of foot traffic are generally safe – their high turnover rate means their ingredients haven’t been sitting there for hours or even days. And, as always, if you want to know which place has tasty food, always look to see where the locals, not tourists, go.
Now, onto the vocabulary for food!
Some things to note:
-Thai food is very customizable. You can pick your choice of protein or vegetable, and they will make the dish with it if it is available. Keep that in mind as you learn about the dishes. For example, if you don’t like pork, request it with another protein.
-Words starting with the /r sound are often interchanged to the /l sound, such as “raeng” pronounced “laeng”.
-Don’t forget to add ka or khrap at the end of all questions and statements to sound polite!
-Refer to Thai Language – Part 1: Basic Rules & FAQ’s for a refresher course for Thai language basics
-Refer to Thai Language – Part 3: General Phrases & Vocabulary for basic vocabulary you can use in everyday conversation
Any words and phrases that are *bolded with asterisks* will be ones you will hear more commonly in Thailand.
- Methods of Cooking
- Herbs & Spices
- Sauces & Condiments
- Animal Products
Methods of Cooking
While vegetable dishes aren’t the first to come to mind when most think of Thai cuisine, vegetables are a huge part of eating. Locals eat vegetables with almost every meal, usually using to compliment the main dish. It’s not uncommon to find sliced cucumber next to your fried rice, or have your papaya salad come with a small plate of raw greens and herbs. Stir fried vegetable dishes are also very popular.
Herbs & Spices
Thai cuisine would not be Thai cuisine if it weren’t for its abundance use of herbs and spices. These flavoring agents give certain dishes a distinct flavor.
Sauces & Condiments
The following are not sauces or condiments, but because they’re a commonly added to food, they should be mentioned. Thai food is delicious and flavorful, but, unfortunately, has rampant use of MSG and sugar in its cooking. If you are concerned about your sodium or sugar intake, be sure to request that they cook your food without them.
Tropical fruits are generally a new experience for many people that’s not as daunting as trying entire new dishes.
In the next installment of this series, we will go over specifying orders and making special requests, which is extremely useful if you have a dietary restriction!