Ben Finklestein

Epicurean guide to Thailand

Here are 3 reasons for lovers of Asian cuisine to take a culinary tour


If you love your local Thai restaurant, you'll be blown away by the culinary delights that await you in Thailand.
Here are 3 reasons for lovers of Asian cuisine to take a culinary tour of Thailand:

1) Variety. Your local Thai restaurant may have 50 different items on its menu. Come to Thailand and multiple the possibilities. 50? There are restaurants with 500 different dishes.

2) Freshness and flavor. It simply isn't possible for Thai restaurants outside Southeast Asia to have the fresh ingredients necessary to bring about the hearty, healthy, and authentic flavors you'll find in Thailand. Unlike culinary traditions that use dried herbs and spices, Thai cuisine in Thailand only uses fresh herbs. For these and other reasons, the world's best Thai food is in Thailand!

3) Ambiance. Imagine smiling waitresses in beautiful sarongs, while you dine in a gorgeous traditional teak building. Picture a stroll through a charismatic neighborhood on a quest for a legendary street hawker. My personal favorite: feasting at an authentic riverside night market with a beer or two.

Regional Specialties

In the north and northeast (Isaan), sticky rice is as common as regular steamed rice. Delicious sticky rice, Thai style salads (notably unripe papaya salad) and grilled meats are the unforgettable staples of Isaan cuisine. Khao Soi curried noodles are the dish of Chiang Mai, and shouldn't be missed. Tip: first time you try unripe papaya salad (som tam) make sure you only order 2 or 3 chilies, take it from me!
The Central Plains, the traditional heart of Thai culture, offer a tremendous array of fantastic eating options. This land of fish and rice is the home of Royal Thai Cuisine. Try local street vendors, such as the fantastic ones at Phitsanulok's vibrant riverside night market. Be sure to try Pad Thai, coconut milk based curries, steamed fishes, and for the adventurous - deep-fried insects.
The South is home to the hottest food in Thailand. Some of the world's freshest and most delicately prepared seafood is available on Thailand's coasts. Burmese and Malay influences are more palpable here. Don't miss spicy Thai-style shrimp soup (tam yum goong), spicy mung bean noodle salads, and sweet roti desserts.

Bangkok Culinary Scene

Without a doubt, Bangkok is the epicenter of Thai cuisine. Dishes from all over Thailand find their way to Bangkok. Intense competition leads to incredibly high standards. Inventive chefs specializing in Euro/Asian fusion find ready audiences. Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Chinese, Malaysian, and Indian foods are all readily available; occasionally they're fused with Thai ingredients to create some of the most interesting gastronomic mixes of in the world.
Try the street food! Street food has tremendous benefits: it's fun, it's cheap, it's (almost always) safe, and many vendors serve only one or two dishes, which means they are extremely specialized. All foodies should try a meal or two from a street vendor. Some particular local personalities, known to Thai foodies and a few culinary tour companies, are absolutely worth seeking out (a la Domenico De Marco in Brooklyn's Di Fara Pizza!).
Some insider tips: Try the vendors selling fruit on the street, it is almost always fresh, hygienic, and delicious! Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown at night is a wonderful culinary adventure; go with an empty stomach and an open mind. The neighborhood Pratunam can be overwhelming with its crowds and outdoor bazaars, but the assortment of street vendors here is absolutely incredible. If the food looks like it has been sitting around since last night, use common sense and move on. Lastly, remember to have fun and try whatever you think you might like - you probably will!

Eating Experiences not to be missed in Bangkok
Cabbages and Condoms - 6 Soi 12, Sukhumvit Road
This restaurant is easy to find, supports safe sex and responsible social development, and has an ambiance you will never, ever, forget. Oh yea - the food is delicious and relatively inexpensive. Fine for the family.

Baiyoke Sky Restaurant - 76th, 78th, 79th floors of the Baiyoke Sky Hotel, Bangkok
The Baiyoke Sky Hotel offers 2 different restaurants; one is a high quality international buffet (about 400 Thai baht for dinner + drinks) and the other a high end Chinese restaurant. The Chinese restaurant is passable, but the international buffet offers a great variety of dishes and unbeatable views of Bangkok. Go at night, right before sunset, to beat the crowds and to maximize the experience.

Chao Phraya River - Riverside Eats
You've got tons of options here, though mostly for tourists. There are high quality, reliable luxury options such as the restaurants in the Oriental and Shangri-la hotels. For delicious fine food consider getting picked up in a traditional teak boat by the Supatra River House, www.supatrariverhouse.net. Reservations recommended.

Across the river from Wat Arun, adjacent to Tha Tien Pier, is a small shopping bazaar with a few cheap riverside eating options. Walk through the bazaar, in the direction of the river, to find the eateries. The food is adequate, but the sunset views and inexpensive beers form an almost perfect combination after a long hot day of touring.
Lastly, the best chefs and restaurants constantly seem to always be on the move. Talk to locals, peruse trusted travel guides, and consider taking a culinary vacation with one of the culinary specialists listed below.

Food Vacations in Thailand

For lovers of Thai food, culinary tours in Thailand can be a fun and rewarding way to travel. There are a number of reasons - 1) Many offer very high quality services that are more interesting that more generic tourism packages. 2) They can take you to "insider" places. 3) Some of the companies listed below offer packages that will save you money (and time!). 4) Thailand, and especially it's culinary scene, can be difficult to navigate, in terms of the choice and wide range of quality. 5) Some tour companies, notably Global Taste Tours, is a sustainable tour operator, conscientious of being an agent of responsible tourism.

We believe the best deals currently available are offered by Global Taste Tours, www.globaltastetours.com. These guys offer terrific customized culinary and cooking vacations in Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. It seems they offer the best prices around.
High quality luxury options include the Artisans of Leisure http://www.artisansofleisure.com/ and Kensington tours http://www.kensingtontours.com/index.cfm Their tours are of a very high caliber, but will cost you about 1000 USD, or more, each day.
Two of the best cooking schools in the country are the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, http://www.thaicookeryschool.com/ and http://www.blueelephant.com/bangkok/index.html




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