My relationship with Thai food is quite complicated. My initial exposure to the cuisine occurred when I was quite young. In fact, I was so young that I didn't even know that it was Thai food. Hell, I only new Thailand from the tags on clothing.
Because I was a young child eating fried vegetables with chicken, it seemed just like Chinese food, but not as greasy. It didn't seem special or anything, but I enjoyed eating it when Thai restaurants were the only places open on Christmas. Little did I know that one day I would be eating it three meals a day, discovering far more interesting dishes than chicken with vegetables or pad see ew.
The first thing I want to say about Thai food is that it's not some healthy diet food like it's often made out to be. In fact, having typically cooked all my own food in America, I gained around 15 pounds within about a year of being here. I attribute this to the excessive amounts of sugar, unhealthy oils, and fatty meat that is typically used in Thai food, along with white rice being eaten at pretty much every meal. There are lots of healthy options available, but you really have to know what to order, where to look, and how to order your food.
If you live by yourself or often eat alone, you will probably end up ordering a lot of raad khao (one dish over rice). This will be your standard chicken with basil, chicken with curry paste and long beans, chicken with garlic, chicken with sweet yellow peppers, etc. These restaurants will also have fried rice, pad see ew, rad naa, etc. Your dishes will cost 30-45 Baht, once you add an egg are generally filling enough, and are super quick and easy.
However, the servings of meat are typically less than I would like them to be, and they certainly don't like to give you lots of vegetables. These are also the dishes likely to be saturated with oil and loaded with sugar. If you have a local restaurant that you go to often or can give very clear and explicit directions in Thai, you can manage to arrange for less of the bad stuff and more of the healthy. I used to eat this kind of food three meals a day, but living with my girlfriend, I generally only eat it for lunch on weekends now.
Noodles are another thing you may eat often if you live alone, and if you have a Thai significant other, they are even more likely to be a daily thing in your household. It kills me when my students tell me they ate "nooden" for lunch. Not because of the pronunciation which I've already corrected at least 100 times, but because it's such a boring and non-descriptive answer which does a tragic injustice to Thai noodle dishes. That statement may give one the impression that I love Thai noodle dishes. I actually don't, but I do appreciate their availability and variety.
You can get noodles 24-7 in Bangkok. I can walk less than 50 meters from my front door and choose from, Chinese egg noodles with dumplings and crispy pork, rice noodles with mixed beef, boat noodles, rice noodles with chicken and bitter melon, or even guay jub (however one would begin to describe that). I find that pretty amazing. The reason I don't love them is because eating noodle soup never leaves me full as if I've eaten a real meal, the same way Thais don't feel full when they eat pizza. As the noodle dishes are served, again there is almost never any substantial amount of vegetables, but there is typically a basket of bitter melon, basil, bean sprouts, or something that you can load your soup up with.
If you work in an office, there are likely no less than 10 vendors directly in front of it serving a variety of types of food throughout the work day. My two go to lunches are khao rad gaeng (which my coworkers call point and choose two items over rice) or nam prik. I'm lucky to have a nice Thai restaurant directly next to my school which sells 3 item khao rad gaeng for 45-60 Baht depending what you get. It runs out fast, so it's always super fresh. There are usually about 20 different options, so you have lots of choices, and it's behind glass, so it at least makes you feel as if it's clean.
I'm also blessed to have a sweet old lady who sells great nam prik, bags of raw or steamed vegetables, fried tofu/chicken ball skewers, omelettes, fried fish, etc. right in front of my school every day. For lunch today I got 2 bags of sticky rice, 2 chicken ball skewers, beef naem, nam prik bla too, and a bag of raw vegetables for 45 Baht. I think that's an incredible deal, especially because I love to eat lots of raw vegetables. She also gives me something extra for free pretty much every time I go there, and that makes me a little happier every day.
But what I really love about Thai food is the food that you eat when share with other people. I'll break this down into two categories of food. There is khao dtom and there is Isaan food. Isaan food is what I typically eat three meals a day. Khao dtom is for me a more special thing that I might do every week or two on a weekend with my girlfriend. I would never wake up and go eat khao dtom for breakfast. However, on a Saturday morning, a big Isaan meal is exactly what I want.
Khao dtom is boiled rice soup. It's plain and watery and soft. If you order it by itself it will have pork or something in it and have a more flavorful broth, but when you go to a khao dtom restaurant, it will just be boiled rice in water that you eat instead of plain steamed rice with the other dishes that you order.
If I go to a khao dtom restaurant, I'm usually going to order 3-4 of the following: something spicy with frog, crispy pork fried with the Thai equivalent of Brussel sprouts, Tom yum, fried morning glory, spicy chicken feet soup, a steamed fish with lime, garlic, and chillies, or an omelette. I love khao dtom places because they are cheap at 40-150 Baht a dish, they are casual and relaxing, and big bottles of beer are usually 60-80 Baht a bottle.
Finally, Isaan food is the real reason that I love Thai food. Isaan food in my opinion has the best range of flavors and the most interesting ingredients. Isaan restaurants are also often going to be the places where you get the best service and the biggest smiles, unless you go to a crappy one, but there should be enough close by that you can avoid crappy ones pretty easily.
Similarly to khao dtom places, Isaan places are only worth visiting if you have eat least one other person with you. This is because you should order at least 2-3 different dishes in order to get a range of flavors and ingredients.
I usually eat Isaan food in one of two different ways. The first is when I eat it for dinner on a weeknight. I'll usually order gaeng om (an Isaan soup) with pork and some variety of som tam, probably tam Korat or tam boo bla raa. I'll steam my own rice at home and make an omelette with a few eggs.
This is a perfect meal for two people because you get plenty of vegetables, pork, egg, rice, and papaya. It will also only cost about 80-120 baht for two people to be completely full. I do this one to three times a week and I never get bored, especially since you can switch up the types of som tam.
The second way I eat Isaan food is going all out, ordering 5 different things, and stuffing my face. I'll usually do this on a Friday night at my favorite sit down Isaan place on Inthamara 47 with a few beers, or order carry out from one of my local places for a Saturday morning brunch. These two moments are when I truly appreciate the food which this wonderful country has introduced to me.
You've obviously got to get som tam when you're eating Thai food, but the question is what kind to get. Thai style som tam at most places is horrible and not spicy at all, but my favorite restaurant has amazing Thai style som tam with grilled pork neck or fresh shrimp. If I don't get that, I might get Korat style or throw in some pork rinds. Tam Korat is basically Thai style but they add fermented fish sauce.
You've got som tam, so now you need some meat. My girlfriend's favorite meat dish is goy kua. It's basically larb, but it's got bile in it to make it bitter. Sounds disgusting, but it's pretty delicious. Leave it to me and I'll probably order grilled pork neck or grilled intestines to snack on if I'm not in the mood for larb. If we don't order any of those, it's probably because we've got a gigantic salt crusted grilled fish.
Next you need a soup. One of my favorite things about Isaan food is all the different soups. Gaeng om is the one we eat most often, but I also love dtom saep and gaeng het. Dtom saep is basically the Isaan equivalent of tom tam, although that's a drastic oversimplification. Gaeng het is a thick and spicy soup with fermented fish sauce, mushroom, pumpkin, and other vegetables.
The spice of life
So clearly from the amount of time I spent here focusing on Isaan food, it's something that I'm passionate about. I love it for a few reasons, but one of the main ones is that it is much healthier than central Thai food. There are tons of raw, steamed, and boiled vegetables, and the meat is usually grilled or boiled instead of being fried in oil. I also love that it is spicy.
Being someone who ate food spicier than most Thai people eat even when I lived in America, getting food that isn't spicy here is always a let down. If you know your local Isaan cooks, you will never suffer that let down. My personal blog is full of Isaan stuff, so I'll end that subject here, and if you care to read more, you can go ahead and check that out
To finish up this entry which was much longer than I realized it would be, I'd like to say that Thai food is what you make of it. If you don't try new things, it will get boring fast. If you don't know what the healthy options are, it can be a bit daunting. And if you don't like rice, you're screwed. Anyone new to Thailand should definitely start experimenting with new foods as soon as possible. I have lived here for three years and am still finding new things to eat pretty much every week.
I hope you enjoyed reading this. Please pay a visit to my own personal blog site. Mike Curl.