A huge part of what we loved about living in Thailand was the food. Often when people ask us about our stay or we start reminiscing about Thailand, food always comes up. We are regularly asked: what did we eat, how much did it cost, did we cook at home, is the street food safe, is it all spicy, do we miss it? Here is everything you want to know about food in Thailand.
We had a balance of street food, cheap restaurants, occasional western food and cooking at home. In between there were a lot of snacks.
Almost on a daily basis I would visit the local street markets. Here I bought all of our fresh fruit, vegetables, herbs and spices. A lot of our pre-bought snack food came from here as well. – the dried fruit was amazing.
We could have bought our meat and seafood at the markets too but I wasn’t quite ready to make this leap, so our meat was bought at Tesco. Tesco is like a cross between Woolworths and a Big W store and we bought most of our dry goods and pantry basics here. Occasionally we shopped at Rimping, the fancy supermarket for ‘farang’ (foreigners) that stocked all imported brands and goods that were priced accordingly.
If you want to cook for yourself you need to find somewhere to live that has been set up with a kitchen, which is rare, or has space to set up your appliances. You can easily buy a small portable oven and a hot plate in either China Town or the big Department stores along with kettles, blenders, rice cookers and so on.
Cooking for yourself can be quite tricky if you are trying to recreate Thai flavours, but they do have ready-to-go type meal kits. At the markets you can buy flavour bouquets made up ready for all the different types of meals, for example you may buy a lemongrass stalk, a small piece of galangal, some coriander, and a chilli all tied up in string ready for just one meal. There are also big baskets of pre cut and mixed veggies for stir-fries and such. At Tesco you could buy a small tray with everything you need to cook yourself a meal for one. For example the pad thai tray had a small pile of uncooked rice stick noodles, a small bag of chicken, a couple of prawns, some tofu, a shallot, some bean shoots, a packet of sauce, an egg and maybe half a lime. The price is the same as buying it at a street stall and I tried it a couple of times but it never tasted as good.
There are plenty of cooking classes around the city if you wanted to learn how to make some different dishes or do as we did and make friends with some locals and get their recipes. When we cooked at home it was usually simple western type food such as pasta, toasties, cupcakes or soups. A stove top can also be good for reheating food bought at the markets.
Street food is the best food you will get in Thailand. But a lot of people worry about whether it is safe to eat, is it hygienic, is the food stored properly, is it clean? The basic rule is to eat where the locals eat and use common sense. If it is a busy stall the food must be good. And a quick look at how the food is stored, prepared and cooked will give an indication of the hygiene levels – this is easy to do as there is no where to hide in a street stall. Trust your judgement. Using these basic rules, not once have I ever been sick from eating street food. The worst that can happen is you don’t like the taste and you have wasted about a dollar.
Street food is available pretty much everywhere you go in Thailand, the Thai’s love to eat. Sometimes it is just snacks like a stall selling drinks and packets of chips, or fresh snacks like bags of sliced fruit, meat skewers, pastries and such. Then there are the stalls that sell full meals. Mobile street stalls usually specialise in one dish and do it amazingly well. Some street stalls are semi-permanent and will offer a few different choices, these stalls will usually have some seating, which will be plastic chairs but you will get proper cutlery and a small serviette. Unless you are on the tourist strip the stall holders will not speak much English, if any, so you will need to learn some basic phrases or just point at what you would like.
Some cooks will give you exactly what they are giving everyone else, it usually all comes out of one big pot anyway, but others will try and westernise it for you. Sometimes this is a good thing as they tame down the chillis or give you a better cut of meat, other times they take all the flavour out of a dish.
From this you step up to small restaurants. You will probably still be sitting on plastic chairs but it is usually inside and there is a kitchen (sometimes easily seen). The menu, if there is one, is more extensive though not always available in English, but if you are lucky they may have pictures. You can get them to choose for you by asking for their favourite or the most popular dish, or revert to pointing at what others are having.
Then there are the tourist restaurants which are a bit fancier with proper seating, napkins, air conditioning, English menus and jacked up prices. The food here is never as tasty as street food and you can never see the kitchen so you have no idea what sort of hygiene is happening behind the closed door. You can find good places in this category but try and go on recommendation and go where it is really busy. It is eating at these restaurants that you are most likely to get sick and least likely to experience the country’s real food.
Parallel to this option you also have the Western restaurants that serve western food – pizzas, burgers and fries, ribs, Italian, and Mexican. This sort of food is expensive, for Thai standards, mostly because the ingredients are expensive to import and if you want this type of food you will have the money to pay for it. And you also have the option of franchised fast food like McDonalds and Subway.
With all the food you are bound to consume you also need a drink. Water is a must and is cheap and readily available. To stay hydrated properly be sure to not only drink purified water but also mineral water that hasn’t been striped of all the good stuff that helps keep water in your body. In Chiang Mai the tap water is fine for brushing your teeth and such but I wouldn’t drink it.
Fresh fruit shakes were almost a daily drink for us. They are fresh, healthy, filling and thirst quenching. Everyone says to avoid ice when you are travelling or you will get sick. News flash – locals don’t like to get sick either. They aren’t going to be drinking water or ice from contaminated sources. For the most part and certainly everywhere I saw, they buy their ice pre-made in bulk from reputable places. The ice is safe. There are good and bad shakes. The good ones are made on fruit and ice, that’s it. Some places add some sugar syrup, you can ask them not to use it if you prefer. Some places water their fruit down. But they are all made fresh on the spot and wherever you are there is probably a shake stall within walking distance of you.
Coconuts are a popular choice too. A pop health faze in the west, these guys have been drinking coconut water for as long as they can remember. You can buy the whole coconut where they will slice the top off on the spot (this is important as the water inside goes rancid if cut and left to sit in the open) and give you a straw and a spoon to scoop out the soft flesh on the inside. You can also buy coconut water at some of the fruit shake stalls where it is served in a plastic cup with ice.
Soda Manao was another favourite of mine. You could buy it canned but fresh was much better. It is just lime juice and soda with sugar syrup sometimes added for you, or offered on the side so you can make it as sweet or not as you prefer.
Thai iced tea (cha yen) is a drink made on a strong brew of ceylon tea, sweetened with condensed milk and topped with whole milk over ice. At street stalls you often can buy this in a plastic bag with a straw stuck in it. Ceylon tea can be expensive so there are cheaper versions made on black tea with food colouring to get the orangey-red colour. Some people also add tamarind seeds and other spices and often sugar is mixed in too. There are also fruity iced teas, often served out of big terracotta pots, with flavours such as roselle, lemongrass, hibiscus, chrysanthemum and pandanus.
Thai iced coffee (kah-feh yen) is delicious too. It is made with a strong espresso or Thai filtered coffee – alone it is very bitter but this is balanced out by the sweetness of the condensed milk that is added to it. This is then poured over ice and topped with milk (sometimes evaporated milk or cream are used). Some people also add cardamom which is an interesting addition. You can buy this pretty much anywhere from a mobile vendor, a street stall, cafes, restaurants. Hunt out your favourite barista. The coffee culture is popular in Thailand with many good small coffee shops to be found, along with the big franchises such as Starbucks and local franchises such as Wawee and Black Canyon. We even found a great place called Akha Ama which had a coffee plantation up in the hills and made incredible coffee in town. The owner, Lee must be so proud of the leaps and bounds his business is making as it grows in popularity.
Of course standard bottled drinks are readily available – iced teas, fizzy drinks, and energy drinks that I am pretty sure exceed any recommended intake of caffeine. Thai’s are hooked on this stuff and you will often see them gulping down an M150 – yes it is as potent as it sounds. Probiotic drinks like Yalkult are everywhere and a good idea to have every so often to keep your tummy in good shape and dilute all the chillies. I’d try and avoid the heavily sugared flavoured versions and just have the plain shot.
And lastly, we come to alcohol. The Thai beer options are primarily Singha, Chang and Leo. They don’t really drink wine though it is available. Wine imports can range from cheap and nasty to good but expensive. Then there are the local spirits. I didn’t touch this stuff as whisky or rum isn’t really my taste so I can’t comment too much on it. But all spirits are available. You can buy your alcohol at your local 7-11 or supermarket between the hours of 11am-2pm and 5pm-12pm. During election time or certain religious days you cannot buy it at all. Otherwise head to your local bar or restaurant.
What is the food like?
Thai food is all about balancing the flavours making each dish quite complex as sweet, salty, bitter and sour must be just right. Because of this fine balancing act that the cook must do, each dish is different. You can try the same dish from several different places and they will all vary. This makes it very exciting every time you eat. But my point is to keep this in mind because you may not like a dish from one seller but like it from another. And there comes a balancing act once you do find an amazing place to eat – to tell or not to tell. You might want to shout it from the roof tops and tell everyone you meet about it or you may like to keep it to yourself and preserve the special place from becoming overrun with tourists which I think ultimately destroys any of the original flavour. Are you a sharer, or a secret keeper? Me – I think I am somewhere in between.
The Thai’s love hot meals full of spice and chilli’s and there is always a small basket or tray of additions including nam som prik (sliced chillies in vinegar) for sour, prik pon (dried red chilli, usually flaked or ground)for heat, namtaan (white sugar) for sweet, nam blaa (fish sauce, sometimes with sliced chillis in it) for salty, and sometimes some ground peanuts. That being said, not everything is spicy and you can always ask for them to make it mild which they will often do as soon as they see you.
While Thai food is very fresh if you are not careful it is not really very good for you. A lot of the food is fried, sugar is added to everything and there is always rice or noodles served with a dish. This is great for a holiday but if you are living on this food you need to watch what you eat or be prepared for the consequences.
Breakfast for us was at home most days – cereal, toast and fruit. If you want a western breakfast such as toast, muesli, bacon and eggs, pancakes or such you have to wait until around 10am for the cafes to open. I don’t think they were very good at recreating Western breakfasts but the pancakes were good. A typical Thai breakfast is usually a rice porridge, omelet and rice, or a soup all of which are readily available from an early hour around the street stalls as they all make their way to work. Lunch was usually just grabbed at a street stall at the markets, either sit down or take away to sit in the air con back home. For dinner, sometimes my husband would grab something from the markets on the way home from work, sometimes we would go out to a simple restaurant or the night markets, we even had the option of a meals on wheels service that would go and collect your order and deliver it to the door for 50B ($1.50).
Snacks can be both sweet and savoury and can include fresh fruit, often sliced into a bag and served with a stick and optional little bag of a salty sugar mixture (love it or hate it); coconut milk based sweets often wrapped in a banana leaf, roti with condensed milk and other toppings, puffy sweet potato gems, small fish cakes, spring rolls both fresh and fried, really I could go on and on.
A special little note for those with kids. Let them eat what you eat and they will be fine. Watch what milk you buy and be sure it is pasteurised and has no added sugar. Formula is everywhere if this is something you need, just watch what is in it, again sugar can be an issue. There is a lot of sugar used in pretty much everything. And most packaged snacks are full of MSG. Lastly, Thai’s love food on a stick and so do kids, just watch them with the pointy ends.
Street Food ranges from 5B-30B for a single dish (15cents to $1)
A meal in a small restaurant – a plate of food, rice and a drink 40-70B ($1.25 – $2.20)
Fancy Thai Restaurant 3 courses for 500B ($16)
A takeaway pizza from The Dukes 450B ($14)
Meal Deal at McDonalds 100B ($3.10)
Mango Pancakes 60B ($1.90)
Fruit Shake 20-30B (60cents – $1)
Iced Coffee or Tea 25B (80cents)
Cappucino at Franchise 55B ($1.70)
Large Singha Beer 630ml from 7-11 80B ($2.50)
Bottle of (bad) wine 500B ($16)
Bottle of Milk 1L 65B ($2)
Can of Lipton Iced Tea 30B ($1)
Coming up, I am going to write a bit more about specific dishes you would eat in Thailand, the good, the bad and the downright scary. As well as some useful phrases for ordering food.Love it. Follow me. . .