So, why “Land of Freedom”? It turns out that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country that hadn’t been colonized during the Colonial Era. By the time of second World War, Thailand was surrounded by French and British colonies, and the people took pride in its independence. In 1938, to celebrate the country’s untainted identity, Field Marshal Phibul Songkhram renamed the country to “Thailand”, where “Thai” means freedom. As a result, Thai culture has little noticeable European influence, which makes it seem even more unique and mysterious. I’d admit: it actually took me many years to finally learn to enjoy Thai food.
Speaking of Thai food, I feel it’s one of those culinary adventures that we need a lot of guidance to understand. Many of us haven’t lived in tropical climates and experienced the effect of it on our appetite, so at first it might seem odd how almost everything is spicy and sour. Yes, it’ll take some time to get used to, but once you do, you’ll find yourself in a wonderland of flavors.
Breaking It Down
To better understand Thai cuisine, let’s begin with a map of the Southeast Asia:
Do you see how Thailand is in the heart of Indochina Peninsula? It borders Myanmar to the Northwest, Laos to the Northeast, Cambodia to the East, and at the very southern tip, Malaysia. Naturally, Thai cuisine absorbs different elements from surrounding countries and make them its own, and it does it so well that many Thai dishes with foreign influence became representative of Thailand and their true origins were over-shadowed. For example, the northern pork stew takes inspiration from Burmese cuisine of Myanmar, while many of the popular stir-fried rice noodles are very similar to their counterparts from China, Laos and Malaysia.
The country’s topography also plays a large role in defining the diversity of Thai cuisine. Take a look at the satellite map above – the dark green areas represent mountains and the lighter areas are flat plains. It’s interesting how Thailand managed to occupy the entirety of the rich, sweeping central plain, where the grass is green and the girls are pretty, and built a strong economy there. Then, the arid Khorat Plateau to the east of the central plain is much less prosperous due to climate and soil condition. It neighbors the mountainous region way up north, where the weather is milder and so is the food, in contrast to that of the hot, humid “deep south” hugging the Gulf of Thailand.
In terms of geographical locations, one can categorize Thai cuisine into four styles:
Northern Thailand used to be part of the Lanna Kingdom, and the local culture is pretty different from the rest of Thailand. The people there don’t have to deal with tropical climates, so there’s not much incentive to make the food extremely sour and spicy. Coconut trees also don’t grow in the mountains of Northern Thailand, and therefore uncommon in the local cuisine. As the main source of protein, there is a lot of pork in the diet – fried pork skin, pork curry, pork soup, fermented pork, braised trotters, pork sausage, pork blood, ground pork sauce… The creativity never ends. Similarly, as an integral part of the northern flavor profile, the chili peppers also receive quite a bit of creative attention. There are as many as twenty varieties of chili pastes (Nam Phrik), ranging from fresh to dry, and from roasted to sauteed.
The Khorat Plateau right next to Laos is home to many former Lao people, so the local cuisine is very similar to that of Laos. It’s much less known outside Thailand due to the dishes being a bit… unorthodox. For example, one of the local favorites is Laab, or Larb. It’s a mixture of minced raw meat, raw blood, toasted rice, and lots and lots of spices. Personally I can’t imagine anyone in the western world able to enjoy this dish, not to mention water bugs, ant eggs, snails and such – no wonder Northeastern style Thai food is grossly under-represented outside the country. But there is one exception – the Som Tam, or green papaya salad, which has become a must-have in many American Thai restaurants.
Notably, Northeastern Thais generally prefer sticky rice over jasmine rice. The custom is to form a bite-size rice ball with your hand and then dip into curry or stews before eating.
Central Thai Style
Central Thailand, with the capital city Bangkok at its heart, is home to the majority of Thai dishes we have familiarized ourselves with in the West. As a hub of commerce and transportation, central Thailand takes inspirations from many countries involved in the Southeastern Silk Road trades, especially China and Muslim nations like Malaysia. Interestingly, if you pay attention to Thai restaurant menus, you’ll notice that aside from fried noodles or fried rice, you rarely see pork as a main ingredient. Perhaps it’s due to the Muslim influence. Instead of pork, fish (often freshwater ones) and chicken are the main source of protein. Aside from the usual sour and spicy, the flavor profile often leans towards sweet and coconut-y. From curries to Tom Yum soup, coconuts are widely used here. The overall feel of central Thai food is “royal” – mild, graceful, and refined.
Southern Thai Style
Braced between the Andaman Sea and Gulf of Thailand, southern Thailand has convenient access to seafood. Malaysian influence is particularly heavy here, with emphasis on turmeric and hot chili, often in the form of yellow curry. The Muslim culture of Malaysia also brought the kebabs from West Asia, which became the famous Satay – skewers of chicken or seafood grilled over charcoal. Coconut milk is often added to counter-balance the heavy spices.
Dining Etiquette of Thai Cuisine
I just wanted to share something interesting I found about dining etiquette in Thailand. First of all, unlike China and Vietnam, they don’t use chopsticks. The only exception may be with certain soupy noodles, but then again, noodles aren’t traditional Thai food.
The primary utensils for Thai cuisine are the fork and spoon. When you go to a proper Thai restaurant, most likely you’ll just receive a fork and a spoon wrapped inside your napkin. No chopsticks unless you ask. The fork’s job is to push the food into your spoon, while the spoon scoops up the food and brings it to your mouth, simple as that. But to properly use them, you’ll need to make sure to scoop away from you with the spoon, not towards you, and the fork moves in the opposite direction to help the spoon.
If you feel overwhelmed by all these rules, it’s OK – just remember to hold the fork in your left hand and the spoon in your right, and dig in as you wish!
Common Dishes in Thai Restaurants
There are a lot of dishes in Thai cuisine, but only a small subset can be found in Thai restaurants in the US. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since we can focus our study on these popular items and really learn about what makes it good, and how to identify the pretenders from the contenders.
The “Tom Yum” Soup
The meaning behind these two words is a bit awkward to translate. Tom (pronounced like “dome”) means “to boil”, while “Yum” (or Yam) refers to the action of mixing raw ingredients, usually with spicy and sour dressings. Putting them together, “Tom Yum” is referring to boiling a spicy and sour salad and turn it into a soup. The most common protein ingredient is shrimp, therefore in Thailand you usually see this dish named “Tom Yum Goong”, where “Goong” means shrimp.
So what makes the soup sour? It’s a combination of lemongrass, lime, tomatoes, and sometimes tamarind. It’s a complex tanginess that doesn’t sting like vinegar, but instead makes you keep eating more and more. Authentic Tom Yum uses the leaves of Kaffir Lime native to Southeast Asia, which has a distinctive, stronger citrus taste over ordinary limes. Additionally, Galangal roots are often added to boost zestiness and complement the flavor of lemongrass. Depending on the region, Tom Yum may or may not include coconut milk, but the purpose of coconut milk is to tune down the level of sourness and spiciness.
Tom Yum soup is like a orchestra with only the loudest instruments, and the trick is to balance them so no one flavor overpowers the others. It should be just sour enough to stimulate appetite, with just the right amount of sugar to soothe the taste, but not too spicy to make all your taste buds burn. And then, all the exotic herbs work together to bring out the noticeable tropical flair – something distinctively “Thai”. Finally, just a small amount of coconut milk can go a long way to sand off the rough edges. If you find a restaurants whose Tom Yum soup meets this standard – do come back!
There are also variants of the Tom Yum with pretty much the same ingredients, but a different level of balance makes them completely new dishes. For example, the Tom Kha soup bumps up the amount of Galangal root (which is where the “Kha” comes from) and coconut milk, resulting in a thin soup with the appearance of a white creamy bisque, but also the taste of a more herbal version of Tom Yum.
Now, speaking of curry, we are deep in the territory of traditional Thai food. Going back hundreds of years in history, before any western or Chinese influence arrived, cooking vegetables and meats in a stew was the best thing to eat with rice. It had nothing to do with Indian cuisine and calling it “curry” is rather, I would say, for the lack of better terms. In Thailand, people call it “Kaeng”, meaning saucy, soupy dishes.
Curry, by definition, is a mixture of many different flavors. But unlike Indian curries which are stews seasoned with dried spice mix, Thai curries use pre-made pastes of mostly herbs and chili peppers. Their flavor profiles are very distant from what we usually consider as “curry”. There are three main types of curry pastes in Thailand: red, green, and yellow.
Red curry paste is red because of the dried chili peppers. As you can imagine, it can be pretty spicy, but more on the “warming” side than straight up mouth burn. It’s often used to flavor soup – red, clear, spicy soup with no coconut milk to cool it down, as well as stews of red meats such as beef and lamb.
Green curry paste uses fresh green chili instead of dry. Combined with other fresh herbs, it gives off that vibrant green color to the stew. Green curry stew can be spicy too, but in a refreshing, tangy way, and it usually contains coconut milk.
The versatile yellow curry is influenced by Malaysian cuisine. In addition to the normal spices from red or green curry, it also has turmeric which makes it yellow. It’s the least spicy kind among the three, most popular in southern Thailand for seasoning seafood stews.
Since there’s no set rules that define the “authenticity” of Thai curry, every restaurant is free to express their own interpretation of it. Generally, if you can’t take heavy spices and heat, go for the yellow curry, or the green curry if yellow is not available.
If you are not familiar with Thai cuisine, like I was just a couple of years ago, the “safest” items to order in a Thai restaurant would be the stir-fried noodles: Pad Thai, Pad See Ew, Pad Kee Mao (or “Drunken Noodle”), Pad Woo Sen, and less commonly Rad Na. Even though they are mostly adaptations of similar dishes from China, I would still consider them as authentic Thai food simply because – the Thais love them so much.
Thin, wide rice noodles are not native of Thailand, and neither is the practice of stir-frying, or “Pad”. Moreover, one important ingredient of stir-fried noodles, the soy sauce, is also a foreigner which you rarely see in traditional Thai dishes. That’s why we have the Pad See Ew, literally “fried soy sauce”, an almost exact replica of the classic Cantonese 干炒牛河 (stir-fried noodle with beef). The idea behind this dish is to use the extreme heat of the wok to do the last-step cooking, slightly burning the fat and soy sauce to achieve a unique fragrance. As you can imagine, this “extreme heat” is not something typical households would have access to, therefore even in Thailand, stir-fried noodles is a street food. You will find stalls of noodle shop with their fifty-thousand BTU gas ranges out on the street and away from buildings, releasing hot fumes and mouth-watering aroma into the city block. Pad See Ew is usually the main focus of these street stands.
If you want something bolder, Pad Kee Mao or literally “fried drunkard” is basically Pad See Ew tuned up a big notch, with more chili and garlic. The heavier pungency is supposed to help the drunkards sober up, and hence the name “drunken noodle”. Another variant is Pad Woo Sen, which uses mung bean starch noodle instead of rice noodle. The starch noodle has a transparent appearance, so some restaurants may refer to it as “glass noodle”.
The famous Pad Thai, on the other hand, is a completely different beast. First of all, you won’t find a second dish in Thailand with the name of the country. It’s special. It was said that near the end of WW2, to ease the imminent rice shortage, Field Marshal Phibul Songkhram encouraged people to eat more rice noodles which consumes less crop. But since rice noodle is not a Thai tradition, to preserve national pride, he named the rice noodle dish “Pad Thai”. It has remained a symbol of pride for Thailand ever since.
Seasoning for Pad Thai consists of tamarind, palm sugar, and fish sauce (Note there is no soy sauce or tomato!). These ingredients are combined with water and simmered down to a thick sauce that’s sweet, sour, and salty, and it gives the Pad Thai its signature golden-orange appearance. A properly cooked plate of Pad Thai should never be too dark or too light in color, or drenched in sauce. Crushed peanuts should be sprinkled on top rather than mixed into the noodles (or better yet, served on the side so you can sprinkle along as you eat, but I’ve never seen a restaurant generous with peanuts like that). The mung bean sprouts should be served raw rather than stir-fried to help lighten your taste buds.
There are also a large variety of non-stir-fried rice noodle dishes, known as “Kuai Tiao” [guay-tiu]. It’s a phonetic adaptation of “粿条” loved by the Cantonese and Teochew. The rice noodles may come in sauce, soup, or even salad.
Thai Fried Rice
Fried rice is also not a traditional Thai dish. The beloved pineapple fried rice served in a carved half pineapple is probably the most well-known around the world, but personally I feel it’s more of a fad for tourists. Nonetheless, I love the unique flavor and texture of Thai fried rice, and I have dedicated an entire blog article on Thai fried rice and a detailed recipe, which I discovered after gaining a ton of weight.
As I mentioned in that article, Thai fried rice is much more oily than Chinese and Japanese version. It also includes a lot more vegetable ingredients which results in a “wet” consistency.
The Papaya Salad
Papaya salad, or Som Tam, is a popular dish from northeastern Thai, also known as the Isaan region. It uses unripe green papayas, shredded and marinaded in lime, ginger, fish sauce, and hot chili. Traditionally, shredding the papayas seems to be a quite dangerous job. Instead of slicing on a cutting board, the cook holds the papaya in one hand, and with a sharp cleaver chop numerous parallel incisions. Then, each tangential slice against the incisions will produce a handful of shredded papaya. The Thais will not accept it any other way! Interestingly, Som Tam is one of the very few salads from Thailand that don’t contain meat. “Salad” in Thailand usually means some type of meat and herbs mixed together with a spicy and sour dressing.
Thai Food Restaurant Guide
From my own experience, it seems like restaurants who claim to be Thai has the tendency to serve Asian fusion instead of authentic Thai. After all, not everyone can be Andrew Zimmern. But if you are looking for the authentic experience, in this section I will provide a list of remarkable restaurants serving classic dishes you would find in Thailand.
A Handy-Book for Your Convenience
Before we begin, I would like to offer you something I made. Understanding the menu has always been a big challenge for me with dining in Thai restaurants. The names of dishes are often written in its Thai pronunciation which I couldn’t translate, and no one has the time to do Google research of the entire menu. So I invested a few weeks of my free time to develop a small hand book to make anyone’s Thai food experience easier. The hand book helps in two ways: first, there’s a list of common food-related Thai vocabulary that will help you read the menu. Then, I listed around sixty most commonly seen Thai dishes in American restaurants, with a short and right-on-the-point description for each. This way, you will know exactly what to expect from the dish: the taste, the key ingredients, the nomenclature, and even its proper pronunciation. Equipped with this hand book you can be the Thai food expert in your dinner group!
You can use the link below to download this hand book. Thank you for supporting my work!
Banana Leaf Thai Cuisine in Far North Dallas has the deep fried cat fish with sweet and spicy chili sauce, a Texan interpretation of the Pla Rad Prik. There’s also a bigger selection of curry including seafood yellow curry, Panang curry, and the southern Thai classic Massaman curry. You’ll find a similar experience with Thai Orchid in Addison.
Bambu Asian Cuisine just two miles east of Banana Leaf is a good place to sample some northeastern classics. This time, I’m not just referring to the papaya salad. One thing unique about northeastern Thai cuisine is the love of beef, possibly influenced by Laos and Vietnam. The Esan (Isaan) Beef Jerky from the appetizer menu is a Laos specialty. It’s not just dried beef, but dried beef quickly deep-fried for a richer taste. There’s also the Esan (Isaan) “Waterfall” Beef Salad, which is similar to the Laab/Larb except the meat is in strips form rather than minced. The Thai name is Nam Tok which means waterfall, but exactly how they came up with this name is beyond us. Some say it refers to the juices that rushes out of the meat when sliced – but that sounds more like an under-rested steak that’s going to lose all its juices. Finally, another strangely named dish, “Crying Tiger Beef“, is actually slow-grilled steak sliced into bite-size and served with citrus chili sauce. What made the tiger cry, then? Some say it’s because the tiger didn’t get to eat the most tender cuts of the beef, since they ended up in our plates.
If you get the chance to visit East Dallas, make sure to visit Khao Noodle Shop. It’s not one of those typical Thai restaurants that try to cover the entire Thai cuisine; it simply focuses on five signature noodle dishes from the chef’s childhood and traveling experience, something very personal and to the heart. The most popular item, the “Boat Noodles”, is a unique cultural icon of Thailand, somewhat analogous to the Dan Dan Noodle. In the rivers of Bangkok, you may find them sold from a small boat with a stove for boiling water and an assortment of sides and seasonings. The vendor will serve the noodles on a tiny bowl that can be slurped down in matter of seconds – and you just keep eating bowl after bowl. The small portion sizes in Khao Noodle Shop means you get to sample all five noodles in one meal!
Ruang Thai in Plano is your one-stop-shop for an authentic central Thailand experience. The restaurant is decorated like a palace, and so are the food. Its large collection of Thai curry and stir-fries is the best way to find out how it is to eat like a king in Thailand.
If you want to try more northeastern Thai aka Isaan aka Laos cuisine, there’s a tiny restaurant near Greenway Parks called Sabaidee Laos And Thai Street Food. As the name suggests, they specialize in simple street food from the region served along side sticky rice. Without the burden of an extensive menu, you can be assured that they poured all their love into these signature dishes.
More Thai street food can be found in Ka-Tip, a small joint just opened up in August 2019. The owner has been very actively engaged with the fans on their social media page, it’ll be interesting to watch how a new restaurant gradually grow and mature in the hustling Downtown Dallas.
I would recommend anyone who wants to venture outside the standard Thai restaurant items to try Bangkok at Beltline. They carry a seasonal specials menu separate from the main menu, and you’ll always find little surprises there. I have a quick reddit post summarizing our most recent visit.
If pineapple fried rice served in a carved half pineapple sounds great to you, here’s where you can find it: Pakpao Thai Food. Though slightly expensive at $16-$20 per serving, it’ll be an Instagram-worthy experience for sure!
Of course, it doesn’t mean there aren’t great places with more standard, westernized menus. Since their menus are pretty similar in general, I will just list some well-received restaurants to save you a few Google searches:
Thai Thai, Lower Greenville
Royal Thai, Northeast Dallas
Sakhuu Thai, Lower Greenville
Bangkok Inn, Lakewood Heights
Bangkok Dee Thai Cuisine, North Dallas
Thai Soon, Richardson
Crushcraft Thai, Downtown Dallas and Plano
Best Thai Signature, Far North Dallas. Also featuring vegan menu!
Lastly I want to give a shout-out to Legends Thai and Thai’s Thumbz for their Thai fried rice. I have tried this dish around many restaurants in Dallas, and in my personal opinion, none has surpassed these two in terms of the rich flavors of the fried rice.
Now, you may be wondering why the list of restaurants is so short. My goal is not to provide a comprehensive list of all Thai restaurants in Dallas, because you can easily get that from a simple Google search, and all the Yelp reviews will help you with quality assurance. Instead, I’m attempting to list the opportunities where you can really experience the authenticity and reflect upon what you have learned about Thai cuisine, and here in Dallas we do have a few to try. My only regret is that we don’t seem to have many northern Thai restaurants with more choices of pork dishes (I can imagine my wife rolling her eyes now). But either way, I hope this article prompts you to step outside your comfort zone and sample a few authentic Thai dishes, and maybe you’ll find something you love!