Seven’s 10 Top 10: Thai Food

Hey there, Googler. How goes it? My name’s Bangkok Seven, and occasionally I blog. The one below belongs to a series called “Seven’s 10 Top 10.” It’s one of 10 lists of tips collected under a singular topic. This one’s on a favorite subject–that of the food in Thailand. It was previously published on Sweet3Mango last year, which is why I’m posting it for Frowback Friday. I hope you find it momentarily distracting. Here’s my 10 top tips when eating in The Land of Smiles:

  1. “You WILL get sick. Whether it’s from the bacteria in the water that you’re not used to, or the fact that the food isn’t GMO so your body won’t know how to react, or that you just aren’t accustomed to the types of vegetables and spices, you will get sick. It’s inevitable.  But instead of reaching for the Imodium, the best course is to let it run its course.  Stopping yourself up will only delay what cannot be stopped or avoided.  Once your digestive system acclimates, you’ll be fine.  But everyone goes through it sooner or later.  Best to just ride the wave and not fight it. Regarding the water, though, you’re alright brushing your teeth with it, and washing your dishes with it, but don’t drink copious amounts of tap water.  Even the Thais don’t do that.  Water served in restaurants (as well as the ice in your glass) has been distilled, so don’t worry over it.  But no matter what, your body will have to adjust to the tropical microbes.  Expect it. 
  2. The staple is, of course, rice. The Thai word is “kow” and they use it as a generic term for all food. They will ask “gin kow leang?”  This means “have you eaten yet?”  There are different kinds of kow.  Kow suay (literally ‘pretty rice’) is regular steamed rice.  Kow pad is fried rice.  Kow nyow is sticky rice, found mainly in the East (Isaan) but it’s prevalent in Bangkok as well.  In some parts of Thailand, it’s impolite to leave any rice uneaten when you finish your meal, mainly because in the old days rice was hard to harvest, and not eating all of it was a sign of disrespect for the hard work it took to get it to your plate.
  3. “Gai” or “kai” is the Thai word for chicken. Do not aspirate the ‘k’ like we do in English, because then you’ll be saying the word for ‘egg.’ Instead the sound is closer to a ‘gk’ but not too much, because the you’ll be saying the Thai word for “who” (khrai) or “grai” or “GRAI” which either means far or near, depending on how you place your inflection.
  4. “Moo” is the Thai word for pork. Yes, it’s ironic and amusing that the word they use is the English word for the sound a cow makes (and ‘kow’ means rice, it’s all hilarious). Remember to say it like you’re asking a question (moo?) because there’s an inflection on the end, and don’t ask for it at Muslim establishments, they don’t eat pork.  The word for beef is “nua,” but you won’t use it much.  Thai beef is tough and gamey—unless you’re in McDonald’s or a fancy burger joint.  They ship their beef in from somewhere else.
  5. Seafood is the 2nd main protein in Thailand (after eggs) for obvious reasons, and it’s always fresh and amazing. So here are the words you need to know: “poo” is crab; “kung” is shrimp or prawn; “kung lobsta” is lobster; “pla meuk” is squid; “pla” is the universal word for fish.
  6. The different ways your food can be cooked is as follows: “pad” means pan-fried with rice or noodles (as in “kow pad gai” or chicken fried rice); the word for grilled or barbecued is “bah-ba-que” (not hard to remember); “taut” means fried, so fried chicken is “gai taut.” But ‘taut’ also refers to a special preparation of pork (moo) where the meat is dried and then stir-fried with garlic (moo taut is sold by street vendors as strips of spiced pork freshly fried and served with sticky rice (kow nyow); “glop” means fried by being submerged in oil, similar to Western fried chicken, donuts, or French fries.
  7. Traditional dishes: Kow pad (fried rice) is a staple, along with various noodle dishes such as pad see iew, thick noodles in sweet gravy. Boat noodle soup (quet tioh), as mentioned before, is popular and can be found everywhere.  Knom jin is a breakfast dish consisting of rice noodles and either a fish-based or peanut-based sauce.  Khai jieow is traditional Thai omelet.  And then there’s an array of soups, the most common being Tom Yam, which is a slightly sour soup characterized by the presence of ginger.  But hands down the most popular dish in Thailand is “som-tam,” a cold salad made from shredded unripe papaya.  Thais are famous for combining flavors—hot and sour, sweet and spicy, sweet and salty—and som-tam combines all flavors:  sweet, spicy, sour, and salty. But talking about som-tam introduces a serious complication when discussing what’s “traditional” food  in Thailand, because how som-tam is made depends a great deal on the region. Thailand’s 4 main regions—the north, the east, the center, and the south—all make their som-tam differently, and in fact each region has dishes that are more “traditional” in that region than elsewhere.  For example, kow nyow or sticky rice is commonplace in Isann, or the eastern part of the country, whereas in the south it can be downright hard to find.   Kow chae is a sweet-salty snack made from soggy rice and a variety of dipping finger foods, like spring rolls and fried taro.  Kow nyow mamuang is a dessert made from sticky rice and coconut milk that one eats with ripe mango.  For reasons of limited space, we’re going to abandon this topic, but suffice to say one could write an entire book on “traditional” Thai food alone.
  8. Utensils: Most Thai food is consumed with a fork and spoon. The fork is used as a cutting/stabbing implement and the spoon is for putting the food to one’s mouth.  Knives are atypical.  Chopsticks are used only when eating noodles (quet tioh), for which there’s also a special soup spoon.  Many other dishes are eaten with the hands, although ironically, not the same dishes that Westerners eat with their hands.  For example, if you eat at KFC, your wing and drumstick will come with a knife and fork (the assumption here is that Thais consider KFC semi-fine dining and so include cutlery).  French fries are often eaten with a fork as well.  Chalk it up to Thai misinterpretation. In heavily-tourist-trodden areas this isn’t the case, but the further out you go into the “real” Thailand, the less-accustomed people are to Western ways.
  9. The Thai word for restaurant is “ran ahan.” The word for “would like” in a restaurant is either “yak” or “kaw?” (said with an upward inflection like it’s a question) which more accurately translates as “may I have.” So “yak gin gai” means  “I would like to have chicken.”  Therefore if you want chicken fried rice you can say “yak gin kow pad gai ka/krab” or “kaw? Kow pad gai ka/krab.”  When you want the bill just say “check bin ka/krab.”  When the server first arrives she’ll likely take your drink order first.  The Thai word for drink is “duuhrm.”  So if you hear that word, she’s asking what you want to drink.  If you want to complement the meal, say “aroi” which means delicious, or “aroi mak” which means very delicious.
  10. Prices: Most restaurants in touristy places are wildly expensive, charging 4 or 5 times what Thais pay when they eat Thai food and ironically, the food’s usually mediocre. If you want authentic, delicious Thai food at a reasonable price, you have to eat where the Thais eat.  In most malls or shopping meccas, you must bypass the glitzy restaurants and go either to the very top floor or the basement.  There you’ll find a food court, usually with stalls separated by region (Thai food in the north bears little resemblance to Thai food in the south, and all varieties are scrumptious in their own way) and charging a fraction of what the fancy places do.  On the street, explore side alleys and holes in the wall.  This is where you can get a great meal for less than 50 baht, even in the big cities.  Speaking of big cities, in Bangkok there are mobile, temporary restaurants that will spring up on a street corner, complete with a fryer, grill, and tables, all centered around a motorbike, serve food for a few hours, then pack up and disappear, leaving no trace.  These places are fantastic.  Also 50 baht for a meal.  Now I know you’re wondering, “Is it sanitary?”  and the answer is yes.  Most of the time.

The main point you should take from this list is, though it all has a common base (rice or noodles, vegetables, meat), food in Thailand is quite varied and an adventure to experience.  And it should be very cheap, as well.  Be willing to try new things, strange things, and spicy things.  It’s well worth the effort.”

Since first writing this top 10 list, I’ve had a chance to try a lot of different Thai dishes in several other locations around the country, and I continue to be surprised–sometimes unpleasantly but mostly pleasantly–at new and interesting flavors. Thailand is a foodie paradise, where you can easily satiate your yen for exotic Asian food, and then when hit with the craving for stuff of home–at least in the bigger cities–you can easily find a great Italian/French/Bavarian/American?Mexican joint with fairly close to home fare. Personally, I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.

Check back Sunday for the weekly, and cheers to 7 more days of sweet-savory-spicy dishes in the greatest country on Earth–Thailand.