Today, Gentle Reader, I’m going to tackle the Thai food that no one (of my acquaintance) really talks about. Please be aware that many of these dishes contain allergens.
In which your intrepid authorbeast explores nibbles in Bangkok
Before we start, in case you didn’t know:
- I’m a truly adventurous eater. I will eat anything 3x, on the theory that if I didn’t enjoy it, it wasn’t prepared properly the first 2 times.
- I’m able to tolerate (and genuinely enjoy) a high level of spicy. Yes really, we are talking Thai spicy not American spicy. I don’t have anything to prove though, this isn’t a competition.
- I am always looking to try foods that are unknown to me first, particularly wild/game meats, fruits, vegetables, and chips. I will go back for favorites, but my first priority is usually to try something new – if it’s on offer.
- Thai food is eaten with a spoon in your dominant hand and a fork in the other (to help load up the spoon). This is a sauce heavy cuisine and this method maximizes sauce in mouth, it is bloody brilliant. NOM.
I eat a lot of Thai food. It’s my favorite cuisine and that says a lot from a foodie like me.
I had my first Thai dish, Tom Ka Gai (chicken in coconut milk soup) when I was about 8 and decided in that moment I wanted to travel to Thailand to eat All The Things.
40 years later, I final got to do so.
In the interim I became dear friends with fellow author Piper J Drake who is Thai-American and has cooked for me many times. I got to taste lots of stuff I never encountered in a Thai restaurant in the USA because of her. We also began talking about a gastro visit to Thailand.
All of which is to say, I did not travel half the globe for 46 hours to eat Pad Thai in tourist-based restaurants.
At the end of this post, I included my target hit list of specific items, but now, let’s get into it.
10 Amazing Dishes You Should Try When You Visit Thailand
That you probably won’t find on other people’s lists.
Quick checklist of my favorites
- Pak leang (with scrambled egg & crispy dried shrimp)
- Gaeng tai pla – sour fish soup
- Pak boong – water spinach in garlic sauce
- Khai palo – pork and egg
- Khao soi – northern curry
- Fish maw in red gravy soup – hello Chinatown you beautiful place!
- Salted plum sour soup
- Miang kham – tiny welcoming bites of amazing
- Nam khao tod – ferment that sausage!
- Grilled squid eggs
- Kahnom thuai
- Leum kluen
- Chor muang!
1 Pak leang* with scrambled egg and crispy dried shrimp
Leang = melinjo or gnetum tree leaves. A deceptively simple southern Thai dish that if you see it on a menu, get it!
I am always inclined to order anything that looks like a pile of greens mixed with other stuff, so I was delighted to see a photo of this and even happier when I put it in my mouth.
Gnetum leaves as a cooked green have a certain resilience, keeping both shape and color. It’s a dark green and reminded me of a slightly tough Swiss chard (one of my favorite veggies of all time) with an innate sweetness to it and a little slippery bite/chew (like seaweed). This dish stir fries the leaves in a lightly sweet sauce with savory scrambled egg (in Thailand they often mix fish sauce with the raw egg before cooking) and then topped with small deep-fried whole shrimps.
Truly yummy. Great range of textures, and good balance not just in flavor but protein and veg. This was my favorite dish of the entire trip. Also it’s not spicy, so yeah, go for it!
2 Gaeng tai pla – fish sour soup
This southern Thai dish is a pickled fish sour soup made with nipa palm vinegar. Traditionally it uses a white fish belly that has been salted and pickled, but we had it with a fresh mullet fish instead.
I am a big fan of both tom yum (usually seafood) and tom ka (the coconut milk version – often chicken in the States) sour soups and this was in the same general family. It’s sour forward and very bright and fresh herb tasting with more ginger than tom yum (and no apparent galangal), but a similar profile with that sour + sweet + salty + spicy + umami that basically hits every part of your mouth in a “wake up and pay attention” way. I truly adored everything about this dish.
3 Pak boong – Water spinach in garlic sauce
I’ve had boong raw before (it’s in the cress family) but never cooked. It’s often called morning glory (other names = swamp cabbage or water convolvulus) and it is a versatile vegetable used in many Asian cuisines. Although there is also a Thai morning glory that is a different plant also served in this sauce.
Boong has a nice chew and resistant crunch even after being sautéed and is not at all bitter, almost sweet. This comes in Thai garlic sauce (you know the one, it’s similar to the one broccoli or pea shoots in Chinese restaurants), a favorite of mine. I did put a Thai-style chopped raw garlic and vinegar salsa on top. Later I had this vegetable plain and added to hot pot.
I would go so far as to call boong my favorite leafy green now. (And I ADORE most leafy greens.) Here’s a recipe from a YouTuber I enjoy.
4 Khai palo – pork stew with egg
This is a home style dish commonly associated with children. It’s not spicy and more sweet savory than most Thai food I’ve had, and strongly influenced by Chinese cuisine. It’s made with five spice and soy sauce (not fish sauce). It’s usually made with pork on bone and hard boiled eggs, but there is also a cubed meat + stir-fry on rice version, and a duck dish that has a similar flavor profile.
I’ve had one iteration of this before, but it was from a Laos vendor in Las Vegas. Both versions were delicious. It’s a bit simple and protein heavy for me on the regular, but if you’re a meat and potatoes type, this is probably your dish.
5 Khao soi
This is a northern dish with which I am very familiar, it’s a favorite of mine I simply wanted to try it in Thailand. It’s a (yellow, or red, or both) curry noodle dish often with stewed dark meat chicken on the bone, topped with fried noodles, and a side of pickled cabbage (or other veggies), chili, raw shallots, lime wedge, and fresh herbs to sprinkle on top.
It was a little different than ones I have had before but then that’s the idea with this dish, everyone has their take on it. Essentially all the components were the same as I’ve eaten in the past, and it was absolutely delicious. It’s creamy rich coconut, spicy curry, umami, and meaty, plus acid from the pickle and lime. It also has all the textures AND it’s noodles! I LOVE noodles.
FYI: Unlike most Thai dishes khao soi is eaten with chopsticks.
We had this with an appetizer platter with a green chili dip in the middle, which tasted a lot like a Thai prep of spicy poblanos. Also yummy.
6 Fish maw in red gravy soup
This one is difficult to explain, but it’s kind of a stew made with fish maw. The fish maw has the consistency of snow fungus, kind of fluffy, squishy, smooth, and gelatinous. There’s a seaweed texture to it. This soup was stew-thick and our version mixed it with crab meat, fish balls, and shiitake mushrooms.
I enjoyed it quite a bit, but I like unusual textures almost as much as unusual flavors. The most forward taste is actually umami more than fishy and I genuinely adored the texture. This was an unexpected delight. Would order again. I found this recipe for this kind of fish maw on YouTube because it also looks fascinating.
7 Salted plum sour soup with fish
To me this one was wild. I have eaten salted plum many times as a kind of side or condiment with Japanese food and in various Chinese dishes and snacks. For those who don’t know this dried fruit is usually both extremely sour and extremely salty. It’s used dried or rehydrated or… it’s just a very versatile ingredient.
I have also had stewed fruit on many occasions both in/as Asian dessert soup and at my British grandparents when I was a child.
This dish basically took these sour salty pickled plums and turned them into a base for an amazing soup. It’s in the same vein as tom yum or gaeng tai pla (above) but the foundation is these plums. So cool. Definitely extremely unique and would recommend if you can find it to try, especially if you like pickled sour things.
8 Miang kham
AKA make your own small bites of NOM.
Traditionally this is a dish of welcome served by and in Thai families but you can also find it at restaurants and sometimes even supermarkets. I’ve actually had it before, some 20 years ago at a Thai place near where I grew up. Also Piper made it for me!
The sauce is absolutely key and vital, it involves shrimp paste and is very thick and gooey – sweet + tangy + savory. So good.
Anyway, miang kham is a selection of little piles of tasty things and you take a betel leaf (or lettuce or flower petals or whatever’s on offer) and fill it with all the things and then pop it in your mouth. We had a fancy version that used lotus petals. (These taste like many flowers of my acquaintance, which is to say pretty tasteless and kind of soft, like rose petals.)
The chopped tiny little things you put inside usually include:
- fresh lime
- fresh ginger
- toasted shredded coconut
- raw shallots
- dried or fried tiny shrimp
- boiled and toasted peanuts
- fresh chili peppers
These things may not sound like they would be good together but THEY are. This has been, and always will be, one of my very favorite dishes of all time. It’s truly fantastic. Eat it.
9 Nam khao tod – crispy rice salad with fermented sausage
I already knew and loved this dish going in but OMG is it difficult to find in the States, especially with the correct fermented/cured pork sausage.
Thai fermented sausages are chewy and sour and kind caramelized a bit on the grill, and this rice is the perfect vehicle to showcase their charms. (Yes you can also just eat them off a stick from a street vendor and that’s good too.)
The rice is dry-fried to a crispy puff, yes VERY crispy, but also a little sticky like scorched rice, and full of peanuts, herbs, chilies, and spices, so that every flavor and every texture is on point. You usually eat it spooned into lettuce leaves (that’s healthy, right?), and it’s just flipping GREAT. It’s a crime more people don’t get to eat this dish more often.
10 Grilled squid, octopus, or cuttle fish
This is my big surprise street food recommendation.
There was a ton of amazing street food and I ate it all, but if you are willing to give it a try, get the squid (or cuttle fish or octopus)!
If you wanna be daring try the squid eggs. They are a delicacy in Thailand and difficult to find in other parts of the world.
You will likely never get to eat such perfectly cooked tender cephalopods again. They’re just so fresh and yummy in Thailand, never once did I find them rubbery, always grilled to perfection.
Not to be missed.
3 Things I’m glad I tried but would not get again
1 Crab yellow curry with bitter leaf
Of course I’ve had crab curry many times, this was a yellow curry (think Singapore noodles or Japanese curry flavor profiles). It was the vegetable component that was new to me. Unfortunately, Piper and I could not figure out what exactly the “bitter leaf” was. That leaf was fuzzy (furry on the outside the way sage is), and more robust than anything in the spinach or cress family. It was chewy in a thick way. It could have been Bitter Leaf (Bai Chapoo) but was more likely squash leaf. After much discussion we settled on pumpkin leaf.
While I can understand why one would put this in with a crab curry because of the sweetness of both the crab and coconut milk, it was still too bitter for me.
Generally, I really love leafy greens, and I don’t mind some bitterness, but I’ve never been able to handle bitter melon and this dish leaned in that direction. So… not something I’ll be hunting down again but I was delighted to try it.
12 River snail curry with betel leaf and turkey berry
Later we had a variation of the above crab dish (so far as sauce, composition, and flavor profile was concerned) but it was made with betel leaf and acacia greens, which I understand is more common, and also turkey berries (which were new to me).
I liked this version slightly better than the first one. It was still bitter but not so strong that the sauce didn’t counteract it.
- Betel when cooked is a dark green, like spinach, but more robust, like leek greens. (I would get to eat betel raw with Piper’s family later as well). Fresh, the leaf has a resin component but is less better. I admit I’m not wild about it either way.
- Turkey berries are also bitter but they have a pleasant popping sensation like blueberries or green peas.
I wouldn’t opt for either vegetable again, as opposed to… the snails.
I’d heard of river snails before because in Chinese and Korean dramas the clumsy innocent girl often likes a “gross stinky food” in a cute endearing way (ah, characterization) and river snails are commonly used for this trope.
These were very like winkles (small sea snails) in chew if not in flavor – frankly these were quite mild and chewy and not much more than that. I would absolutely eat them again, and I didn’t get what the stink was about. But maybe I need to try them in a different dish to properly experience their pong.
Speaking of pongs…
13 Stinky beans
So I had heard of these and seen them “reacted to” shall we say? I was desperate to try them once I spotted them on a menu (although they weren’t on my initial hunting list). We were at a fish place so they came with shrimp.
They taste not unlike fava (broad) beans mixed with white stilton and just (how do it put this?) slime like on natto. I honestly don’t mind any of these things but in combination, even covered in a spicy yummy sauce, it was a lot to take.
I am very glad I tried them, but I don’t think I’m likely to go running after them again.
Although I would like to try them alone, even fresh, just to learn more about what the vegetable itself tastes like.
The Sweets Report – Khanom!!
One of my major food quests this trip was to sample a bunch of authentic Thai desserts (khanom). Piper and fam found this amazing teahouse that served a full spread. I was in HEAVEN.
Here’s a short list (favorites at the top). Piper fam also went into overdrive to supply my list for which I am eternally grateful!
- Kahnom thuai (or Khanom thuai talai) – cooked (and sometimes served) in small shallow ceramic bowls this dessert is made with rice flour, cane sugar, salt, and coconut milk (may also have jasmine-infused water and tapioca flour). It tastes a lot like an elevated stiff coconut rice pudding, I LOVED it so much.
- Leum kluen – soft mung bean jelly served in a little cup with salted coconut on top, that tasted exactly how I had imagined with a jasmine perfume-smoke to the jelly (it’s flavored with incense) and the classic Thai sweet salty coconut cream balance. The jelly melts in the mouth, hence the name. It’s lovely but very hard to find.
- Bulan dan mek – a dessert made with both egg custard and cooked coconut jelly that’s steamed one inside the other, very unusual (most locals I talked to about this had never even heard of it), also very yummy
- Tup tim krob – jellied water chestnuts (made with rice or tapioca flour) in coconut milk. I also had a few variations of this: one with boiled rice/tapioca balls and taro.
- Kanom pra pai – steamed rice balls traditionally stuffed with sweet mung bean and/or coconut and palm sugar and topped with salted coconut. I liked these because the coconut and the rice flower is unsweetened so these are not too sweet.
- Khanom tom – boiled rice flour dumplings coated with shredded coconut and stuffed with shredded coconut and palm sugar.
- Ja mong kut (or ja mong gut) – this sweet has an interesting texture, a bit like dried marzipan, and a mild sweet coconut brown sugar flavor. It is made by very slowly cooking egg yolks, coconut milk, sugar, flour, and smoked with a special incense candle to add flavor.
Other sweets I tried
One of the top things on my food hit list was “everything pandan flavored” here is a sample from the local corner market.
- Top right: look like green hot cross buns, these were basically like a King’s Hawaian sweet roll with light pandan custard inside, I LOVED THEM.
- Bottom right: the quesadilla toast, this was literally pre-made crustless white bread with pandan spread (like a curd or Kaya jam) and butter that you pop in a toaster like pop tarts. Could take or leave it.
- Bottom left: A stuffed bao style single bun. Very coconut instead of pandan but fine.
- Middle left: The white and green cupcake jellies, I have had version of this before it’s a stiff “snap” jelly (not jello, much firmer) the green layer is pandan and the white is coconut. I adore these, two of my favorite flavors in gelatinous harmony.
- Top left: honestly I can’t remember which means they didn’t make and impression.
Candied fruit on a stick
These were on offer because when I first arrived it was the middle of Golden Week and we went to Bangkok’s Chinatown.
I’ve been looking for the red Hawthorne variety of this sweet for years (tanghulu). But it’s near impossible to find fresh in my part of the world. This was the strawberry and grape version.
It tasted exactly like one would expect. A hard crack shell candy exterior around juicy tart fruit.
Of course I enjoyed it, I love sweets.
This was an elevated shaved ice thingy, but vehicle of delivery was irrelevant to the amazing flavor. I wanted to know if this would taste like mulberries I’m familiar with (which I have had in many forms throughout my life). The black mulberry is native to western Asia and was introduced to the UK with the Romans (just, FYI). It did, indeed, taste like the mulberry of my memory, perhaps with a little black current element that I haven’t tasted in the ones I’ve had before.
Yuzu curd filled choux
This was from a little local cafe.
It was a creamy stiff yuzu mousse inside a choux puff. Simple but very nice and very tangy and strongly yuzu.
All of which I LOVED.
Traditional pavlova, mixed berry
I had a truly miraculous encounter with a delicious pavlova at White Tulip Cafe in Bangkok.
That’s a pavlova! In 80%+ humidity!
And it was perfect meringue: crispy fluffy chewy. Amazing.
(Pavlova is a favorite dessert of mine.)
The Weird Chip Report AKA Snacks & Junkfood
The healthiest and best on the go snack food I had was spicy salmon onigiri from roadside 7/11 and this one “everything yummy” inside sticky rice Chinese wrap thingy.
Sorry, I don’t know the name, but YUM! Also a full meal in the palm of my hand. GENIUS!
Sevens (aka 7/11 convenience stores) are as common in Bangkok as Starbucks in Seattle. The city block our hotel was on had 2 small sevens and 1 big one.
They carry some fantastic junk food.
Shall we talk chips?
- [Magenta bag, top left.] Although there is a picture of crab on the bag, I got no crab flavor. It was more a kind of BBQ honey ginger garlic. I actually wasn’t wild about it. Would not buy again.
- [top right] Spicy Jim Jaew Sauce chips. These were yummy and ended up being my second favorite of the trip. Tangy sweet savory just like the sauce and the chip itself was a wiggly puffed rice. Lovely crisp. Would def buy again. Brought them home to share the the Mum also loved them.
- Pork Floss rice crackers [orange bag]. I like pork floss a lot and these were nicely large, like crackers BUT they were inexcusably sweet. SWEET sweet. I didn’t taste much pork at all. Disappointing.
- Spicy Garlic Prawn Pringles. Texture was a little different than state-side Pringles and these were very prawn (first) and VERY VERY garlic second (not very spicy). To enjoy these you gotta love garlic. I do, but I still couldn’t eat very many of them.
- Caesar Salad chips [light green bag]. Yes they tasted like Caesar salad dressing – there was parmesan and garlic and a few other flavors. But the finish was slightly blue cheese. Which I don’t mind, but does not belong in Caesar salad.
- Pla Sam Rod ruffled potato chips [red bag]. These were my favorite chip. The balance was perfect tangy savory and scallion, touch sweet and a nice spicy finish. They were what I want from BBQ without actually being BBQ (if that makes sense). Winners! I finished whole packet, would buy again. I was gonna bring these home but never found them again.
- Prik Pao Cheese potato chips [bottom left]. These ones had classic Thai sauce flavors to them but also a funky Swiss cheese aspect. They didn’t work for me.
- Salted Egg potato chips [black bag]. These were kinda plain, but a plain I can get behind, elevated above normal potato chips with a touch of creamy umami from the egg. I like them. Could see these being my default dipping chip, if I lived in Thailand.
Random other stuff I ate
Purple dumplings stuffed with a sweet savory mince (chicken or pork) and herbs.
It’s sad that this is so far down in this post because few will get to read about it but it may have been the single best bite I of the trip. I love these SO MUCH. The texture is so soft and yet chewy and the mix of sweet + savory in the middle is my jam.
Fresh butterfly pea flowers
These were in a cocktail as garnish, of the kind that were used to color my space tea.
They can be eaten raw, so I ate one. They’re not very strongly flavored, just a little vegetative. Not something I would necessarily reach for, but not offensive either.
I also visited a backyard garden where I got to see/eat butterfly pea growing wild (they taste like flowers with a mild pea flavor) as well as local black mulberries (delish), chili peppers (bird’s eye, yummy), and…
AKA tree sorrel
A cute little green fruit that grows from both trunk and branches of its tree and is delightfully sour with crisp jicama texture that’s very refreshing. (I love sour things.)
Before you ask, because I have traveled a lot and I love fruit, I have already eaten pretty much everything else on this Thai fruit hit list.
With the exception of…
Sala, salak, or snake fruit
This is one that has been on my “to try list” for a long time so I was delighted to find it at a vendor in a Chinese temple we visited in Bang Saen.
It was eye opening.
It’s called snake fruit for an obvious visual reason. But inside it’s like cloves that really look like elephant garlic and have a similar exterior texture and feel, but are actually quite juicy. Not so much as mangosteen but pretty good.
They taste sour and very sweet with a perfume (almost bubblegum flavor) although not as strong as jack fruit.
I liked them, but they also have a VERY strong smell and the pealed version did rather stink up the fridge. Would get again, but only in small amounts.
When I say I will try anything, I include bugs.
I’ve eaten crickets many times as well as meal worms and a few other kinds of insects. This was a selection of crickets and worms, plus some special bamboo worms.
I wasn’t wild about many of them. Although I think they’d be nice as a crunchy topper on something like noodles, but the bamboo ones were certainly the best insects I’ve ever eaten.
Flavored soy milk
Like many parts of Asia, the fruit flavored milk is popular here, but I encountered my first fruit flavored soy milk.
I tried a mixed berry and an apple mixed fruit flavor. Both were too sweet but not unpleasant experiences. I can see a lactose-free child enjoying them, but these weren’t to my personal taste. Would not get again.
However, the custard pudding soy milk was wild!
It tasted like melted flan to me. There is nothing wrong with that.
Thailand’s version of a great British breakfast
Look, it’s a thing I do, if I spot a British-style breakfast on the menu in any other country, I kinda have to try it. FOR SCIENCE!
I love tasting other places take on the food of my youth.
I also like to try pizza and hamburgers as I travel. I am developing an adage…
Thus far, I would suggest avoiding:
- UK breakfasts in Portugal,
- hamburgers in Peru, and
- pizza in Thailand.
(We did find good pizza eventually but we basically had to go to the Italian embassy to do so.)
Anyway, this GBB was at a fancypants cafe in the embassy district and it was unexpected. Way better than I thought it would be, but… odd.
Sausages and bacon tasted of my youth (south of England, Devonshire). The half tomato was not unwelcome (they do it a lot these days a London hotels, but when I was a kid they were canned and stewed – don’t judge). The whole mushroom was fine, and the egg was perfect (Thailand KNOWS how to handle an egg).
But while the bread was great (and bread in Thailand was generally not great), it was a California-style crusty sourdough, fried. While delicious this was NOT what one expects with a GBB. And then there was a little salad (also yum) and some grilled halloumi (qua? but not unwelcome) which never before have I seen grace a GBB. The beans were cooked in a sort of tomato salsa ketchup, which I like because (frankly) I don’t like normal baked beans – but no idea where those came from in concept.
All in all this was a GBB tailored to my specific taste so I was THRILLED but I would say only about 50% actual GBB. Still, I would go back to that cafe to eat this again in a heartbeat.
Travel preparation for (and consequences of) this food adventure
I took my active Typhoid meds and brought prescription tummy meds. I was ready!
My traveling companions and I ate mostly from the corner convenience stores, open markets, and street vendors. As is (I am given to understand) normal for residents of Bangkok.
We did go fancy and sit down a few times, mostly for me, because I had a list of difficult to find dishes. But in general, my personal preferences started and ended with street vendors.
The only concession I made to my delicate farang constitution was very little raw or fermented meat, fish, or insects. I sampled any that came my way, of course, but even if I loved it I just didn’t allow myself to eat more than a bite.
My Initial Hit List
The things I had listed to find and try before I left.
- Khao soi
- Khai palo
- Gaeng tai pla
- Chor muang
- Water spinach – or any related dark green leafy veg prepared in various ways
- Leum kluen
- Khanom tom
- Ja mong kut
- Bulan dan mek
- Tup tim krob
- Khao jee – barbecue/scorched rice & egg, this was the only thing I didn’t manage to find and try, NEXT TIME!
* A note on spelling: The Thai language is so different from English that direct translation is difficult, so the spelling of these foods in English is non-standardized. I used the most common one I could find so if you want to google recipes, you can. But please know nothing has to be spelled the way I spell it.
Meanwhile, I haven’t yet written anything set in Thailand.
Yours (my epitaph will read: she only wanted to taste it),
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