Beyond pad Thai: the Top 10 Thai Dishes to Try

9 August 2017

Everyone loves tucking into a hearty plate of pad Thai noodles or a zesty green chicken curry, but for the savvy and intrepid foodie traveller, Thailand has a hugely diverse menu of other dishes to track down and enjoy.

Green papaya salad (som tam)

Quite probably southeast Asia's most zingy salad, som tam is made to order with a mortar and pestle at night markets and outside railway stations around the country. Crunchy green beans and julienned green papaya combine with chilli, lime juice, fish sauce and peanuts. A dollop of sticky rice is a mandatory addition to counter the finely-balanced heat.

Green papaya salad (som tam). Photo: Getty Images

Chiang Mai sausages (sai ua)

These plump and delectable little bullets of flavour – most sai ua are just a few centimetres long - are ubiquitous on the streets of Thailand's northern city of Chiang Mai. Look forward to a subtle combination of roughly-minced pork, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves and red curry paste, and enjoy them with a side of fresh chillies, crunchy raw cabbage and ginger.

Drunken noodles (pad kee mao)

Reputedly invented by a drunk chef throwing in everything in their pantry, pad kee mao is classic Thai comfort food, and a satisfying stir-fry of garlic, meat, seafood, fish sauce and chilli. Thai basil adds a slightly sweet spiciness, and the one-wok wonder is also a good hangover cure after one too many Mekong whiskies!

A plate of gai yang grilled chicken, left, with som tam salad on the side. Photo: Wikicommons

Thai grilled chicken (gai yang)

Sure, most countries on the planet offer a variation on grilled meat on a stick, but gai yang is one of the best. Break up bus journeys in the Thai countryside with a roadside snack of slowly-grilled butterflied chicken rubbed with lemongrass, garlic, coriander and salt and pepper. Smokey perfection.

Jungle curry (gaeng pa)

One of the few Thai curries not made with coconut milk, gaeng pa comes from the northern, more temperate part of the country where coconut trees don't normally grow. Pork or chicken is usually used and combined with a fiery mix of chilli, green peppercorns and lemongrass. Say sawadee to Thailand's hottest curry.

Massaman curry in Pai, northern Thailand. Photo: Andrew Hyde / Flickr.com

Massaman Curry (gaeng massaman)

With culinary roots in India and the Islamic trading caravans of Persia, gaeng massaman is a milder southern Thailand favourite punctuated with distinctive spices including star anise, cinnamon and cloves. Potatoes, cashews and cardamom pods also hint at a Middle Eastern or subcontinental provenance, but tamarind, chilli and palm sugar are all reminders you're in southeast Asia.

Grilled beef salad (neua nam tok)

Infused with the culinary influence of nearby Laos,  neua nam tok is a classic dish from Thailand's northeastern Isaan region.  Beef or buffalo is grilled over charcoal – nam tok translates to 'waterfall' and refers to the sound barbecued meat makes dripping onto a fire – and lime juice, shallots, coriander and fresh mint leaves are added to enliven the thinly-sliced smokey and chargrilled goodness.

Minced pork salad (laab moo). Photo: Simon Law / Flickr.com

Minced pork salad (laab moo)

It's a quirk of the Thai language that moo actually translates to 'pork', and this other northeastern favourite combining minced pork with ground and toasted rice is best enjoyed with a compact ball of sticky rice (khao niao) and a mountain of fresh mint. If you're game, try a shot of local Isaan lao lao rice wine.

Spicy squid salad (yum pla muk)

Thailand's southern islands are crammed with simple eateries serving fresh seafood with grilled prawns, deep-fried snapper and crab all firm favourites. Squid is one of Thailand's best-value seafoods, and this spicy and slightly sour salad packed with coriander, red onion and lime juice goes exceptionally well with a frosty Singha beer.

Sticky rice with mango (khao niao mamuang). Photo: Getty Images

Sticky rice with mango (khao niao mamuang)

This delicious dessert is available year round, but the best time to try it is during the mango season from April to July. That's when local Thai mangos are at their most fragrant, and the perfect accompaniment for a mound of unctuous coconut-milk drenched sticky rice topped with roasted sesame seeds. Look forward to friendly queues at the most famous Bangkok khao niao mamuang stalls during mango season. Yes, it's that popular.

Brett Atkinson

Brett Atkinson is a full-time travel and food writer who specialises in adventure travel, unusual destinations, and surprising angles on more well-known destinations. He's based in Auckland but frequently on the road for Lonely Planet and other publishers in New Zealand and abroad. @travelwriterNZ