Thai Food For Beginners

Joost Beijers
Joost Beijers 20 Min Read

In this article, we cover the best Thai food for foreigners. When visiting Thailand, many foreigners want to explore the world-famous Thai cuisine.

However, with the lack of knowledge of (local) Thai food, foreigners often stick to that what they are familiar with or even worse, order Western food while traveling in Thailand. Thai food is so diverse that there is a delicious option for every type of eater. So let’s jump into what we believe is the best Thai food for foreigners. The best way to enjoy the local cuisine of any place is to visit local markets like Tiong Bahru market.

We solely cover the best Thai food for foreigners. That means we recommend Thai food that the majority of foreigners simply love after their first visit to Thailand and all-time favorites from expats, which includes medium spicy dishes. With that being said, let’s jump straight to our recommendations.

The best Thai food for foreigners is:

1. Tom Yum Goong

thai food for beginners tom yum

Tom Yum Goong is a spicy and sour soup with prawns (Goong = prawns in Thai) and is among the most popular Thai food for foreigners. This soup perfectly represents what Thai gastronomy stands for, namely spiciness, sourness, sweetness, saltiness and savouriness (umami). Although Tom Yum soups can be spicy, in general, the level of spiciness is what most foreigners can handle, with a few exceptions here and there. Aside from prawns, or any other type of protein you wish to choose from, the soup is packed with mushrooms and herbs. Some of these herbs are impossible to eat, so you simply scoop out the fragrant broth, the prawns and the mushrooms. You can find Tom Yum soups in almost every Thai restaurant and most of the time, the soup is served with prawns.

It’s common to order Tom Yum Goong as one of the few dishes you will share with your companions, something that is typical in Thai culture. Because of that reason, Tom Yum Goong is often served in a typical hot pot bowl, to keep the soup warm during dinner. There are two different versions of Tom Yum soups, namely Tom Yum Nam Khon and Tom Yum Nam Sai. Tom Yum Nam Khon is the more creamy version of both and is by far the most popular one.

2. Pad Kra Pao

thai food for beginners pad kra pao

Pad Kra Pao is one of the most popular dishes among Thai, but also among foreigners. This stir-fried dish is the Thai equivalent of the hamburger as it’s considered a ‘fast-food’ meal due to how quickly it’s served. Choose your favorite type of protein, most of the time it’s either pork or chicken and within minutes, you’ll be served an addictively, great-tasting stir-fried meal with steamed rice. What makes Pad Kra Pao so delicious is the heartiness, saltiness and spiciness. Pad Kra Pao is seasoned with garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, sugar, chilies and most important, Thai holy basil leaves. Because of the use of holy basil leaves, Pad Kra Pao is known as Stir-Fry Holy Basil among foreigners.

Pad Kra Pao is quite spicy Thai food for foreigners, but when visiting a Thai restaurant, most of the time, the staff will ask if you can handle spicy Thai food. And as Pad Kra Pao is made from scratch, it’s really easy to let them make a non-spicy or milder version of this hugely popular Thai dish. One last thing, Pad Kra Pao is often eaten with a Thai fried egg, which is a deep-fried egg with a sunny side up. The combination of a partly crispy fried egg with running egg yolk, steamed rice and spicy, savory Pad Kra Pao is so delicious, that many Thai and foreigners in Thailand eat Pad Kra Pao almost every day and we highly recommend you do so!

3. Som Tam

thai food for beginners som tum

Som Tam, better known among foreigners as Papaya Salad, is the most popular Thai dish there is. This spicy and sour salad is made from green (unripe) papaya and originates from the Isaan region, which is one of the most interesting cuisines of Thailand. You can find Som Tam literally in every Thai restaurant, but also many street food vendors serve Som Tam. In a wooden mortar, the scraped green papaya gets crushed along with chilies, garlic, roasted peanuts, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime and tomato and is served within minutes. Similar to Pad Kra Pao, it’s very easy to ask for a less or non-spicy version of it as it’s completely made from scratch.

It’s good to know that there are different versions of Som Tam. The most common version – which we believe is the best choice for foreigners – is Som Tam Thai, as other versions contain ingredients that are not foreigner friendly. For example, a popular version among Thai is Som Tam with Pla Ra, which is fermented fish and has an unusual, strong smell that usually won’t increase your appetite.

4. Khao Soi

thai food for beginners khao soi

Khao Soi is by far the most popular Thai dish of Northern Thai Cuisine, especially among foreigners. Although Khao Soi originates from Burmese cuisine, over time, Chiang Mai and other places created their own version of it. Khao Soi is a Northern Thai curry made with shrimp paste, lemongrass, ginger, turmeric, coriander seeds, lime leaves, cardamom, chilies and palm sugar. Khao Soi is served with noodles and topped with crispy fried noodles, which gives the curry a lovely texture. Khao Soi is always served with pickles, red onions and lime which is the equivalent of salt and pepper in Western cuisine. Although Khao Soi is herby, the flavors are not as extreme as for example Som Tam (Papaya Salad) and because of this, for many, it’s one of the most popular Thai food for foreigners.

As Khao Soi has Muslim roots, Khao Soi is one of the few Thai dishes that are usually not served with pork and one of the few dishes that’s served with (stewed) beef. Beef is a not-so-common protein in Thai cuisine, as many Thai don’t like to eat beef because a cow is such a large animal. It’s not forbidden by Buddhism, but there is a certain belief in not eating large animals. With that being said, Khao Soi is mostly served with chicken (drumstick).

5. Pad Thai

thai food for beginners pad thai

Definitely not our favorite Thai dish, but we can’t deny Pad Thai is typical Thai food for foreigners. Many foreigners think that Pad Thai is Thailand’s most popular dish, but this is not true. During World War II, when Thailand suffered from a shortage of rice because of floods and war, Pad Thai was crowned Thailand’s “National Dish” to promote the consumption of noodles and Thai nationalism. This PR stunt was so successful, especially outside of Thailand, that foreigners who never visited Thailand often think that Pad Thai is what Thai eats all day.

Nonetheless, Pad Thai can be found everywhere in Thailand and it’s not like Thai don’t like to eat Pad Thai. But Thai cuisine represents five elements including spiciness Pad Thai is sweet, savory and sour but not that spicy. Because of this, Pad Thai is the most popular Thai food for foreigners. The most famous Pad Thai in Thailand can be found at Pad Thai Thip Samai in Bangkok.

6. Massaman Curry

thai food for beginners massaman

Massaman Curry is yet another creamy, herby, not-too-spicy Thai curry (similar to Khao Soi) that is hugely popular among foreigners. And similar to Khao Soi, Massaman Curry has Muslim roots. The curry itself is made with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves and nutmeg. Only by reading those fine spices, you can already imagine how fragrant this curry is. The curry is usually served with either chicken or beef and inside the creamy curry, you can find large chunks of boiled potatoes. Massaman Curry is served with steamed rice but is not so common that you can find it in every Thai restaurant. Nowadays, some restaurants tend to make the curry paste that is being used for Massaman Curry the non-traditional way with modern equipment, which makes the paste and thus the curry very oily. Personally, I prefer the non-oily and the much creamier version of the Massaman Curry.

7. Deep-Fried Seabass with Fish Sauce

thai food for beginners seabass

One of my all-time favorite Thai seafood dishes is deep-fried seabags with fish sauce. And because the flavors are well-suitable for the Western taste palate, it’s excellent Thai food for foreigners. Thai Sea bass is either sliced in half or filleted first and cut into large chunks and then deep-fried with batter which gives the fish a crispy, hearty layer. Personally, I prefer the so-called Pla Ka Pong Tod to be filleted first and carved into thick chunks of sea bass for two reasons. Most importantly, the comfort of eating fried fish without any fish bone. Secondly, these smaller chunks of sea bass are more crispy than frying a fish as a whole.

There are several variations of serving this Pla Ka Pong Tod (deep-fried Thai sea bass). The most common options are with oyster sauce, fish sauce, or Thai herbs. Thai herbs are the most fragrant option and perhaps a bit too wild for foreigners. Fish sauce on the other hand is your safest bet, and to be honest, probably the most popular option for both foreigners and Thai. You can find this Thai treat in every Thai restaurant that’s specialized in seafood.

8. Laab

thai food for beginners laab

Laab is yet another popular Thai dish that originates from the Isaan region, although it’s unofficially the national dish of Laos, that’s highly fragrant and often spicy too. Laab is a meat salad, but honestly, it has nothing to do with salad. Laab is made of marinated (boiled) meat and finished with fish sauce, green onion, shallot, cilantro, lime juice, toasted rice and mint leaves. This might all sound not as the tastiest meal there is but when you eat it together with rice (preferably sticky rice), it can become one of your favorite Thai dishes. For me personally, Laab and Pad Kra Pao are the two dishes that I eat the most often.

There are two things that you need to pay attention to when eating Laab. First of all, in the Isaan region, Laab can be served with pork that’s undercooked. For obvious health reasons, you want to avoid this. In other parts of Thailand, this is not common. Secondly, entrails are a common ingredient in Thai cuisine and Laab is the perfect example of a popular Thai dish that is served with intestines. The slightly more expensive Thai restaurants usually don’t serve Laab with intestines but the very local ones do.

9. (Boat) Noodles

thai food for beginners boat noodles

There are countless versions of noodles to be found in Thai cuisine and many of these noodles are popular among foreigners. Listing them all would be confusing for you as a reader. Instead, I recommend you to have a look at our article about the best noodles in Bangkok, which gives you a good idea of what kind of noodles Thai cuisine has to offer. I will dive a bit deeper into Boat Noodles, as these noodles are popular Thai food for foreigners.

Tiny bowls of noodles served with an incredible, fragrant broth that only costs you 12 THB. What is not to like about these popular noodles? Boat Noodles originate from Bangkok and Ayutthaya where food was served from canoes. Because the vendor had to sell everything from their small canoe, the bowls of soup had to be small as well. Nowadays, boat noodles are not sold from canoes but at restaurants, but in Bangkok and Ayuthaya, you can still find restaurants that serve tiny bowls of boat noodles and these places are hugely popular.

10. Kai Yang

thai food for beginners kai yang

Grilled meats served with a spicy dipping sauce and sticky rice. That is yet another part of the o-so famous Isaan cuisine, which offers more than only chili-packed foods. Kai Yang is barbecued chicken with a slightly smoky flavor that’s familiar to the Western taste palate. You can find these grilled meats at street food vendors, although the quality and the hygiene are doubtful. But when visiting a proper restaurant, grilled chicken is an excellent choice. Other popular options are grilled beef and marinated pork and chicken skewers, although the skewers can be mostly found at street food vendors.

11. Penang Curry

thai food for beginners penang

The last curry that I will recommend is Penang Curry, although there are plenty of other curries you can discover in Thailand. Penang Curry has more similarities to popular Thai curries such as Green Curry, Red Curry and Yellow Curry than the other recommended curries in this article. The big advantage for you as a foreigner is that Penang Curry is the most accessible curry Thai cuisine has to offer when it comes to flavors. Yes, a Penang Curry is still slightly spicy, but much milder than the other curries. Penang Curry is also a curry that you can find at the majority of Thai restaurants and is usually served with chicken, peas and kaffir lime leaves. Kaffir lime leaves are fragrant, herby and refreshing which many foreigners simply love.

12. Crispy Pork

thai food for beginners crispy pork

Pork is by far the most popular form of protein you can find in Thai cuisine and it comes in many preparations. One of the popular ways to serve pork is to bake the fat and skin out until it forms as crispy pork where the outer parts are crunchy yet the inside is still succulent. Thai use Crispy Pork in noodles or noodle soups, but also as a protein for popular dishes such as Pad Kra Pao. But you can also find Crispy Pork as a stand-alone dish where the pork is served with a thickened soy dipping sauce. The texture, saltiness and savoriness together with the sweetness of the soy sauce is a real treat. Crispy Pork is not a typical Thai dish that is recommended by other websites, but I always recommend friends give it a try. The simplicity of the dish as well as the not-to-crazy flavors makes it ideal Thai food for foreigners.

13. Mango Sticky Rice

thai food for beginners mango sticky rice

So far, I discussed solely main courses but you must know that the Thai do love their daily dose of sweetness. There are many amazing Thai desserts to be found in Thailand and in general, these are quite safe to try for foreigners, although there are some weird combinations and ingredients to be found. But when it comes to Thai desserts, there is only one winner for foreigners and that is Mango Sticky Rice. A ripe mango is carved into slices, served with sticky rice and topped with sweetened condensed coconut milk. It’s good to know that the quality of Mango Sticky Rice depends on what kind of mango is being used and if the mango is ripe enough. A general rule is that the mango must have a deep yellow color and is served during the mango season, which is from April until June. Does that mean you can’t find proper mangoes outside mango season? No. You can find Mango Sticky Rice throughout the whole year, but during the mango season, the mangos are insanely delicious!

14. Moo Ping

thai food for beginners moo ping

The last Thai food for foreigners recommendation is Moo Ping, a popular street food dish that you can find everywhere in Thailand. Moo Ping is marinated, minced pork that is grilled above a skewer. It’s not spicy at all, making it excellent Thai food for foreigners. Moo Ping is one of many Thai street food options you can choose from as a tourist. And exploring street food is for many tourists one of the top things they want to do in Thailand. In our article about the best street food in Bangkok, you find the best areas to devour Bangkok’s famous street food.

There you have it, the best Thai food for beginners and if you try every single dish during your travel in Thailand, you have a clear image of what Thai gastronomy is all about.

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