From tantalizing coconut curry noodle (Khao Soi) to divine stir fried Thai stink beans (Pad Sa Tor), Thailand is home to a huge culinary assortment. While many travelers have roamed north and south, it’s surprising for us to hear most travelers proclaim their love for Pad Thai and Tom Yum Kung when asked about Thai cuisine.
Don’t take this the wrong way. These two are as good as they get and local’s go-to as well. However, each region of Thailand hosts its own very unique selection of cuisine, and we don’t want food enthusiasts to miss any of it. The diversity is eye-opening, or should we say… taste buds. Here, we’ve curated for you a list of our favorite regional dishes as well as tidbits about cultural influences on our taste buds.
Taste 5 regions of Thai cuisine
Wide-ranging-in-spicy-levels Northern Thai cuisine
Thai northerners are known for their calm personality and slow-paced lifestyle. However, their extensive regional nosh offers a wide range of spicy levels, so we can wholeheartedly recommend Northern Thai dishes to international travelers who are keen on trying spicy food but not sure about their spice tolerance. Our classic to-die-for Thai northern dishes are Khao Soi and Naam Prik Noom. The first one is usually mild enough for non-locals, while the northern chili paste sometimes leaves even the locals sweating.
Khao Soi – This golden coconut curry egg noodle soup with chicken leg (the most common), pork or beef was originally Chin Ho (Southern Chinese people who migrated to Thailand via Laos and Myanmar) food. Although ubiquitous nowadays, a good Khao Soi, where the coconut curry is the right mix of rich, creamy and spicy and the meat is the right level of succulent, is still a gem, even to Thais.
Naam Prik Noom– The name might ring a bell because Naam Prik means chili dip, another bona fide Thai side dish. Like the whole culinary business, different regions have their very own sets of Naam Priks, from the racy southern shrimp paste to the spirited northeastern pickled fish chili dish. The northern Naam Prik Noom is pound roasted green chili dip, best savored with deep fried pork rind (Cab Moo). The best Naam Prik Noom is usually homemade, with freshly roasted chili exuding its earthy and piney aroma.
Zesty Isaan (Northeastern) Thai cuisine
Isaan is a Pali word meaning the northeast – where it’s scorching hot in summer and showery during rainy season. In the old days, most northeasterners worked long hours in farms. The need for energy booster (and the belief that spice will do the job) coupled with Laos culinary influence resulted in hard-to-finish-even-for-Thais spicy grub.
Som Tum – Here comes a little surprise: the globally loved Som Tum is actually an Isaan trademark. Its local lingo name, ‘Tum Buk Hoong’ (literally Morning Glory salad), gives an idea of vegetable-you-can-find Som Tum, apart from the common raw papaya version. Raw banana, long bean, pineapple, and tamarind are all Tum Buk Hoong materials for Isaan folks.
Pla Ra (pickled fish) – This Isaan-style food preservation is not necessarily a dish. The 8-month-old (or more) fresh fish pickled with salt and ground roasted rice plays a major role in a plethora of Thai dishes from Som Tum Pla Ra and Naam Prik Pla Ra. Again, Pla Ra’s scent and taste vary by types of fish and how long it’s pickled.
Eclectic and flavorful Central Thai cuisine
With the ancient capital of Ayutthaya as the trading hub, the central part of Thailand has long embraced foreign influences for its cuisine. The eclectic piquancy is a byproduct of Thailand’s diplomatic relations with its neighbors, as well as China, India, and the Occidental countries. On the other hand, the regional cuisine has inherited a remarkable fineness from Ayutthaya royal etiquette.
Tom Yum – A classic global craze that, paradoxically, remains underexplored. Besides the omnipresent Tom Yum Kung, other kinds of Tom Yum offer a myriad of spicy and sour flavors. This is because Central fare is also known for its use of tamarind, madan or bilimbing for distinctive sour tangs. Like Isaan’s Som Tum, pork ribs, squid or chicken legs all make a potential to-die-for bowl of Tom Yum.
Khao Klook Kapi (Thai Shrimp Paste Fried Rice) – The dish looks somewhat like an edible version of a color palette. Purplish brown fried rice, light green matchsticks of raw mango, vermillion dried shrimp, succulent brown sweet pork, yellow omelette stips and purple shallot slices are a feast for the eyes. Like other Thai dishes, finding a good Khao Klook Kapi is a true treasure hunt.
Exclusively “eastern” Eastern Thai cuisine
Too often overlooked or taken as a small part of Isaan, the seaside eastern part of Thailand is actually a vibrant hub of fresh seafood and tropical fruits. Like the other regions, Eastern Thai cuisine has its own mouthwatering culinary trump cards. The combination of fruits in main dishes and only-in-the-East local delicacies rank at the top.
Gai Baan Tom Rakum (Salacca Spicy Chicken Broth) – In lieu of lime, the easterners craft out their unique spicy tom yum soup using the tropical salacca (rakum in Thai). The free-range chicken meat, brothed until soft and succulent, only needs a dish of freshly cooked jasmine rice to make a perfect lunch.
Naam Prik Khai Pu (Spicy Crab Egg Paste) – You might be familiar with Thailand’s ubiquitous spicy paste. However, the seaside eastern provinces have taken this national side dish to the next level. Crab eggs mixed and mashed with garlic, lime juice, and chili not only boast their unique taste, but also healthiness as fresh greens are called for to ease out the spice.
Fiery Southern Thai cuisine
Sandwiched between Thai Gulf and Andaman Sea, Thailand’s southern part and its archipelago are rich with seafood, and fish smell. This explains why spices, particularly turmeric, are fundamental elements in southern cuisine. The region is known for its fiery food, fused with pepper, fresh and dried Bird’s eye chili and lime juice. To tone down the hotness, fresh cucumber, eggplant, aubergine and other greens are indispensable components of a southerner’s meal.
Kaeng Lueng (Southern Yellow Sour Soup) – This turmeric-fused sour and spicy soup is not to be confused with Tom Yum or Yellow Curry. (Yes, it’s a subtle art.) Like other regional highlights, Kaeng Lueng comes in many versions. Sliced papaya (not Som Tum’s matchsticks), lotus stems, fried egg with climbing wattle or mixed vegetables in Southern Yellow Sour Soup are all worth a try. Do keep a glass (or a bottle) of water ready, though.
Pad Sator Koong (Stir Fried Stink Beans with Shrimp) – We’re quite certain every culture has these dishes that you’re either head over heels in love with or you can’t even stand the thought of. But for us, Pad Sa Tor is one of the most swoon-worthy southern Thai dishes. A good Pad Sa Tor takes ripe-enough (best picked during rainy season) Sa Tor (stink beans), flavorsome shrimp paste sauce and fresh shrimps.