Thai culture is more than just Buddha images, elephants and smiles. Like all other cultures, food is a vital component to what makes Thailand unique. Not only is the food mouthwatering and oftentimes earth shattering (yes, it’s that good), it is a significant element that brings people of all kinds together.
After five months in Chiang Mai, I can willingly admit that I am obsessed with the food I have come across during my time here. As a first timer to Thai food or Thailand in general, getting used to the food can be pretty tricky. But what’s even harder is knowing what to order when you sit down at a restaurant. There are tons of dishes that I have fallen in love with, but I have compiled a list of nine absolute musts to try when you come to Thailand. (Note: I chose nine instead of 10 because it is a lucky number in Thai culture!)
1. Pad Thai
Okay, it may be cliché to list this right off the bat, but it’s the national dish for a reason. This delicious mix of sour, sweet, peanut, crunchy, chewy, mushy noodley mountain of goodness is enough to make my heart sing. And what’s great is that no two people make the same Pad Thai, so unless you become a regular at a restaurant (like myself), each time you eat it, it will be a completely different experience. My personal preference is more spicy, less sweet, with a tiny bit of peanut sprinkled on top.
2. Khao Soi
Another Thai delicacy, this dish is a staple to the North and can only be found in that part of the country. It consists of egg noodles bathed in a delicious yellow curry, accompanied by vegetables of the cook’s choosing (my favorite combination was carrots, potatoes, and onions) and is topped off with crispy wonton noodles on top and garnished with a few pinches of cilantro. Seriously, if you come to Chiang Mai, you cannot leave without trying this mouthwatering meal.
3. Chicken with cashew nut
This delicious dish consists of chicken, cashew nuts, oyster sauce, and a slew of whatever vegetables the cook decides to put in it. Usually it has bell peppers, onions, morning glory, and carrots, but I’ve had pineapple in one dish before, which was actually quite tasty! The cashew nuts add a perfect crunch to each bite and the oyster sauce really makes the meal pop and has your taste buds singing.
4. Egg Noodles with Chicken & Veggies
A tasty alternative to the traditional “meat and rice” meals that are quite common in Thailand. You can actually get any type of meat and any type of vegetable mixed in with egg noodles, but my favorite is chicken, morning glory, beansprouts, egg, shaved carrots, and a pinch of lime.
5. Spring Rolls
Something you can get back in the States, but nothing comes close to the spring rolls that are produced in Thailand. Filled with rice noodles and various fried vegetables, wrapped up in rice paper, these serve as a great appetizer or simply a quick snack to and from class.
6. Kai Jiao
This is the Thai omelet. Although it consists of nothing that can’t be found back in America, it has a special place in my heart. I am not a breakfast person by any means, but was forced to change my ways when I had class from 9-5 almost every day, and since it was hard for me to adapt to the Thai style of eating meat and rice for breakfast, this was a great alternative for me that mixed Eastern and Western elements, making me feel at home. It normally comes with just minced pork inside, but if you learn to speak Thai you can get the cook to put mixed veggies in it too!
Yes, you read that correctly. When you come to Thailand, it is absolutely necessary to try at least one bug during your stay. It took me awhile to get past my preconceived Western notions of eating bugs and accept the fact that these are delicacies in many parts of the world, including Thailand. You can go to any market and spot a slew of these creepy-crawlies, ranging from silk or bamboo worms to massive grasshoppers and roaches. I didn’t have the guts to try the big guys, so I just went with a small bag of bamboo worms and called it a day. And they actually weren’t half bad! The ultimate lesson about food that I have learned here in Thailand: don’t knock it til you try it!
8. Mango Sticky Rice
Yes. It tastes just as good as it sounds. This is one of the best, if not the best, Thai dessert to ever exist. First of all, we all know how delicious mangoes are. Melt them on top of some hot sticky rice and add a few nuts and you will be in culinary heaven. Trust me on this.
9. Family Style Buffet
Last but not least, it is essential that you have a family-style meal with a group of local Thai people. It is a traditional way for them to eat—to order, or make, many different dishes and lay them all out on the table (or floor) and have everyone share. It’s a fantastic way to spend time with each other while enjoying awesome food that locals themselves have picked out. The one featured here includes som tum (spicy papaya salad), tom yum (SPICY Thai soup), deep-fried chicken wings, a pile of vegetables doused in spicy sauce, and finally, fried fish with cashew nuts, lemongrass, basil, and onions.
Like I said, there are hundreds of other dishes you could try—red curry, green curry, massaman curry, jok, pad pak, fried rice—I could go on for days—but these are just a few of my favorites that I found to be aroi MAK! (Very delicious.)
*Aroi mai? = Delicious no? Often asked by the staff at local Thai food stalls and restaurants.
Editor’s note: The main dishes listed in this post can be found all over Chiang Mai for less than a $1 each!