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I’ll let you in on a little secret…there are a lot more Thai dishes than phad thai, fried rice and green curry. Really. Those are all great options, and I still eat my fair share of them, but if you visit Thailand and only stick to these “safe” staples that most people seem to be familiar with, you are missing out.
Of course, it can also be intimidating to order and try something new when you’re not even sure how to order and immediately fall back on your go-to dish. Heck, now when I visit the U.S. I’m overwhelmed by my options and don’t know how to choose or what to order…and that’s in my home country where I speak the language. Add a foreign place, language, flavors and dining style into the mix and I understand why people stick to eating the same three dishes while traveling.
Read on to learn all the ins and outs of how to order Thai food in Thailand, including how to order and pay at street stalls versus restaurants, how to customize your order, a few key Thai food phrases and more.
You’ll never go hungry in Thailand. Everywhere you go – whether it’s a busy city street or small road in the middle of nowhere – you’ll find food and probably lots of it. Bangkok and Chiang Mai are some of the best places to eat well in terms of proximity and variety, but you can find good food anywhere. Thais eat all types of food at all times of the day and night, and it’s impossible to go more than a few hundred meters without coming across a street stall, fruit shake stand set up in someone’s driveway, or 7-11. Often food will come to you even if you’re not looking for it in the form of a rolling cart selling sliced fruit, ice cream (they serve real ice cream sandwiches here: little scoops of ice cream between two slices of white bread) or grilled sausages.
While you can easily find eggs and toast, Thais don’t tend to eat dishes considered ‘breakfast foods’ in the West. Often breakfast will be made up of foods they’ll eat at any time of day. Moo bing (barbequed pork on a stick) with sticky rice can be an after-school snack or, just as likely, breakfast on the go. It’s not uncommon to eat khao tom (boiled rice soup) in the morning, but guaytieow (noodle soup), even fried fish will do just fine too.
For lunch, many people will have a quick one-plate meal on their lunch break, like stir fry or curry dishes on top of rice, fried noodles (like phad see ew – wide rice noodles with soy sauce and kale), or noodle soup.
In the evening, the Thai style of eating often includes a variety of dishes including a combination of flavors and textures (for example, a stir fried dish, a vegetable dish, a soup and fish) served family-style with each person scooping up a little food to put in their own bowls of steamed rice.
Most made-to-order dishes come with your choice of meat – usually pork, chicken, shrimp, squid/seafood and sometimes beef. (Chiang Mai is known for raising pigs – you’re going to eat a lot of pork up here). Choose your dish then say which type of meat you want.
The order of your ordering:
*The italicized steps are optional. For example, asking for a fried egg on top of rice and a stir fried dish, such as phad grapao, is a common order addition and some noodle stalls have a couple different types of soup to choose from, such as a naam san (a basic clear broth), tom yum or yen ta foh (a broth with a pink sauce made from fermented bean curd). If you don’t add these onto your order it’s okay, you’ll simply end up with whatever the standard version of the dish is.
You don’t order dishes here with a five-star spice rating like in some Western Thai restaurants.
Certain dishes, such as som tam (green papaya salad), some curries, phad grapao (stir fried chilies and basil), phad pac boong fai dang (stir fried morning glory) and tom yum (soup seasoned with a particular blend of spices) are generally spicy dishes while others, including fried rice, phad thai, phad see ew (stir fried wide rice noodles with soy sauce), kai jiao (Thai-style omelet) and basic noodle soups, aren’t cooked with chilies.
I believe that usually the spice factor is automatically dumbed down a bit when a foreigner is ordering but everyone’s tolerance is different. For the dishes that are usually spicy, you can ask for them to be mai pet (my-pet), “not spicy”, when you order.
When eating at a street stall you’ll often tell the people cooking your order what you would like then find a seat. Smaller Thai restaurants, the ones that are in an actual building but still seem like they could be temporary and taken apart at any moment with their plastic seats and cement floors, will usually have someone come take your order or have a slip of paper on the table to write down what you’d like. Enjoy the meal and pay when you’re done.
What about the drinking water?
These types of places often have free drinking water either in a pitcher on your table or in nearby cooler and you’re expected to fill your own cup. This water is filtered and safe to drink. There may also be bottled water placed on your table. You’re welcome to drink this as well but it will cost you 10-20 baht per bottle.
Generally speaking, tap water is fine for brushing your teeth or washing dishes, but you don’t want to drink it directly.
Ordering in restaurants here is the same as pretty much anywhere else in the world. Someone will give you a menu then come back to take your order. Eat, enjoy, then pay when you’re done. No one is going to rush your meal, so if you’re ready to leave and haven’t been helped, get up and find someone to pay.
How to Eat Family-Style
Usually, if you’re eating in a Thai restaurant, you’ll eat family-style by ordering a bunch of dishes to share with individual bowls of rice. While there aren’t set courses – food tends to come out whenever it is ready and you’re expected to eat right away, don’t worry about waiting for everyone’s food to be served – people will typically order a selection of dishes that complement each other. You wouldn’t order three different spicy or stir fried dishes, for example, but a range of dishes that help balance each other out, such as one simple soup, a curry, a vegetable stirfry and a Thai-style salad. All the textures are different and you have a mix of spicy and non-spicy foods.
If you buy food to go from a street stall or cart, you pay when you order. If you eat at a street stall at a table, you pay after finishing your food. You’ll probably need to flag someone down or get up and go back to the actual street cart to pay. Same at a restaurant.
Tipping is not expected, but at restaurants I normally leave a little extra, perhaps 20-50 baht depending on the amount of food ordered and niceness of the place.
High end restaurants or hotel restaurants usually include a VAT and service charge in your bill.
From street stalls and most restaurants you can order food to go. Ask for it for “takeaway” in English or try saying “glup baan” in Thai, literally “back home”.
I’ve received lots of questions about eating vegetarian or vegan in Thailand, how to stay gluten-free and how to avoid eating peanuts.
For any dietary restrictions, you’ll find conflicting information and advice out there on the inter webs. I often hear that sticking to a vegetarian diet is “so easy” in Thailand, and it can be in certain places, but not always. Same goes for eating gluten-free. Most Thai dishes do not include wheat or flour, however there are other commonly used ingredients, like soy sauce, that people who are particularly sensitive to gluten or who have Celiac disease need to be aware of.
I’ll be sharing a thorough post on eating with dietary restrictions in Thailand later this week, so leave me any questions in the comments below and check back soon!
As mentioned above, most street stalls and local restaurants will have complimentary drinking water. Other drinks, usually a few different types of sodas, teas and juices, will be available from a menu. If you’re eating at a street stall it is completely okay to go grab a fruit shake from another place and bring it to where you’re eating.
When going out to bars you can often take advantage of a beer promotion where you can buy three large bottles of a certain brand for a special price. Friends will also usually buy a bottle of whiskey with a selection of mixers for the table to share – it’s the cheapest way to go. For example, a Sangsom set will include a small or large bottle of the Thai whiskey-like rum and a few bottles of your choice of water, soda water and Coke. You can also order buckets of ice (ice goes quickly here in the heat!) and then mix your drinks at the table or have them made by the bar girls wandering around.
Cocktails are often relatively pricey and made with cheap alcohol and, sadly, good wine is expensive. If you get a glass of wine around the 90-12o baht mark, it’s most likely coming from a box.
Do you need to know Thai to order? Not usually, but it helps. Try using the Thai names of dishes instead of the English descriptions, i.e. call phad see ew “phad see ew” and not “stir fried noodles with soy sauce”. People will understand if you say “not spicy” or “no chilies”, but try saying “mai pet” also.
Are dishes the same in Thailand as in other countries? Or have Thai dishes in the U.S. been “American-fied” like Chinese food? All the Thai dishes I’ve seen on American restaurant menus I’ve eaten in Thailand, however the ingredients used are often a little different or less fresh.
In a terrible example, I once saw a restaurant in Seattle make their Thai iced tea, known in Thai as cha nom yen. It’s a common and popular drink in Thailand – a strongly brewed Thai black tea blend with specific spices mixed with sugar, sweetened condensed milk and fresh or evaporated milk – however this restaurant made it by pouring equal parts of a thick “Thai tea” flavored syrup and half & half into a glass. Not the same…and I’m now scared to ever order the drink in the U.S. I’ve also been to restaurants with Chiang Mai’s famous curry noodle dish, khao soi, on the menu. What then came out to the table tasted good, but was not khao soi because it didn’t use the correct noodles and curry or chili paste for the dish.
What are the condiments on the table? Instead of salt and pepper on tables for extra seasoning you’ll find a set of four small cups or glasses with different ingredients. These are often sugar, crushed chilies, prik naam bplaa (brown fish sauce with chilies and lime juice), a clear vinegar with chilies or other tangy chili sauce.
People will add the amounts of the flavors they want to stir fried and noodle dishes.
Are fresh fruits and salads safe? If you’ve been warned about eating in a ‘third world’ country, not eating sliced fruits or vegetables is probably at the top of that warning list right after don’t drink the water. Then you come here and realize that fresh sliced fruit is available everywhere…and that you’re probably okay to eat it. Food hygiene and preparation cleanliness is not at the level that it is in a Western country, but people also aren’t preparing food with the intent to make you sick. If the fruit looks good, enjoy, I don’t know of anyone who has gotten sick from sliced fruit.
How can you make sure you’re ordering clean food? Personally, I don’t worry if street food, or food from anywhere else for that matter, is going to make me sick. I believe that I’m just as likely to have bad timing and get a stomach bug from a restaurant as a street stall (their ingredients are coming from the same places!).
That said, there are some commonsense practices to keep in mind to order smartly – like choosing cooked-to-order dishes instead of something that’s been sitting out and eating at a place with fast turnover so you can assume the ingredients are fresh – but in the end, just try to enjoy the whole experience and what you’re feasting on!
It would be impossible to write a guide highlighting all there is to eating and ordering in Thailand but hopefully this post helps lead you in the right direction for how to order food in Thailand. Let me know of any more questions in the comments below?