How to Order Food in Thailand

How to Order Thai Food

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.

The Basics

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.

Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner

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.

How to Order Food in Thailand

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:

  • stir fry + meat + fried egg
  • curry + meat + how spicy
  • type of noodle + meat + type of broth
  • any dish + “pi-set” (piset means “special” and ordering a dish then saying piset will often get you a larger portion or more ingredients thrown into the mix)

*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.

The Spice Factor

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.

How to Order Street Food in Thailand

How to Order at Street Stalls in Thailand

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.

How to Order at Restaurants in Thailand

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.

How to Pay for Food in Thailand

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.

To-Go Orders

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”.

How to Order with Dietary Restrictions in Thailand

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!

How to Order Drinks in Thailand

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.

Leo Beer in Thailand

FAQs on Ordering in Thailand

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.

Thai condiments

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?

Heading to Thailand? Pin the post for later so you’re not stuck with phad thai and fried rice the whole trip:

How to Order Food in Thailand

23 Comments

  • Posted September 15, 2016
    by Oceana | M&M

    I LOVE Thai food so much, this post is giving me serious flash backs. I’m a curry girl personally, and the hotter the better! Panang and massaman are the best, but any kind of wide rice noodle dish will do just as well. I love the photos in this article, the light is just gorgeous. Think I’ll be heading out for Thai takeaway tonight!

    • Posted September 19, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      I love the wide rice noodles too…Hope you had a good meal ;)

  • Posted September 20, 2016
    by Krystal

    This post is amazing! I was in Thailand last year with my boyfriend. It took us a little while to get use to the food and their way of eating. I wish I had read this post before hand! Will be sharing this great post!

    • Posted September 23, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      Thanks so much, Krystal – appreciate it!

  • Posted September 22, 2016
    by Elizabeth

    Leo is my favorite beer!! Love that shot lol. Thankfully ordering here is pretty easy, although half the time when I say mai Waan or mai sai nam than my food or drink ends up sweetened. Oh well. I’ve found that the qualifier words are helpful, like khao suay song jaan, song gaew, etc I’ve been meaning to ask you where the best khao tom or jok places are in town. I mainly know Hang Dong and not the city center, and haven’t found a jok place nearby.

    • Posted September 23, 2016
      by Alana Morgan

      There’s a great jok place on Prapokkloa Road just after you turn in from the moat (at the end of Chiang Mai Market). Really dingy looking…but good!

  • Posted September 23, 2016
    by jasbir

    How safe it is to try fried bugs ?

    • Posted April 12, 2017
      by Nin

      Yes , just ask them which one is easy to eat.

  • Posted October 13, 2016
    by Margie

    Great guide! One thing I’ve noticed from experience is that ordering food in the country itself is often very different from food that’s served in restaurants back home. It’s one of the reasons why I love traveling. Street food is the best. Though it can be a hit or miss on the belly.

  • Posted November 13, 2016
    by Cara

    Thank you for these great tips; as it can be difficult ordering food during your travels. The cuisine is so amazing, but getting what you ask for can be challenging. Food tourism has increased significantly in recent years and has become a major pull factor for so many destinations, really enhancing the overall experience. Balance, detail, and variety are of paramount significance to Thai chefs. Did you know, in 2011, seven of Thailand’s popular dishes appeared on the list of the “World’s 50 Most Delicious Foods “. Thailand seems worth a visit, even if its just for the food 0 not to mention its tropical beaches, opulent royal palaces, ancient ruins and ornate temples.

  • Posted December 2, 2016
    by Kim

    We’re going to Chaing Mai in a matter of days! Definitely going to study this article again and again!!

  • Posted January 13, 2017
    by Adriana

    Hi! My husband and I are coming to Thailand in April! I would love to ask you a few questions about itinerary and to ask for some suggestions. I am passionate about cooking and food and since I only have a few days I would prefer to have some suggestions rather than trial and error (as we did in Japan last year and I came back feeling like I had missed out). Let me know if you wouldn’t mind. THANKS

  • Posted February 15, 2017
    by Denise

    Thailand is a must visit place in the world. I love walking where the restaurants are. The food are great. The water is clean.

  • Posted March 31, 2017
    by Taro Gold

    This post is spot on! This helped us navigate the amazing food scene that makes Chiang Mai so special. Thanks for helping us get the most out of Thailand!

    • Posted April 9, 2017
      by Alana Morgan

      Glad it was helpful…hope you had some memorable meals ;)

  • Posted May 3, 2018
    by Bryan Cole

    Wow – this is an incredibly savvy and detailed blog. Thanks so much for your time. I too am planning an extended stay in Thailand in 2019 for about 3 months and then over to Vietnam for the same. Even though I lived in Tokyo for 10 years, I realize there are some huge differences.

  • Posted November 24, 2018
    by Emily

    This was so helpful! Definitely the best food guide to Thailand I’ve seen so far. Do you have a comprehensive list of the common dishes and their Thai names? I’d like to try and order in Thai if possible. Thanks again.

  • Posted February 15, 2019
    by Jane M

    Love this guide. Should have read it before my last trip to Thailand.

    On the vegan and vegetarian question, I have travelled as both in Thailand. On my first trip, I was vegetarian and on other trips, vegan.

    As you said, Chiang Mai and Bangkok are relatively easy places to be veggie in Thailand but as soon as you get off the beaten track it is a lot harder. Thai people love their meat! And their fish sauce and dried shrimp. It’s especially hard to eat at night markets or street stalls.

    But it can be done. You just need to prepare for your trip (with useful phrases etc) ahead of time.

    J

    • Posted February 15, 2019
      by Alana Morgan

      I’m not vegan but would think it could be very frustrating here…so many things have at least a little bit of an animal product like you said!

  • Posted August 31, 2019
    by Aliza Earnshaw

    Wonderful post, thank you.

  • Posted December 10, 2019
    by BangkokBestDinning

    Thanks for Sharing and Very good post !!

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