By Justin Calderón
Nov 5, 2021
TO APPRECIATE WHAT MAKES THE BEST Thai dishes favored by the nation’s top chefs requires understanding the unique array of ingredients and cooking styles that Thailand has to offer. Across the Land of Smiles, each region offers a diverse basket of herbs and spices that, when used with wisdom, can enhance some of Thailand’s most loved staples in surprisingly unique ways.
Thai dishes are famous for their explosion of tastes: sour, sweet, salty, creamy and spicy, all balanced differently depending on the dish. Taking this medley of different flavors a step further, the best Thai dishes can transport even the most jaded diners on a flavor-packed tour across all the regions of Thailand, from Chang Mai in the north, Isan in the northeast and down to Muslim-inspired dishes from Surant Thani in the south.
This list is made as a homage to the incredible variety of dishes that Thailand has to offer. However, we’re going beyond offering a list of the best Thai dishes by providing you with surprising (and perhaps inspiring) variations of popular dishes made by Thailand’s top chefs, showcasing, we hope, that rules can be broken and that great cuisine knows no limits.
1. Khao Soi (Coconut Curry Noodle Soup)
Khao soi is a popular dish that comes from northern Thailand. The yellow curry soup base is rich yet light on the stomach, and is traditionally served with yellow noodles and chicken or beef. The more “authentic” variety that is commonly eaten in northern cities like Chiang Mai will always use flat Thai egg noodles, which are delicately chewy and tender.
Chef Ian Kittichai, the lead judge of the International Emmy-nominated MasterChef Thailand who is also a cookbook author and the founder and partner of restaurants such as Issaya Siamese Club and Khum Hom in Bangkok, highly recommends khao soi as one of the top items on his best Thai dishes list. To try khao soi that makes even this top Thai chef drool, visit one of his favorite shops in Chiang Mai, Khao Soi Luang Prakit Kaat Grom, located near Kaat Grom Market.
Try the Chef’s Unique Menu: If you fancy a luxury version of khao soi, try Chef Ian’s unique menu with braised cross-cut veal shank at Issaya Siamese Club in Bangkok.
2. Kai Jeaw (Crispy Omelette)
Kai jeaw — an omelette that is made crispy by deep-frying in oil — is found all across Thailand and is considered one of the staple dishes of the nation. It is commonly made by adding minced pork, vegetables or oysters with a few drops of fish sauce, which is the key ingredient that gives this dish a unique Thai taste of saltiness. Kai jeaw is also usually served with rice and Sriracha chili sauce or prik nam pla, a spicy Thai condiment made with chilis, fish sauce, garlic and lime juice. If you are new to Thailand and want to explore a comfortable local favorite for breakfast (or any meal of your day, as Thais eat it around the clock), kai jeaw should be a great choice.
Try the Chef’s Unique Menu: Perhaps the world’s most famous omelette is served at Raan Jay Fai in Bangkok and is cooked with jumbo lump crab meat. Shaped into a fluffy bun rather than the usual flat style, Jay Fai’s omelette has drummed up so much recognition that she has been awarded a Michelin Star four years in row since 2018, a historical first for a Thai street food vendor, and received the Icon Award from Asia’s 50 Best in 2021.
From her humble Thai eatery beginnings, Jay Fai has now become internationally recognized and often receives visits from global celebrities. If you are planning a trip to Bangkok, a visit to Jay Fai is definitely something you don’t want to miss (advance booking highly recommended). If you’re not, you can try making it at home by following Jay Fai’s recipe, available here in a Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia exclusive video.
3. Pad Krapow (Stir-Fried Basil)
Pad krapow is one of the most popular Thai dishes among locals and foreigners alike. Its claim to fame is the dish’s fairly strong spicy kick, thanks to a solid dose of chili and the unique peppery flavor of Thai holy basil, which provides a different flavor profile than Western basil.
There are several versions of pad krapow depending on which region of Thailand you are in. Nonetheless, this popular Thai dish is often made using some kind of meat, chicken, pork, beef, seafood, or even chicken livers!
Try This Unique Twist: Pad krapow moo krob (stir-fried basil with crispy pork) is a fun twist on a Thai classic, adding a decadently fatty piece of crispy pork to the mix.
4. Kway Teow (Noodle Soup)
Source: Kin-Kin (2)
Noodle dishes play an important role in Thai cuisine, and kway teow (the humble Thai noodle soup) can be found almost everywhere throughout the country. Kway teow is a very versatile Thai dish and can be made with chicken, pork, or beef, as well as either rice noodles or egg noodles. Those who need a little kick can add dried chili peppers, sugar, vinegar and fish sauce.
Try This Unique Twist: If you fancy a Thai-style noodle dish with a burst of flavor, try “boat noodles,” so named because the soup was originally sold from floating cooks in riverine regions of the country. (Make pilgrimage to the ancient capital Ayutthya to both see the temples and try this regional specialty.) The broth is made of blood and usually packed with veggies, meatballs, beef and sometimes organs depending on the place.
Food and travel blogger couple Kin-Kin (@wearekinkin) say that toothsome boat noodles, once only found among Thai street (and canal) food vendors, have now taken on a new life thanks to daring restaurants. “This simple yet so flavorful and satisfying noodle now has been upgraded by many trendy restaurateurs by offering choices of expensive beef, wagyu, Kobe, you name it,” they say.
5. Mee Pad Krached (Water Mimosa with Stir-Fried Noodles)
Another mouthwatering Thai dish that food and travel blogger Kin-Kin (@wearekinkin) recommends is mee pad krached. This stir-fried dish is made with rice vermicelli and shrimp, as well as the star ingredient — krached (or water mimosa in English), a crisp green vegetable that grows in the water. Mee pad krached takes a special place in the Thai patheon of food specifically because of this unique ingredient; it is one of the few Thai dishes that stars water mimosa.
Mee pad krached is commonly made over a hot fire in a wok and seasoned with Thai chili paste and oyster sauce, giving it a wonderfully smoky flavor and potent aroma of chili. “This dish was introduced to us when we were in our late teens,” recalls Kin-Kin. “Its unique smell and texture give this menu an oomph and a hint of a particular punch.”
Try This Unique Twist: To take this dish to the next level, Kin-Kin recommends cooking gaeng som chili paste with water mimosa to create a spicy curry base.
6. Moo Ping (Grilled Pork Skewers)
Moo ping, or grilled pork skewers, are bits of pork marinated in oyster sauce, grilled over charcoal and, Thais would tell you, best eaten with sticky rice. This tasty food-on-a-stick is a classic choice for a breakfast or light meal across Thailand, and you’re likely to smell moo ping before you see it. The aroma of moo ping spreads down the street, and usually is accompanied by a short line of people taking the food to go off to their next destination. If you are not in the mood for pork, this Thai dish is usually also available with chicken meat, chicken liver or even chicken butt!
7. Pad Thai (Thai-Style Fried Noodles)
Courtesy of Mayrai (2)
Pad Thai, or Thai-style fried noodles, is a comfort food considered one of Thailand’s most iconic dishes. However, the dish was once known as kway teow pad thai, hinting at its Chinese origins since kway teow is the Cantonese word for rice noodles.
The pad thai as we know it today is believed to have originated after World War II when Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram was prime minister. Under him, the Thai government started to promote noodle consumption instead of rice, so they created this new dish by using a tamarind sauce base, which is the key ingredient that makes pad thai different from other fried noodles.
A new noodle called sen chan (named after Chantaburi Province in eastern Thailand) came afterwards, which gave the dish a unique chewy texture unlike the rice noodles. Today, the iconic pad Thai recipes we have come to know and love include sen chan rice noodles, dried shrimp, extra-firm tofu, preserved turnip, shallots, palm sugar, egg, beansprouts, and pork fat.
Try These Chefs’ Unique Menus: Considering this is the national dish, we sought out two of Thailand’s most acclaimed chefs for their advice on pad Thai. The classic pad Thai normally comes with shrimp or sliced chicken stir-fried in. However, some restaurants have started to embellish the dish with different flavorful proteins. Chef Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn, the first Thai winner of Michelin’s Young Chef Award and chef de cuisine from Michelin-starred Saawaan in Bangkok, says that one of her favorite Thai dishes is pad thai gai yang (grilled chicken Thai-style fried noodle).
Across Bangkok in the historic city center, Michelin-starred chef Thitid ‘Ton’ Tassanakajohn has opened a restaurant called Mayrai dedicated to pad Thai with upscale ingredients, such as wagyu beef and pork belly, paired with natural wines. Try his recipe for Pad Thai Mayrai, which he shared exclusively with Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia.
8. Goong Ten (Dancing Shrimp)
Goong ten (or dancing shrimp) is a traditional Isan food that hails from northeast Thailand, where people like to season and eat live shrimp. With the shrimp still wriggling, cooks season them with spicy dried chili powder and a spicy sauce. In the process, the live shrimp jump around trying to escape, giving the illusion of dancing. The chili powder used to make goong ten is blended with fish sauce, fresh herbs and plenty of lime juice. If you are daring enough, this could be one of the most exciting Thai dishes you’ve ever tried.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Chef Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn, chef de cuisine at Saawaan Bangkok, makes a signature raw shrimp dish inspired from goong ten by using Japanese ama ebi sweet shrimp with pickled and charcoaled cucumber and coconut dressing. Chef Aom says this signature dish is just a sample of how she approaches cooking at her restaurant. “Most of the dishes are based on traditional cooking techniques with some modern knowledge that I learned from my experience and present with a modern version,” she says.
9. Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad)
Som tam, or spicy green papaya salad, is easily one of the most recognizable salads in Thailand, yet each region has its own variety to offer. In this way, som tam is a kind of calling card for Thai regions, presenting unique combinations of savory, sweet, sour and spicy tastes specific to that area.
If you are craving som tam in Thailand, keep an eye out for the glass cabinets with little red tomatoes. The stands that advertise somtam with pla-ra (fermented fish), a style from Isan in northeast Thailand, often make the spiciest som tam because Isan food is heavily seasoned with chili and local spices. Grilled chicken and laab, a kind of spicy chopped meat salad, complete the distinct Isan flair of this dish.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: To create a dish with extra flavor and a texture twist, Sujira ‘Aom’ Pongmorn, chef de cuisine at Saawaan in Bangkok, adds salted egg to her som tam. This is one of her top three Thai dishes, mostly because this version promises to tease your taste buds with sweet and sour flavors with less focus on the traditional spicy som tam profile.
10. Jaew Bong (Spicy Dip)
Jaew Bong is a savory chili paste from Isan in northeast Thailand and Laos next door (before modern international borders were drawn, they were the same place). Unlike typical Thai chili paste that can be found in other regions of Thailand, the key ingredients of jaew bong are chilis, galangal, local herbs and a nice dash of pla-ra (fermented fish) to give it a heavy fish flavor. It is usually eaten by dipping sticky rice or a fresh green mango or vegetable into it.
Food and travel bloggers Kin-Kin (@wearekinkin) say that jaew bong is an Isan import that has the potential to dramatically change how you eat other Thai dishes. “This relish was brought to the central region by Isan workers who came to Bangkok. Now you can find it at every street corner on moo ping pushcarts, where it is used as a condiment,” say Kin-Kin.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: If you want to omit the fishy, chef Num (Weerawat Triyasenawat), the owner of Samuay and Sons in Udon Thani, which was named to Asia’s 50 Best’s inaugural Essence of Asia list this year, has a unique twist. He makes a vegan jaew bong by replacing pla-ra with fermented mushrooms, which still provides a strong umami oomph. “Trust us, we even love it more than the original,” Kin-Kin says.
11. Yum Woon Sen (Spicy Glass Noodle Salad)
Yum woon sen is a spicy glass noodle salad made with a combination of seafood and minced pork. Featuring classic translucent glass noodles with a unique texture, yum woon sen is one of the most popular Thai dishes among locals.
Thailand produces lots of mung beans, which is what glass noodles are made from. Each country in Southeast Asia has their own version of these noodles, and they also can vary depending on the region. Thai glass noodles are known for being very filling yet low in calories, which is why they are often used as a healthy diet choice among Thais.
12. Pla Muek Yang (Grilled Squid)
Pla muek yang, or grilled squid, is a popular street food consumed on a stick and available throughout most of Thailand. This street food is normally enjoyed with chili dip and eaten on the go.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Pla muek yang kamin, or grilled squid marinated with turmeric, is a southern-style marinated and grilled squid inspired by snacks from street food vendors along Bangkok’s Charoenkrung Road. Chefs Boontham Nonthibutr and Prasit Pumnual at Phra Nakhon restaurant in Capella Bangkok, named the No. 4 hotel in the world by T+L readers in this year’s World’s Best Awards, like to serve this Thai dish with their signature Phra Nakhon chili dip.
13. Gaeng Pu Bai Cha Plu (Crab Curry with Betel Leaf)
Gaeng pu bai cha plu, or crab curry with betel leaf, has a unique flavor of curry paste and spiciness, and is a traditional dish from the southern part of Thailand. This is the region of chef Chayawee, senior head chef of Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the Siam Kempinski Hotel in Bangkok, which has a Michelin star.
He says that this Thai dish is best enjoyed during monsoon season, when the betel leaves help prevent catching a cold, a piece of traditional Thai medicinal wisdom. This curry is rich and mild, and suitable to eat as a side dish, served with rice or vermicelli noodles.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Chef Chayawee has modernized this Thai dish by adding corn and by adjusting the yellow curry flavor by adding cream, which is presented in the form of a foam.
14. Gaeng Massaman Nua (Beef Massaman)
Gaeng massaman nua, or beef massaman, is a beef stew that is slow cooked to make it tender and elaborated with a slightly thick sauce that comes from coconut milk, spices and local herbs. This gives the dish sweet, salty and tangy tastes, all reminiscent of culinary influences from India and Thai Muslims in the southern region of Surat Thani.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Chef Chayawee, senior head chef of Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, makes a version of beef massaman using Australian wagyu beef that is slow-cooked for 48 hours, making this luxurious beef even more tender.
15. Tom Yum Kung (Spicy Prawn Soup)
Tom yum kung is an iconic Thai dish that has become wildly popular inside and outside of Thailand. This hot-and-sour soup has a spicy and tangy taste, and is typically made with a shellfish base that includes kung, or shrimp.
There are two common types of tom yum soup – clear or creamy — with the main difference being that the creamy version includes coconut milk. “This dish sounds so simple, but you just never get bored of it,” says chef Chayawee, senior head chef of Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Chef Chayawee has created a signature dish that is a vanguard revisioning of the classic tom yum kung, choosing to boldly serve it on cilantro waffles. The soup is made in a Japanese syphon coffee maker by infusing an aroma of additional fresh herbs to finish it, and then served with DIY instant tofu noodles in a bowl and homemade prawn crackers made from 100% tiger-prawn marinade ama ebi (Japanese sweet shrimp), ginger and lobster bisque. Lastly, the menu is completed with another side dish of cilantro waffles made with a Danish recipe and topped with a Thai-style salsa of relish based on dried codfish with a lime leaf marinade. Creative or controversial? Try it and decide for yourself!
16. Pad Kapi Sataw Goong (Thai Stink Beans with Shrimp)
Sataw, or stink bean, is a plant that flourishes in the south of Thailand, so it’s no surprise this ingredient features prominently on the menu of any southern-style Thai restaurant. The stink bean (unsurprisingly due to its name) has a strong smell and is typically served with many kinds of dishes, including stir-fried chicken or pork with curry paste and stir-fried pork with chili paste.
Chef ‘Jeab’ Sumalee Khunpet, chef de cuisine at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui, says that “there are a lot of Thai dishes that I like, but if I have to select one, I would choose pad kapi sataw goong. I grew up in Nakhon Si Thammarat and sataw is a product that reminds me of home.”
17. Gaeng Kua Pu Bai Cha Kram (Yellow Coconut Curry with Crab Meat and Hibiscus Leaves)
Gaeng kua pu bai cha kram, or yellow coconut curry with crab meat and hibiscus leaves, is a unique Thai dish that is based on yellow Thai curry paste. It is largely influenced by the hibiscus leaves, which are often found in areas that are connected to the sea, ideal for mixing with seafood.
Chefs Boontham and Prasit of Phra Nakhon restaurant both recommend this as one of their top Thai dishes. Known for its coconut-rich seafood curries, southern Thai cuisine can be best showcased through yellow coconut curry, crab meat and with hints of hibiscus leaves.
18. Sago Phattalung (Sago Phattalung Pudding)
The Thai dessert sago phattalung, a type of coconut pudding, hails from Phattalung province, where sago palm trees are used as the main ingredient. Today, however, almost all places that claim to use ‘sago’ are actually using tapioca roots and flour because this is much easier to source. This means the true sago phattalung is usually only found in Phattalung.
Try The Chef’s Unique Menu: Chefs Uncle Nun and Auntie Yai, the couple who head Ta Khai restaurant at Rosewood in Phuket, say “this is among our favorites because of how hard it is to find real sagos and that the knowledge of preparation is becoming a lost tradition.” With the ancestral techniques and their own recipe, these chefs proudly share their signature dessert dish with guests in a way that is (unfortunately) rarely found today in Thailand.