A Wok to Remember: A Foodie’s Guide to Thailand on a Budget
One of the most impressive works of fiction in the English language is your local Thai take-out menu. It’s as prickly and deceptive as a durian—much of it is Orientalist fantasy, much of the rest is culinary plagiarism. Fun Fact: Chicken satay is the national dish of Indonesia. Spring rolls are Vietnamese. Shumai is Cantonese. Laab salad comes from Laos. Khao Mon Gai belongs to Hainan. Oh, and those beloved, fried Thung Thong “money bag” appetizers? I’m afraid those are less Asian than Olive Garden. They were invented in Make-Believe Land by wishful, white Australians. They were probably high.
Authentic Thai cuisine is one of the finest in the world, a robust kitchen overflowing with sizzling woks, rainbow curry pots, and decadent stir-fry noodles. Each dish is a delicate balancing act of salty, sweet, spicy, and sour. It’s a bold and unforgiving orgy of flavors, one which many visitors can find bewildering and challenging at first.
So to ease you gently into the culinary rhythms of Thailand, I’ve put together the following foodie guide to help demystify the tropical pantry of Southeast Asia. Brace yourself for a gastronomic blitzkrieg. Aside from rating the best and most ubiquitous dishes on their deliciousness, I’ve also indicated how hellishly fiery they are, on a scale from one to five “spicy monks.”
Thailand enjoys one of the world’s most vibrant street-food cultures, so we’ll kick off with some roadside snacks.
THAI BBQ PORK SKEWERS: Outside of bacon, white people are pretty incompetent when it comes to pork. Thai skewers are proof. Thai skewers are poetry. Before being grilled over charcoal, the pork is marinated in a spectacular soy-based sauce, made from sunshine, rocket ships, and blowjobs. Many foreigners can’t handle it’s unbridled awesomeness, so it’s often tempered with a bag of hot sticky-rice.
THAI STUFFED OMELET: When I first arrived in Thailand, I thought why would I ever settle for an omelet when I could have a piglet’s worth of skewers? When I finally tried the dish for this article, I realized my horrible mistake. Thai omelets are hearty and satisfying, packed with meat, seafood, vegetables, spices, and occasionally noodles. But these are merely vehicles for the sauce, which is nothing short of life affirming, a tangy balance of salty, sour, spicy, and sweet. Instead of beating around the bush, just ask for a bowl of the sauce and a straw. When I tried to do this my waitress just chuckled, perhaps mistaking me as retarded.
THAI SAUSAGE: In the holy Pantheon of Pork, bacon is Jesus, Thai BBQ Skewers are V-Mary, and Northern Thai Sausages are Judas, ***betraying everything you’d expect of a sausage.**** Instead of pork-taste, you get a firehose blast of lemon grass, chili, garlic, turmeric, and galangal. It’s a spicy clusterfuck of flavors, but still obscenely delicious.
NAM PRIK (CHILI DIP): Like sushi in Japan or fried eggs in America, a Thai chef’s skill is measured by their Nam Prik. It’s a simple concept; steamed vegetables served with a spicy dip made of grounded meat, seafood, herbs, and a laughably absurd amount of chili. Unfortunately it’s not typically served in restaurants. It’s Thai comfort food, kind of like peanut butter and jelly, but so spicy that everybody starts hyperventilating.
FRIED INSECTS: Perfect for those who want a light afternoon snack and a culinary journey of hell. Fried scorpions, ant eggs, crickets, cockroaches, silkworm larvae, and something big and menacing that looks like Mothra—these dubious delicacies are the snack fare of rural Thailand. Don’t eat the silkworm larvae. DON’T DO IT. They look crunchy, but then they explode in your mouth like a fecal piñata. Imagine the big bug-monster from ‘District 9′ popping a dump in your mouth, after he’s had a hard night of drinking and eating Mexican food. The crickets are less offensive—like funky, dustpan-flavored Pringles.
SOUP & SALAD: If you thought the Thai Kitchen would provide you something plain and meek, you’re in for a world of butt-hurt. Salads and soups might be timid in the west, but in Thailand they’re as hardcore as taking a shooter of Tabasco sauce and then eating the shot glass. Tread lightly.
SOMTAM (PAPAYA SALAD): Sounds pretty innocuous, huh? If done properly, this shit will melt your face off. It’s as volcanically hot as it is delicious—a sumptuous blend of young papaya, peanuts, chili, tomato, bean sprouts, and fish sauce. If you have a fragile Aryan tummy, beware. You’d probably do better eating a car battery. It’s an iconic dish though, so if you’re feeling adventurous, prepare yourself by reading: “Everything You Never Knew You Didn’t Want to Know About Traveler’s Diarrhea”
TOM YUM (TANGY SOUP WITH SHRIMP): Soups are a useless concept. I do not usually eat them, as I am an adult and am capable of chewing. I can eat a whole fucking donut without choking to death. I’ll have plenty of time to eat liquid meals when I’m a toothless, geriatric vegetable. This blanket soup-hatred also covers noodle soups, which is why they’re absent from this list. I’ve only included Tom Yum Goong because it is the national dish. It’s basically yummy, glorified shrimp water. Everyone goes nuts for it, hurray. I recommend Tom Yum Goong only for the wonderful interplay of flavors in the broth—lemongrass, galangal, chili, garlic, turmeric, kaffir lime, and zesty shrimp paste.
TOM KA GAI (COCONUT CHICKEN SOUP): I love this soup. Mostly because it’s Tom Yum with creamy coconut milk instead of water, so it’s more like a chowder than a soup.
NOODLES: Noodles came to Siam from China over a century ago and in the time since, they’ve become as quintessentially Thai as kickboxing and ping pong shows.
PAD THAI (THAI NOODLES): Forget everything you know about the sugary imposter they feed you in the west. It’s like they’ve sold you Mozart, but swapped it out for will.i.am. For starters, “real” Pad Thai isn’t usually cooked with peanuts, but a dynamic blend of sour tamarind, fermented radish, mushroom sauce, oyster sauce, egg, vegetables, meat, seafood, and (if you’re lucky) decadent shrimp fat oil. Chopped peanuts are an optional garnish. If you want to do as the locals, steadily apply the peanuts until the noodles are no longer visible.
PAD SEE EW (STIR-FRIED RICE NOODLES): Pad See Ew is Pad Thai’s unpopular, diabetic cousin. No sugar, no fun. It’s cooked in a tasty soy-based sauce that lacks Thailand’s signature complexity. The glutinous noodles are often overcooked and gummy, like salty Haribo worms.
KHAO SOI (CURRY NOODLES WITH A CHICKEN DRUMSTICK): A delicious surprise that’s as difficult to eat as it sounds, involving a pair of chopsticks, a soupspoon, and an embarrassment of napkins. The curry is bold and light and the chicken drumstick is slow cooked to perfection. It’s so impossibly tender that the meat falls off the bone by verbal command. The meat angrily divorces the bone. Then it melts in your mouth like butter. Khao Soi is only common in Northern Thailand, so skip the south.
RAD NA (GRAVY NOODLES): Thailand fucked up. Perhaps one of the royal chefs suffered a stroke and started dropping noodles and vegetables into a simmering bucket of pond water. I’ve been told that the pond water is in fact bland, watery gravy, but I’m skeptical. If you really want 16,000 calories in a single sitting, you’re better off eating a fistful of Crisco.
STIR FRIES: From garlic pepper chicken to morning glory with tofu, the delicious domain of stir-fries is limitless. Ergo, I’m not going to waste my time illustrating for you all the different plants and animals that could conceivably be served over rice, so just use your imagination. Below are three of my favorites:
KALE & CRISPY PORK: Thai Crispy Pork is cocaine meat and one day I shall build a house out of it. It’s pork. And then it’s deep fried. What’s not to celebrate? There’s also kale, which is merely a bystander.
CASHEW CHICKEN: Not liking Cashew Chicken is as inconceivable as not liking the sun. If you’re capable of reading these words then you’re probably clever enough to figure out what the dish involves.
Cashew. Chicken. Sauce. You chew it. You swallow. Yummy.
GAI PAD KA POW (CHICKEN, CHILI, AND HOLY BASIL): Gai Pad Ka Pow is the super spicy Bobby Brown to my abused Whitney Houston. It dazzles me at first. Shows me a good dinner. Then abruptly grabs me by the tongue and starts punching me in the head, putting out a thousand burning cigarettes on my tongue. This excites my masochism and so the vicious cycle perpetuates.
CURRY: Several hundred years ago, India’s Chola Empire invaded Indochina. As an apology for raping and slaughtering hundreds of thousands, the Indians taught the Thais how to make curry and all was made right. To rehash from the India Foodie Guide, a curry could be a whole myriad of things (from chicken, pork, prawns, fish, potatoes, etc.) cooked in a sauce of equally diverse ingredients (basil, coconut, eggplant, cashew, onion, etc.). So to say “I don’t like curry,” would be as broad and unjustifiable as saying, “I don’t like sandwiches.” Sure, it’s possible, but it’s more likely that you just haven’t tried that many sandwiches.
Thai curries are cooked in a base of coconut milk, which makes them lighter and more watery than their Indian cousins. The five most ubiquitous curries in Thailand are Green Curry (holy basil and Thai eggplant), Red Curry (holy basil, Thai eggplant, and red chili), Yellow Curry (potatoes and onion), Massaman Curry (potatoes, onion, and peanuts), and Penang Curry (Thai eggplant, holy basil, and kaffir lime leaf).
DRINKS & DESSERT: If you’re still hungry (which you will be, as Thai portions are nearly anorexic), you can indulge yourself in Thailand’s wicked sweet tooth.
THAI ICED TEA: Thai Ice Tea is a disturbingly sweet concoction of cold tea and condensed milk. If you’re an avid tea fan, I’m afraid you’re not invited. This beverage is intended for people who enjoy drinking sugary condensed milk. I’m pretty certain the tea is only added for coloring. Three glasses is enough to knock an eight year old into a diabetic coma.
“TRADITIONAL” COCONUT ICE CREAM: I call bullshit. Seeing as there’s no snow or ice in the boiling tropics, this dish can only be as traditional as freezers or color televisions. Nonetheless it’s very tasty—a rich and creamy snack that’s served in a coconut shell because why the fuck not, I suppose bowls are overrated.
MANGO STICKY RICE: In one hand you have simple mangoes, in the other you have sticky rice. Yet when you put them together with a dollop of coconut cream, somehow you get opera. Like the Thai Omelet, it took me far too long to discover the magic of this dish. But the moment of discovery was one of my best memories of Thailand: After picking up a plate in the Ayutthaya night market, I climbed a crumbling temple wall, sat gazing out across the starlit ruins, and began shoving Mango Sticky Rice into my gaping maw as if it were manna from heaven. It’s so stupidly good that it defies reason. It’s better than a thousand happy endings.
Thai culture is a relatively new concept (only a few centuries old) and so its culinary repertoire is smaller than likes of China or India. This makes things more manageable, but also more monotonous. After thirty Pad Thais in a row, visitors often resort to tourist restaurants selling Thai attempts at “western food,” which are so shockingly miserable that they makes Hooters look like Wolfgang Puck.
So instead of retreating to Pasta a la Ketchup, try to dig deeper into the cuisine. Seek out regional dishes and delicacies. Get off the eaten path. Sail to the southern islands and sample neon tropical fruits that taste like underpants, or head to Isan and tackle a bowl of “Dancing Shrimp,” which are served raw, alive, and desperate to escape. Finding gastronomic nirvana is easy in Thailand; all you need is a healthy appetite for adventure, an iron tolerance to chili, and an unwavering passion for food.
Just don’t eat the silkworm larvae. Don’t even fucking think about it.
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To check out Backpackology’s Foodie Guide to India, feast your eyes on “Inhaling India (A Diarrhea Adventure): A Foodie’s Guide to India on a Budget“
In case your dietary gallivanting takes a turn for the worse, you should prepare by learning “Everything You Never Knew You Didn’t Want to Know About Traveler’s Diarrhea“