As with Vietnamese food, where many equate pho to Vietnamese cuisine, when people talk about food from Thailand they often list pad thai as one of their preferred dishes.
Thailand is a long, vertical country and many of the dishes we know and love come from varied places within it. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying pho or pad thai, of course—both are delicious and are popular for good reason. From Isaan food of the northeast to the thicker curries of the south, however, I wanted to share five Thai dishes that go beyond the usual suspects that you don’t want to miss.
Nam Tok Moo
Literally translated into “waterfall salad with pork,” nam tok moo is a dish from Northeast Thailand and is one that I could never do without. This salad isn’t meant to be eaten alone, but instead shared family-style with a spread of complimentary dishes. I would suggest some other northeastern favorites as well: sweet and spicy somtum (green papaya salad), sticky rice and grilled chicken.
So what makes this dish so good? Nam tok moo is a flavorful plate of marinated grilled pork, toasted rice powder, slivers of onions, chilies and fresh herbs, all tossed in a lime juice and fish sauce vinaigrette. I find the dish light and fresh—the smoky meat beautifully contrasted to the pungent lime and fish sauce combo.
A bonus: once you’ve eaten all the meat, you can use sticky rice to mop up that leftover dressing on the plate.
Tom Kha Gai
Often served as a soup in North America, tom kha gai or sour coconut chicken soup, is eaten as a curry in Thailand, spooned over rice. While it does make for a rich and delicious soup, eating it with rice is an ideal way to maximize taste without becoming overwhelmed by the intensity of the flavors.
Its magic comes the kaffir lime leaves and the galangal—two ingredients that can be found at most Asian markets—which together add the sour and tangy taste that this soup is known for. The coconut broth also houses mushrooms, chicken, lemongrass and chili, and is topped with fresh springs of cilantro.
If you’re not in Thailand, you’ll customarily find this soup as an appetizer in a Thai restaurant. I recommend ordering it with a side of jasmine rice and doling it out for the table to share.
If you’re looking to deviate from the very popular green and red curries found in many Thai restaurants around the world, I highly recommend a foray into kaeng panang or panang curry.
Unlike green curry, which arrives in a deep soup bowl to be scooped over rice, panang curry is often served on a plate and is less brothy. While similar to red curry, it contains ground peanuts and fewer vegetables, meaning that it’s slightly thicker and far nuttier than the other curries on the menu. Compared to green and red curries, panang curry is also slightly milder and sweeter.
What gives the curry its distinctive taste is another wonderful use of kaffir lime leaves. Unlike the tom kha gai, the leaves are served slivered thinly and sprinkled atop the dish as it’s served. This is the curry I offer up to people who claim they don’t love curry.
Gai Pad Pongali
When I moved to Bangkok, I picked my apartment solely because of this dish. Pad pongali (also spelled pad pong garee) remains one of my preferred meals, and I found a wonderful family-run stall that made it near the Victory Monument area. By the time I left the city, this stall not only knew that I ate pad pongali daily, but had met all my friends and even my parents as I paraded them through for lunch when they visited Bangkok.
Why the love? This dish is a rich, dry curry with egg and celery leaves, seasoned with a specific blend of yellow curry and topped with onions, mushrooms and, of course, chilies. As you can see in the photo below, what it has in taste it doesn’t have in looks. The dish is goopy and not quite yellow enough for most suspicious eaters. But I assure you that it’s an explosion of taste, satisfying and very different to most other Thai dishes.
For a treat, try the crab version, available in seafood restaurants throughout Bangkok. It’s called boo pad pongali. It features the same curry but served with chunks of fresh crab meat instead of chicken. Often, the shells will be sautéed in with the sauce and you’ll get wonderfully messy sucking out the last drops of curry as you finish your meal.
Oh how I dream of sai ua, a spicy and flavorful Northern Thai sausage that is unlike any other I have tasted. Filled with minced pork, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, chilies and garlic, each bite is reminiscent of a full plate of curry in one small morsel. Restaurants that specialize in Northern Thai food will often have this sausage grilled, and it goes very well with a salad and some sticky rice. For those visiting Chiang Mai, the Warorot market sells these by the box, but it can also be found near Chiang Mai gate in the evening.
I chose this sausage as my last pick it demonstrates that complicated and delicate tastes don’t need to be plated in fancy meals, they can also come in a tiny, unadorned casing and served on the side of the road.