Taste of Southeast Asia: Dining in Thailand
Floating market with food vendors. Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Since the 11th century, regions of Siam cycled through empires, being exposed to influences from all over the continent. Siam’s capital cities served as central hubs for trade and it wasn’t until the 19th century that the country’s leaders in Bangkok centralized the four regions of the country and changed the name to Thailand.
Thanks to a history of trade, modern Thailand has four distinct regional cuisines. Southern Thai food is heavy on seafood and tends to be sour and very spicy on the palate. Flavors are fresh and dishes feature plenty of seafood but not much pork. Massaman curry meaning “Muslim” reflects the Islamic influence of the Malay Peninsula.
Seafood with sour and spicy sauce. Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Massaman curry. Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Isan food from Northeast Thailand features heavily with salads, grilled meats, and sticky rice. The flavors are pungent and extremely spicy. Due to high temperatures and difficult farmland, fermented foods became a unique feature of this region as well as copious amounts of chili peppers.
Som tam, grilled chicken and sticky rice. Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Northern Thai food tends to be milder in heat than neighboring regions. The only area without a coastline, northern cuisine doesn’t feature the ubiquitous kapi Thai shrimp paste. Flavors are balanced and dishes are served with herbs and vegetables abundant in the mountains. In the Central region surrounding the Bangkok Metro area, where roughly 18 million of Thailand’s residents live today, you can find all these regional variations as well as a local style of cuisine. Central Thai food is sweeter than other regions and dishes have more Chinese influence thanks to the large Chinese business community that developed in the 20th century. Stir-fried dishes and a plethora of noodle dishes abound.
Though we typically give locations to find our Taste of ASEAN delicacies, the street food heaven of Thailand is a special case. We are choosing foods that are readily available. You will see these foods every couple of blocks. We encourage you to try multiple street food stalls to compare and contrast so you can find your favorite version. Remember the number one rule of travel eating: If you see a line for food, get in it. Let’s explore regional snacks that you can try on your summer vacations.
Sai Krok Isan
A sai krok Isan sausage stall selling for THB 1/ball and THB 10/strand. Image: Visualhunt
Sai krok is the Isan sausage made of pork and fermented rice. Vendors typically sell a mild and a stronger flavor. “Strong” flavored sausage has been given more time to naturally ferment, developing a sourer flavor which is delightfully tart. Sai krok sausage is available throughout the Isan countryside as well as on many street corners in Bangkok. Though it hails from Isan, the sausage is beloved by Thais all over the country as a perfect snack or accompaniment to a meal. To try them, buy a bag of 10 luk or balls. The vendor will snip off ten freshly-grilled meatball-shaped sausages into a bag for you with a wooden skewer to eat with. In the bag you will find green Thai chilies, raw ginger slices, and a variety of fresh greens such as cabbage, herbs, or local lettuces. The most famous sai krok come from a small town called Amphoe Phon and resemble tiny, new potatoes in shape but the typical street versions are the size of ping-pong balls. The idea is to pop a sausage in your mouth and take small bites of sides to combine enjoy the flavors together. Refresh your palate between bites with the greens. Sai krok is addicting and cheap, so be sure and grab a bag whenever you see a stall. There is nothing more satisfying than walking through a market munching away on sai krok Isan.
Nam Phrik Num
For travelers headed to Chiang Mai or Chiang Rai, you are in luck. You will be able to taste the local versions of some of the tastiest Thai food around. One combo that you will find all over the north of Thailand is nam phrik num green chili dip with sai ua herbed sausage. Nam phrik num is made of grilled green Thai chills, shallots, garlic, coriander, lime, and other ingredients. The ingredients are mashed together until it resembles slippery roasted peppers and then served alongside a large platter of dipping items. The platter always includes parboiled vegetables like cabbage wedges, green beans, fresh cucumbers, carrots, gourds, and more. For people who are craving vegetables, it’s a solid meal as long as you don’t mind fish sauce in the dip. For a meat version of this meal, people often add khaep muu, fried pork rinds and sai ua an herb-heavy grilled pork sausage that explodes with flavor.
Nam phrik num, chile dip with vegetables, sticky rice and khaep mu (fried pork rind). Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
Sai ua (Northern Thai sausage). Image: Tourism Authority of Thailand
The best spot in Chiang Mai to buy an entire coil of sai ua is from a local grillmaster who set up in a shop-house on Sithiwongse Road next door to the Suree Service Shop. You will recognize the spot by the coiled sausages on display, large drum barrel barbeque grills, and the heavenly smell emanating from within. If you can’t make it to the north, you can try two notably authentic and affordable Northern Thai restaurants in Bangkok: Gedhawa in Phrom Phong neighborhood and Hom Duan in Ekkamai.
Khanom krok coconut treats. Image: Visualhunt
What’s a street food round up without dessert? Khanom krok are an ancient Thai dessert made with coconut milk. These little domed rounds are so tiny that you can always fit in a few, even after a big meal. They are made with rice flour, coconut milk, and sugar and then topped with various savory items such as scallions, taro, salty peanuts, or corn. The sweet/savory mash-up and the pleasantly jiggly texture make them addictive so to be safe, buy them in batches of 10 or 20.
Like the Isan sausages, these little snacks are ubiquitous in street food areas and markets all over Thailand—even on the islands. Just look for the giant dimpled saucer grill and freshly crisped khanom krok are only a few minutes away from your belly.
Thailand is known worldwide as a street food destination. Branch out from phad thai and get your taste buds ready for a party by trying these regional snacks on your summer vacations. Foodies will be in heaven.
Will you join us for the final leg of our food journey? The Taste of ASEAN continues to explore sweet and savory bites from all over Southeast Asia. Come and eat with us.