Thailand can be divided into four culinary regions: Northern, northeastern (known as Isaan), central (including Bangkok), and southern Thailand — all with their own unique flavors influenced by neighboring countries such as Burma, Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia. The Chinese cuisine is also a major influence throughout Thailand.
When talking about Thai food, its four essential flavors are often mentioned: Salty, sweet, sour, and spicy. Balancing these flavors creates a culinary sensation loved by people all around the world. Here’s what to eat from north to south via Isaan and Bangkok.
Northern Thai food, or Lanna food, is different than the food many foreigners associate with Thailand. The traditional food up north is milder, salty and sour, but rarely sweet. Some famous dishes include Khao Soi, Kaeng Hang Le, and Sai Ua also known as Chiang Mai sausage.
A bowl of Khao Soi served in Chiang Mai.
Khao Soi is a curry and coconut based noodle soup topped with crunchy noodles and cilantro. Popular not only in northern Thailand but also in Burma and Laos, this quick-to-make dish is rich in flavors and reminds me a bit of Massaman curry.
Lanna food including Nam Prik Noom, a popular chili dip served on a traditional Khantoke table.
Kaeng Hang Le which is a pork belly curry originated from Burma is probably the dish I enjoyed the most when we visited northern Thailand. The pork belly is slowly cooked into a tender stew packed with herbs and flavors.
Nam Prik Ong and Nam Prik Noom are two popular northern-style dips served with raw and cooked vegetables. While Nam Prik Ong is like a Thai-style bolognese with minced pork and tomatoes, Nam Prik Noom is more like a green salsa with smoked green chilies, garlic, and cilantro.
Sliced up Chiang Mai sausage.
Sai Ua or Chiang Mai sausage is a grilled pork sausage with herbs and red curry paste usually eaten with sticky rice. Not only is this sausage popular in northern Thailand and parts of Burma but the rest of Thailand enjoy this tasty spiced sausage as well.
Northeastern Thailand (Isaan)
While it’s tough to rank the best food regions in Thailand, Isaan could be my personal winner. Kor Moo Yang (grilled pork neck), Larb Moo, Som Tam (green papaya salad), and fermented sausages are just a few incredible dishes coming from this region. Isaan is also home to sticky rice traditionally served in a small bamboo steamer best eaten with your fingers.
Lovely Isaan food with fresh vegetables served in a basket.
Kor Moo Yang is one of my all-time favorite dishes; charcoal grilled marinated pork neck served with Nahm Jim Jaew — a tamarind and chili dipping sauce perfectly balanced by sweetness, sourness, and heat.
Larb Moo, pronounced Laab Moo, is a minced pork dish with a genius combination of ingredients; toasted rice powder, lime juice, chilies, fish sauce, shallots, and mint leaves. Larb eats often as a salad but works great as a main dish with rice as well.
A plate of delicious papaya salad.
Som Tam (green papaya salad) is a world-famous salad made from unripe papaya with tomatoes, long beans, dried shrimps, and peanuts pounded in a mortar mixed with all four essential flavors; salty (fish sauce), sweet (palm sugar), sour (lime juice), and spicy (Thai chilis). Som Tam has its influences from Laos where the salad is known as Tum Mak Hoong.
Central Thailand (Bangkok)
Bangkok is famous for its street food with Pad Thai as one of the most popular Thai dishes coming in many different versions, sometimes served inside an omelet. Other popular dishes in the street food scene include Moo Pad Krapow and Tom Yam Goong. What many of the foods in this region have in common are the well-balanced sweet flavors. Thailand’s central plain is also the birthplace of green curry (Gang Kiew Wan).
Pad Thai with shrimps served inside an omelet.
Pad Thai is a rice noodle dish, hugely popular with tourists and locals alike. The rice noodles are stir-fried with eggs, bean sprouts, and tofu, shrimps or chicken; flavored with tamarind paste, fish sauce, garlic, chili flakes, and palm sugar; served with lime wedges and chopped peanuts.
Moo Pad Krapow is one of the most beloved dishes in Thailand and a classic when you don’t know what to order at a restaurant. This spicy stir-fried dish is made of minced pork, holy basil, garlic, and chilies traditionally served with a fried egg on top of the rice.
A creamy Tom Yam seafood soup served in Bangkok.
Tom Yam Goong is a hot and sour soup made with shrimps, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, chilis, and lemongrass — sometimes with a little coconut added if you prefer the creamy version. Tom Yam Goong is probably the most popular soup in Thailand and the inspiration to the name of my blog.
Gang Kiew Wan or green curry, usually cooked with chicken, eggplant, and baby corn is a hugely popular dish around the world, and recently I read somewhere that green curry now was Britain’s favorite dish ahead of fish and chips.
Pla Tuh with vegetables and Nam Prik served in Amphawa.
Pla Tuh (short mackerel) is an important fish in Thailand but is particularly famous in Samut Songkhram Province in Thailand’s central plain. The fish is typically fried and eaten with boiled and raw vegetables served with Nam Prik chili dip.
Southern Thai food is known for being spicy, salty and sour. Spicy coconut curry such as Nam Ya Kati and sour curry like Gaeng Som are eaten almost every day with loads of Jasmine rice or rice noodles. Southerners also eat more fish and seafood because they reside close to the sea. Married to a woman from the south, I’ve tried quite a few southern Thai dishes, and while the curries are a bit too spicy for my taste, I love dishes like Moo Hong and Moo Pad Kapi Sataw.
Southern Thai food when it’s at it’s best: Gaeng Som, Moo Hong, and clams in chili paste.
Gaeng Som is one of southern Thailand’s most famous dish. This yellow or orange-colored curry soup has a distinctly spicy and sour flavor hitting your mouth like when you were a kid and put a 9-volt battery on your tongue.
Khanom Jeen is soft rice noodles, almost like overcooked spaghetti served with different sauces. The most popular sauce is the southern-style Nam Ya Kati — a fish curry sauce rich in coconut milk, spices, and chilies.
Massaman curry with Roti served in Phuket Town.
Massaman curry with Roti (Thai pancake) has got its influences from Malaysia with flavors of cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg. This dish, which is traditionally cooked with potatoes and topped with peanuts, is very popular among Thai-Muslims and tourists alike.
Moo Hong is a ridiculously delicious pork belly dish with influences from China. The pork is slowly cooked into a tender, somewhat sweet stew of herbs, dark soy, and star anise. The chunky pieces of pork belly are literally melting in your mouth.
Moo Pad Kapi Sataw is a pork dish cooked with shrimp paste and sataw beans (also known as stink beans) which can only be grown in southern Thailand. This dish is incredibly flavorful and the bitter beans work great with the distinct fermented shrimp paste. While the stink beans don’t smell much when fresh, your urine certainly will a day after intake.
Delicious noodle soup with a chicken foot served in Phuket.
In Phuket, there are lots of noodle soups to try in all their forms originated from China. Some personal favorites are Ba Mee Kiew Moo Dang, which is a yellow egg noodle soup with grilled pork and dumplings, and Kuay Teow Gai Toon, a rice noodle soup with chicken and egg usually with a chicken foot added rich in collagen keeping your skin young.
Other popular dishes in Thailand
- Panang red curry
- Chicken in coconut soup (Tom Ka Gai)
- Chicken cashew nuts
- Salt-crusted grilled fish (Pla Pao)
- Chicken satay with peanut sauce
- Chicken and rice (Khao Man Gai)
- Fried rice (Khao Pad)
- Stir-fried noodles (Pad See Ew)
- Drunken noodles (Pad Kee Mao)