Thai cuisine is distinctive, thanks to liberal use of spicy ingredients, and combines the best of Chinese and Indian culinary traditions - - noodles, curries, sweet and sour dishes, lengthily cooked and fast-cooked ingredients, exotic spices and condiments - - while retaining its own very special character.
Some people take to the food in Thailand immediately while others don't; Thai dishes can be pungent and spicy - lots of garlic and chillies are used, especially "phrik khii nuu" (literally "mouse-shit peppers" - these are the small torpedo-shaped devils which can be pushed aside if you are timid about red-hot curries). Almost all Thai food is cooked with fresh ingredients, including vegetables, poultry, pork and some beef. Plenty of lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander leaf are added to give the food its characteristic tang, and fish sauce ('naam plaa', generally made from anchovies) or shrimp paste (ka-pi) to make it salty.
Where to eat
Many smaller restaurants and foodstails do not have menus, so it is worthwhile memorising a standard repertoire of dishes. Most provinces have their own local specialities in addition to the standards and you might try asking for 'whatever is good', allowing the proprietors to choose for you. Of course, you might get stuck with a large bill this way, but with a little practice in Thai social relations you may also get some very pleasing results.
The most economical places to eat - and the most dependable - are noodle shops (raan kuaytiaw), curry-and-rice shops (raan khao kaeng,) and night markets (talaat toh rung). Most towns and villages have at least one night market and several noodle and/or curry shops. The night markets in Chiang Mai have a slight reputation for overcharging (especially for large parties), but this is usually not the case in Thailand. It helps if you speak Thai as much as possible.
Curry shops are generally open for breakfast and lunch only, and are a very cheap source of nutritious food. Another common food venue in larger cities is the 'raan khao tom', literally 'boiled rice shop', a type of Chinese-Thai restaurant that offers not just boiled rice soups (khao tom) but an assortment of 'aahaan taam sang', 'food according to order'. In the better places, cooks pride themselves in being able to fix any Thai or Chinese dish you name. One attraction of the 'raan khao tom' is that tney tend to stay open late - some are even open 24 hours
Sponsored by the Shell oil company, Thai food critic Thanad Sri bestows his favourite dishes at restaurants around Thailand with a sign bearing the outline of a green bowl next to the familiar Shell symbol outside the restaurant. It's not a foolproof guarantee; some restaurants hang onto their signs long after the kitchen has lowered its standards.
Water purified for drinking purposes is simply called 'naam deum' (drinking water), whether boiled or filtered. All water offered to customers in restaurants or to guests in an office or home will be purified, so you needn't fret about the safety of taking a sip (see the Health section in Facts for the Visitor). In restaurants you can ask for 'naam plao' (plain water), which is always either boiled or taken from a purified source; it's served by the glass at no charge or you can order by the bottle. A bottle of carbonated water (soda) costs about the same as a bottle of plain purified water but the bottles are smaller.
Three brands of beer are brewed in Thailand by Thai-owned breweries: Singha, Amarit and Kloster. Singha (pronounced 'Sing' by the Thais) is by far the most common beer in Thailand, with some 66% of the domestic market. The original recipe was formulated in 1934 by nobleman Phya Bhirom Bbakdi and his son Prachuap, who was the first Thai to earn a brewmaster's diploma from Munich's Doemens Institute. Singha is a strong, hoppy-tasting brew thought by many to be the best beer produced in Asia. The barley for Singha is grown in Thailand, the hops are imported from Germany and the rated alcohol content is 6%. Singha is sometimes available on tap in pubs and restaurants.
Singha has retaliated in advertisements suggesting that drinking Carlsberg is unpatriotic. Carlsberg responded by creating 'Beer Chang' (Elephant Beer), which matches the hoppy taste of Singha but ratchets the alcohol content up to 7%. Dutch giant Heineken opened a plant in Nonthaburi in 1995, so look for more sparks to fly.
Kloster is quite a bit smoother and lighter than Singha and generally costs about 58 more per bottle, but it is a good-tasting brew often favoured by western visitors, expats and upwardly mobile Thais who view it as somewhat of a status symbol. Amarit NB (the initials stand for 'naturally brewed', though who knows whether it is or not) is similar in taste to Singha but a bit smoother, and is brewed by Thai Amarit, the same company that produces Kloster. like Kloster it costs a few baht more than the national brew. Together Amarit and Kloster claim only 7% of Thailand's beer consumption. Alcoholic content for each is 4.7%.
Boon Rawd Breweries, makers of Singha, also produce a lighter beer called Singha Gold which only comes in small bottjes; most people seem to prefer either Kloster or regular Singha to Singha Cold, which is a little on the bland side. Better is Singha's new canned 'draught beer' - if you like cans.
Carlsberg, jointly owned by Danish and Thai interests, is a strong newcomer to Thailand. As elsewhere in South-East Asia, Carisberg has used an aggressive promotion campaign (backed by the makers of Mekong whisky) to grab around 25% of the Thai market in only two years. The company adjusted its recipe to come closer to Singha's 6% alcohol content, which may be one reason they've surpassed Kloster and Amarit so quickly.
Chinese food in Thailand, normally quite bland is second to none. Major European, Levantine, Asian and Oriental cuisines are represented in gourmet restaurants. American, English and Continental breakfasts are served in most hotels and numerous, ubiquitous coffeeshops specialise in European dishes. Western-style fast food shops, snack bars and icecream parlours gain increasing popularity with Thais.
Restaurants and Foodshops
Food parks, or centres, usually in large shopping malls and hotels, are unusual Thai ventures. Numerous restaurants offer every imaginable type of Asian cuisine and huge colour pictures of dishes assist diners in their choices.
Open-air garden restaurants, and riverine restaurants, are more peaceful and are favoured in the evenings by most Bangkokians. Menus are extensive. Service is prompt. Prices are reasonable. All kinds.of regional Thai food can be sampled. Special dinners can be enjoyed on boats cruising the Chao Phraya River. Soft breezes, candlelight dining and distant music create romantic moods.
Seafood restaurants are also popular. They offer a wide choice of fresh ingredients, charcoal grilled or broiled to individual requests, and a fine selection of local and imported wines.
Some tourist-oriented restaurants present selected Thai classical and folk dances. Guests sit around low tables, often in traditional surroundings, with teak panelling and floors, classic paintings and precious porcelain. A combination of Thai cuisine, music, silk, orchids and graceful dances creates memorable evenings.