Thai food is renowned world over and eaten in all four corners of the globe – but what about the real thing? If you’re headed to Thailand, think beyond pad thai and make sure you chow down on these authentic favorites. You’re guaranteed success with these recommendations and our tips for where to track them down at the top spots in Bangkok, which are often little-known to those tourists who don’t have the insider knowledge.
1. Khao mok gai – tender chicken buried in sweet yellow rice
A strong word of warning before you try khao mok gai: you will quickly become addicted. This is the sort of food that it’s easy to have cravings for at any given moment – and, outside Thailand, it’s not easy to find this one. A southern Thai dish inspired by trade from India and Malaysia and the spices that came with it, khao mok gai is the Thai version of chicken biryani, but with a difference.
A whole marinated chicken leg, slow cooked in huge batches, is buried in a mountain of sweet, delicately perfumed, turmeric yellow rice – this ‘mountain of rice’ imagery is literally how khao mok gai translates into English. It comes served with a small pot of a mint or chili sauce depending on where you eat it – either way, pour the sauce all over the chicken and let it soak up every bit of flavor.
The khao mok gai at Areesa Rote Dee, a Muslim restaurant in a surprising location just a stone’s throw away from the pulsating backpacker hub of Khao San Road in Bangkok’s Banglamphu district, might just be the best in the city. 40 baht ($1.30) gets you a regular-sized portion, while for a few more coins you can double up on chicken, rice or both with a ‘special’ portion (just ask for piset gai for extra chicken, or piset khao for extra rice).
This amazing spot, with hardly a foreign face in sight but hugely popular over lunchtime with local Thais breaking from work, also serves up delicious beef satay, spring rolls and a range of noodle dishes. A family business run with a passion that is clear for anyone to see, the food they serve up here is nothing short of the stuff of fantasies.
Areesa Rote Dee, 178 Tani Road, Bangkok (open 9am-4pm and 5-10pm)
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2. Khao man gai – infused boiled chicken on silky rice
For a relatively simple dish, khao man gai sure has enough fans. The truth is that, while its beauty might appear to lie in its understated simplicity, beneath the surface khao man gai is anything but plain – it’s a complex dish with a combination of flavors working together to result in a dish that provides endless satisfaction. It is so much more than just boiled chicken on a plate of rice – try making it at home, and the not-bad-but-nowhere-near-as-good-as-the-real-thing results you come out with will prove the point.
To make khao man gai, whole chickens are slowly cooked in a pan of chicken stock based broth made with just the right mix of different herbs and spices. Small, thin slices of the carved chicken are then laid beautifully on top of glistening jasmine rice – glistening because it has itself been mixed with a chicken stock broth, resulting in a wonderfully pleasing taste and texture, the grains of rice sat atop one another, but no two grains stuck together or even actually touching thanks to just the perfect amount of chicken fat coating each one.
A drizzle of chili sauce over the top adds a kick to what is otherwise a very mild dish (leave off the sauce if you’re not a fan of too much spice), all served up with a bowl of hot, steaming chicken broth, infused using the stock made from boiling down the chicken bones. A few pieces of spring onion and a couple of parsley or coriander leaves complete the soup with a final bit of flavor that complements the chicken in a way that will leave you wanting more.
A popular night-time stall at the entrance to Soi 2 on central Bangkok’s Silom Road serves up some of the capital’s best khao man gai, with a peppery chicken soup on the side that adds some extra bite. At 50 baht ($1.60) it is one of Bangkok’s more expensive places to eat khao mok gai, but it’s worth every satang, and is perfectly located to try out the city’s famous gay scene at the popular DJ Station just a few steps away.
Silom Soi 2, Bangkok (evenings only)
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3. Somtum – fiery green papaya salad
Pad thai and green curry may the ‘national foods’ of Thailand in the mind of the uninitiated foreign tourist, but the dish that really fuels this country is somtum, an incredibly hot salad of shredded unripe green papaya tossed together with chilies, garlic, green beans and tomatoes in a pestle and mortar.
Somtum originates from Thailand’s poor northeastern Isaan region, but with mass migration of that area’s population in search of jobs elsewhere in the country, it is now easily available all over – in fact, you will likely struggle to find a street corner in Bangkok that doesn’t have a toothless old woman hacking away with the sharpest of knives at a papaya held loosely in her bare hand, in a scene that makes you fear for her safety.
Different regions have different variations on the classic somtum recipe – the regular Thai version includes peanuts, palm sugar and tamarind, while a Laotian style recipe prevalent in Thailand’s most northeastern provinces throws in pla rah, gourami fish that has been left to rot in fish sauce – an acquired taste to say the least! Other variants include the addition of salted eggs and whole soft-shell land crabs, or on the coast sea crabs smashed into bite-sized pieces with the pestle and mortar.
What binds all these differences together is the common spice factor – while most stallholders will tone down the heat for the western palate, if you want to go Thai you can expect anywhere between five and twenty burning hot red birds eye chilies to make their way into a single papaya salad! To combat the spice, it is often eaten with bite-sized deep fried chicken or pork pieces and northeastern sticky rice or vermicelli noodles, dubbed ‘Isaan spaghetti’.
For authentic somtum and a variety of other northeastern dishes like laab (a flavorsome salad made with minced pork, chicken or catfish and lots of herbs including mint and coriander), namtok (literally ‘waterfall’, made using the same herb mix as laab but with bigger chunks of grilled meat), moo tod (plain, fatty deep-fried pork to offset the chilies in the papaya salad!) and khao niao (glutinous sticky rice), head to Soi 18 on Sukumvhit Road. Expect to shell out 200 baht ($6.40) for a full spread of top-quality dishes, enough to feed a couple of people
Thong Sai E-Sarn Food, Sukhumvit Soi 18, Bangkok (evenings only)
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4. Satay – meat skewers with a coconut peanut sauce
Satay is where it’s at when it comes to comfort food – the ease with which you can sit and order round after round of skewered sticks of chicken, beef or pork is at times scary (I did once manage to get through forty skewers in about ten minutes at a night market in Thailand’s northeast region!)
Served with a creamy peanut sauce made with plenty of fresh coconut milk, and a sharp, vinegar-dressed salad of chilies, cucumbers and onions that do an amazing job of cutting through the fatty meat and the coconut, satay is the way to go and really is irresistible. Wherever you are, it is easy to sniff out the satay from the whiff of the smoking charcoal over which the meat is cooking, often on nothing more than a makeshift metal grill tray.
Try the pork satay served up by the friendly woman and her embers at the Many Friends Restaurant on the corner of Samsen Soi 5, in Bangkok’s Banglamphu area – about a ten-minute walk from the backpacker haven of Khao San Road. Expect to pay in the region of 35 baht ($1.10) for 10 skewers with sauce and salad; the restaurant also serves a range of chicken and pork based rice and noodle dishes cooked to order.
Many Friends Restaurant, Samsen Soi 5, Bangkok (daytime only)
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5. Pad thai – the Thai-style noodle fry-up
Pad thai might be internationally recognized as the national dish, but all too often – both in Thailand and abroad – the mediocre versions that are turned out just don’t do justice for what, when cooked properly, can be a sensational experience. Essentially translating as a ‘Thai fry-up’, good pad thai should be a non-greasy concoction of noodles stir-fried with meat, seafood or tofu, egg, fish sauce, chili and beansprouts.
The only place I eat pad thai in Bangkok is at a stall in On Nut, a fair way out of the very center of the capital at what used to be the end of the Skytrain line before a recent extension took it out to Bearing. In the middle of a night market close to Tesco Lotus, two old women serve up the city’s – maybe even the country’s – best pad thai by far. Big, fresh, juicy king prawns get thrown around in their massive woks with thin rice noodles as they conjure up a dish fit for a king, evidenced by the long queues of people waiting to get their hands on this treat, which is pleasingly served in a rolled up banana leaf rather than a bowl – eco-friendly to top it all!
For me, the real winning ingredient in this version of the famous Thai dish is lots of freshly squeezed lime, and then some more wedges thrown in for good measure. 35 baht ($1.10) gets you a generous portion, 45 baht ($1.45) for ‘special’ size (ask for piset).
On Nut Market, Bangkok (evenings only)
All photos courtesy of Chris Wotton
- Chris Wotton