I love Thai food! Then again, who doesn’t?
But much like Chinese food, there are serious differences between real Thai food, and the Thai food served in the West. The names are similar, but Western Thai food has been toned down and adjusted to Western palates. As a result, real Thai food can be a bit of a shock to first-time travelers to Thailand.
If you’re planning a trip to Thailand soon, here are a few reality checks that might help you cope with the difference–and dig right into one of the most delicious cuisines on the planet!
Myth 1: Thai food is great for vegetarians.
Fact: Most Thai dishes contain small amounts of meat.
This is one of the most persistent and erroneous ideas that the West has about Thai food. You might think going to Thailand is a perfect opportunity to go vegetarian, but I’ve tried it myself and it’s near impossible unless you cook your own dishes.
The notion that Thai food is vegetarian-friendly probably arises from its delicious vegetable dishes, and the fact that Thailand is a majority Buddhist country. It’s true that most monks eat vegetarian diets, but in Thai Buddhism there is no proscription against laypeople eating meat. Animal ingredients are everywhere, from soup stock to fish sauce. Most dishes are prepared with a small portion of meat, with pork being the most common.
Good news is, the quantities of meat in Thai food are much smaller than your typical Western meal. The meat feels more like a flavor additive than a main ingredient.
Myth 2: Thai food is really spicy.
Fact: It depends.
What’s more, foreigners have a reputation for having zero tolerance to spicy food, which means it’s actually hard to get something spicy in areas frequented by tourists. If you stick to tourist restaurants, a lot of the tastes considered offensive to Western palates–chilis and fermented fish sauce being the two big ones–will be almost non-existent (which explains in part why I don’t eat there.)
If you want it hot, just say “khaaw phet phet na khap” if you’re a man, or “khaaw phet phet na ka” if you’re a woman. You’ll probably have to defend your love of spicy food even then. Even in Isan, far from other tourists, I have to justify myself almost every time I ask for it, and in certain parts of Bangkok, they won’t make it truly spicy even if you ask.
Myth 3: Thai food is fancy and elaborate.
Fact: Real Thai food is simple and cheap.
In the West, Thai food is served in beautiful surroundings with elaborate presentations. But the real food in Thailand is pretty straightforward. Most Thai dishes can be prepared fast and cheap using low-cost local ingredients, and many people eat them on the side of the road or bring them home as take-out. They’re still appealing to the senses, mind you.
Thais trust the food much more than the decor. Some will travel miles to get food from a street stall they especially like. If you see a Thai restaurant that looks really fancy and proper, there’s no guarantee it will translate to a better dish; most likely you’ll be paying for the ambience. If you want the best food, follow the crowds. That street stall with a line in front? I guarantee you it’ll make up for its lack of elegant mise en place.
Myth 4: You eat Thai food with chopsticks.
Fact: Thais eat noodles with chopsticks, and everything else with spoon and fork.
Don’t be offended if you sit down at a restaurant or street stall in Thailand and are given a spoon and fork; that’s actually what the Thais use themselves. Thais have been using utensils since the end of the nineteenth century, and prior to that, they did like in India and ate with their right hand. Sticky rice in Isan dishes is still eaten with the right hand, but that’s about it.
To eat like the Thais, simply hold the spoon in your dominant hand and the fork in the other. Use the fork to push food unto the spoon, and eat with the spoon. Never stick anything with the fork, or use it to put food in your mouth: that’s considered improper.
Thais use chopsticks only for noodle dishes, and they’re considered a foreign utensil. Pad thai, even though it’s a noodle dish, is considered enough of a Thai dish that it’s eaten with a spoon and fork. (Although perhaps as a result of this myth, restaurants in touristy areas will give foreigners chopsticks with their pad thai. Go figure.)
Myth 5: Thai street food is not safe.
Fact: Thai street food is among the safest in the world!
Street food is a way of life in Thailand. There’s nothing quite so Thai as to sit down on the curb and enjoy the hustle and bustle of a busy street stall.
What’s more, Thai street food is among the safest and tastiest in the world. Vendors in general are very cautious with hygiene. You can tell that a given stall is trustworthy if you see many Thais eat there; chances are they are regulars, and they wouldn’t come back if it made them sick. In comparison, tourist restaurants are a bigger risk: they have no incentive to keep their food fresh and clean, because they know tourists will be gone within a few days and they don’t need return business.
For more info on eating street food, check out my guide, Eating at Street Level: Tips on Enjoying Street Food.