They say that to truly get to know a country, you have to experience its cuisine. On that note, getting to know Thailand and steering your way around Thai dishes, it is important to appreciate that Thai cuisine is different in each of its four regions. Given the wide physical expanse of the country, cooking styles, condiments, produce and flavours tend to vary adding depth and breadth to Thai food, making it fascinating and well-loved by foodies around the world.
If you’re wondering how the flavours of Thailand’s four regions vary and how you can recognize each one, carry on reading!
Before it became part of Thailand, Northern Thailand was a separate kingdom known as Lanna Kingdom. Its elephants and temples may be seen as quintessentially Thai now, but its food differs from what one may consider traditional Thai food.
Northern Thailand is famous for its mountain ranges that border Myanmar and Laos and the many river valleys found in the region. Due to its high elevation, the region enjoys a cooler climate compared to other parts of the country.
The weather system here makes it an ideal place to grow aromatic herbs that feature heavily in Lanna cuisine, giving dishes a distinct taste. As the North is mountainous and far from the sea, the use of fish sauce isn’t as common instead Northern Thai cuisine is unique and noteworthy for different flavours. Locals have their own set of special dishes for you to try. The common fare in the North is heavily influenced by its nearby countries, Laos and Myanmar, as well as China. Most dishes are bitter or sour and not the typical salty taste that you would expect of many Thai dishes.
One particularly noteworthy dish to try is “Khao Soi”. It means ‘cut rice’ and is a famous dish also served in Myanmar and Laos. It is a delicious curry-like soup dish made from traditional cut ,(typically egg) noodles with meat (usually beef or chicken) spices and coconut milk.
Another Northern Thai specialty is “Sai Oua”. Different to many sausages you may have tried, sai oua combines pork with kaffir lime, coriander, lemongrass, chilli and galangal to produce a fragrant, fiery sausage that rivals any around the world. Despite originating from the north, sai oua has gained much popularity around the country.
Northeastern Region (Isan)
With no beaches or islands, Isan is often considered to be the ‘real’ Thailand. Whilst being the largest region in the country consisting of 20 provinces, it is the least visited and not as developed as the other three. An historical region that borders both Cambodia and Laos, Isan has long been an agricultural hub and its people have their own identity, culture and even language – not to mention some of the spiciest Thai food available.
While Isan caters less to tourists, locals still welcome you with a smile and make sure you leave with a full stomach. In fact, the food alone is a good reason to visit because it is not so easy to experience elsewhere.
Dishes in the northeast are generally healthy because the preferred cooking methods are boiling and grilling. Locals love powerful flavors, but you may notice that they take special care not to add too much spice or salt.
If you are a food explorer and want to go on a unique food trip, go to Isan. People here are very resourceful and integrate ingredients that you’d never expect! Dishes that traditionally originate from this part of the country include green papaya salad locally called “Som Tam”. Enjoyed all over Thailand but nowhere more than in Isan, for a simple dish prepared with a pestle and mortar, it has a complex and diverse flavours combining sour limes, fiery chilies, sweet palm sugar and fish sauce among other savoury flavours. This is typically an extremely spicy and delicious dish eaten with crab or fish or other meats. A “must try” for anyone visiting Thailand, regardless of whether it’s eaten in Isan or not.
Another dish enjoyed just as readily in Laos as it is in Thailand is “Laab” – a spicy salad originating from Isan. Rice is toasted and grounded to fine pieces, and served mixed with juicy minced meat (typically pork or chicken) and flavoured with lime juice, chilli and fish sauce. Tingling on the tongue for sure!
Containing the former historic capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya, as well as the modern day capital Bangkok, central Thailand is very much the dominant region in Thailand. Located in the middle of Thailand, it’s clear the food here is influenced by its surrounding regions. Central Thailand also has greater access to ingredients and spices from other parts of the world. The rich and diverse history is notable in its food, with its most famous dish originating from elsewhere.
Despite being Thailand’s national dish, “Pad Thai” arrived during the times of the Ayutthaya kingdom thanks to visiting Chinese traders. One of the most famous of Thai dishes, it comprises rice noodles stir fried with tofu, tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, garlic and often bean sprouts to create a dish that’s both sweet and sour – undeniably delicious and suited to many palates.
Locals exercise their freedom to explore and tweak dishes as they please, taking pride in producing mouthwatering dishes that the world loves. Central food is also considered more tourist-friendly because the flavors are milder and often more balanced.
For an enriching and memorable experience, don’t restrict yourself to restaurants—hit the streets and eat as the locals do!
The southern region of Thailand is not only famous for its white-sand beaches and fresh seafood, it is also where you’ll find delicious and flavourful meals. Much of the local cuisine is influenced by Malaysian and Indonesian flavors. The ingredients, spices, and cooking methods are often quite similar.
Southern Thais love spicy curries, salads, and soups that are guaranteed to leave your tongue tingling with different sensations. With the perfect balance of rich, indulgent dishes and fresh palate cleansers, we aren’t surprised that Southern cuisine is well-loved by Thais in other regions too!
Extremely hot and sour, “Gaeng Som” is a fiery-orange coloured curry that’s enjoyed by people from the south. Made from a base of shrimp paste, shallots and chillies, it gets its sourness by adding tamarind, before palm sugar, drumstick pods and usually fish or shrimp are added to complete the dish. Hot and thin in consistency, it’s eaten with rice, which offers some respite from the fiery heat.
Arguably the spiciest of all Thai foods, “Gaeng Tai Pla” is a hot, salty curry with a strong umami taste, often proving to be too hot for travellers who try it. Consisting of fermented fish entrails, fish, bamboo shoot, eggplant and the usual Thai ingredients of shrimp paste, galangal and yard long beans, despite its strong smell and unappetising appearance, it proves to be a distinctive and delicious dish for those brave enough to try it.
Phuket being one of the most popular tourist destination in Southern Thailand, is the perfect place to sample delicious dishes from all four regions, as people travel from all over the Kingdom to live and work on this beautiful tropical island.
The Salt n’ Sea Breeze Restaurant & Ocean Bar at The Andaman Beach Hotel Phuket, offer a wide variety of authentic Thai dishes for you to try including local favourites such as pad Thai, tom yum and pad krapao that will tantalise and tease your taste buds with a wonderful balance of sweet and sour, salty and spicy flavours.
Taste the essence of Thailand on your next visit Phuket with us here at The Andaman Beach Hotel Phuket. Book when you are ready – we look forward to welcoming you!