Mango sticky rice is a popular sweet treat in Thailand. // © 2017 Creative Commons user lws
Feature image (above): Thick rice noodles are fried in a well-oiled wok before being topped with fixings such as a runny egg, scallions, ham, chicken, squid and more. // © 2017 Valerie Chen
It’s nearly impossible for a traveler to go hungry in Bangkok, where street food stalls and restaurants are not only bountiful but also astonishingly affordable. In fact, food in Thailand’s capital city is so cheap that most locals skip cooking at home entirely, choosing to dine out for every meal of the day. (Many Bangkok dwellers do not own a kitchen, either.)
So, in Thailand, fill up by eating like the locals do — but go beyond the internationally loved dish of pad thai, which is extra-delicious in its place of origin, but likely something you’ve already tried at home.
With the help of some new Thai friends and Expique, a local operator that provides food tours by tuk tuk, I got a mouthwatering taste of Bangkok’s best eats. Below are 10 of my favorites.
Chili Dipping Sauces (Nam Prik)
When it comes to heat level, Thailand natives do not mess around. And nam prik, or chili dipping sauces, comprise a beloved everyday dish in Thai cuisine that can reach intense levels of spiciness.
Think of nam prik as the salsa of Thailand. Instead of chips, though, Thai people opt for the healthier route of dipping raw and cooked vegetables, such as carrots, bitter melon, bamboo shoots, okra, long beans, Thai eggplant and more.
Where to Get It: You won’t have to look far to stumble upon a colorful array of chili sauces at food stands lining the streets of Bangkok. I stopped by the ones set on Din Daeng road, where I sampled chili sauces originating from throughout Thailand. For example, the nam prik spread I ate represented four regions. There was a medium-spicy, red-tomato-and-minced-prawn chili sauce from northern Thailand, where a lot of tomatoes are grown; a milder curry chili sauce with coconut milk, fermented soy bean and minced pork from central Thailand; and two chili sauces from two southern areas, including one with young green mangos and one with a shrimp paste, the latter being the spiciest.
Visitors to Thailand might notice a sign or two in hotels, buses, trains or other public establishments that forbid items ranging from flammable goods to pets and — what might warrant a double take — durians. The reason for this? This spiky tropical fruit has a lingering pungent and sulfuric odor, which many people consider overpowering and unpleasant. However, despite its foul reputation, some still feel the creamy flesh of a durian is quite appetizing — including me.
Where to Get It: Durian-seekers can take to the streets to buy the notorious fruit. A vendor cut up the fruit’s flesh for me to try, which I approached hesitantly but consumed eagerly.
Fried Rice Noodles (Kuay Teow Kua Gai)
When you rapidly toss fresh rice noodles in a sizzling wok until they’re toasty, then add a runny egg and fixings — including scallions, ham, chicken, squid and the like — you’ll end up with a greasy, comforting helping of kuay teow kua gai, or fried rice noodles. Those wandering the nooks and alleyways of Bangkok’s streets may discover makers of this charred noodle dish at work.
Where to Get It: Ann Kuay Teaw Gai Noodle shop in the Phlap Phla Chai area of Bangkok is regularly filled with hungry customers grubbing down on these crispy, sticky noodles. Arrive hungry as the dish is quite filling, and be sure to make a stop at the back alley behind the modest restaurant to witness a fire show while cooks skillfully whip up noodle orders.
Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
Shredded, unripe papaya is the central ingredient of this dish, and the green-colored raw fruit is typically accompanied by crisp yardlong beans (“snake beans”), tomatoes, palm sugar, lime juice, garlic, chili, fish sauce and dried shrimp. Som tam is a distinctly Thai dish that is popular beyond the country’s borders, thanks to its refreshing and sour-yet-savory flavors. Be careful, though: Due to the chili component and locals’ love of spice, the salad is usually very fiery.
Where to Get It: Not only does the vegetarian-friendly Baan Khanitha have a beautiful ambiance and traditional Thai decor, it also touts a superb green papaya salad. The restaurant is known for its tom yum soup with prawns and its mango sticky rice, too. Baan Khanitha has four locations in Bangkok; I dined at the original — and spacious — outpost on Sukhumvit Road, which is good for groups.
Green Tapioca Drink With Jackfruit (Lod Chong)
Upon first glance, this drink appears to be filled with green gummy worms floating in white liquid. But what the beholder is actually seeing is a sweet dessert drink consisting of coconut milk, shaved ice, palm sugar, jackfruit and semi-translucent jelly noodles (made from rice flour and tinted green from dye, which is likely made from pandan leaves). The refreshing drink is called lod chong, though it’s also known as cendol in other parts of Asia.
Where to Get It: Lod Chong Singapore, located at 680-682 Charoenkrung Road in Samphanthawong district’s Chinatown area, is famous for its twist on the palatable refreshment, which I took down in about three or four gulps. Note: For those concerned about water from nonbottled sources, the drink does come iced, but that wasn’t a problem for me.
Chicken and Rice (Khao Man Gai)
The widespread Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice, khao man gai is humble dish with big flavor. Cold, boiled chicken is paired with jasmine rice that has been boiled in a fragrant, herb-filled chicken stock, as well as slices of cucumber, cilantro and a rich sauce made of ginger, soy sauce, chili and garlic. Khao man gai is often complemented by a clear, light broth that’s intended to be slurped.
Where to Get It: There seems to be a towering mall on every block of downtown Bangkok, but the massive Siam Paragon shopping mall has one extra-special lure: Paragon Food Hall. Located downstairs, past the array of American and international restaurant stalls, the notable food hall features a wide variety of Thai and other Asian eats at reasonable prices (albeit more expensive than those found at street food stands). I paid 105 baht, or about $3, for a substantial portion of khao man gai.
Mango Sticky Rice (Khao Neow Mamuang)
Mango sticky rice is ubiquitous in Thailand, and its capital city is no exception. Served warm or at room temperature, this classic Thai dessert is a sweet and salty concoction of fresh mangoes, coconut milk and glutinous rice. Crispy yellow mung beans and coconut cream may be added on top for added texture and flavor. Though mangoes are at their best when in season from April to July, I enjoyed many mouthwatering portions of mango sticky rice while visiting Bangkok in January.
Where to Get It: Most eateries will count mango sticky rice among their offerings, but I recommend elevating the entire experience by getting a Thai massage, then following that with an order of the popular dessert. This has been made possible at Bangkok’s RarinJinda Wellness Spa Resort, where guests can top off an affordable luxury spa experience with tea (I opted for pandan tea) and possibly the best mango sticky rice I ate while in Bangkok.
Rice Congee (Joke)
With various versions throughout Asia, rice congee is boiled rice that’s made into a thick porridge and served piping hot. In Thailand, the popular breakfast dish is simple, but especially satisfying when you want something warm and nourishing. Toppings might include minced pork or chicken meatballs, liver slices, fresh ginger, scallions, fried garlic, century egg, pickled turnips and cucumbers, scallions, fermented bean curd and more.
Where to Get It: Red Oven restaurant at SO Sofitel Bangkok, located in Bangkok’s Central Business District, has an impressive breakfast buffet spread — and it includes a build-your-own-congee station. For three mornings in a row, my breakfast here included a hearty serving of steaming rice congee.
Thai-Style Omelet (Khai Jiao)
Fried in a generous quantity of oil, a Thai-style omelet is much crispier and golden than its American counterpart. These puffy, eggy treats are served atop steamed rice, may contain meat such as minced pork or crab and are enjoyed at any hour of the day — not just for breakfast.
Where to Get It: The crab omelet is a much-loved dish at the affordable Krua Apsorn, which is a renowned restaurant frequented by locals and visitors. Though there are multiple Krua Apsorn locations, I dined at the one on Dinso Road, positioned south of the Democracy Monument in central Bangkok.
Yellow Curry (Kaeng Kari)
Thailand’s kaeng kari, or yellow curry, is made with a hefty amount of spices, including turmeric, cumin, coriander and more, along with coconut milk and ingredients such as seafood, vegetables, fruit and meat. Compared to green and red curries, yellow curry has a creamier, richer consistency.
Where to Get It: Also at Krua Apsorn, where I thoroughly relished in eating yellow curry with prawns and lotus shoots, a traditional dish from the southern part of Thailand.