A different side of Thai cuisine. Just like many global cuisines, Thai as we know it has evolved with a mix of local and immigrant culinary traditions — the most prominent being Chinese, Indian and Portuguese, which can be seen in popular dishes all over the country. Here are a few favorites.
Pa Thong Ko
Adapted from the Chinese you tiao, pa thong ko is a tasty fried dough Thai people enjoy in the morning with a hot bowl of jok (Chinese congee.) Pa thong ko is also enjoyed with a hot cup of soy milk or dipped in sweetened condensed milk or a sweet Thai custard called sangkaya. This deep-fried treat has a couple of different origin stories. In Chinese culture, it represents two villains who are left to fry in hot oil, while in Thailand, it represents two lovers who are always stuck to each other. We even found a place in Chiang Mai near the Gat Luang neighborhood that sells them in all sorts of fun elaborate shapes, like the T-Rex in the photo.
Whether fried or in soup with fish balls, braised meat or vegetables, rice noodles are all over Thailand.
Thai people don’t usually use chopsticks, but they do use them for noodle dishes. All thanks to the Chinese. The word kuay tiaw in Chinese means “rice noodles,” a staple enjoyed by everyone in Thailand, whether in a broth or a stir-fry. Kuay tiaw nam, which means “noodle soup,” is served with meat, fish balls or even pork or cow blood (kuay tiaw reua).
Hainanese chicken rice is found all over Asia, but the Thai version has its own particularities.
Khao Man Gai
Succulent, gingery Hainanese chicken rice is a popular street-food dish throughout Asia, but street vendors in Thailand sell a slightly different version. The Thai version involves cooking the chicken all the way through, rather than lightly poaching it, which results in drier meat. Thais also use a spicier sauce than the traditional sambal as a condiment to the dish and always serve it with hot chicken broth.
Thai people may not claim roti to be their own creation, but the word “roti” is familiar to all of those seeking a late-night snack in Bangkok. This Indian dish is made differently in Thailand, and observing the spectacle of dough slapped around until practically transparent is part of the experience. The thin dough is fried in butter or oil until crispy, then topped with sugar, condensed milk or an egg. Thai people have also adopted the roti as it’s eaten in India and sometimes serve it alongside green curry.
You can tell which culture has influenced a Thai dish by looking at the ingredients. Curries, which employ cumin, coriander and turmeric to achieve their signature flavor, can be traced back to India. Kaeng karee is also called “yellow curry,” owing to the bright gold-hued turmeric. Yellow curry paste, which includes many of the spices used in India’s garam masala spice blend, is sometimes used in stir-fry dishes as well. Notice how “curry” and “karee” are pronounced similarly?
Portuguese-influenced foy tong is sugary cooked egg-yolk strands — street food not to be missed.
The use of egg yolks and sugar was introduced to the Thai by the Portuguese. Traditional Thai desserts don’t use eggs for richness, but rather coconut cream. The Portuguese left behind what they called fils de ovos, or foy tong as the Thai call it, and the dish has stayed in Thailand. Buy these sweet, creamy egg-yolk strands for less that a dollar on the streets of Bangkok.
Thai food just wouldn’t be Thai food without chilis, but you may not know that the Portuguese brought them over. The most common chili used in Thai cooking is the bird’s-eye chili, frequently called “Thai bird chili.” They’re used fresh, thinly sliced into fish sauce or in dried flakes as a seasoning at the dining table instead of of salt and pepper shakers. ’Cause who needs salt and pepper shakers, right?