As a food writer dedicated to my craft, I take particular pleasure in being in Thailand, where not only is the food many and varied, but also universally lip-smackingly and two-thumbs-up scrumptious. The old cliché about there being something for everyone really is true – with the vast array of choices from light fragrant starters to spice-laden curries oozing with character, my taste buds are on permanent turbo drive. And it’s a delight that so many chefs dedicated to Thai cuisine are willing to experiment and push their boundaries with new takes on old favourites. The Thai culinary scene is a whirling world of taste sensations, new and old, and it’s a joy to explore.
So here are my top picks of traditional Thai favourites and cutting-edge fusion cuisine from some of the best chefs across Thailand. I hope they encourage you to embark on your own journey of culinary discovery and that – like me – your taste buds shoot up to Warp Factor 10.
Khong Wang Ruam by Chef Somchai Chomchuen
Chicken or beef? That was the cry of flight attendants before airlines upped the ante with more adventurous in-flight fare. This dish by Chef Somchai Chomchuen of the Banyan Tree’s Saffron restaurant combines both chicken and beef – something airline passengers could once only dream of – in a dish called Khong Wang Ruam where they’re accompanied by two more appetisers in a presentation it seems churlish to disturb by actually eating. Tender chicken thigh meat and beef tenderloin are each marinated for up to four hours before careful grilling and presentation with spicy chili, ajad and peanut sauce dips. Their companions here are Porpia Pla Foo, deep fried fish spring roll with a tamarind sauce dip, and Yum Hua Plee Gong, banana blossom pork and prawn salad. It’s a triple taste sensation that’s subtly spectacular.
Goong sarong by Chef Ooy
I always thought a sarong was an item of clothing popular in Southeast Asia, but it turns out there’s more than one kind in this part of the world. However, this edible version – goong sarong – does resemble its regional-apparel cousin, in the sense that its large Phuket prawns are wrapped in crispy gowns of deep-fried egg noodles. Prepared by Chef Ooy of Silk restaurant, the prawns are marinated in soy sauce and coriander root, wrapped in the noodles and deep-fried to a golden brown. The fiendishly clever surprise to this dish is Maralyn’s Mango Sauce that accompanies it. Obviously with mango as its base ingredient, it also contains onion, sweet pepper and vinegar for a sweet and sour bite with the dish that’s sublime, melt-in-the-mouth magic.
Phulay Bay, A Ritz-Carlton Reserve
Pla tord kamin by Chef Alex Garés
I’m sure chefs get tired of hearing the weary old joke about making things snappy when given an order for a dish of red snapper, but this delectable southern Thai specialty, prepared by Chef Alex Garés, is about as far away from that joke as you can possibly get, given that it requires slow and careful marinating as the fundamental basis of its preparation. The whole fish is marinated in a delectable concoction of turmeric, garlic, coriander roots, oyster sauce, fish sauce and shallots, and after these flavours have been fully absorbed into the flesh, the fish is deep-fried, then delicately glazed with a sauce of the same marinade ingredients. The result is a light, crispy finish, sparkling with flavours that dance on the tongue.
Marriott Resort & Spa
Pla hang tang mo by Chef Mario Hofmann
Some dishes have become neglected over the years and lost in the annals of time – some deservedly so – but this almost-forgotten traditional Thai treat, pla hang tang mo, prepared by Chef Mario Hoffman of the Amber Kitchen, fully deserves its revival, if only for the outrageous combination of fish and fruit that creates a juicy fresh snack with a salty tang that’s just right for hot summer days. The pairing of ice-cold watermelon with homemade dried fish is an inspiration of pure genius, and it preserves the natural flavour of all the ingredients. This is an unusual and wonderful taste sensation that should never have gone away, and it merits a 21-gun salute and flypast to celebrate its return.
Yum poo nim by Chef Christoph Trocker
The beauty of Thai food is its versatility, and dishes like this spicy soft-shell crab with mango and salad have both sweet and sour components, with the sour either subtly spicy or with a level of spiciness that could floor a water buffalo at 50 paces. The choice is yours, although it’s safe to say that most diners prefer their spice to be a subtle enhancement rather than overpowering. Likewise for the less-dominant sweet component. This yum poo nim is lightly-fried, soft-shell crab prepared by Chef Christoph Trocker of Talay Thai restaurant, where the crab is coated with mixed flour before frying and served with a dressing made up of seafood sauce, fish sauce, lime juice and Thai chilli paste – the level of spiciness is at your discretion.
Melati Beach Resort & Spa
Choo chee salmon by Chef Ken
With salmon known as the king of fish, it’s appropriate to encounter a marvellous salmon dish like this that’s truly fit for a king. The generous fillets are seasoned with lemon, pepper and garlic powder before gentle grilling, but in an unexpected and brilliant twist devised by Chef Ken, they’re served with mashed pumpkin instead of the usual pedestrian mashed potato. The pumpkin’s texture and sweetness is a powerful foil to the tender flakes of salmon, and the deft combination of the two is a delightful triumph. But the crowning glory of this royally fabulous creation is the choo chee curry, which positively bursts with traditional Thai red curry, coriander and cumin flavours to impart a comforting glow of spice and warmth. This majestic culinary triumph will send you victorious, happy and glorious.
Larb tuna by Chef Sumalee
Staples of Thai cuisine don’t get any more ubiquitous than larb, the delicious salad appetiser that’s usually composed of minced chicken or lamb with a spicy kick of chili powder adjusted to taste. This larb by Chef Sumalee of Koh restaurant is an unusual take on an old tradition, with fresh tuna substituted for the traditional meats, to offer an entirely new taste experience. And what a taste it is; the tuna flesh is leavened with an array of spring onions, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, coriander and parsley, fish sauce, lime juice, chilli powder and ground toasted rice to produce a wonderfully tangy dish of depth and substance. Its flavours combine salt and spice to bite at the the palate and leave a lingering aftertaste of satisfaction. This is larb redefined.
Thoong thong ghai by Chef Belinda Tuckwell
Thai translations can sometimes be whimsical, so the English title of this succulent Thai appetiser could possibly refer to the culinary value of what’s packed inside their crispy spring roll containers. Whatever the reason for the name, thoong thong ghai – known in English as money bags – is certainly worth its weight in taste. Prepared by Chef Belinda Tuckwell, this dish has at its heart an aromatic mixture of minced chicken, diced vegetables, chopped garlic and coriander, curry powder and oyster and soy sauces. The mixture is gently fried and then set aside to cool, before being stuffed in spring roll sheets, tied with blanched garlic chive and deep-fried until golden brown. Served with chilli or plum sauce dips, they are by no means rich, but delightfully light and appetising.
Cape Sienna Hotel & Villas
Massaman curry by Chef Francesco Greco
Where would Phuket and the rest of southern Thailand be without massaman curry? This dish has become a must-try for newcomers to the Kingdom, and a must-have for those already here – especially when in the hands of Chef Francesco Greco at the Cape Sienna Hotel & Villas, Phuket – so it’s somewhat surprising to discover its flavours come from spices hardly ever used in other Thai curries. The cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, cumin, bay leaves, nutmeg and mace were all brought to Thailand in the 17th century by traders from South Asia and the Malay Archipelago. They are combined with local produce including dried chilli peppers, coriander seeds, lemongrass, galangal and shrimp paste to concoct the massaman curry paste, which is then fried in coconut cream before meat, potato, onions, fish sauce, tamarind paste, coconut milk, sugar and peanuts are added. It’s a dish of multi-racial ethnicity, with a taste that’s totally Thai.
Baan Rim Pa
Nam prik kapi by Chef Praiwan Klongklaew
We take a small detour here, because nam prik kapi is a shrimp-paste dip and so not actually a dish per se. But as an essential and much-loved staple component of Thai cuisine it more than deserves its place at our table. Its main ingredient is shrimp paste that can be fermented for months – or even years – before being mixed with chillis, garlic, shallots, eggplant, palm sugar and lime to make the resulting dip. So, with such a potent pedigree it’s anything but bland, and it’s certainly true that some can find its powerful fishy flavour a little off-putting. Used to enliven almost any dish, on this occasion prepared by Chef Praiwan Klongklaew of Baan Rim Pa restaurant, it’s a dip for grilled fish, vegetables and deep-fried appetisers.
Pad thai goong by Chef Pollasit Poonapirattana
How can a dish that’s so light, simple and deliciously uncomplicated become universally popular? Or is that what makes it so appealing? Whatever the reason, it’s a fact that pad thai was listed at number five in a CNN Travel readers’ poll of the world’s 50 most delicious foods. Arguably the best known of all Thai food, this one prepared by Chef Pollasit Poonapirattana, is a glorious medley of rice noodles, bean curd, prawns, ground dried shrimp, egg, shallots, chives, bean sprouts, roasted peanuts and chilli, garnished with coriander leaves and lime. What makes each dish individual is the chef’s own special sauce that accompanies it, and this particular pad thai is no exception, with a mix that elevates it to a new level of sophistication.
137 Pillars House
Moo hong by Chef Thiti Thammanatr
Dietary advice nowadays changes with the weather, and the last time I looked, fat was back in healthy vogue, so feel free to indulge in this caramelised braised pork brisket that delights in not skimping on its lipid content. This is moo hong, prepared by Chef Thiti Thammanatr, from a pork brisket that is portioned and trimmed without removing any of its fat, and, in a belated nod to healthy living, marinated overnight in orange juice, although that’s augmented with garlic, shallot, coriander, black pepper, vegetable oil, oyster sauce, soy sauce and sugar palm. After that, it’s stewed in the same ingredients for four hours to tender juicy perfection, and served with shrimp and chilli chutney on steamed rice. Savour it without guilt.
Gaeng neua puu bai cha plu by Chef Steven Kim
My dear old Aunt Nellie’s maxim for good – albeit dull – living, was never to eat anything you can’t pronounce. She’d have had an attack of the vapours confronted with gaeng neua puu bai cha plu on a menu. As a matter of fact, it all translates into a similar English mouthful of spicy southern-style yellow curry with coconut milk, snow crab meat and betel leaf. Chef Steven Kim of The Kitchen Table, prepares this dish by blending coconut cream with curry paste, fish sauce and seasonings, putting the crab meat in to simmer and finishing with shredded betel leaves. The dish is topped by steamed Alaskan king crab leg and crab claw, and served with blanched vermicelli noodles. It tastes as good as its name sounds, with the shredded betel leaves providing nuances of bitterness.
Metropolitan by COMO
Clear Soup of Roast Duck with Thai Basil and Young Coconut by Chef Prin Polsuk
The Marx Brothers’ 1933 film Duck Soup famously contains only one scene involving ducks among all its anarchic goings-on. Thankfully, there’s no scarcity of duck in the clear soup of roast duck with thai basil and young coconut, prepared by Chef Prin Polsuk of nahm at the Metropolitan. This is an elegant and poised combination of ingredients that complement each other to perfection, in a delightfully rich creation that in so many ways epitomises the beautiful simplicity and delicacy to be found in Thai cuisine. The aromatic melding of house-roasted duck with fresh young coconut meat and leaves of basil is far removed from The Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and definitely no laughing matter, although it’s sure to produce purrs of pleasure.
Khao yam dokmai by Chef Rin
If there was an Oscar ceremony for tossed salads, this southern Thai blockbuster would sweep the board. The colourful leading cast of fresh vegetables and Thai herbs includes bean sprouts, shallots, string beans, lemongrass, butterfly pea flower, kaffir lime leaf, ginger and bird’s eye chilli, ably supported by ground dried jumbo shrimp and with a bravura performance from nam boodoo, the fermented fish sauce. But they all get equal billing in this smash hit directed by Chef Rin of Celadon Restaurant. Served with organic red rice, it’s a technicolour production, with the dramatic hues of the salad ingredients and red rice presenting an enticing prologue to the first act of tasting. Crunchy and salty, it has a zesty character with its piquant fish sauce that, despite its definite presence, never threatens to upstage the whole show.
Kao soi kai by Chef Gai
This refined northern Thai curry creation prepared by Chef Gai is definitely more than once removed from its heavier and rather more substantial southern cousins. Its cultured provenance is a lanna curry paste of coriander, cardamom, ginger and turmeric, which acts as the foundation of a distinctive and flavourful curry sauce made up of coconut cream, chicken stock and fish sauce, that’s poured over the confit chicken leg set atop boiled egg noodles. This dish’s distinguished character is further pronounced with careful toppings of crispy fried noodles, sawtooth coriander and spring onion, together with subtle accompaniments of preserved mustard, shallots, lime wedges and fried ground chilli paste. It’s light, fresh and fragrantly tasteful.