The unique and exotic flavours of Thai cuisine are always a highlight of any visit to the Kingdom and Phuket, with its very high standard of living, attracts some of the best restaurateurs to its sandy shores. You'll find the best of the best Thai food here in 'The Pearl of the Andaman', and not always in the most expensive places. Sometimes the finest meals can be had for pocket change at one of the many street vendors located all over the island.
There are four flavours in Thai cooking: sweet, sour, salty and creamy. To these add as much spice as you can stand and you have the basic parts of the Thai food equation. Combining these flavours and balancing them against one another is the secret to making outstanding Thai food.
Of course, everyone's taste is a little different so various condiments are provided so you can flavour your food to your liking. Most Thai restaurants will provide you with dishes of Nam Pla (salty sauce made from fish), Prik On (spicy crushed red chilis), sugar and sour vinegar with chilis. Soy sauce is another popular condiment that is commonly provided.
In general Thai food consists of meat and/or vegetables and sauce served over rice. Of course there are hundreds of variations on this theme, ranging from simple Pat Pak Ruam (stir fried vegetables in oyster sauce) to the rich and flavourful Gai Pat Med Muang (stir fried chicken with cashew nuts). There are also plenty of noodle dishes as well as the basic but satisfying fried rice. With so much variety you could eat Thai food every meal for a month and never have the same thing twice.
All Thai food starts with rice. It's the basic ingredient and the main source of nutrition for Thai people. Most Thai dishes are best enjoyed when spooned over a steaming plate of jasmine rice (Kaao) but there are other varieties of rice such as brown rice and sticky rice. Sometimes rice itself is the main dish; there are countless variations on fried rice from chicken fried rice to fried rice with curry paste to American fried rice (just like Mama used to make).
Noodle dishes are also popular Thai foods, including the well-known Pat Thai, stir fried noodles with egg, tofu and bean sprouts and flavoured with peanut oil and lime juice. Big noodles are use to make two other favourite noodle dishes: Pat Sii-Yew and Pat Kii Mao. Pat Sii-Yew is fried noodles with soy sauce, egg, Chinese kale and meat, while Pat Kii Mao ('Drunken Noodles') is a spicy mixture of vegetables and peppers over fried noodles.
Many of the most delicious Thai dishes are stir fries. Take one wok, add oil, heat up, add your ingredients and voila! You have a quick and simple meal that's also tasty and healthy. Moo Tort Gra Tiem Prink Thai (fried pork with garlic and pepper) is popular (if a bit hard to remember), Gai Pat Ka Prow (stir fried chicken with chilli and basil) has a nice little kick to it and Neua Pat Man Hoy (stir fried beef with oyster sauce) is always a winner. It's a good idea to learn the Thai names of a few of your favourites so you can order if you find yourself in a restaurant lacking an English menu.
Thailand is also known for its variety of flavourful curries, most of which use coconut milk as a base, resulting in dishes that are creamier and spicier than many Indian curries. If spice isn't your thing than try Gaeng Kiao Waan, a sweet green curry or Gaeng Massaman, a mild curry with potatoes and peanuts. If, on the other hand, you like your food scorching try Gaeng Pet, a red curry that literally means 'Spicy Curry'. Also popular is Gaeng Pa-naeng, which is less soupy than most Thai curries but has a fantastic flavour.
Thai Regional Cuisine
There are four regions of Thailand, each with its own distinctive style of cuisine. The North, which includes Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai and the Mae Hong Son area, is influenced by southern Chinese and Burmese foods. The northern signature dish, Khao Soi, is a perfect example of this, with its more pungent and less creamy flavour that is the result of a more restrained use of coconut milk.
The Northeast, also known as Issan, is a rural and simple area where development has come much slower than it has to the rest of Thailand. Issan food is also simpler, largely consisting of barbeque, various spicy salads and sticky or glutinous rice, known as Kaao Niao. Issan may be the butt of plenty of jokes from its more sophisticated cousins but Issan food is popular all over Thailand, with good reason. The Central region, with Bangkok at its heart, produces the 'default' Thai cuisine that is usually the most well-known outside the country. A sub-set of central food is Royal Cuisine, which is a lighter, more refined version of central Thai cooking. The dishes are elaborately constructed affairs, fit for royalty, and are as much works of art as they are delicious meals.
Southern Thai Favourites
Phuket lies in the southern region, the 'handle' of the 'golden axe' that Thailand is said to resemble. In the south the culinary influence has primarily come from the Muslim population, many of whom immigrated here from the Indian subcontinent, with others coming out of Malaysia and Indonesia. This influence is most readily visible in dishes like Gaeng Massaman which is a mild curry whose strong turmeric flavour betrays its Indian origin.
Another dish that has made its way to Phuket from the subcontinent is Roti, a pan fried Muslim bread that has become a popular street food snack all over Thailand. The sweet roti so adored all over Thailand is readily available in Phuket, but here you can also find Roti Mustaba, which is stuffed with a mixture of chicken and vegetables and eaten with a curry dipping sauce.
Worth checking out is Kaoo Moek, which is a brightly coloured rice dish seasoned with turmeric and dried spices. Often served with fried or grilled chicken or pork, this is a very popular lunch dish with southern Thais. The other most recognizable example of the Muslim influence on southern Thai cuisine is chicken Satay, an Indonesian dish which is seasoned with turmeric, barbequed and served with a peanut sauce for dipping.