PHOTO: Delicious mango sticky rice, one of Thailand’s many mouth-watering delicacies. (Photo by Michelle Rae Uy)
In Bangkok, stands selling warm pad thai, sizzling barbecued meats and creamy coconut ice cream litter the city’s most popular street food strips. In Trang, travelers set out to sample the best crispy pork roast and the freshest seafood. All over Thailand, millions of tourists that descend from far and wide feast on big bowls of green chicken curry and tom yum goong as well as satisfying plates of mango sticky rice.
It’s no great secret that the Southeast Asian country is an important culinary destination. In fact, Thai cuisine, whose influences include Chinese, Indian, Portuguese and Dutch, is one of the most replicated and recreated cuisines in the world. One little-known fact, however, is that this cuisine is also one of the most diverse, spanning four regions that each have their own distinct ingredients, flavors and even unique dishes.
So during my short yet blissful tour of Trang, I thought I would dig a little deeper into this rich and multifaceted cuisine. I sat down—in the back of a speeding tuk tuk, no less—with Mark Isenstadt, Thailand expat and gregarious director of corporate social responsibility at Anantara Si Kao Resort, to get his expertise on the matter. And he was more than happy to recommend a few regional dishes that travelers should try when they find themselves in the enigmatic country.
Boo Nim Paht Pong Karee
Drawing inspiration from Malaysian and Indian cuisine, this amazing seafood dish best eaten for lunch is as much a favorite in the Trang province as crispy pork roast. Essentially soft shell crab stir-fried with curry powder, milk, chili, nam prik pao (chili paste), oyster sauce and Chinese celery, Boo Nim Paht Pong Karee (soft shell crab curry) is a dish that offers different textures and a mixture of flavors. It’s also hard to find in other places of the country. “It’s unique to the area because of the good environment and the crab farms,” Isenstadt explains, making it a Southern Thailand fare that visitors should definitely indulge in.
Larb Dip Khway
While larb is consumed all over Thailand (and nearby Laos where it’s the unofficial dish), there’s a more exotic version of this meat salad dish that was originally created by the farmers from the northeast region. Larb Dip Khway is a dish usually made with chopped raw water buffalo meat mixed with onions, garlic and chili. That may not sound as appetizing to the more picky eaters, but water buffalo meat, while gamier and tougher, does taste similar to beef. And Isenstadt insists that it’s the must-try delicacy for visitors in the Northern Thailand and hill tribe areas where it’s more popular.
Khao Soi Gai
Green chicken curry may be the crowd favorite; but according to Isenstadt, it’s the creamy yet crunchy Khao Soi Gai that travelers should sample when visiting the Northern Thailand region and they’re in the mood for Thai curry. This hearty soup is as unique to Northern Thailand as Larb Dip Khway, but not as exotic so it’s great for the less adventurous eaters. Khao Soi Gai is made of fried egg noodles cooked in a delicious yellow coconut curry broth with braised chicken (or pork), other spices, a bit of fish sauce for seasoning, and most importantly, shrimp paste.
Khao Man Gai
Khao Man Gai is not so much a region-specific fare as it is a national dish. However, because this street food is not as known to foreigners as other Thai dishes, it certainly deserves to be on the list. This easy tender chicken and rice recipe is essentially Thailand’s version of the Hainanese chicken and rice, and a local favorite. The chicken is boiled in a pot of water with garlic, ginger, pandan leaves, sugar and salt then served with aromatic rice as well as chili, soy sauce, cucumber, coriander, and garlic on top. It’s a simple dish, sure, but it also happens to be very delicious and satisfying.
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Som Tam (green papaya salad) may have originated in the north, but it is now practically served in every restaurant in every region in the county. In fact, it’s one of Thailand’s most popular dishes. However, each region does have its own version using ingredients that are most available to them, according to Isenstadt. In the south, for example, where seafood is abundant, locals make Som Tam with fresh seafood like shrimp. In the north, on the other hand, it’s served with tiny, rice field crabs called Poo Naa and stinky fermented fish. The fermented fish may be a bit of an acquired taste, but it’s still worth sampling each region’s version, if only to experiment and compare.