A Guide to Thailand’s Regional Cuisines

Going beyond Pad Thai and the traffic light curries

Take a moment to think about where you’d find Biryani in Thailand…

You read that right; Biryani — the delicious rice dish with origins among the Muslims of India. For some, the answer is obvious, but for most, obscure.

Today, a few things are hurting the food of Thailand. Vendors are being forced to use inferior ingredients to reduce costs for tourists who expect the food to be cheap, and environmental issues are affecting agriculture in certain areas. But the perpetuation of a singular “Thai” cuisine in the west is one of the lesser-discussed factors damaging the food of Thailand — or at least the perception of it.

Like the food of any country, Thai food varies by region. This has always been the case and one-size-fits-all Thai menus in the west don’t do a good job of representing the diversity and complexity of the dishes. Ingredients used in one region may not be used in others, and certain dishes exist as a result of the climate, culture, and agriculture of a particular area. You’ll find dried spices and coconut milk in curries in the north and south, while northeastern — or Isaan — cuisine shines with absurd amounts of chilli and Pla ra —an opaque, fermented fish sauce. When you head south, you’ll find Thai-Muslim communities creating dishes that seem reminiscent of those in India.

When talking about Thai food, we mustn't forget about where it came from, or more so, where the ingredients that Thais love so much today, came from.

Thailand’s cuisines — there’s no singular cuisine here — have changed drastically over the last millennia due to immigration. A notable example is when the Portuguese arrived in the 15th century — during the early Ayutthaya period — with chillies. Spice is so paramount to the food of Thailand today that it’s hard to imagine the country without chillies. However, don’t think the food was bland during the pre-chilli age. Thais had a wealth of vegetables, seafood, and aromatics like pepper, galangal and lemongrass to work with.

The curries that were eaten were water-based and used fermented ingredients — mainly fish — as a means of imparting umami flavours and adding complexity.

Over the next few hundred years — thanks to immigration bringing with it a bounty of new ingredients — Thailand’s regional cuisines morphed into what we know and love today.

Today, Thailand covers roughly 512,000 square kilometres of land over six geographical regions. The food can be broken into five regional cuisines: Lanna (northern), Isaan (northeastern), Eastern, Central plain and Bangkok, and Southern.

Each of these regional cuisines is fascinating in its own right and consists of hundreds of unique dishes using local ingredients and techniques — some not ever seen outside the region.

Northern (Lanna)

Long before being part of Thailand, the northern region was an Indianized state centred in present-day Northern Thailand from the 13th to 18th centuries — known as the Lanna Kingdom.

The food differs from what many westerners consider “Thai” food. The region is mountainous and forested with four major rivers flowing north to south. This makes it an ideal place to grow aromatic herbs, of which you’ll see a lot of in Lanna dishes. The northern climate is also colder than the rest of the country, and the food reflects that by being a little heartier.

The spice trade route of 17th-century Persian traders ran through the north, and the food features a lot more dried spices as a result — two well-known examples of this are Khao Soi (chicken curry noodle) and Hang Lay curry.

Food from the north is heavily-seasoned, and northern Thais very much favour bitter flavours. You’ll find a lesser-known variation of the popular Laap Isaan called Laap Muang using raw meat and seasoned with blood, bile and Pia — cow’s bile with partially-digested rice stalks. Many say that the northern version is far superior to its northeastern counterpart.

Some northern dishes:

Khao Soi | Chicken curry noodle

Laap Kua| Spicy pork salad

Gaeng Hang Lay | Hang Lay curry

Sai Oua| Pork sausage

Kanom Jeen Nam Ngeow | Rice Vermicelli with Soybean Curry

Northeastern (Isaan)

The Isaan region has long been the poorest and least fertile of Thailand. The land is flat and much arider than the rest of the country, but the dishes are incredible — some genius, even.

The region is quite remote and caters less to the average tourist. The food, as a result, is incredibly unique, and many dishes and ingredients are not found elsewhere in Thailand.

Most of the dishes of the Isaan region are boiled or grilled rather than fried. They’re spicy, unpretentious, and full of interesting proteins — lizards, frogs, and insects, to name a few.

Most people are probably familiar with some Issan dishes without realising it — Som Tum (green papaya salad) and Laap (minced meat salad) are found in many Thai restaurants. Not to mention, if you’ve ever had Thai grilled chicken before, it was probably Isaan-style.

It’s also worth noting that Isaan Thais eat far more sticky rice than the Jasmine variety.

You’d probably have your work cut out for you even finding Jasmine rice in the region.

I wrote about an interesting dish from this region — Gai Tai Nam or “underwater chicken” — using distillation to level-up braising and bring out maximum flavour. If you haven’t ever tried it, I suggest you do — it’s insanely tasty.

Some more northeastern dishes:

Gai Yang | Grilled chicken

Moo Yang | Grilled pork

Som Tam | Green papaya salad

Laap Ped | Duck meat salad

Sai Grok Isaan | Fermented pork sausage

Eastern

Often referred to under the umbrella of “Northeastern”, Eastern Thai food is undoubtedly a cuisine on its own — and should be treated as such.

In terms of climate and culture, it’s very similar to its Northeastern neighbour. The land is flat and semi-arid, and the food and culture take influence from the bordering nation, Cambodia. There are seven provinces in Eastern Thailand — five of which have a coastline.

That coastline means fresh seafood makes its way into many local dishes, as well as tropical fruits — a significant component of agriculture in the area.

Some eastern dishes:

Crab Fried Noodles (เส้นจันท์ผัดปู)

Moo Liang Noodles (ก๋วยเตี๋ยวหมูเลียง) | Pork noodles

Tom Yum Goong | Spicy Shrimp Soup

Pla Pao | Salt-Crusted Grilled Fish with Lemongrass

Khao Tom (Rice Soup)

Central plain and Bangkok

The rich and diverse history of the central region is notable in its food. Besides the modern-day capital, Bangkok, the central region is also home to the former historic capitals of Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Central Thailand is unique —and lucky — in that it can pull from all of its surrounding geographic regions. Central dishes are most often what is served in Thai restaurants in the west, so they form the basis of what most people think its Thai food.

The region is the southern part of the river basin of the Chao Phraya River and is a self-contained natural basin often termed “the rice bowl of Asia”. The relatively flat unchanging landscape facilitated inland water and road transport.

Specialities from both the north and the south of Thailand are often used in central Thai cuisine, allowing vendors and cooks to tweak dishes as they please as many of the same ingredients are readily available. The flavours here are usually a bit milder in comparison to other regions.

Ingredients and methods from the north and south are often used in central cuisine.

Royal cuisine also falls under the umbrella of Central Thai. These are the dishes that were traditionally made in palace kitchens — made from expensive ingredients, carefully spiced, and decoratively plated.

Interestingly, many of Central region’s most famous dishes — like the ubiquitous Pad Thai — originated elsewhere.

Some central dishes:

Pad Kra Pao Muu | Stir-fried pork and holy basil

Pad Kee Mao | Drunken noodles (stir-fried)

Moo ping | Grilled pork neck skewers

Gaeng Keow Ped | Green curry with duck

Tom Yam | Hot and sour soup

Southern

Many are familiar with the south and its tourist destinations, but it’s alarming just how overlooked the food is. Blessed with the longest monsoon season, the land in the south is fertile and surrounded by a beautiful landscape of mountains, forests, and tropical beaches.

The south is where the majority of the kingdom’s coconut groves are, making thick, creamy curries a staple as well as fresh vegetables and, thanks to that wealth of coastline, a bounty of fresh seafood.

The food in the south is much spicier than that of other regions, and it’s known for its sharp and intense tastes —heavy influence from its neighbouring nations, Malaysia and Indonesia are to thank for that.

There is also a considerable Thai-Muslim community in the south and you wouldn’t be hard-pressed getting your hands on a goat curry or Biryani.

Perhaps the most delicious and intensely flavoured curries are found in the south. Many of the dishes, like Khua Kling, are spicy as hell and use a variety of techniques introduced from neighbouring countries.

Some southern dishes:

Goat Biryani | Goat curry with rice

Khua Kling | Mind-numbingly spicy dry curry of pork

Gaeng Tai Pla | Sour soup of fermented fish organs

Goong Pad Sataw | Fried shrimp and stink beans

Not only is Thailand’s food is as diverse as it’s landscape and culture, but Thai people are also incredibly proud of their food. Food prepared like you give a shit tastes better, right?

From the rich and sweat-inducing spicy dishes of the south, to the somewhat humble and delicate (but still quite spicy) dishes of the northeast, there are loads of dishes for everybody to enjoy, even the picky eaters.

Ever since I went down the rabbit hole of the food of Thailand, the level of my cooking skyrocketed. I now cook with ingredients I never used to bat an eyelid at, I use new and intriguing techniques, and perhaps most importantly, studying the different regions taught me how to understand and respect the complexity of Thai food as a whole.

Cook and food writer based in Mexico City. Talking food and all its intersections | IG: https://instagram.com/_alexheery

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store