We came into Thailand with some pretty high expectations regarding the cuisine...and if we've learned one thing in our travels, it's that high expectations usually set you up for disappointment.
So I'm happy to report that there's lots of great stuff to eat in Thailand. The tasty flavors of lemongrass, and galangal, and basil abound. The sweets are weird and fun. And it's definitely, overall, the spiciest cuisine we have yet encountered. It may not have blown us away quite as much as the cuisines of, say, India, or Ethiopia. Like Ghana, it may have snuck in a little too much fish sauce to make the very top tier of our world food experiences. But it's got a solid spot on the second rung.
We begin our Thai culinary adventures in the south, which is known to have the most chilli-fied food in the country. At the small night market in Phuket town, I got an assortment of veggie-filled dumplings with brown sauce. Not so spicy (phew!) but delicious!
Then I moved on to the meat. The number one most surprising thing to us about food in Thailand was the huge popularity of sausages. Despite their absence on Thai restaurant menus in the USA, they're everywhere in Thailand, and range from the humble chicken hot dog on a stick to the true delicacy of subtly-flavored Chiang Mai pork sausage. My personal favorite may be the crunchy deep-fried sausage (yes, I have classy taste).
While I was trying these relatively innocuous street foods, Andy ordered some noodles from a market stall. They turned out to be both fishy and incredibly spicy. Like a champ, he powered through the whole bowl, pouring so much sweat that the stallkeepers called over their friends from around the market to watch and laugh at the white guy eating their crazy-hot local specialty. Fastest way to make some Thai friends! I guess we forgot to take pictures, but a good time was had by all.
As a reward after his noodles, Andy bought a sticky dessert, served in a banana leaf. I don't remember much about the taste, but it was really, really sticky.
At the supermarket, I thought that this fruit-topped concoction was yogurt, but it actually turned out to be just gelatinous sweet stuff (maybe from coconut?) with fruit on top. That's what you get when the packaging is only in Thai...
What to eat for breakfast in Thailand? Noodles, of course! We went to a vaguely Chinesey place for some "dry" noodles with pork...
...and noodle soup with chicken. The soup was much more gelatinous than I expected, but I got it down.
Thailand's most famous noodle dish must be pad thai, and you can find it cheap in many places in Thailand. Rice noodles, a sweet-and-sourish tamarind-based sauce, and plenty of bean sprouts seem to be the key ingredients--egg, prawns, meat, various veggies, and peanuts are often also options.
Andy skipped the pad thai and went for a pork-and-basil dish with rice that was really fantastic.
On to Bangkok, which has no shortage of street food...or restaurants...or food courts. Yup, there's a lot of food in Bangkok--we had some good, some bad.
We began with a sugar rush: gelatinous rice-flour balls with desiccated coconut and a lot of brown sugar syrup, served in a plastic bag blown up like a balloon, which is a popular way to encase your street food in Thailand.
Tom Yam is Thailand's famous hot and sour soup, which often comes with various types of fish in it, as well as noodles and some veggies. We ordered the pork version, hoping that meant it would come with only pork. Wrong! You still get all the fish balls and fish cakes, just with a bonus of some sliced pork. Ah, well. The broth itself was delicious, but we didn't love all the fish.
Back to the street for some preserved fruit products. A bag of tiny, sweetened bananas (left) came with bonus bites of sugary dried tamarind (center) and an unidentified, fruit-roll-up-like sweet sheet.
Khao San Road, the "backpacker ghetto," was not our favorite part of Bangkok, but we did manage to find some cheap and tasty curries at a no-name restaurant nearby. I got a chicken red curry (foreground) and Andy got a pork green curry. Probably not authentically spicy, but not bad for about $1.50 a plate.
Thai iced tea was a drink I loved in America and then totally forgot existed until I saw it on the street in Thailand. Joy! Big, strong, sweet, cold cups cost just 50 cents and really hit the spot when you've been walking around in the sun for a while.
Phak bung, or "morning glory" is a popular green vegetable in Thai cuisine. I was unfamiliar with it, so I had to order a dish. It came stir-fried with some chicken in a very spicy sauce, and I felt very healthy while eating it.
Note from Andy: Tara forgot to caption this picture, but it is pork floss with rice. Pork floss is sort of like pork turned into cotton candy. I don't know how they do it, and probably don't want to know, but it is very light and fluffy strands of sweet pork.
Dragon fruit soy milk! Actually, it just tasted like regular soy milk, and I was sorry I'd paid double for it.
Chiang Mai, in the north of Thailand, probably had the best food we tried in the country. The beef noodle soup I ordered for lunch on my first day featured beef chunks and beef balls, but no surprise fish! The yellow drink is chrysanthemum tea, a sweet herbal drink that is popular in several other Asian countries, too.
Chiang Mai's night market is definitely touristy, but its food hall had a few bargains. We enjoyed our first taste of Chiang Mai sausage (top), and followed it up with yellow curry with chicken and potatoes (mine) and a galangal- and lemongrass-infused, coconut-broth dish (Andy's).
A smaller, less touristy market in the older part of Chiang Mai sold amazing sticky rice dishes, which we enjoyed for breakfast. The white and blue sticky rices don't taste different, but the blue color is much more fun, no?
The cheaper option is to get white sticky rice with a slice of gelatinous custard on top. It's wrapped up in a banana leaf to make an easy takeaway package and costs around 35 cents.
The more expensive option is to get a whole fresh mango sliced on top of a mound of blue sticky rice and sprinkled with some salty, crunchy things. I didn't love the crunchies (or the styrofoam container), but the rest of it was amazing. Cost was $1.35.
The same stall sold some other, vaguely sweet, unidentifiable snacks, and Andy bought a few bags to try. I can't remember what this was or what it tasted like, but I know that I didn't care for it!
In case the Thai sweets aren't your thing, Thailand sells a great selection of international candies, including both Reese's Peanut Butter Cups and...Rocklets!! That's right, Argentina's very own knockoff peanut M&M product is widely available in Thailand for about 50 cents a bag. I was really happy to be reunited with my old friends, especially at the end of a long hike to this waterfall.
Two English girls we met on a day tour around Chiang Mai recommended the Hot Chili restaurant in town, and we sure are glad we took their advice, because it was fantastic--probably the first meal that really beat our high expectations for the country's cuisine. My pumpkin (and other stuff) curry came served in a hollowed-out coconut, which allowed me to scrape fresh coconut from the inside into every delicious bite...
...and Andy's Massaman curry was probably the yummiest thing we ate in Thailand. And it wasn't terribly expensive, maybe $3 or $4 US per dish. High marks!
We must also thank Tom, our elephant camp guide, for sending us to a restaurant that specialized in northern Thai dishes for our last dinner in Chiang Mai. The best Chiang Mai sausage and a Massaman-like, Burmese-influenced curry were the stars of that meal.
Back in Bangkok, Andy couldn't pass up the chance to try lemongrass juice. I don't love lemongrass the way Thai people (and Andy) do, but it wasn't bad.
Thailand has a lot of nice salads, the spicy papaya salad being the most famous. I never did get one of those, but this carrot-based salad wasn't bad. And that looks like chicken on top. I sure have been eating a lot of chicken lately...
On our final night in Bangkok, after our trip to Myanmar, we splurged on a fancy restaurant...which means that we paid about the same amount that we'd pay for a meal in a Thai restaurant back in the states. Andy's green pork curry with fruits and my red duck curry were very tasty and nicely presented, but we were kind of annoyed that we asked the waiter before ordering "Do the curries come with rice?" and he emphatically said yes, and then later, we got charged for rice. "Oh," he backpedaled furiously, "Of course I meant that you must eat rice with the curries! But the rice is not free." Sigh.
We are now in Cambodia, where the rice most definitely is free. A meal without rice? Impossible to imagine here! So, we'll revel in that for a while.