an easy guide to ordering and how to eat

Are you curious about what to order in a Thai restaurant?  A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu.  (Photo: Aloy Thai; drawn by Quinn Lemmers)

Are you curious about what to order in a Thai restaurant? A chef and restaurant owner explains the menu. (Photo: Aloy Thai; drawn by Quinn Lemmers)

Part of the reason it took me over 20 years to visit a Thai restaurant for the first time is because I was intimidated by the menu. Unlike my neighborhood diner with classic grilled cheese and burgers, the menu at my local Thai restaurant had dishes with names like nam kao tod and khao soi. Not only had I never heard of these meals before, but I was also clueless about what they were made of. Is this beef? Noodles? Fish? I was overwhelmed.

But there was no need: Thai food is a beloved cuisine with a rich history, and as I’ve since learned, it’s delicious.

Curious about what to order the first time you eat at a Thai restaurant? Yahoo Life chatted with chefs and Thai restaurant owners to get the inside scoop on this popular cuisine, what to order as a beginner, and other essential info to make your trip a successful (and satisfying) one.

Egg rolls are found on most Thai menus and are a great appetizer for starters.  (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Egg rolls are found on most Thai menus and are a great appetizer for starters. (Photo: Aloy Thai)

101 Thai restaurant menu

Unless you’ve ever visited a Thai restaurant (or gone to dinner with people in the know about cooking), a Thai menu can seem a little overwhelming at first glance.

“Thai food is known for its spiciness, but there are so many more complexities than that: sweet, salty, sour, sour, bitter, and more,” says Penny Chutima, co-owner of world-renowned Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Nev.

It is the successful combination of these flavors in dishes that make Thai cuisine appealing and loved by many. Also, fresh vegetables and meats, something most are familiar with, are the staples of many Thai dishes.

Thai menus typically consist of appetizers, entrees, salads, sides, and desserts, keeping all of these flavor combinations to the fore.

For entrees, you’ll find offerings like crispy spring rolls (a deep-fried dish filled with vegetables and meats) or chicken satay (marinated chicken served with a creamy peanut sauce), which Chutima calls “simple and approachable.”

Thai fried rice, with prawns as a protein.  (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Thai fried rice, with shrimp as a protein. (Photo: Aloy Thai)

After the appetizer comes the main course. Offerings vary by restaurant, but some standard menu items across the board include pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles), pad see ew (fried flat noodles with soy sauce), and som tam (green papaya salad spicy).

Chayanin Pornsriniyom, chef-instructor in health support culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, adds that tom yum soup is always an option when in doubt. “Tom yum is a classic sour and spicy herbal soup,” she says. “It always pairs with anything you might want to order on the menu.”

After a meal full of savory (and perhaps spicy) dishes, you might crave something sweet. For dessert, choose from options like mango sticky rice (rice, mango and coconut milk) and khanom buang (Thai crepes). Rice is one of the key ingredients in many Thai dishes, so finding it in a dessert is no surprise.

Sticky rice is creamy coconut rice served with mango.  (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Sticky rice is creamy coconut rice served with mango. (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Spices aren’t for everyone

Spices are one of the quintessential flavor profiles of Thai cuisine, but not everyone likes spice or can handle it. If you can relate, Chutima recommends asking the server what she recommends on the menu, explaining to them what flavor profiles you’d like to experience, whether it’s spicy, mildly spicy, or sweet and sour.

“Also, don’t assume that everyone’s spice meter is the same,” says Chutima. “[Many] Thai restaurants will reduce the spice because they’re afraid people won’t eat it if it’s too spicy, but you can ask to get it higher…if you can handle it.”

It’s important to note that many restaurants will have a spice meter on their menus. For example, you might see one bell pepper that indicates a low spice level and four or five that suggest the dish is extremely spicy.

History of Thai cuisine

As early as the 13th century, the Thai people had established what could be considered the heart of the cuisine as it is recognized today, featuring various meats and seafood combined with rice, local vegetables and herbs. Thai food in general has influences from China and India – think stir-fries and curries.

It was the Chinese who introduced one of Thailand’s most important cooking tools: the steel wok, used to create dishes such as pad thai. Other influences on Thai cuisine come from countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma and Malaysia.

Different Thai restaurants have different histories leading up to their current status today. “At Lotus of Siam, our food revolves around Northern Thai recipes that have been passed down from generation to generation in our family,” says Chutima. “This is distinctive of the Bangkok style that people traditionally associate with Thai food because we use a lot of different herbs and spices and coconut-free curries.”

5 best items to order as a beginner

Still not sure what to order from the menu? Non Tang, general manager of Aloy Thai in Boulder, Colo., recommends going with the following items, which should be found on any menu, for the best initial experience.

Rolls: These are crunchy, yet soft, packed with the sweet flavors of fresh kale and soft beans. Tang recommends egg rolls because they’re easy to eat and can be filled with different ingredients.

Tang recommends Drunken Noodles for Thai food novices because it combines sweet and savory flavors together, making it ideal for beginners.  (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Tang recommends Drunken Noodles for Thai food novices because it combines sweet and savory flavors together, making it ideal for beginners. (Photo: Aloy Thai)

Drunk noodles: This dish consists of gently sautéed rice noodles glazed with a spicy garlic sauce and prepared with fresh red pepper and fragrant onions and basil. Tang recommends this dish because it combines sweet and savory flavors together, making it ideal for beginners.

Thai Fried Rice: This flavorful, almost crunchy rice comes from a fiery wok and has a hint of sweetness. Tang says the sweetness will prompt newcomers to eat their next bite right after the first.

Boba Thai tea: Try the homemade boba with sweet and creamy Thai tea. Tang says this drink is refreshing to enjoy with or after a meal.

Mango Sticky Rice: Sticky rice is creamy coconut rice served with mango. Tang says it’s the perfect sweet and savory way to end a Thai meal.

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