You might have dined at your local Thai restaurant, but travel to the country of its birth and you’ll find a freshness, a richness or fragrance you might not have tasted before. This is a country where street stalls and home cooking stand proudly alongside Michelin-starred restaurants. At Audley, we’ve eaten our way across the country and have discovered five of the best ways to experience Thai cuisine.
Thai cooking class
It seems like every restaurant, hotel and at-home cook in Thailand offers a cooking lesson. We’ve tried lots of them and keep coming back to Yui, a chef based in the northern city of Chiang Mai. With more than 15 years of experience, Yui runs small group lessons from her alfresco kitchen.
Yui likes to pick her guests up from their hotel (it’s a good excuse to drive her classic 1974 VW campervan or Mazda 1500) and visit a local market before starting the cooking. Wandering between bags of fresh chillis and bunches of coriander, you can learn about the more unusual ingredients in Thai cooking including fresh lemongrass and galangal (a root related to ginger).
Back at her home, everyone gets their own cooking station, where you can follow her techniques step-by-step. You’ll learn both a classic dish like pad-thai or red curry (Yui’s top choice), as well as a regional speciality. This could include khao soi, a local dish made with soft noodles in a coconut-based curry sauce, topped with crunchy fried noodles, shallots and coriander.
You’ll end the lesson by sitting down to eat your creation while Yui chats about her previous students — she’s hosted celebrity chefs including authours, food columnists and celebrities like Gordon Ramsay. She then sets you off into the world with some new cooking techniques and a cookbook of recipes to recreate.
Phuket food tour
You’ll find street food everywhere, from steamy big-city markets to opportunistic road-side stalls. Once central to the tin-mining and rubber industries, Phuket Town attracted workers from across the continent, who brought their cuisine with them. Step away from Phuket’s beaches for a private guided tour of the town and you’ll find Indian, Chinese and Malaysian delicacies, some of which have been given a Thai tweak you won’t find elsewhere.
In the oldest part of town Sino-Portuguese shophouses line the streets, their ornate frontages painted dusky pink and bright yellow. Many have been eateries for generations, making the same specialist dishes and serving a long line of regulars. My guide led me into a smoky interior where two tiny, grinning women were preparing khao ka moo, a hefty pork dish that is a merges a Thai affection for pork with Chinese spices including fennel, cloves and cinnamon.
After sampling a (small) warm bowl of rich pork, we headed off to explore the street-stalls and food courts. Many sell chicken satay and my guide was eager to explain that he’d tried them all and could take me to the best. Predominately a Malaysian speciality, you’ll find the chicken has been marinated in a Thai mix of lemongrass, ginger and shallots before being coated in satay sauce.
Bangkok street food tour
The street food of Bangkok has reached legendary status, with whole guidebooks on the topic. Few working Thais sit down in restaurants on a weekday, preferring to snack on smaller bites or perch at a street-side plastic table. Some of the older, revered institutions can be tricky to find, and new specialities are popping up all the time, so we suggest taking a private tour with a local resident to help you seek out the best delicacies.
You can watch kuay teaw ped toon (duck noodle soup) cooked up in front of you in a huge, steaming skillet, and skewers of chicken and pork charred over hot coal barbecues. It’s a good opportunity to dip your toe into regional specialities before journeying across Thailand. You can try Chiang Mai sausage, a huge spiral of sausage that’s cut into slices and served with a chilli sauce dip.
With an experienced guide you can learn about the delicate balance of Thai food, and the importance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy ingredients. Som Tam is a popular northeastern salad of green papaya, chilli, lime, salty fish sauce and palm sugar. It is sometimes eye-wateringly hot — your guide can teach you how to say “phet nit noi” (a little spice).
Fine dining in Bangkok
Once you’ve sampled Bangkok’s street food, leave time to step into some of the fine-dining establishments. You’ll find innovative menus and carefully sourced ingredients that have led to Michelin stars being awarded across the city.
One of the most progressive is Gaggan (two stars), an Indian restaurant that promises to serve a history of Indian cuisine in 25 creative bites including sea urchin ice cream and purees designed to be licked off the plate. If you’d prefer to explore innovative Thai cuisine, Sra Bua (one star) offers a seasonal journey through Thai cooking. Think traditional dishes served in new ways, including red curry ice cream.
You don’t necessarily have to follow the stars — one of our top picks is Na Aroon, a vegetarian restaurant built in a traditional teak 1940’s villa. Sitting under the breeze of brass ceiling fans, you can try the house speciality, mee grob (caramelised crispy noodles), or phad tai malagor, a rich tofu dish with tangy tamarind sauce.
Join a Thai family for a day
While we can’t argue with the Michelin guide, some of Thiland’s best food is simple, homely fare. In the village of Hang Done, near the northern town of Chiang Mai, Mr Prapat and his family welcome visitors to spend the day experiencing Thai home cooking.
You’ll begin with a tour of the village, a rural farming community of tomato and cucumber growers. Mr Prapat will then show you around the family orchard and garden where they grow chillis, galangal and lychees (which can be a challenge to pick). In a specially designed greenhouse, the family dry out their own herbs which are then made into curry pastes and dressings.
After a thorough introduction to the ingredients, you can then join the family to prepare lunch at their alfresco cooking station. You might make green curry paste from scratch or learn the best way to fry crispy noodles. Everyone then sits down together in the garden to enjoy the freshly made dishes.
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