When people asked me how I was preparing for an inaugural trip to Thailand, I felt like I needed to study up and read every book possible. But at some point I gave up. I was there to eat, and while there were dishes I definitely wanted to try, the only way to really experience the food of Thailand is to show up hungry and eat as much as possible. That's something I can do. Plus, it's always the unexpected adventures that are most memorable.
Yes, I did eat Pad Thai. It was startlingly complex in a way that makes the gloopy, sugary versions served back home feel like a crime. But I also snacked on pieces of deliriously crispy fried pork belly at a market, ate a bowl of noodles made right before my eyes by a lady on a boat, and had not one, but two excellent Vietnamese meals. It was a trip that could have easily veered off into overwhelming march had the food not been so utterly intoxicating and, as I was warned, very spicy.
For most of the trip, I stayed in Bangkok. The first thing to know about this metropolis is that it is hot. And not just temperature hot—which it most definitely is—but also so muggy that I often felt like I was swimming through the humid air. I was in a constant state of sweating. Staying hydrated required something like eight bottles of water a day, which I guzzled in seconds not because I was necessarily thirsty but because I needed to replenish all the water leaving my system.
Yet, most people walked around like it was 70 degrees and cool, with long pants and long shirts, and not a drop a sweat on their brow. Amazing. After a while I kind of got used to it, learning to embrace the shade and the chance of a good breeze.
While my northern self may have been wilting, there's no doubt that this climate is absolutely wonderful for plants. Markets simply overflowed with fresh produce, including many specific varieties that I encountered for the very first time. I ran into items that are considered rare and expensive back home (like dragon fruit) and some that I'd simply never heard of before (ever eaten Malay apple?). Almost every meal ended with a plate of fresh fruit, which helped settle my stomach after some admittedly spicy dishes.
Bangkok is also an exhilarating and overwhelming metropolis, where surprises seem to be around every corner. Part boom city punctuated by gleaming glass skyscrapers, noisy crowds, and endless traffic, Bangkok also manages to hold to some of its past. There are still a number of canals that stitch neighborhoods together—though they are quickly disappearing—and which are only navigable by skinny boats.
This push and pull sums up its food scene, too. Thailand was never colonized, and there is a real pride in the uniqueness of the local cuisine. But Bangkok also features an enormous Chinese population, and residents seem as interested in global cuisines as I am in Chicago.
Street food is everywhere, and it'd be easy to snack solely on the offerings on your block and be happy, but there is also a growing fine dining scene. (Though I never experienced it, Italian food is apparently very popular right now.)
I was also lucky enough to spend a few days in the northeastern region of Ubon Ratchathani, which I suppose is like starting a tour of the U.S. in New York City, and then heading out to Vermont. Far more rural, but absolutely gorgeous, the region had its own unique cuisine, which included a strong Vietnamese influence.
So, how do I sum up the best dishes from such a trip where I ran into delicious things everywhere I looked? Looking back, I realize that many of the best dishes came with great stories. It wasn't that my memories were skewed by a good story, but that these dishes were often made by hand by someone who genuinely cared about them. Where necessary, I've tried to include as much context as possible.
I could go on, but would't you all rather see the evidence than read more about my impressions?
Note: Nick's trip to Thailand was organized by the Tourism Authority of Thailand.