When I first moved to Canada from Thailand, my Canadian friends always wanted me to be their “food guide” at Thai restaurants. “I don’t know what to order,” they’d say, or, “I don’t know how to order.” When we’d arrive at whatever Thai restaurant they’d picked out, some people would urge me to just order for the table.
At first, I thought, “What’s the big deal? Just order whatever you want!” But the more I found myself responsible for entire meals with my friends, I realized I wasn’t just ordering whatever I wanted to eat. This became even clearer to me when I’d veto some of my dining companions’ suggestions because they didn’t “make sense” with the rest of what I was ordering.
I came to understand that there’s a few organizing principles that Thai people typically use when composing our meals to ensure that the table is well-balanced. There’s no explicit set of rules; rather, there’s an unspoken understanding that there are some boxes to tick when you’re deciding what to have for dinner.
The reason for this is that when dishes complement each other well, it makes the whole meal more enjoyable. You don’t end up with a meal so rich it’s heavy or cloying, or so light it’s not satisfying, or so spicy that you're unable to taste anything else halfway through the meal. Remember that Thai meals don’t really have courses; all the dishes—including soups and salads—are eaten at the same time, so it’s extra important that the flavors work together. “The whole is greater than the sum of its parts” is an especially relevant phrase to remember.
The Mantra for A Balanced Thai Table
As someone who teaches people about Thai cooking, I’ve had to think a lot about how to convey this concept of a balanced meal to people unfamiliar with Thai food. As a result, many years ago I came up with a simple mantra to help with menu planning: “wet, dry, fresh, and spicy.” These are the four elements that you want to have represented on any given table. But before we get to those four main elements, I have to insist on talking first about rice, without which there wouldn’t even be a meal to balance.
Rice is the anchor of almost every Thai meal. Everything from stir-fried vegetables to grilled pork, curries, and soups is meant to be eaten with either steamed rice or sticky rice. There are some exceptions, of course, including appetizers like spring rolls or satay, snacks like fried tofu or fermented sausage (sai grok isaan), or noodle dishes, none of which are typically accompanied by rice.
“But wait!” I hear you say. “If I have pad thai as part of my meal, should I include rice or not?” Well, it shouldn't be an issue because one wouldn't put pad thai—or any other noodle dish—on a family-style menu. Not a traditional one anyway. Noodle dishes like pad thai, pad see ew, or noodle soups are what I call the sandwiches of Thai cuisine. They’re stand-alone meals, something you eat without sharing with anyone, which is why they’re popular street foods.
The rice that you most often want to serve is long-grain Thai jasmine rice. Good quality jasmine rice should be very fragrant even when raw. The most prized quality of jasmine rice is its beautiful, floral aroma which you can smell even when it’s uncooked, hence the name. In Thai it’s called “hom mali” rice, with hom meaning fragrant, and mali meaning jasmine flowers. Its texture is incredibly tender and fluffy, not chewy or al dente like short-grain rice, making it perfect for absorbing sauces and soups. Pro tip: to make sure you’re buying the good stuff, look for a round green logo on the bag that is a Thai government certification of genuine jasmine rice.
Sometimes you might want to go with Thai sticky rice instead. Sticky rice (khao niew) is dense and so satisfyingly chewy. It’s eaten all over the country, but most commonly in the north and northeastern parts of Thailand, which is where Isan Thai food hails from. So if you’re serving food from this region, it would be appropriate, though not required, to serve sticky rice. We also like to have sticky rice with grilled and fried meats—fried chicken or grilled pork skewers wouldn’t be complete without some hot sticky rice! Sticky rice is so sticky it is eaten by hand; just pinch off a bite-sized chunk, and if there’s anything saucy on the table, you can dip it right in.
Unlike most other kinds of rice, Thai sticky rice is not traditionally cooked in water because the grains can absorb it rapidly and become mushy very easily. Instead, it is first soaked for at least 3 hours to saturate the grains, and then drained and steamed. There are ways to cook it in water without soaking, but it’s a little trickier and the result isn’t as ideal.
A wet dish is anything saucy or brothy enough to be served in a bowl, like a soup or a curry. The primary purpose of a wet dish is to ensure that the meal, including the ever-present rice, never gets too dry. You can pour the curry sauce over rice, or you can sip on a brothy soup as you eat to help wash the rest of what you’re eating down.
If you want to have more than one wet dish on the table, I recommend choosing a rich one and a light one. For example, a rich, coconut milk–based curry, such as this panang neua (panang beef curry) can be used as a sauce for the rice. Tom yum goong, the well-known spicy and sour soup infused with lemongrass, galangal, and makrut lime leaves, soup is an example of a lighter option. You can sip it between bites of other food, or you can do what my mother does and put some of your rice into your soup bowl to make a mini rice soup.
Note that wet dishes aren’t all served in the same way. Whenever there is a soup on the table, each diner should be given an individual serving bowl, but when rich coconut curries are served, people are expected to spoon the curries directly over their rice from a common serving bowl.
This is a huge category, and it covers anything that comes on a plate: stir-fries, grilled meats, steamed fish, and deep-fried finger foods, just to name a few. Note that it doesn’t have to literally be dry—for example, stir-fries can still be saucy. “Dry” in this instance simply means these dishes aren’t swimming in liquid. Most meals will have multiple dry dishes, so it’s important to balance the dry dishes with one another as well. For example, if you’re going to have two stir-fries, one can be meat-centric, like this classic gai pad king (gingery chicken stir-fry), and the other could feature a vegetable, such as this deliciously simple galam plee nam pla (stir-fried cabbage with fish sauce) .
I consider the “fresh” element of a Thai meal to be a kind of palate cleanser that you can nibble on between bites from the other dishes on the table, something that’s refreshing and light, usually with lots of lime juice, aromatic herbs like mint, cilantro, or sawtooth coriander (culantro), and/or fresh vegetables like cucumber of Chinese celery. Usually this takes the form of a salad, like som tum, the famous dish of crunchy green papaya, plump tomatoes, crisp long beans, and crunchy peanuts tossed with a spicy and tart dressing, or one of my favorites, yam khai dao (fried-egg salad). Even though most Thai salads are protein-heavy, the fresh herbs and the fat-free, lime-based dressing keep them feeling quite light.
The fresh dish can also be a nam prik, which is that Thai term for dips or relishes. Nam priks aren’t very well known in North America, but in Thailand they’re a staple. Some households would consider a meal without one to be incomplete. Nam priks are always served with an abundance of raw or steamed vegetables—crunchy green cabbage and long beans, for example, or small, round, and lightly bitter Thai eggplant—which is what makes them the “fresh” component of the meal.
Many nam priks possess a strong, funky flavor and aroma because they include fermented shrimp paste, which can be a bit of an acquired taste, but this nam prik ong (tomato-and-pork chile relish) is one that’s so easy to love. Reminiscent of a spicy bolognese sauce, it’s a nam prik I had most often growing up in Thailand, so if you make it mild, it can even be kid-friendly!
Not all Thai food is spicy. I’ve heard people say, “I don’t like Thai food because I don’t like spicy food,” but that’s like saying, “I don’t like pizza because I don’t like pepperoni.” There are plenty of Thai dishes that aren’t spicy, and anything that is inherently spicy can always be toned down to suit your heat tolerance. (This is one of the bonuses of cooking your own Thai food!)
Having said that, I do think that a Thai meal should have at least one spicy dish, although it only has to be as spicy as you can enjoy. Spiciness isn’t a flavor, but a sensation, and adding spiciness adds another dimension to the meal that keeps your taste buds engaged. If you like spicy food, you know the exhilaration from eating a perfectly spicy dish; it’s like the food version of a runner’s high.
The question of spiciness aside, you have to remember that chiles are quite flavorful, too, whether it’s the fruitiness of fresh red chiles, the grassiness of green, or the smokiness of dried, toasted chiles. To not have any chiles in a meal means you’re missing a key flavor of Thai cuisine.
I do want to underscore that I don’t think all the dishes on the table should be spicy. If your tongue doesn’t get a break, eventually it gets overwhelmed, which then dulls all the other flavors. You want to enjoy the meal, not battle through it. Since many Thai dishes are spicy, it isn’t hard to accidentally end up with a table full of chiles if you don’t pay attention.
Other Considerations for a Balanced Thai Meal
Aside from adhering to the mantra of “wet, dry, fresh, and spicy,” you’ll want to keep in mind two other things when putting together a meal: having a variety of proteins and vegetables represented on the table, and creating a meal with a balanced flavor profile. For example, you don’t want the only protein on the table to be chicken: a chicken curry, a chicken stir-fry, and a chicken salad will induce palate fatigue no matter how different those dishes are. You also don’t want every dish on the table to taste like sweet (aka Thai) basil, or have two different curries, one pork and one beef, made with the same curry paste.
A Balanced Thai Meal: Example Menu
To give you an example of a well-balanced Thai meal that takes all of the above into consideration, Derek Lucci has developed a series of recipes for Serious Eats that can be combined to form a single menu.
- Panang curry with beef (Panang Neua) Representing a "wet" dish, this coconut milk curry is thickened with crushed peanuts and layered with aromatics like lemongrass, makrut lime leaves, chiles, and spices.
- Fried Egg Salad (Yam Khai Dao) A "fresh" dish featuring a crispy fried egg topped with cilantro, thinly sliced raw shallots and lemongrass, slivered chiles, and a bright sauce made with lime juice-and–fish sauce dressing.
- Chicken and Ginger Stir-Fry (Gai Pad King) A non-spicy "dry" stir-fry with the Chinese-influenced flavours of soy sauce and ginger.
- Cabbage and Fish Sauce Stir-Fry (Galam Plee Nam Pla) A second "dry" vegetable stir fry that prominently features the flavors of fish sauce and garlic.
- Pork-and-Tomato Chile Dip (Nam Prik Ong) Served with lots of fresh vegetables for dipping, this relish checks both the "fresh" and "spicy" boxes, though note that (as with most dishes) you can turn down the spice to suit your own tastes.
- Thai Jasmine Rice (Khao Hom Mali) As mentioned at the beginning of this article, no family-style Thai meal is complete without the rice.
So, do you really need to cook all these courses just to have a properly balanced family-style Thai meal? Not necessarily—that would be an unrealistic amount of cooking for many families on a Monday night. Generally, in Thailand, if a family consists of three or more people, a meal would include at least three dishes (this is very common since we often have multiple generations living under one roof), though it helps to remember that these can be very simple dishes so it may sound more involved than it needs to be. If we're talking about a single person or a couple, then the meal can be simpler, more of an eat-what-you-desire kind of approach. But it would be very rare, and a bit strange, for a Thai family of four to just share one pot of curry for dinner! (Not that there's anything wrong with doing that, it's just not what I'd describe as the "real" Thai way.)
One important thing to keep in mind is that while my "wet, dry, fresh, spicy" checklist is most helpful with a meal of three or more dishes, there are many recipes that can tick more than one of those boxes: so a curry can be both wet and spicy, while a salad can be both fresh and dry, etc. In the end, you do not have to cook four separate dishes just to cover all the wet/dry/fresh/spicy bases, and it can even be done with just two.
All that said, I want to stress again that these are guidelines, not strict rules. If you were in a restaurant in Thailand and you didn’t order food according to these guidelines, no one would laugh at you or think badly of you. If you really want to order something, but it means doubling up on a protein or adding another curry to the table when you already have a curry and a soup, it’s fine! I still maintain that you will likely have a better meal overall if you can look beyond your specific cravings, but as I often say, it’s just food!