Gallery: The Best Dishes I Ate in Thailand

  • The Best Dishes I Ate in Thailand

    The Best Dishes I Ate in Thailand

    I sampled a variety of different dishes, but these were the ones that I remember the most fondly.

    Pomelo Salad at Arun Residence

    I can't think of a meal that went by where fruit didn't appear in some form. Most often it would come at the end of the meal as a refreshing palate cleanser, which was much appreciated after a spicy meal. But fruit also found its way into many of the dishes, including some varieties that I'd never tried before. That's definitely true of the pomelo, which kind of looks like a grapefruit (even the texture is similer). But instead of that lingering bitterness I'm used to, the pomelo is clean and tart, making it much easier to pair with other ingredients. My favorite use was this pomelo and shrimp salad to Arun at Arun Residence in Bangkok.

    Pad Thai at Amita's Thailand Cooking Class

    I couldn't wait to sample Pad Thai in its homeland; I just didn't expect to make it. But thanks to an afternoon at Amita's Thailand Cooking Class, I learned some secrets of creating this classic dish. As you can see, there is much more going on than just noodles and chopped peanuts. I also added in bean sprouts, firm tofu, preserved sweet radish, Chinese chives, both fresh and dried shrimp, garlic, and ground chili. That's not counting the sauce made of palm sugar, fish sauce, and tamarind paste. And did I mention a garnish of banana leaves? Instead of a homogenous blob of sticky sweet noodles, every single bite here leads in a new and exciting direction.

    Amita Thai Cooking Class, 162/17 Soi Wutthakat 14, Wutthakat Road, Talad Plu, Thonburi, Bangkok, Thailand (map); (66 2) 466 8966;

    Amita's Thailand Cooking Class

    Of course, the success of the Pad Thai speaks more to the quality of the cooking class than to anything I did. Owned and operated by Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, the class is located in a gorgeous house next to the Sanam Chai Canal. My class also learned how to make chicken with cashews, tom kha gai, and a Malay apple salad. Never encountered Malay apples? Neither had I until then. It's not actually a variety of apple, and instead are edible flowers from a tree.

    Jay-Fai Restaurant

    I could spend hours trying to eloquently sum up my experience at Jay-Fai Restaurant in Bangkok, where I encountered one woman cooking all the dishes for the restaurant out in the street using two woks, a pot, and two raging charcoal infernos. Even though it was night, it was still sweltering on the streets. Add fire to the mix, and it went from sweltering to blisteringly hot. Yet, she seemed to love it. A few prep cooks made sure she had the ingredients needed and yelled out orders as they came in. Dishes came together in a matter of seconds. She poured in oil and the necessary components, stirred, shook the pan, and then out came a totally unique creation. But I'll stop there, because I think the picture kind of explains everything better than I ever could.

    Jay-Fai Restaurant, 327 Mahachai Rd., Pranakorn, Bangkok 10200; 0-2223-9384

    Crab Omelet at Jay-Fai Restaurant

    One of the restaurant's specialities is this omelet filled with fresh crab. I know this sort of looks like a burrito, but there is so much going on here. To be sure, this is not a French-style omelet: the edges of these eggs are crackly and crisp from the crazy high heat, making it a feast of textures. Inside wasn't just some scraggly crab meat, but huge hunks of fresh crab mixed with soft, almost custard-like scrambled egg. I'd never experienced a dish quite like this before.

    Jay-Fai Restaurant, 327 Mahachai Rd., Pranakorn, Bangkok 10200 (map); 0-2223-9384

    Fish with fried Garlic at Jay-Fai Restaurant

    I almost didn't include this dish, because it doesn't immediately sound that exciting. It's just fish fried until crisp with lots of garlic. But each bite was so overtly savory and different from what I expecting, it was almost jarring. Here's a dish that I never would have thought of being Thai. This just showed me that there is so much more to the cuisine than I could hope to learn in just a week.

    Jay-Fai Restaurant, 327 Mahachai Rd., Pranakorn, Bangkok 10200 (map); 0-2223-9384

    Damnoensaduak Floating Market

    Basically all of my eating experiences were planned out in advance. But one of my favorite meals came during one of the rare audibles. After touring around the Damnoensaduak Floating Market, where buyers and sellers literally exchange goods on small boats, we were feeling a little peckish. Our tour guide took us to his favorite boat for a snack, but the operation was fresh out of noodles. We then stumbled on this lady selling bowls of noodle soup.

    Noodle Soup with Sliced Pork at the Damnoensaduak Floating Market

    Everything she needed was on board the small boat. While the noodles blanched, she filled up a bowl with ground fish, fish cake, sliced pork, scallions, sugar, fish sauce, chili sauce, and bean sprouts. Stock was then poured in, cooking the ground meat. Finally, the noodles were tossed in along with a sprinkling of something my guide had a hard time translating. "Adds meatiness?" he tried. "Oh," I replied, "MSG?" "Yes!" Thanks to the stock, this was satisfying in a straightforward and assured way, but also had all these different fillings that added pops of flavor and texture. I also added a few spoonfuls of chili paste after the photo was taken.

    Since this was off the itinerary, I'm not sure exactly how best to find this treasure. You can't really Google Map a boat. But she is a fixture at the Floating Market, so I'd bet you could find this fairly easily.

    Damnoen Saduak Floating Market, Damnoen Saduak, Ratchaburi 70130, Thailand 032-241023 (map)

    Aor Tor Kor

    I visited a number of markets in Thailand, from the previously mentioned Damnoensaduak Floating Market to the Maeklong Market (the one where a train literally rolls down the middle from time to time), but the most impressive, culinary speaking, was Aor Tor Kor. Featuring more fruits and vegetables than I could have imagined, it's easy to see why it was recently voted one of the Top 10 Markets in the world.

    Fried Pork Belly at Aor Tor Kor

    And for some reason, the one thing that jumped out were these huge slabs of extra crispy fried pork belly. I mean, just look at them! Talk about crackling, these were extra porky, crispy, a totally indulgent snack.

    Aor Tor Kor Market, Kamphaeng Phet 1, Chatuchak, 10900, Thailand (map)

    Grilled River Prawns at Baan Watcharachai

    I was lucky to have a tour guide who liked to eat as much as I did. So I knew something special was in store when we visited Baan Watcharachai in the old capital city of Ayutthaya. Hours before we ever sat down, he was talking up the freshly grilled river prawns. Before they finally arrived, I assumed that they'd be covered with some sauce or spice mixture. Instead, they were simply grilled and dished out, which suited me just find. Oversized and sweet, with rich and fatty orange tomalley (fat and liver), they were a decadent and messy lunch. This was a great example that fresh seafood is sometimes best enjoyed straight, and that's true here, too. Fantastic stuff.

    Baan Watcharachai, 9 Mu 7, Tambon Banpom, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand (map); 035-321333

    Baan Watcharachai

    Towards the end of the trip we seemed to eat exclusively on boats, but Baan Watcharachai was my favorite. While we were able to gaze out at the river during the meal, there was also a gorgeous house with gardens on the property.

    Baan Watcharachai, 9 Mu 7, Tambon Banpom, Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya, Thailand (map); 035-321333

    Jae Reiean in Ubon Ratchathani

    For the last half of the trip, I left Bangkok and central Thailand for the north eastern region of Ubon Ratchathani. And what did I eat for my first two meals in this new location? Vietnamese food! Turns out there are loads of Vietnamese immigrants in the area, and the two restaurants I visited still took the time to prepare dishes completely from scratch. The first was Jae Reiean, which served freshly made rice noodles.

    Kuay Chab at Jae Reiean

    Those fresh noodles found their way into the breakfast dish, kuay chab. Thanks to the extra rice flour on the noodles, the pork stock was incredibly viscous and thick, making it extra filling and warming. Oh, and that chili sauce on the side? I haphazardly added a few spoonfuls in, only later to find out that this was the spiciest condiment known to man. Tears welled up. Sweat poured from my forehead. It was a cleansing experience unlike any other.


    The second Vietnamese restaurant specialized in house-made rice paper. The rice mixture was first poured out in a circular pattern on a cloth over a steamer. Once it set, it was carefully pulled off and then set on a bamboo rack. It then needed to dry in the sun for hours.

    Indochine, 168 Sappasit Rd, Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand 34000; +866 1876 5528

    Fried Spring Roll at Indochine

    The rice paper was used in a variety of dishes, but my favorite was this fried dish. Though tasty on their own, the crunchy little bites were best when wrapped up in a lettuce with fresh herbs, and then dipped in one of the fiery sauces.

    Indochine, 168 Sappasit Rd, Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand 34000 (map); +866 1876 5528

    Grilled Duck with Wild Betel Leaves at Indochine

    But Indochine also knew its way around a grill. While many of skewers were good, this grilled duck wrapped with wild betel leaves was so good I ordered a second.

    Indochine, 168 Sappasit Rd, Muang, Ubon Ratchathani, Thailand 34000; +866 1876 5528

    Northeastern Vegetable Soup with Green Leaf Juice in Ban Pa Ao

    One of the most incredible experiences came during a visit to Ban Pa Ao, a small town in the region that was famous for producing bronze and brass objects. I thought we were going to a local restaurant, but instead locals cooked lunch for us, showcasing dishes that they'd actually cook at home. That includes this vegetable soup, which initially looked Mexican to me. After all, the main ingredients were pumpkin and mushrooms. Spicy but never over the top, this was one of those dishes I'd love to see at more Thai restaurants back home.

    Ban Pa-ao, Pa-ao 34000, Thailand (map)

    Chicken Red Curry in Khong Chiam

    I sampled loads of curries while I was there, but if I had to name the one that I loved the most, it's probably this chicken red curry from a small restaurant in Khong Chiam (which is regretably slipping my mind at the moment). The pieces of chicken were tiny and tender, while pea eggplants—another ingredient I'd never encountered before—helped bulk things out. But really, it was all about the fierce red curry, which was complex and very spicy. I wish I could bottle it up and have a supply on hand whenever I wanted to feel the burn.

    Khong Chiam, Ubon Ratchathani 34220, Thailand