Traveling to exotic destinations like Thailand – away from familiar creature comforts – can be part adventure and part challenge. Local ingredients, menus, and dining customs will vary from what you are used to. It can just be a matter of getting used to new tastes, textures and table manners. For anyone with specific dietary needs or preferences, the effects could be more impactful. So, it’s good to know what to expect and plan ahead; it could mean the difference between a smooth transition and a bumpy one. Thai cuisine is much-loved around the world for its fiery curries and vibrant noodle dishes, which are often made with rich coconut milk, fragrant spices, and zesty lime. Food and groceries, in general, are much less expensive in Thailand compared to the US and UK too. But there’s a lot more you need to know about Thai food when traveling to Thailand.
Types of food and drink
- A large portion of Thai cuisine is made up of its famous coconut-milk curries, which come as green, red, or yellow. These offer a healthy option for travelers, due to the health benefits offered by the combination of spices, coconut, and fresh vegetables.
- The national dish, Pad Thai, is a must – made up of stir-fried rice noodles, peanuts, vegetables, bean sprouts and egg.
- Another favorite is sour Thai soup, which is often served with prawns.
- Thai tea or lime tea are popular options for health-conscious Thai people.
- There are also healthy coconut-based drinks available in most markets and eateries, such as coconut juice and creamed coconut.
Thai eating customs and habits
There are a few etiquette rules travelers may want to be aware of when eating and drinking in Thailand:
- Food is generally eaten with a spoon and fork, with the edge of the spoon being used to cut up food.
- Contrary to what many people might expect, leaving food on your plate in Thailand is taken as an indication that you want more, so expats may need to think more carefully about their portion size. Having too much on your plate at the beginning of a meal and not finishing it, will indicate you want more!
- It is also considered impolite to pour your own drink: you should wait for your neighbor to pour it for you (by the same token, you are responsible for topping up your neighbor’s drink when it is less than half full). Pouring your own drink suggests that your neighbor has not upheld their responsibility, and might cause them to lose face.
Food and drink events or festivals
Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise around the world. Thailand is no exception and has a large population of Buddhists who follow a largely plant-based diet. To celebrate this, the Thailand Vegetarian Festival takes place across the country every year, with vegetarians, vegans and meat-eaters alike coming together to enjoy plant-based food.
Thai cooking styles and ingredients
- A lot of Thai cooking blends sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and spicy flavors, resulting in fiery and zesty dishes that may be hotter than travelers from countries such as the UK and US are used to.
- Food is cooked with simple methods, such as stir-frying, stewing, steaming, deep-frying or grilling. This means that it is generally much lighter, fresher and less filling than western cuisine
- Many Thai people eat up to six meals per day, to get a healthy intake of protein, carbohydrates, and vitamins.
Practical considerations of eating and drinking
Food in Thailand is significantly cheaper than it is in the UK or US, and travelers can expect to pay about UK £1.40/US $2 for a meal in an inexpensive restaurant. For those on abudget, this makes it more affordable to try a wider range of dishes and ensure that a healthy balance is achieved with each meal. It is likely that the majority of signage, food packets and menus will be written in Thai, or else feature poorly translated English.
Tip: You may find it useful to learn some basic language skills before they move, or ask for help from a friend who speaks Thai.
Common issues travelers face with food and drink in Thailand
Street food is a big part of the culinary culture in Thailand, but some travelers may suffer from stomach upsets or digestive problems (and, in extreme cases, food poisoning) after eating it. You may choose to avoid this by ensuring the food is cooked fresh, hasn’t been standing around and checking that the stall is clean and is free from insects.
Tip: Avoid drinking tap water, and drink purified bottled water instead to avoid stomach upsets.
Food and drink for expats with health conditions
Peanuts, coconut and cashew nuts feature heavily in Thai cooking, which may cause problems for expats with nut allergies or intolerances. They might find it safer and easier to cook for themselves, wherever possible, though having a basic understanding of the Thai language can help when explaining allergies and intolerances to chefs if eating out. People with a condition like anemia may also want to seek advice from their doctor, as the Thai diet is naturally low in vitamins B and B12.
Thailand is a wonderful place for those who enjoy exotic foods and vegetarian cuisine. With a wide choice of fresh curries and delicious street food, there are plenty of options for those who wish to try new dishes.
However, you should be aware that street food vendors may not always uphold the most hygienic standards and it can be advisable to carry antibacterial hand gel and bottled water. As long as travelers ensure they are getting the right vitamins in their food, and that they are eating enough meals during the day to sustain their energy, they should be able to enjoy a balanced, healthy diet while staying in the country.