In the past few years, New Yorkers’ appreciation of Thai food has expanded exponentially. Diners don't just want pad Thai and basic curries; now they expect fare with deeper, richer, more exotic flavor profiles and ingredients. Whether globe-trekking backpackers demanded the change or savvy restaurateurs decided American palates were ready for some funk and spice, it's hard to say. Either way, we’re glad it’s happening. From the herbaceous north to the coconut-heavy south, check out our guide to regional Thai cuisine.
The narrow peninsula that stretches down to Malaysia makes up the southern culinary region of the country. The inhabitants come from diverse ethnic groups: Malay to the south with strong Indian and Javanese influences, Chinese to the north. So, the fare is diverse, ranging from roti and curry to some noodles. There's a lot of jasmine rice, turmeric, garlic, galangal (Thai ginger), lemongrass and some bitter components from the native sataw bean. Seafood is popular, the dishes are usually scorching hot and coconut (in all its many forms) reigns supreme. Gaeng Thai Pla is one of most iconic dishes. It’s a deeply flavored fish curry (traditionally with fish stomach) that packs some serious heat. For those who can’t handle the spice, gaing karee (yellow curry), a Thai-Muslim-influenced dish, blends turmeric and coconut milk in a sauce that packs the aromatics without the spice.
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Moving away from the sandy beaches and into the delta, Central Thailand is rich in jasmine rice, fresh produce, seafood and pork. In the center is Bangkok, the seat of power for the royal palace, so much of the fare is more refined, with complex layers of sweet, sour, salty and spicy notes. Dried red pepper, garlic, galangal, lemongrass, sweet basil, lime and coconut cream are common flavors. It's the fare most Americans have come to know as Thai. Many of the ubiquitous exports hail from the region: tom kha kai (chicken and coconut milk soup) as well as red, green and panang curries. A lesser known specialty is haw mok, a mix of red curry, coconut milk, egg and seafood that resembles soufflé. There is a strong Chinese influence too, with a wide variety of noodles, plain brothy soups, stir-fries and clay-pot meals. Gaeng phet pet yang, is a perfect example of the confluence; it melds together Chinese-style duck with the intricate flavors of Thai red curry.
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Anchored by Chiang Mai, the north is made up of cool, jungle-filled mountains with lots of roots, vegetables, herbs and wood for cooking. Grilling is a common cooking method, and sausage is must-try. The most popular is sai ua, an herbal blend of pork, dried chile and lemongrass. Aromatics up north are bold with lots of salty, spicy and herbal notes. Coconuts aren't as common, but they are used to some extent. One of the best-known dishes has been influenced by neighboring Myanmar; khao soi is an intense curry soup scented with coconut milk and turmeric, then filled with chicken and pickles and finished with fried and boiled egg noodles. It’s one of the few dishes in the region to use coconut rather than broth or water. And glutinous rice is a requisite with every meal.
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Of all the regional Thai fare, Isaan has become the most celebrated in NYC in recent years. Situated on the border with Laos and Cambodia, the northeastern chunk of Thailand houses a wide population of ethnically Lao and Khmer individuals. Obviously, that's affected the style of food. Like the north, sticky rice leads. But, because there's not as much forestry that can be used for fuel, a lot of the fare is raw and cured. An example is the area's omnipresent seasoning, pla ra, a funky fish sauce made from fermented freshwater species. Another illustration: the region’s all-star dish, som tum, the incredibly spicy green papaya salad with lime juice, garlic, pungent seafood (dried shrimp and salted crab are common additions) and a strong dose of pla ra. If you're not sweating while you're eating it, there's probably something wrong. Don't miss out on the larb, either. It’s a minced meat salad (think duck, chicken, fish) with toasted ground rice, mint, vegetables, a generous sprinkling of whole dried chile and a heavy hand of fish sauce.
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