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Thai Food Vocabulary

with illustrated vocabulary, word definitions and example sentences

Photo of Thai cuisine
Photo: (left to right) Northeastern dish larb with prik nam pla and fried egg, three central Thai dishes (pad see ew, chicken with cashew nuts, pad thai) and a bowl of massaman curry from Thailand’s south

Many food experts say Thailand has one of the world's great cuisines, so if you love food you should definitely try it. Whether you do this by visiting Thailand or by going to Thai restaurants in your home country, you're sure to find dishes you like. And you might even discover some of the most delicious food you've ever eaten!

Northeastern food

If you visit Thailand and walk around any big city like Bangkok, you'll see people selling street food of many kinds from mobile carts. If they're selling food to workers from a building site, they're probably selling Isan food from the northeast of Thailand. An Isan meal almost always includes a spicy salad called som tam that's freshly-made with grated green papaya for every customer. Som tam is usually eaten with grilled fish, pork or beef and lots of glutinous sticky rice. Other dishes might include a ground meat salad called larb, or dishes made with a fermented fish paste called pla ra that most foreigners find too smelly and strong-tasting to try. Because of its low rainfall, Isan is a poor region in which people have learned how to eat whatever they can find, including insects of many kinds. These are now sold from carts all over Thailand, and if you get the chance you should try some deep-fried grasshoppers. They're surprisingly good!

Southern food

While people from Isan prefer very spicy dishes and sticky rice, people from the Muslim areas of southern Thailand prefer milder dishes and steamed rice, preferably Thailand's top-quality jasmine rice. Many of the most delicious southern dishes are curries made with coconut milk or coconut cream from which they get their smooth, creamy texture and rich, sweet flavour. The most famous southern curries are Thai yellow curry with chicken and potato (kaeng ku-ree gai) and massaman curry, a rich and creamy Indian-style curry made with beef or chicken that was voted the world's most delicious dish by CNN viewers in 2011.

Central Thai food

Thai restaurants usually include a few Isan and southern Thai dishes on their menus, but most of the dishes are from central Thailand. In central Thai cuisine, like all Thai cuisine, a wide range of sauces, pastes, spices and condiments are grouped into the four basic tastes of Thai cooking; salty, hot, sour and sweet. For example, fish sauce is used to add "saltiness" to a dish, chilli peppers add heat or "spiciness", lime and tamarind add "sourness", and cane sugar or palm sugar add "sweetness". These ingredients, and many others like them, are combined in various ways to create the unique balance of flavours found in dishes like the popular noodle salad yum woon sen and soups like tom kha gai, a spicy chicken and coconut soup, and tom yum kung, a popular hot and sour shrimp soup that's served in Thai restaurants all around the world.

Stir-fried dishes are also flavoured with the same range of ingredients. The most popular include chicken with cashew nuts (gai pat med mamuang), stir-fried morning glory (pak boong fai daeng), stir-fried vegetables (pad pak luam-mit) and the very popular pad ka-prow to which holy basil adds its unique flavour and aroma.

While soups and stir-fried dishes are always popular, when asked which Thai dish is their favourite most people say it's a Thai curry. Many of these are from central Thailand, including Thai green curry (kaeng khiao wan), Thai red curry (kaeng phet) and panaeng, a very rich and nutty coconut-cream curry that's always a favourite. Another favourite is hor mok pla, a delicious fish mousse made with red-curry paste and coconut cream that's wrapped in banana leaves and cooked in a steamer.

Thai street food

Thailand is famous for tasty, cheap street food that's cooked on a cart or in a small shop-house kitchen while customers wait at a roadside table. Most dishes are for one person, unlike in a restaurant where dishes are usually shared. The most common street-food dishes include noodles with red pork (ba mee moo daeng), khao moo daeng (red pork on rice), khao man gai (chicken on rice), khao na ped (duck on rice) and a delicious dish of braised pork leg served on rice called khao kha moo. Other favourites include khao pat (Thai fried rice) and khao soi, a curry-flavoured chicken noodle soup, and popular fried noodle dishes like pad see ew and pad thai.

No matter which of these dishes you choose, you'll be given a set of condiments as well. There are usually four condiments, one for each of the four basic tastes of Thai cooking, including fish sauce or prik nam pla (fish sauce with chilli) for saltiness, dried chilli for spiciness, vinegar or squeezed lime for sourness, and sugar for sweetness. It's fun to watch as people keep adding a little of each until the dish tastes just the way they like it, and this is something you can try too.

Thai desserts

Thailand is blessed with many natural desserts in the form of delicious tropical fruits. The mango is among the most delicious of these, and one of Thailand's most famous desserts is mango and sticky rice served with a sweet coconut-cream sauce. But there's another fruit that's so good that most people eat it without any preparation or added ingredients. This is durian, the so-called "King of Fruits" with its heavenly custard-like flesh protected by a thick skin of sharp spikes. If you ever get the chance to try it, you must!

Other popular desserts include pumpkin custard, sticky rice in banana leaves, and sweet roti which you can buy from one of the many street vendors who make it on their carts. You can have plain sweet roti or one with banana or coconut filling, but however you have it, it'll be dripping with sweetened condensed milk. It isn't very healthy, but can you resist it?

chicken and cashews
chicken and cashew nuts (gai pat med mamuang)
condiments (sugar, chilli, prik nam pla, vinegar)
grilled chicken, som tam and sticky rice
grilled chicken, som tam and sticky rice
hor mok pla
hor mok pla (Thai fish mousse)
khao moo daeng
khao moo daeng (red pork on rice)
khao soi
khao soi
larb moo
larb moo (larb with pork)
mango and sticky rice
mango and sticky rice (khao niao mamuang)
massaman curry
massaman curry
morning glory stir fry
morning glory stir fry (pak boong fai daeng)
noodles with red pork
noodles with red pork (ba mee moo daeng)
pad see ew
pad see ew
pad thai
pad thai
panaeng moo
panaeng moo (panaeng with pork)
pumpkin custard
pumpkin custard (sangkaya fuk tong)
som tham papaya salad
som tam (green papaya salad)
sweet roti
sweet roti
Thai green curry
Thai green curry (kaeng khiao wan)
Thai red curry
Thai red curry (kaeng phet)
Thai yellow curry
Thai yellow curry (kaeng ku-ree)
tom kha gai
tom kha gai
tom yum kung
tom yum kung
yum woon sen
yum woon sen

chicken with cashew nuts (or gai pat med mamuang) (noun): one of Thailand's most famous and delicious stir-fried dishes - Jason's favourite Thai dish is chicken with cashew nuts.

coconut milk (noun): a milky white liquid that's squeezed from coconut meat and used in cooking - All those creamy Thai curries are made with coconut milk, aren't they?

durian (noun): a large tropical fruit covered in sharp spikes with a delicious creamy custard-like flesh - How can you tell which durian is the best?

fish sauce (or nam pla) (noun): a salty liquid used in cooking and as a table condiment - Instead of sprinkling salt on food, Thais add fish sauce.

holy basil (or ka-prow) (noun): an Indian herb used as a tea, a medicine and as an ingredient in certain dishes - "Khao phat ka-prow ghai" is a stir-fried dish of chicken and holy basil on rice.

hor mok pla (or Thai fish mousse) (noun): a steamed mousse made of fish mixed with red curry paste and coconut cream that's cooked in a banana leaf wrapping - I'll get some hor mok pla from the market.

Isan or Isaan (adjective): of the region in northeastern Thailand where Lao food, language and culture survive - For real Isan food, find a cart selling grilled fish or chicken, papaya salad and sticky rice.

jasmine rice (or kao som mali) (noun): a fragrant long-grain variety of rice that Thailand is famous for - Jasmine rice is known for its sweetness and light but firm texture.

khao man gai (noun): Thai street dish based on China's "Hainanese chicken rice", but with Thai-style topping of soy sauce plus chilli, ginger, garlic and vinegar - I can get some khao man gai on my way home if you like.

khao moo daeng (noun): slices of red barbecue pork served on rice with a sweet red sauce, boiled egg, sliced cucumber and coriander leaves - Montree has khao moo daeng for lunch most days. He loves it!

khao na ped (noun): street dish based on China's duck rice, served with fresh ginger, a sweet dark soy sauce and stewed green vegetable - That lady makes the best khao na ped in the village.

khao pat (noun): Thai fried rice, made with pre-cooked rice, fish sauce, chilli and garlic plus vegetables, chicken, pork, beef or prawns - If you want fried rice with chicken, ask for "khao pat gai".

khao soi (noun): a Burmese-style curried noodle soup usually made with chicken and often topped with crispy egg noodles - I'd love a bowl of khao soi right now.

larb (noun): a Lao-style salad made of raw or cooked ground meat, roasted ground rice, chillies, garlic, herbs, fish sauce, etc. - Pork larb is "larb moo" in Thai, chicken larb is "larb gai" and beef larb is "larb neua".

mango and sticky rice (or khao niao mamuang) (noun): sliced fresh mango served with sticky rice and a sweet topping of coconut milk and palm sugar - To order mango and sticky rice, ask the waiter for "khao niao mamuang".

massaman curry (noun): a sweet, mild curry usually made with chicken or beef plus potatoes, peanuts or cashews, coconut cream and sweet spices like cinnamon and cloves - In a survey of the world's most delicious dishes, massaman curry came top.

morning glory (noun): a green leafy vegetable that's the main ingredient of stir-fried morning glory (pak boong fai daeng) - Let's order the stir-fried morning glory as well.

noodles with red pork (or ba mee moo daeng) (noun): Chinese-style barbecued red pork with egg noodles Wow! This is the best noodles with red pork I've ever had!

pad ka-prow (noun): a popular street dish in which holy basil is stir-fried with chilli, garlic, various sauces and either chicken, pork, beef, shrimp or tofu - Can you teach me how to make pad ka-prow?

pad see ew (noun): a stir-fried street dish made with wide, flat noodles, dark soy sauce, Chinese broccoli and chicken, beef, pork or shrimp - There are pad see ew stalls all over Bangkok.

pad thai (noun): a popular street dish made with thin noodles stir-fried with eggs, tofu, tamarind, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic, chilli and palm sugar - Why don't we have pad thai for lunch?

panaeng (noun): a popular red curry with a sweet, nutty coconut-cream based sauce, usually made with chicken, pork, beef or tofu - My favourite Thai dish is panaeng curry with chicken.

prik nam pla (noun): sliced chilli in fish sauce, an essential Thai table condiment that's both spicy and salty - Can you pass the prik nam pla, please?

pumpkin custard (or sangkaya fuk tong) (noun): a dessert of steamed pumpkin wedges filled with creamy coconut custard - Pumpkin custard is cheaper if you buy it from a street vendor.

som tam (or green papaya salad) (noun): a spicy Isan salad made of grated green papaya and nam pla or pla ra and many other ingredients - To make som tam, start by grating lots of green papaya.

sticky rice (or khao nee ow) (noun): soft glutinous rice, a staple of Isan cuisine, that's often served in small rattan baskets - Would you like sticky rice with that?

sticky rice in banana leaves (or khao tom mat) (noun): a dessert of sticky rice sweetened with banana and coconut milk in a banana leaf wrapping - Let's have sticky rice in banana leaves for a change.

sweet roti (noun): a street dessert cooked on a hot plate, often with added coconut or banana, that's topped with sweetened condensed milk - Would you like a plain sweet roti or one with banana or coconut?

Thai green curry (or kaeng khiao wan) (noun): a Thai curry made with green curry paste, green chillies, Thai eggplant or pea aubergines, and either chicken, beef, shrimp, tofu, etc. - I'll have Thai green curry with chicken, please.

Thai red curry (or kaeng phet) (noun): a spicy curry made with coconut milk and red curry paste - The Thai red curry with roast duck at See Fah Restaurant is amazing!

Thai yellow curry (or kaeng ku-ree) (noun): a mild curry from South Thailand most often made with chicken and potato - I'll have the Thai yellow curry with chicken, please.

tom kha gai (noun): a cream-coloured chicken soup made with coconut milk, galangal, mushrooms, lemongrass, fish sauce, etc. - Our special today is tom kha gai, or chicken coconut soup.

tom yum kung (noun): a hot and sour clear shrimp soup that's very popular in Thai restaurants all over the world - We always get the tom yum kung.

yum woon sen (noun): a salad made with pre-cooked glass noodles (or cellophane noodles), pork, shrimp, peanuts, chilli, coriander, etc. - Anyone can make yum woon sen. It's really easy.

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers.