Food is one of the true joys of Thailand. If you are not familiar with Thai cooking, imagine the best of Asian food ingredients combined with the sophistication of fragrant spices, sweet coconut or citrus, and topped off with ripe red and green chilies. You can find all styles of Thai (and international) cooking in Bangkok, from southern fiery curries to smooth northern cuisine. Where restaurants serve a variety of regional dishes, they are marked in this guide as Thai cuisine, though in a few cases where they specialize in Northern Thai or Royal Thai cuisine (dishes that were formerly eaten only by royalty), they are marked as such. Basic ingredients range from shellfish, fresh fruits, vegetables -- asparagus, bean sprouts, morning glory, baby eggplant, bamboo shoots, and countless types of mushrooms -- and spices, including lemongrass, mint, chili, garlic, and coriander (cilantro). Thai cooking also incorporates coconut milk, curry paste, peanuts, and a large variety of noodles and rice.
Among the popular dishes you'll find are tom yum goong, a Thai hot-and-sour shrimp soup; satay, charcoal-broiled chicken, beef, or pork strips skewered on a bamboo stick and dipped in a peanut-coconut sauce; spring rolls (similar to egg rolls but thinner and usually containing only vegetables); larb, a spicy chicken or ground-beef salad with mint-and-lime flavoring; spicy salads, made with a breadth of ingredients, but most have a dressing made with onion, chili pepper, lime juice, and fish sauce; pad Thai, rice noodles fried with large shrimp, eggs, peanuts, and fresh bean sprouts; khao sawy, a northern-style Burmese soup with light yellow curry and layers of crispy and soft noodles; a wide range of explosive curries; and spicy tod man pla, fried fish cakes with a sweet honey sauce. If you're feeling adventurous, pick up a snack of fried crickets, bamboo grubs, or red ant eggs that are sold in markets countrywide.
Seafood is a great treat in Thailand and is served at a fraction of the cost one would pay elsewhere. In the south, Phuket lobster (a giant langoustine) has no pincers and a firm trunk, and is generally different from the cold water variety you'll get in Maine or Brittany.
A word of caution: Thais enjoy incredibly spicy food, much hotter than is tolerated in even the most piquant Western cuisine. Protect your palate by saying "Mai khin phet," meaning "I do not take it spicy." Also note that most Thai and Chinese food, particularly in the cheaper restaurants and food stalls, is cooked with a lot of MSG (known locally as phong churot), and it's almost impossible to avoid. If you don't want MSG, say "mai sai phong churot." However, if you're dining in restaurants where foreign clientele are regulars, the kitchen usually will have made allowances for this.
Traditionally, Thai menus don't offer fancy desserts. The most you'll find are coconut milk-based sweets or a variety of fruit-flavored custards, but the local fruit is luscious enough for a perfect dessert. Familiar fruits are pineapple (sometimes served with salt and chili powder), mangoes, bananas, guava, papaya, coconut, and watermelon. Less familiar options are durian (in season during May and June, this Thai favorite is an acquired taste, as it smells like old socks); mangosteen (a purplish, hard-skinned fruit with delicate, whitish-pink bits that melt in the mouth but stain your hands and clothes, and is available Apr-Sept); and jackfruit (large and green with a thick, thorny skin that envelops tangy-flavored flesh and is available in June and July). The pink litchi, which ripens in April, and the smaller tan-skinned longan, which comes in season in July, have very sweet white flesh. Other unusual fruits include tamarind (a sour, pulpy seed in a pod that you can eat fresh or candied); rambutan (small, red, and hairy with transparent sweet flesh clustered around a woody seed, available May-July); and pomelo (similar to a sweet and thirst-quenching grapefruit, available Aug-Nov). Some of these fruits are served as salads; pomelo and raw green papaya salads, for example, are excellent.
Thai families usually have an early breakfast of khao tom, a rice soup to which chicken, seafood, or meat may be added. Typically, it's served with a barely cooked egg floating on top and a variety of pickled vegetables, relishes, and spicy condiments to add flavor.
Thais take eating very seriously and also love to snack nonstop. Business lunches consist of several dishes, and some hotels offer blowout buffets at very reasonable prices, but most casual diners have a one-course rice or noodle dish. Most restaurants throughout the country offer lunch from 11am to 1pm; in Bangkok, street eateries, markets, and food stalls are packed during this busy time.
Thais usually stop at one of the country's many streetside food stalls for a large bowl of noodle soup (served with meat, fish, or poultry), or dine at a department store food court where they can buy snacks from many different vendors and have a seat in air-conditioning. A note on etiquette: You won't see Thais walking down the street munching. Take a seat while you eat.
Dinner is the main meal, and for a Thai family this usually consists of a soup (gaeng jued); a curried dish (gaeng phet); a steamed, fried, stir-fried, or grilled dish (nueng, thod, paad, or yaang); a side dish of salad or condiments (krueang kiang); steamed rice (khao nueng); and some fruit (ponlamai). Thais always share a variety of dishes (typically balanced as sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy), helping themselves to a spoonful at a time (to avoid being wasteful). All dishes are served together and are sampled by diners in no particular order. Thai cuisine has no concept of "courses," though restaurants that cater to foreigners generally manage to serve a soup before main course if Western food is ordered.
In Thailand men enjoy a strong drink; the majority of well-educated women and many practicing Buddhists abstain from alcohol. Liquor, beer, and soft drinks are widely available -- from 11am to 2pm and 5pm to midnight -- at 7-Eleven stores and supermarkets. Most bars serve liquor until around 1am, except on Buddhist holidays, though a few with special dispensation in tourist areas stay open until the small hours. Thailand brews several beers; the best known is Singha, though Leo and Chang are cheaper, popular brands that still have a kick. Imported beers, such as Heineken, are also widely available. Despite high costs, wine is becoming a favorite among the country's middle class; local Thai and regional vintages are increasing in quality, too.
Mekong and Sang Som are two of the more popular local "whiskeys," even though the latter is more like rum (fermented from sugarcane). Thais will either buy a bottle or bring one to a restaurant where they can buy ice and mixers -- usually Coke or soda water. Beware that some of the cheaper varieties are reputedly laced with some nasty chemicals.
Carbonated drinks, such as Fanta, Coke, and Pepsi, are sold everywhere. Fruit-shake vendors make fruit smoothies on the street, but diabetics should know that, at these street stalls, even fresh carrot or watermelon juice is heavily sweetened with thick syrup; insist on no syrup ("mai sai naam waan") and keep an eye on the beverage being made. Gek huey (chrysanthemum juice) is another popular treat.
Water is served at most meals although you may have to ask for ice (nam khaeng). Many shops sell affordable bottled or filtered water. Do not purchase the inexpensive water in light-blue plastic bottles (sold on the street), as it contains no sodium or minerals and will not remedy dehydration. If you suffer from the heat, stock up on electrolyte drinks such as Gatorade, or inexpensive rehydration powders, sold in sachets. Both items are available from 7-Eleven stores.