Having lived in Thailand for a decade and a half, I’ve gotten used to some of the odder aspects of the culture, so it takes fresh eyes to remind me that there are feral dogs roaming around everywhere on three legs or that people routinely drive into oncoming traffic. Food can be included in the things that one gets used to and is always a topic of discussion and derision for travellers making it a great fun to dine out with first-timers at a local joint. Most travellers to Thailand will have eaten Thai food in their home country and so think they have some familiarity.
Lo and behold, they do not.
Thais eat a wide assortment of animal and plant life that Westerners, and Americans in particular, would not consider edible, often prepared in ways that might even be illegal in your home town. On most local menus you’ll find names of foods and descriptions that are less than appetising.
However, we’re here to tell you not to be scared off. Come along with us as we review just a few of those must-eat dishes you’ll only find in Thailand and enjoy your “drunk-as-shit” noodles, hooker curry, dirty water soup and red ant salad (exactly what it sounds like).
1. Som Tom
This is a staple food, which borders on addiction for many Thais. It is essentially a salad made of green papaya, chillies, garlic, green beans, cherry tomatoes, lime juice and peanuts. Sounds nice right? That is the bare-bones recipe before the delicacies are added. Som Tom can be loaded with pretty much anything that crawls or creeps in this world: pickled oysters, fermented fish, live crab, raw shrimp, all soaked down with a generous dose of pla ra (think fish sauce with the funk factor turned up to ten). Add enough chilli peppers to scorch the most hardened palate and this well-meaning salad becomes something of a chemical weapon.
2. Baek Bpat
Or, fried duck beaks with a sweet spicy sauce; never sounded better. This is the kind of thing sport eaters love to try out, but on the retch scale, score very low. A plate of four or five recognisably fried duck faces may give you pang of guilt over your childhood love for Daffy and Donald but once you get tucked in they’re not much different than eating chicken wings.
3. Mok Huak (luk awd)
Frog is served in a variety ways all over the country and if you’ve never eaten frog it’s nothing to be afraid of, it does indeed taste like chicken. Raw developed tadpoles mixed with chilli, lemongrass, lime and slaked down with more pla ra is a dish I have left for those with something to prove. It not only looks disgusting but I have been witness to the looks on the faces of those brave enough to try them.
4. Kai Khao
Or, a thousand-year eggs, black eggs, old eggs or whatever you want to call them can be found all over Southeast Asia. Preserved eggs may look, smell and taste bad to the uninitiated, but Thai kai khao takes the unappetising factor to another level. This harmless looking egg has a fertilised embryo inside to give it that special crunch.
5. Larb Mot Dang
Larb is a kind of salad made with ground meat of some kind or another that comes from the eastern part of the country. This version of the dish includes all of the normal herbs and spices but substitutes the meat for red ant eggs. The eggs are fatty and buttery, delicious and nutritious. If you shut your eyes you might enjoy this speciality since it’s usually the sight of ant larvae that turns people off.
6. Gong chae nam
Thailand is famous for its seafood and especially for shrimp and prawns. Giant mantis prawns served raw with a lash of spicy fish sauce are salty, fishy, slimy monsters intact on the plate, eye stems and all.
7. Malang Tod
Speaking of insects, they are readily available in any market all across the country. Usually fried with spices and herbs and of course coated with some form of fish sauce, the whole gamut of insects are eaten. From giant cockroaches to tiny larvae, scooped up and served in a paper cone like popcorn for snacking.
Let’s round it off with a dessert of durian fruit. This spiky fruit that looks like a weapon and grows to the size of a small child is so pungent that trains, busses and many hotels ban the possession of them. Even so, if you can stand the smell and get past its dangerous rind, the creamy flesh is sweet and satisfying.
In conclusion, it’s not all stunt dining in Thailand. You’ll be happy to know that all your favourites from green curry to pad Thai are readily available. In fact, as a tourist you’ll probably have to go out of your way to try these and the myriad of other really exotic-to-you foods that are normal fare in different parts of the country. More pla ra anyone?