What to eat
The repertoire of noodles, stir-fries, curries and rice dishes described below is pretty much standard throughout Thailand. When you get out into the provinces, you'll have the chance to sample a few specialties as well, which have evolved either from the cuisines of neighboring countries or from the crops best suites to that area.
Noodle and rice dishes
Thais eat noodle (kway tiaw or ba mii) when Westerners would dig into a sandwich-for lunch, as a late-night snack or just to pass the time and at 25-35Baht (around 60 Baht in a posh restaurant) they're the cheapest hot meal you'll find anywhere, whether bought from an itinerant street vendor or ordered in an air-con restaurant. They come in assorted varieties (wide and flat, thin and transparent; made with eggs, soy-bean flour or rice flour) and get boiled up as soups (kway tiaw nam), doused in sauces (kway tiaw rat na) or stir-fried (kway tiaw haeng or kway tiaw pat).
All three versions include a smattering of vegetables, eggs and meat, but the usual practice is to order the dish with extra chicken, beef, pork or shrimps. Most popular of noodle dishes is kway tiaw phat thai (usually abbreviated to phat thai), a delicious combination of fried noodles, bean sprouts, egg, tofu and spring onions, sprinkled with ground peanuts and the juice of half lime and often spiked with tiny dried shrimps.
Fried rice (khao pat) is the another faithful standby, much the same price as noodles and guaranteed to feature on menus right across the country. Curries that come served on a bed of steamed rice are more like stews, prepared long in advance and eaten more as a light meal than a main one; they are usually called khao na plus the meat of the chosen dish-thus khao na pet is duck curry served over rice.
Curries, stir-fries, fish, soups and salads
Thai curries (kaeng) are based on coconut milk- which gives them a slightly sweet taste and soup like consistency and get their fire from chilli peppers (phrik). The best curries are characterized by their curry pastes, a subtle blend of freshly ground herbs, spices, garlic, shallots and chilli, the most well known being the red or green curry pastes. It's often possible to request one that's ''not too hot'' (mai phet); if you do bite into a chilli, the way to combat the searing heat is to take a mouthful of plain rice-swigging water just exacerbates the sensation. Alternatively, pick the whole chillies out: contrary to what your eyes might think, the green ones are hotter than the red, and the smaller ones are hotter then the large; thus the tiny green ''mouse shit'' (phrik kii nuu) chillies are small but deadly.
Stir-fries tend to be a lot milder, often flavored with ginger and whole cloves of garlic and featuring a pleasing combination of soft meat and crunchy vegetables or nuts. Chicken with cashew nuts (kai pat met mamuang) is a favorited of farang-oriented places, as is sweet and sour chicken, pork or fish (kai/muu/plaa priaw waan). Pat phak bung- slightly bitter morning-glory leaves fried with garlic in a black-bean sauce, make a good vegetable side dish with any of these.
All seaside and most riverside restaurants rightly make a big deal out of locally caught fish and seafood. If you order fish it will often be served whole, either steamed or grilled with ginger or chillies. Mussels sometimes get stuffed into a batter and shrimp turn up in everything from soups to fried noodles.
You can't make a meal out of Thai soup but it is an essential component in any shared meal, eaten simultaneously with other dishes, not as a starter. Watery and broth-like, soup are often flavoured with the distinctive tang of lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves and galangal and garnished with fresh coriander, and can be extremely hot if the cook adds liberal handfuls of chillies to the pot. Two favorites are tom kha kai, a creamy coconut chicken soup and Tom Yam Kung, a prawn soup with or without coconut milk (the addition of lime juice gives it its distinctive sour flavour).
Another popular part of any proper Thai meal is a spicy, sour salad (yam), which is often warm. Yam can be made in many permutations- with noodles, meat, seafood or vegetables, for example- but at the heart of every variety is a liberal squirt of fresh lime juice and fiery sprinkling of chopped chillies, a combination that can take some getting used to. The most prevalent variation on this theme is the national dish of the northeast, a spicy green papaya salad called Som Tam.