Thai cuisine really hits the spot — the sweet, salty, sour and spicy spot, and usually all at once in a single delicious dish. Maybe that's why Thailand had seven dishes on CNN's "World's 50 Most Delicious Foods (Readers' Pick)" 2011 poll, more than any other country, or why it's called the "Land of Smiles." It's hard not to smile after a bite of any Thai dish — be it noodle stir-fries like the classic pad Thai (#5), spicy and sour soups like tom yum (#4), curries of every color, or meat-, veggie- and fruit-based salads like som tum, the crunchy papaya salad just shy of the top five in that poll.
While Thailand's four regional cuisines — Central, Northern, Southern, and Isan, or northeastern, Thai — share ingredients and dishes with China, Laos, India, Vietnam and Malaysia, among others, Thai food finds its voice easily. Its use of fresh, aromatic herbs and spices separates its bright and soupy, coconut-based curries from India's thick curries, which mostly use toasted, ground dry spices. Chilies provide subtle spice or upfront heat in nearly every dish, and lemongrass, lime, fish sauce, tamarind paste and palm sugar are just some of the ingredients that provide balance in this complex and tasty cuisine.
Sometimes the most nerve-racking part of trying a new or unfamiliar cuisine is the fear that you'll butcher the name of a dish when ordering. Don't fret; no one expects you to be a pronunciation pro, but here's how to properly say some of the Thai dishes you'll be craving soon:
Say it like: Paht-THAI (not "pad" like "fad;" with a hard emphasis on the Th in "Thai")
The dish: Probably the most well-known Thai dish, with stir-fried ("pad") rice noodles, eggs, tamarind pulp, fish/soy sauce, chilies, bean sprouts, lime, peanuts and more.
Say it like: Tome-YAHM (not your neighbor Tom, think of the "om" meditation noise)
The dish: A popular, hot-and-sour boiled ("tom") soup with a mix ("yum") of herbs and veggies like lemongrass, lime leaves, mushrooms, chilies and more.
Pad See Ew
Say it like: Paht-SEE-you (not like the expression of distaste "ew")
The dish: A Chinese-influenced dish of stir-fried ("pad") broad rice noodles with soy sauce ("see ew"), Chinese broccoli, egg and more.
Say it like: Sohm-TAHM (again, think of that "om" meditation noise)
The dish: A popular sour ("som") salad of green papaya with chilies, garlic, salt, sugar and more, pounded ("tum") in a mortar and pestle.
Say it like: Lahb (think of a British person saying "lab" or when you "lob" a ball)
The dish: A salad of minced meat, fish sauce, lime juice and toasted rice, usually eaten with a ball of sticky rice.
Pad Prik King
Say it like: Paht-PLIK-king (don't call your server a bad word; use a rolled "r" or an "l" sound)
The dish: A spicy Thai curry with fried chilies ("prik").
Also, names of meats are often at the end of dishes (like tom yum goong or pad Thai gai), so you'll see these terms often: Kai/Gai, chicken; Goong/Kung, shrimp or prawn; Muu, pork; Pla, fish; Neua, beef; Ped/Pet, duck. ♦
Itching to start cooking Thai food at home? Check out these sites
Hot Thai Kitchen, hot-thai-kitchen.com
Eating Thai Food, eatingthaifood.com
Thai Food Tonight, thaifoodtonight.com