Thai cuisine is a colorful, diverse mosaic of flavors and aromas that are bound to leave even the harshest critic speechless. The country boasts a long culinary tradition of gorgeous-looking dishes that are nothing if not flavorful. I’ll take you through some of the best spicy Thai food you’ll have the pleasure to try.
Here are eight spicy Thai dishes you must try:
- Kaeng Tai Pia
- Kaeng Som
- Tom Yum Goong
- Tom Laeng
- Khao Soi
- Khua Kling
- Som Tum
- Pad Cha Talay
If you’re looking to expand your gastronomic horizons by trying out a few Thai recipes that pack a fiery punch while still leaving you asking for more, I’ll be taking a deeper look at what sets these spicy Thai dishes apart. Whether you’re planning to pay the Land of Smiles a visit or you’re just a cooking enthusiast looking to expand their culinary arsenal, this article is for you.
1. Kaeng Tai Pla
There’s no dish as delectable, aromatic, and quintessentially Thai as Gaeng Tai Pla. This traditional curry that originates from southern Thailand allows you to enjoy a wide range of complex and perfectly-complementing flavors while still packing a powerful spicy punch that will inevitably burn the roof of your mouth (especially if you’re new to Thai cuisine).
Even though the dish is highly versatile and can come in many shapes and forms depending on the recipe, its foundation remains as classically Thai as it gets. Kaeng Tai Pla features kaffir leaves, turmeric, galangal, and, of course, an assortment of dried chilies.
The rich, powerful aromas are beautifully combined with the veggies, yardlong beans, fish innards, and fish meat to create a hearty, warm, and incredibly spicy curry. However, lucky for you, after that first spice attack (that might or might not leave you in tears), you’ll be left with a pleasant, complex flavor that embodies the rich Thai culinary culture.
Having said that, keeping a sizable container of milk within reach while trying out this dish is always a good idea. Ultimately, you’ll find that as long as you’re able to handle the spice moderately well, the experience will be more than worth it.
Kaeng Tai Pla is arguably the most legendary dish in its region, and once you see the rich culinary repertoire of southern Thailand, you’ll find this fact thoroughly impressive.
Moreover, if you’re put off by the “fermented fish intestine” component of this dish, there’s no need to. Thai people have mastered the art of taking humble (and maybe not the most seemingly appealing ingredients) and turning them into rich, enjoyable concoctions that will leave you asking for seconds.
The hearty saltiness and wide array of flavors and aromas you’ll experience while eating this meal have nothing to do with the unpleasant fermented fish taste you might be imagining.
Therefore, if you’re feeling particularly courageous, I highly recommend giving this quintessential Thai dish a try.
2. Kaeng Som
If you’re ever in a Thai restaurant, this bright orange curry is near-impossible to miss. Not only will you be able to spot its eye-catching color from a mile away, but even if you somehow miss it, you won’t be able to escape its signature pungent smell.
Kaeng Som is yet another southern Thai delicacy that comprises shrimp paste, the usual assortment of chilies, and turmeric (to which it owes its signature color). The protein of choice is usually either fish or shrimp; after all, Thai cuisine seems to thrive on spicy seafood.
The bright orange curry is then accompanied by a healthy serving of rice, which can help buffer a bit of that excess heat that sometimes seems like it might burn your nostril hair right off. However, when eating Kaeng Som, beware of the curry’s runny texture.
The spicy concoction can quickly seep into the rice, taking away that slight chance of relief you might’ve had. Therefore, if you’re trying this dish for the first time, I recommend opting for a generous serving of rice and making sure to prevent cross-contamination at all costs (no matter how high you expect your heat tolerance to be). After all, you can always forgo some of the rice if you find that you can handle the curry’s spiciness.
3. Tom Yum Goong
Tom Yum Goong is one of the most popular and beloved Thai soups, and for a good reason. The unique combination of flavors and aromas you’ll be able to experience is simply unparalleled, as the dish embodies the warm and creative spirit of the Thai people.
Tom Yum Goong is widely believed to have originated from central Thailand; however, considering the dish’s remarkable popularity and mouthwatering taste, it comes as no surprise that a wide range of cities and regions have tried to claim it as their own throughout history.
Having said that, upon taking a closer look at the dish’s recipe and ingredients, its central Thai roots become much clearer. Tom Yum Goong has many aromatic ingredients, including fresh chilies, fish sauce, lime juice, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass. No Thai soup is complete without a source of protein scattered throughout, and in this case, true to traditional fashion, that source is freshly-caught shrimp.
The ingredients make much more sense once you find out that Tom Yum Goong roughly translates to spicy prawn soup. However, what the name of the dish can’t fully encompass, is the fresh yet rich array of flavors and aromas that this seemingly humble dish is globally famous for.
Therefore, if you’re looking to try a food that will help you better understand the essence of Thailand’s culinary tradition, I highly recommend considering Tom Yum Goong.
4. Tom Laeng
Among the sea of Thai culinary treasures, Tom Laeng is a hidden gem. You might not have heard a lot about this soupy concoction, but I couldn’t bring myself to make a list of the best spicy Thai food and not mention this fiery yet mouthwatering dish.
Unlike what we’ve seen so far, this recipe moves away from the seafood pattern that is so prevalent in Thai cuisine. Instead, this dish comprises braised pork, a generous serving of green chilies, and spring onions.
The secret lies in the slow cook of the meat. The pork is braised until the meat starts coming off of the bone on its own, leading to a melt-in-your-mouth texture once the protein hits the soup. The consistency is beautifully complemented by the warm but potent blend of spices used to add that extra bit of flavor to the dish.
Even though Tom Laeng might not be the most famous Thai dish and its appearance might falsely lead you to believe that you’re about to eat a run-of-the-mill pork and veggie soup, I advise you not to underestimate it. The broth carries a surprising punch that can set your mouth on fire; however, not so much that you can’t taste the masterful combination of flavors.
5. Khao Soi
If you thought I’d leave northern Thailand without a representative on this list, think again. The region has given birth to the famously spicy and delicious Khao Soi. This hearty dish can only be described as a noodle soup; however, don’t let mild-looking broth and add-ins fool you; Khao Soi packs quite the punch.
Khao soi is a (delicious) fusion of many southwest Asian cuisines, a fact that becomes even more apparent when you consider its ingredient list and cooking technique. The dish’s base is a warm, hearty curry broth. The noodles are made from scratch using eggs and wheat, providing an excellent textural contrast in juxtaposition with the fresh, vibrant vegetables.
Khao Soi isn’t complete without a generous squeeze of lime, which adds the acidity necessary to balance out the spicy and savory flavors that take over the broth.
The beauty of this dish lies in its versatility, as all home cooks have a chance to make the recipe their own by swapping out certain ingredients, playing with the spice ratios, and so on. The traditional variation calls for shrimp paste, coconut cream, fish sauce, red curry paste, and braised beef (cooked using the same technique mentioned in the previous section).
However, given that Khao Soi has been widely influenced by the predominantly Muslim country of Myanmar, you’ll also find many variations that forgo the pork altogether. Either way, the result will still be a mouthwatering creation that maintains a remarkable flavor balance. You’ll still get that spicy heat, but it won’t be so overpowering that you’re not able to appreciate the complex and satisfying taste and texture.
Having said that, beware that most recipes call for fresh ginger, an assortment of red chilies, and curry paste, so eat at your own risk (depending on your heat tolerance).
6. Khua Kling
I know what you’re thinking–how come this quintessentially classic Thai dish is so far down this list? Well, some creations are so spectacular that it might take a bit of time and work to find the right words to describe them.
Khua Kling is yet another ingenious southeastern Thai creation that has contributed to the region’s fame as the culinary capital of Thailand. This classic dry curry consists of various spices (added liberally), a wide array of chilies, and a stir-fried protein (generally minced pork).
As you can imagine, the dish packs quite a punch, so if you ever decide to try it out, make sure to always keep a glass of cold milk within reach. By now, you can see that Thai cuisine tends to follow a fool-proof pattern, as the locals are able to expertly take simple meat and veggie dishes and turn them into masterpieces.
Khua Kling is one of the most popular Thai dishes abroad; flavor-wise, it usually is a bit more approachable than some of the other alternatives mentioned above (after all, choosing to consume something with fermented fish intestines requires a bit of culinary courage).
Therefore, if you’re just beginning to expand your palate, this dish is an excellent starting point. Not only will it provide new flavors and aromas within familiar ingredients, but the taste balance it achieves is remarkable. The spiciness is beautifully offset by the palm sugar and coconut milk used in the pork marinade, so the pleasant flavor will still be able to come through even if your mouth seems to have caught on fire.
I want to note that even though the ingredients might seem accessible and familiar, this doesn’t take away from the fact that Khua Kling is still one of the hottest dishes on this list (remember those chilies I mentioned?). Therefore, if you’re not sure of your heat tolerance yet, you’ll want to either switch to another meal or have the dish altered to a milder spiciness level.
7. Som Tum
Som Tum is one of the most deceiving dishes you’ll ever come across. You’ll often find it described as a green papaya salad, and judging by its looks; you’ll probably expect a fresh, mild-tasting meal.
In reality, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Som Tum is one of the spiciest Thai dishes you can try, and I guarantee it will make your eyes water no matter how high you think your heat tolerance is. However, the spiciness is beautifully counterbalanced by the sweetness and freshness of the papaya, so you’ll still be able to enjoy the complexity and deliciousness of the traditional Thai flavor that this dish embodies.
Som Tum is a highly versatile dish; however, some of the ingredients you’ll find incorporated most often include fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar, chilies, garlic, peanuts, carrots, tomatoes, and a green unripe papaya.
8. Pad Cha Talay
Last but not least, we return to Thailand’s traditional delicacy: spicy seafood. Pad Cha Talay provides an array of flavors and fragrances that will leave you wanting more (even though you might be fighting through tears when asking for seconds.
The dish comprises a selection of seafood of your choice (scallops, fish, squid, and shrimp), a local seasoning mix, fingerroot, chili, and pepper. This hearty, spicy, savory, and herby delicacy is unlike anything you’ve ever had before. However, as with all dishes mentioned in this article, it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Therefore, if you’re trying out Thai cuisine for the first time, make sure to ask for a milder variation and work your way up from there. I assure you, you won’t regret it!