Part of the reason it took me over 20 years to visit a Thai restaurant for the first time was because I was intimidated by the menu. Unlike my neighborhood diner with classic grilled cheeses and hamburgers, the menu at my local Thai restaurant had dishes with names like nam kao tod and khao soi. Not only had I never heard of these meals before, but I was also clueless about what they were made with. Is this beef? Noodles? Fish? I was overwhelmed.
But there was no need to be: Thai food is a beloved cuisine with a rich history and, as I've since learned, it's delicious.
Curious what to order the first time you eat at a Thai restaurant? Yahoo Life chatted with chefs and owners of Thai restaurants to get the scoop on this popular cuisine, what to order as a beginner and other essential information to make your trip a successful (and satisfying) one.
Thai restaurant menus 101
Unless you've visited a Thai restaurant before (or head out to dinner with people who are knowledgeable about the cuisine) a Thai menu may seem a bit overwhelming at first glance.
"Thai food is known for its spiciness, but there are so many more complexities than that — sweet, salty, sour, tart, bitter and more," says Penny Chutima, co-owner of the world-renowned Thai restaurant Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Nev.
It's the successful combination of these flavors within dishes that make Thai cuisine palatable and beloved by many. Additionally, fresh vegetables and meats, something most are familiar with, are staples of many Thai dishes.
Thai menus typically consist of appetizers, entrees, salads, sides and desserts, all of which keep those flavor combinations at the forefront.
For appetizers, you'll find offerings like crispy spring rolls (a fried dish filled with vegetables and meat) or chicken satay (marinated chicken served with creamy peanut dipping sauce), which Chutima calls "simple and approachable."
Following the appetizer comes the main course. Offerings will vary depending on the restaurant, but some standard menu items across the board include pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles), pad see ew (fried flat noodles with soy sauce), and som tam (spicy green papaya salad).
Chayanin Pornsriniyom, chef-instructor of health-supportive culinary arts at the Institute of Culinary Education, adds that tom yum soup is always an option when in doubt. "Tom yum is a classic sour and spicy herbal soup," she says. "It always goes with everything you may want to order on the menu."
After a meal full of flavorful (and perhaps spicy) dishes, you may want something sweet. For dessert, choose from options like mango sticky rice (rice, mango and coconut milk) and khanom buang (Thai crepes). Rice is one of the key ingredients in many Thai dishes, so finding it in a dessert is not a surprise.
Spice isn't for everyone
Spice is one of the quintessential flavor profiles for Thai cuisine, but not everyone likes spice or can handle it. If you can relate, Chutima recommends asking the server what they recommend on the menu, explaining to them what flavor profiles you would like to experience, whether that's tangy, mildly spicy or sweet and sour.
"Also, don't automatically assume everyone's spice meter is the same," Chutima says. "[Many] Thai restaurants will reduce the spice because they are afraid people cannot eat it if it's too spicy, but you can ask to get a higher level ... if you can handle it."
It's important to note that many restaurants will have a spice meter on their menus. For example, you may see a pepper indicating a low level of spice and four or five suggesting the dish is extremely spicy.
History of Thai cuisine
As early as the 13th century, the Thai people had established what might be considered the heart of the cuisine as it's recognized today, with various meats and seafoods combined with rice, local vegetables and herbs. Thai food in general has influences from China and India — think stir-fry meals and curries.
It was the Chinese who introduced one of the most arguably important Thai cooking tools: the steel wok — which is used to create dishes like pad Thai. Other influences on Thai cuisine come from countries like Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Burma and Malaysia.
Different Thai restaurants have different histories that have led to their current status today. "At Lotus of Siam, our food revolves around the Northern Thai recipes that have been passed down through generations of our family," says Chutima. "This is distinctive from the Bangkok style that people most traditionally associate Thai food with because we use many different herbs and spices and coconut-less curries."
5 best items to order as a beginner
Still not sure what to order off the menu? Non Tang, general manager of Aloy Thai in Boulder, Colo., recommends going with the following items, which should be found on any menu, for the best first-time experience.
Egg Rolls: These are crispy, yet soft, packed with sweet flavors from fresh cabbage and soft beans. Tang recommends egg rolls as they are easy to eat and can be filled with different ingredients.
Drunken Noodles: This dish is made of softly sautéed rice noodles, glazed with a spicy garlic sauce and prepared with fresh red bell pepper and fragrant onions and basil. Tang recommends this dish because it combines both sweet and savory flavors together, making it ideal for beginners.
Thai Fried Rice: This savory and almost crispy rice comes from a fiery wok and has a hint of sweetness. Tang says the sweetness will have newcomers going for their next bite right after the first.
Boba Thai Tea: Try homemade boba with sweet and creamy Thai tea. Tang says this beverage is refreshing to enjoy either during or after your meal.
Mango Sticky Rice: Sticky rice is a creamy coconut rice served with mango. Tang says it's the perfect sweet and savory way way to end a Thai meal.
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