Recently I’ve received a few emails and inquiries from readers and Googlers about many aspects of travel in Southeast Asia. Though I already have some content that addresses these questions (hence the traffic and emails), I thought I’d take some time to answer my most frequently asked questions in single posts. First up? THAI FOOD!

I suspect answering these questions will be a bit difficult, not because of the information required to offer sufficient answers, but because I miss the food in Thailand so much. The pad see ew (ผัดซีอิ๊ว) that I can get from food carts here in Austin just isn’t the same as at the organic foods place next door to my apartment in Chiang Mai…

Thai Food Questions – General

Tom Kha Gai Ingredient Chart

What’s the best way to eat stink beans?

The best way to eat stink beans is to fry them over high heat with garlic, douse them in salty Thai soy and fish sauces, and then top with scallions, culantro, and cilantro. Serve over used toilet paper in a dumpster to mask their aroma.

No, really. Don’t eat stink beans.

…unless you are a masochist who enjoys repelling loved ones with your breath.

What part of the lemongrass stalk is actually edible?

Technically, the entire lemongrass stalk is edible, though I doubt you’d want to do that to yourself unless you have some fibrous plant fetish. In Thai cooking, whole lemongrass stalks are cut up and added to soups and stir-fries, much in the way that whole peppercorns or bay leaves are used in Western culinary applications. Only the very tender, most interior pieces of the lemongrass stalk are enjoyable to chew and swallow. If you can pierce through the entire fiber with your fingernail, it’s good to chew.

Generally, you’ll want to eat around the pieces of lemongrass in your Thai food. You will want to apply the same technique with kaffir lime leaves, large pieces of galangal, big chiles (unless you’re into that), and clusters of green peppercorns. When I cook Thai food at home, I leave the pieces of lemongrass quite large, so that my American friends and family are less likely to try to ingest them.

What does durian *actually* taste like? Is it really as gross as everyone says it is?

Durian tastes like gas leak pudding perfumed with almonds and vanilla and aged in rotting onion and potato chutney for three months before serving. So yes, the experience of eating it is a horrible assault to your mouth that is just as bad or worse than what you would expect.

I think the thing that is so insulting about durian is that if you plug your nose and use your imagination, you can see how it might be good, what with its creamy, nutty notes. Then, just as you’re about to welcome it into your digestive track, it bludgeons your entire olfactory system with horrible, poisonous, sludge-like of material that tastes like compost marinated in propane. Then, to add insult to injury, it clings to your taste buds and slides down your throat so slowly.

How can I make Tom Kha Gai that tastes like it does in Thailand?

First, go to an Asian market and take the necessary time to prepare the ingredients for the recipe I posted here. Don’t take any short-cuts!

Also? Don’t use a paste or soup base mix. Do use good quality coconut milk, preferably  Aroy-D brand, and not the type used in Caribbean foods. Do use bone-in, skin-on chicken if you want to make a tom kha with meat. Don’t let the coconut broth boil; keep it at a simmer. Do use only WHITE mushrooms. Do take the time to source real kaffir lime leaves.  Don’t substitute ginger for galangal. Don’t over-cook your onions/shallots. Don’t add soy sauce. Do serve with fresh cilantro, lime wedges, and fish sauce.

Thai Food Questions – Allergies

Thailand Food Allergy Advice

How do I say “I’m allergic to _____ in Thai?”

If you have food allergies and are planning on traveling to southeast Asia, it will be best for you to buy allergy information cards before you arrive. The Thai language is quite tricky, especially when it comes to tones and accents, and your attempt to communicate your allergy verbally will probably not be understood by your server.

No, really. After nine months of intensive Thai language classes, I still can’t say “white rice” in a way that can be understood without a lot of context clues.

My friend Pete brought allergy translation cards from Select Wisely to Thailand that helped us navigate food safety for someone with severe shellfish and tree nut allergies. However, you will need to do your own research and take full responsibility for your own health on your travels. Bring your epi pens, find the nearest hospital, and research the foods you will meet along your selected itinerary in order to plan a diet strategy that will work for your body.

Where can I eat in Chiang Mai with food allergies?

Chiang Mai is a very cosmopolitan city with a strong international vibe. As such, it is probably one of the better places to sample traditional Thai food without fear of aggravating an allergic reaction. For those with severe allergies, it will be best to start your culinary adventures around Thapae Gate in the old part of the city. Here you will find a plethora of reasonably priced Thai restaurants that have met their fair share of foreigners with allergies. As a bonus, many places also offer some Western foods, just in case your spidey senses tell you to avoid an allegedly fish-free curry.

Though I didn’t frequent the restaurant as an expat, we had great luck at Just Khao Soi with friends and visitors from American with allergies and dietary restrictions. Located just north of the Anusarn Night Market and slightly west of the river, this tourist-aimed restaurant serves bowls of Chiang Mai’s most famous and beloved noodle dish on an artist’s palette–a heavy-handed metaphor for the food’s delicate dance of complex flavors. Cheesiness aside, Just Khao Soi only serves its signature dish with a completely vegetarian broth. This means the entire soup base consists of spices alone. From there, you can add flavors and proteins as you wish, making the dining experience incredibly friendly to eaters with allergies or other dietary restrictions.

Can I eat oyster sauce with a shellfish allergy?

No! Oysters are shellfish! Oyster sauce is a common ingredient in meat marinades, satay sauces, and stir-fry dishes, including–BUT NOT LIMITED TO–pad gaprao/ผัดกะเพรา and stir-fried morning glory/ผัดผักบุ้งไฟแดง. If a dish has a brownish sheen, assume it is not safe to eat if you have a shellfish allergy. Do not take a chance and assume a brown glaze comes from the addition of soy sauce to a dish. Often, stir-fries, marinades, and sauces contain both soy and oyster sauces.

I’m allergic to tom yam. Is there another way to eat those flavors?

I get this question a lot. The problem is tom yam soups (often translated as tom YUM) have several ingredients that could be a potential allergen, including shellfish, fish, chiles, onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and lime.

Folks with shellfish allergies should always avoid tom yum soups while in Thailand, as the traditional recipe calls for shrimp broth even when the soup’s main protein is tofu or chicken. In addition, commercial tom yum pastes and soup mixes often include shrimp paste as an ingredient.

People with shellfish (or other) allergies can best experience the hot and sour tom yum flavor by making their own with galangal pieces, kaffir lime leaves, Thai chiles or nam prik pao, lime, and a lightly flavored, low-salt chicken or vegetable broth substituting for shrimp. Leela at She Simmers has a great recipe that can be easily adapted to your needs here.

If you really don’t want to make your own tom yam and you must eat the dish while visiting Thailand, go to a strictly vegetarian restaurant. Shellfish will not be served at all, and the servers will be more likely to understand your dietary restrictions. In fact, this is my best advice for all sufferers of allergies in Thailand.

Which Thai foods are most likely to contain nuts?

Off the top of my head? Pad Thai, American fried rice, satay dipping sauces, and stir-fries. The good news for folks with nut allergies is that Westernized Thai food over represents nuts as a staple of Thai cuisine. As such, restaurants geared towards tourists are most likely to prepare dishes with nuts due to the demand. Cashews turn up most frequently in Thai cooking, but they are still quite expensive and their presence will be noted in their price. Cashew and chicken stir-fries are common in this instance, as are peanuts in dipping sauces and condiments. You will also find them in desserts.

As a general rule of thumb, nuts are more common in southern Thai food or food influenced by Malaysia.

Thai Food Questions – Railay Beach, Krabi

Longtail Boats on Railay East, Krabi

What’s the cost of a drink at the Grotto at Rayavadee Resort?

When I had drinks at the Grotto in April 2012, a drink cost 250 baht, or around $8.50. The prices are always subject to change.

It’s important to note that generally the Grotto is only open to guests staying at the Rayavadee. I am lucky enough to have a friend who works for a boutique travel agency who pulled some strings for me to have the pleasure of ordering a cocktail on the resort’s property. While I was grateful for the opportunity to see a slice of five-star travel, I felt more comfortable at the fire-dancing, beach traveler, DJ bar on Railay East!

What’s the best restaurant in Railay?

While I already wrote all about my impressions of the food situation on Railay, I still get asked this question a lot.

The Thai food on Railay is uniformly bad; it’s watered down, marked up, and you can be sure the staff working on the peninsula wouldn’t cook the food for themselves. That being said,  your best bet is to get typical Thai foods that rely on the consumer to season the dish to his or her own tastes. We’re talking pad see ew and pad Thai, primarily. You can find a whole row of restaurants on Railay East that will make both of these dishes to order and offer you a condiment caddy full of fish sauce, chiles, and sugar for your seasoning disposal.

For fine dining, you will want to try Kruaphranang at Rayavadee. Unlike the Grotto, the resort’s fine dining restaurant is open to the public almost every night. There, you will find decent food and great service in an ambient environment, which leads me to my next question…

How much does a meal cost at Kruaphranang Restaurant on Railay, Krabi?

You should expect to pay $30 minimum per person for a meal, more if you want to drink alcohol, eat an appetizer, or indulge in dessert. In my opinion, this restaurant is totally worth a splurge for one meal; don’t hold back, order it all, fork over some cash.

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20 Responses to Frequently Asked Questions: Thai Food Edition

  1. Great post, Susan – I’ve found it really difficult to write about Thai food since THERE IS SO MUCH and so many different aspects to it. It still overwhelms me.

    Have you been trying to cook much now back at home?

    • Susan says:

      Yeah, it’s totally overwhelming. I could have easily separated this post into 5 or 6 installments!

      I do cook Thai food, but I have had some trouble sourcing ingredients. Kaffir lime leaves, green papayas, and shrimp paste have given me trouble in particular. I took advice from a Thai cook here in town and used cucumber to make som tam! In any case, most of what I make myself is better than what I’ve gotten at restaurants. Texan khao soi tastes like liquid failure…

  2. Greg Goodman says:

    OMG, I’ve only been away from Thailand for a month and I miss the food so much! You’ve done a great job of summing up such an enormous amount of information. Brava!

    That said, my favorite part is, by far, “Durian tastes like gas leak pudding perfumed with almonds and vanilla and aged in rotting onion and potato chutney for three months before serving.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!

  3. Ash Clark says:

    This makes me thank the laaaawd almighty for not having food allergies!

  4. Upon your recommendation, I went to just Khao Soi while in Chiang Mai and it was magical! It was the grand finale to such a great evening (husband was sick, so I had a Thai massage, then wandered around the night market and ended with dinner!)

    I have been trying to find Thai restaurants around Minneapolis that serve this Northern Thai staple, but I have only found a couple (and the problem is that NOTHING could compare to the experience of eating it right at the source!)

    • Susan says:

      I am so glad you enjoyed my recommendation! I really like that place because it educates you as you eat. And while 150 baht seems like a fortune in Thailand, really, I think we can afford a $5 bowl of soup on vacation…

      I haven’t found anything close to khao soi, either. I’m tempted to try and make it myself!

  5. Erica says:

    but I LOVED your header with the lemongrass stalk on it. sulk, sulk. I do like the new byline, though :)

    So I’m guessing that you miss stink beans and durian the most?

  6. JEFF DOBBINS says:

    I hope to explore Thailand for the first time this year, so this is really helpful info. (Duly bookmarked) I’m with Ash, thank goodness I don’t have to deal with that allergy mess.

  7. Peter Lee says:

    Good job Susan! A good blogger always helps his readers. You answered all email question via your blog- That’s nice. Really Thai food is paradise for food lovers. I am very glad to read all these question and answer section. :)

  8. Edna says:

    Ooh, pretty picture. (I’m so easy to please.) By the way, I think that’s the most accurate description of durian I’ve heard — and I’ve heard a lot, since everyone has their own special metaphor for describing just how horrible it is.

    • Susan says:

      I still don’t understand how durian lovers can just overlook the nasty stank in favor of the almondy custard flavors. It’s like eating cat food because of the notes of tuna.

  9. Suki F says:

    This will be very helpful for this weekend, I will be cooking some thai food.

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