11 Thai Dishes That Do Not Wimp Out

The era of pad thai is finally over! Thai cuisine is back, and it’s a lot more interesting this time around than when we were all being introduced to sugary coconut-milk curries. Now, say hello to fiery, funky flavors that don't hold back: Pungent herbs, spicy chiles, fermented fish, and sour tamarind are just part of the arsenal. Read on for a crash course in 11 of Thai food's new essentials.

1. Sai Krok Isaan

A ubiquitous street snack, these Isaan sausages are rich, tangy, and distinctly funky. To make them, pork is ground with glutinous rice, garlic, and salt, then left out to ferment while drying. After a few minutes on the grill, they’re sublime. And yes, you can make them at home.
Photo and recipe from A Hunger Artist

2. Khao Soi

Hearty soups and stews are a staple of northern Thai cuisine, and khao soi may be the most famous example. A spicy coconut- and curry-based broth surrounds pulled chicken and noodles topped by a medley of accoutrements: bean sprouts, crispy shallots, cilantro, lime, and hot chile oil among them.
Photo and recipe from Bon Appétit

3. Gai Yang

Marinated in fish sauce, palm sugar, coriander, garlic, soy, and a host of other add-ins, gai yang is nothing like your basic grilled chicken. Shatteringly crisp skin and sweet chile dipping sauce are a given.
Photo and recipe from Serious Eats

4. Pla Pao

This whole grilled fish—usually tilapia or catfish—is coated with salt and stuffed with aromatics like banana leaf and lemongrass. The interior flesh is moist and well-seasoned, made even better by spicy condiments.
Photo from The Planet D

5. Pla Som

A bit less familiar than pla pao, this unique fish dish may scare you away at first, but once you warm up to the idea of fermented fish, you’ll appreciate its distinct sourness. It’s a delicacy worth trying.
Photo and recipe from Food Republic

6. Khao Tom

Made both sweet and savory, these banana leaf bundles are filled with steamed sticky rice and a variety of additions. Coconut milk, banana, and mung bean are some of the most common. These tasty packages make ideal to-go snacks.
Photo and recipe from ImportFood.com

7. Laab (a.k.a. Larb)

This ground meat “salad” defies all salad laws. It’s a stir-fry of ground meat—usually duck or pork—tossed with hot chiles, mint, basil, cilantro, shallot, fish sauce, lime, and a handful of other aromatics.
Photo and recipe from Serious Eats

8. Som Tum

Another iconic Isaan salad, som tum has more variations than Baskin-Robbins does flavors. At its simplest, it’s a green papaya slaw made in a mortar and pestle with dried shrimp, lime, fish sauce, palm sugar, chile, peanuts, and garlic. Salted egg, brined crab, and mango are all popular additions. Som tum manages to be crisp, refreshing, fiery, and funky all at the same time.
Photo and recipe from Feast Magazine

9. Nam Phrik

The condiment to beat all condiments, nam phrik means business. Like salsa, there are a hundred different ways to make it, though roasted chiles, garlic, tamarind paste, and dried shrimp are typical components. Make a batch and watch it disappear.
Photo and recipe from Thai Food Master

10. Massaman Curry

Thought to have Muslim origins, massaman curry paste is one of the more unique curry varieties. It not only involves roasting chiles, lemongrass, and galangal together, but also combines seven or more toasted spices such as cinnamon, star anise, cardamom, and tumeric. When cooked into a coconut milk base with potatoes, onions, and beef, massaman curry is warm and comforting.
Photo and recipe from Bon Appétit

11. Sticky Rice

No Isaan meal is complete without ample sticky rice. Rolled into balls and used to soak up sauce, sticky rice is the uniting force between each dish on the table. Plus, when your mouth feels hotter than the devil with a fever, a little neutral sticky rice can make all the difference. Don’t know how to make it? Here’s a little how-to.
Photo and recipe from Tablespoon; header image from Temple of Thai

Freida Hirsch is a New York City–based food writer and blogger who has worked both at private events and in test kitchens. She thinks people who don't eat breakfast are seriously deranged and hopes to own at least 16 cats in her lifetime. Follow her blog at Bitters & Batters.

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