A Taste of Thai Street Food

Thais are experts at creating perfectly balanced dishes with hot, sour, salty and sweet notes – savor these incredible flavors 
in your own home with 
this selection of exotic recipes from the frenetic 
streets of Thailand.

The first time I visited Thailand, I stepped out into the street and was overwhelmed by the amount of food I saw everywhere. On every spare patch of ground there were makeshift restaurants, some in closet-sized tent kitchens, single-burner carts parked in the middle of the sidewalk serving soup, and still others with mini charcoal grills just feet off the ground with tiny plastic stools serving as dining rooms. From the break of dawn to the wee hours of the night, Thais are nibbling on something. I guess you could say I found a whole nation of kindred spirits.

The vibrant, nonstop open-air cooking is a beguiling show. In just one city block, you can watch as an elderly woman stir-fries four woks full of Pad Thai as hungry customers shout out their orders while another vendor with a massive wood mortar smashes green papaya salad with a rhythmic “whomp” of her pestle, and young ladies fold fresh banana leaves around curry-smeared fish to steam. All the action makes stateside cooking shows look as dynamic as paint drying.

And then there is the taste. Thai cooks are masters at balancing hot, salty, sour and sweet ingredients, and they pay equal attention to texture, so soft and crispy complement each other – it’s never boring. Fortunately, Thai street foods are mostly healthy and easy to recreate at home. For the following recipes, I’ve reduced the amount of fish sauce to keep sodium in check, added in a couple of clean swaps, and reduced the heat for our farang (foreigner) palates, but otherwise these recipes will give you a taste of what keeps me going back to Thailand every chance I get.

See alsoCommon Thai Ingredients and How to Use Them.

Banana Leaf–Wrapped Green Curry Fish

I first had this mildly spicy curry-smeared fish in the northern capital of Chiang Mai steamed in ingeniously folded banana leaf packets that also served as a takeaway container. The banana leaf is 100% natural and compostable and infuses the fish with a subtle herby flavor. Look for banana leaf at Asian and Latino markets in the freezer section, or wrap the fish in Swiss chard leaves instead.

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Shredded Papaya Salad

All over Thailand, you’ll see cooks in makeshift sidewalk food carts working huge mortars and pestles, pounding together the ingredients for this spicy, refreshing salad. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, chop and smash the chiles and garlic with the side of a chef’s knife before mixing them with the remaining dressing ingredients. Traditionally, the papaya is cut into julienne threads with a large, sharp knife, but I prefer the safety of a nifty julienne peeler.

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Brown Rice Pork Pad Thai

Take a tip from Thai street vendors and have all your ingredients lined up next to the stove so you can work quickly and continue to move the ingredients around in the wok nonstop. Unsalted peanuts would make a crunchy topper to this dish for added texture.

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Lettuce-Wrapped Fish Cakes with Sweet- Tart Sauce

Fish cakes in Thailand are often augmented with tapioca flour to make them sturdier; I opt for healthy, protein-rich quinoa instead. These make a great appetizer or can be served as a main course with noodles or rice. When preparing your quinoa for this recipe, use a ratio of 1 cup quinoa to 12/3 cups water – this ensures your fish cakes don’t get soggy. Do try the dipping sauce – just a little gives the fish cakes a sweet-tangy bite.

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Chicken Fried Rice with Pineapple

Fried rice in Thailand is made with cold leftover white jasmine rice, but I prefer the flavor and fiber of short-grain brown rice. The combination of sweet, fresh pineapple, salty fish sauce and spicy chile sauce is typical of Thai dishes. Leftovers are great for breakfast the next day with a fried egg on top.

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