Thai food has a great reputation for its bold and exotic flavours, but also for its rather liberal use of chillies. While there are some fantastic dishes you can enjoy without feeling like there’s a fire on your tongue, there are plenty more that are as likely to melt your tastebuds as tantalise them.
Despite their fiery flavours, these dishes are still worth a try because they are also remarkably tasty. So, if you’ve got the bravery, a fire extinguisher on stand-by and asbestos tonsils, here are some of the spiciest dishes you have to try when you’re visiting Thailand.
Flavours of vary wildly from one end of Thailand to the other and, while the mountainous north is best known for its hearty stews, the the Thai food Phuket is known for is big on spice. Gaeng som is a great example of this – the spicy and sour soup is generally made with black-banded trevally as well as bamboo or coconut shoots. The distinctive yellow-orange colour that gives it its name (which means ‘yellow curry’) comes from turmeric, but there’s no prize for guessing where the spicy aftertaste comes from!
The spicy papaya salad is famous around Thailand, though perhaps not so much abroad. It’s absolutely loved by locals for its tangy, fruity, spicy flavour and it’s usually the first dish they order when they come home from any time spent overseas. The actual level of spiciness of som tam can vary a lot since there are plenty of different versions of this dish, but Thais like it hot and tend to throw in a lot of chillies. Head to a street vendor if you want to try the real flavour, but brace yourself! If you want the real real flavour, head to the northeastern provinces of Thailand, which is where the dish is thought to have come from.
Another popular dish with Thais, pad prik is a stir-fried dry curry. Like gaeng som, it has a distinctive orangey colour, but this comes from mashed-up red chillies that form the base of the thick curry paste. With a base like that, you know it’s going to be spicy! With some long green beans adding a bit of crunch, you end up with a sweet, salty and smelly dish that’s widely available in Phuket Thai restaurants.
Like som tam, laab is supposedly a salad, but defies the western definition of the term in every way possible. For starters, it generally contains meat – pork or chicken, generally. That’s added to pounded rice, chillies and onions. It’s not even especially green! The most significant difference is the spiciness, which kind of creeps up on you while you’re eating it. For the best example of laab, head back to the northeastern provinces where it first originated, particularly those nearest the Laotian border.
Gaeng Tai Pla
Another spicy, smelly fish curry you’ll find in Phuket Thai restaurants, gaeng tai pla has the reputation of being probably the spiciest dish in Thailand. In fact, the waiter will probably ask you if you’re absolutely sure and will give a warning that it’s very hot if you ask for this one. The list of ingredients sound a little off-putting and include galangal, turmeric, kaffir leaves, fish innards, pumpkin, eggplant, bamboo shoots and yardlong beans. And chillies, of course. Lots of them. The result is a dish that’s quite salty but also extremely spicy. Have some milk or ice cream on standby – it helps!