You smell Thai food before you see it or taste it - aroma is as essential to Thai food as the balance of sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Light subtle lemongrass, tropical coconut, sharply acidic lime and brassy curries mingle, hovering over the simmering pots and open-air grills from which the daily masses are fed.
Refreshing drinks made with locally harvested fruit and citrus juices and fizzy beer are beverage mainstays at cocktail hour. Popular daytime sips include fruit-flavored iced condensed milk and strong tea mixed with the syrupy sweetened condensed milk.
Street food vendors dish out everything from bite-sized snacks to full-on meals daily for the throngs of locals and tourists. Needing only minimal equipment and space, the food vendors rely instead on fresh delicious ingredients (frequently acquired from a nearby produce peddler) and finely honed street chefery.
Exotic herbs and fresh colorful vegetables and fruits fill the vendor stalls that line the streets. Rice is the country's most prolific crop, but plentiful greens, bananas and coconuts also thrive in the tropical climate.
Salt-cured or grilled fish is a delicacy and a means of preserving short shelf-life seafood. Fish are also dried - first sprinkled with coarse sea salt then left to dry on the beach for days.
Salty pork Thai sausage is a specialty of street vendors. The intriguingly spiced ground meat is mixed with everything from lime leaves and lemongrass to minced garlic and ginger then stuffed into casings and grilled.
Communal style dining is a tradition of the Thai table. Main dishes, sticky rice, side dishes, and cool vinegary salads are served family-style in bowls that are passed between diners. A word of advice though: it's bad manners to take the last spoonful from the bowl, and it's considered wasteful to leave uneaten rice on your plate.
Coconut milk is a star local ingredient in Thai cooking, lacing through soups, sauces, curries, sips and desserts. The creamy milk - called nam kofee by natives - comes from the cream that's derived when the fleshy part of the coconut is pressed.
Hearty vegetables and meat seasoned by aromatics (onions, ginger-like galanga, garlic oil, and peppers) form the base of numerous Thai dishes. Juicy lime, fragrant Vietnamese mint and basil add another layer of flavor and cool crunch.
Noodle bowls are among the cheapest and most prolific street food finds in Thailand. Brothy noodles and chunks of meat and veggies are filling and delicious; the ever-present quartet of fish sauce, dried chilis, vinegar and palm sugar are added to customize each bowl to taste. Also known as the "four flavors," the quad of seasoners is not unlike the "trinity" of Creole cooking - it's a flavor base that can change the mood of a dish depending on how heavy-handed you are with one or the other ingredient.
Meet the Thai equivalent of aluminum foil. Banana leaves swaddle chicken, fish, sweetened rices and vegetables in steamy, fragrant packets that seal in flavor as the dish cooks.
Silky coconut ice cream topped with crushed roasted peanuts is a must in Thailand. The cool creamy confection is typically sold from bell-festooned carts and served in a coconut shell, sometimes with a cup of sweet coconut juice.
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