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I've found now that away from tourist areas, English is rare in Thailand both spoken and on menus.

I've also found that some of the dishes we in the west think of as typical for Thailand don't seem to be on offer at the kinds of places that don't expect to have "farang" customers. This means "pad thai" and "tom yum" are not available.

Here in Surat Thani there are food places literally everywhere, I have tried a hawkers' stand (as it would be known in Malaysia or Singapore) and two small cafes, they had menus but in Thai only.

photo of a menu in Thai

(higher-res version)

So I don't want to eat what I regard as western food when I could be trying local dishes, even when they're not "fancy". I like spicy food so that's not a problem.

But there are certain ingredients I would like to avoid: organs, eyeballs, chicken feet, gizzards, intestines, rectums, dog, pigs trotters, anything alive. I've seen all of these on menus in other countries in Asia.

I'd also like to avoid anything that has a special reputation for being unclean, spoiled, or having a higher tendency to make people sick. Things like undercooked chicken and pork, things that were probably prepared many hours ago and kept warm, etc

I want to be a bit more adventurous than settling for fried rice - what really is the typical food in these kinds of eateries in Thailand?

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Isn't there this google translate app that scans and translate pictures? –  andra Aug 24 '13 at 9:54
    
@Andra: Not that I know of but that would be great. Thai script is pretty intricate though. I often can't make out the details in my phrasebook. –  hippietrail Aug 24 '13 at 11:50
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A dish I eat extensively when I travel to Thailand is "cow paht moo" or pork fried rice. It's easy to say, and even if you butcher it, they typically know what you mean by the context. –  Jonathan Landrum Oct 22 '13 at 15:09
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@JonathanLandrum: Yes! That's exactly the kind of thing I was looking for. Very typical in this kind of eatery, but not known from Thai restaurants in Western countries. Yummy, not Western, no off-putting ingredients. It's also common at the cheap eateries here in Laos. –  hippietrail Oct 22 '13 at 15:54
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@JonathanLandrum with a name like "cow paht moo", I was expecting something using beef! –  Andrew Grimm Jun 9 at 11:09

3 Answers 3

up vote 15 down vote accepted

First, your fears are a little overblown. Thai cuisine isn't quite as "freaky" as, say, some parts of China and you're unlikely to eat something exotic by accident. Although not eating any offal at all is going to be a little limiting... why not give it a shot and expand your horizons a bit?

At any rate, I'd start with Wikivoyage's description of Thai cuisine and try to learn the major concepts and their Thai spellings. (Or pick up Lonely Planet's Thai phrasebook, it's rather more compact and handy for showing to staff in a pinch.) Some major Thai food words are quite recognizable:

  • ผัด (phat, with a hard P), "fried", means "stir-fry" and is almost always safe to eat. The first ten or so items in your menu are all stir-fries of some kind.
  • For example, ข้าวผัด (khao phat) is trusty old fried rice, the 2nd item priced at 35 baht on your menu. The list of words following is your options: ไก่ (kai) chicken (doesn't that look a bit like a chicken head?), หมู (mu) pork (on all fours with its snout in the ground), กุ้ง (kung) shrimp, etc. Any menu item with this list of interchangeable main ingredients after it will be quite safe.
  • ก๋วยเตี๋ยว (kuay tiao), flat rice noodles, have two little plus signs in the accents. This particular shop doesn't have any though since they do rice, not noodles.
  • Put the two together and you've got tasty, tasty fried rice noodles: ก๋วยเตี๋ยวผัด
  • แกง (kaeng) is Thai for curry, and again easy to spot thanks to the initial แ. (See the last two entries in your menu.)
  • When it (almost) repeats, it's แกงเเดง (kaeng daeng), or red curry!
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Those were not really fears, just examples of things I've actually seen on my travels in countries where I could read the menu (-: Well except there is plenty of offal and viscera here and pigs trotters. –  hippietrail Aug 26 '13 at 3:09
    
I brought Lonely Planet's Thai phrasebook with me and it must've fallen out of my day pack yesterday )-: Compared to their other phrasebooks the Thai script is just too fine to read in typical restaurant lighting. I'm now on my fallback Lonely Planet Southeast Asia phrasebook with more limited Thai info. –  hippietrail Aug 26 '13 at 3:11
    
I've given offal a shot before. I can eat it to win a bet or to prove I'm tough d-; But I don't enjoy it and at the end of a long hard day hitchhiking I want something I know doesn't disgust me. –  hippietrail Aug 26 '13 at 3:12
    
I settled for the fried rice at that particular place because the people there could almost say it in English, but it's a bit bland to eat every time I'm off the tourist trail which is what inspired me to ask this question. But I wish I'd known red curry was on the menu! I was thinking that would be like Pad Thai and Tom Yam Gung and only in tourist places. Now I know better! –  hippietrail Aug 26 '13 at 3:16
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Unfortunately it's not on the menu in this particular place, and I can't actually figure out what the two last curries are... m(_ _)m But red curry is quite popular nationwide. –  jpatokal Aug 26 '13 at 7:59

Looking at that menu and I could say you can order any of that and it's pretty safe for "Farang". You can just add "Mai ped" ไม่เผ็ด if you cannot eat spicy food.

The most common thing and probably the safest thing to eat is "Kra pow " For example, "Kra pow Gai (Chicken)", "Kra pow Moo (Pork)". And that's what Thai people eat everyday as well.

If you like curry the correct way to say is "Paneng " which is kaeng daeng or red curry. If you ask for kaeng daeng you might get something else. Or if you like Thai green curry, you should ask for "Kaeng kaew whan " แกงเขียวหวาน.

Something to note, some restaurant cannot cook "Som Tam" You can see if they have a mortar in front of the shop. If they don't have they might be able to cook it for you but it will not be good. That's how we look for when to ask Som Tam.

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I believe Thai food is very clean and safe, even for sensible farangs, anyway your are not. As water and ice are... Some doctors has told me the opposite about this, but I believe they don't test the place.

After a 5 weeks trip to Thailand, nothing can make me protest about food. And I've tried everything : I mean that when I am in the situation of "I don't understand the menu" I choose a random thing, sometimes, the weirdest I can find. And I'm happy with it because Thai food is wonderful.

So what? The only weird thing you should mistrust of is seafood, not because it is dangerous, but because it is strange (tentacles and a soup that have the color of the Mekong river sometimes !!!).

If you don't want to find an octopus in your bowl, don't ask for seafood. Everything else of the Thai food is just an amazing travel (I'm french).

Edit : beware of insects too, fried or fresh, I don't believe it is supposed to be dangerous, and it is not served in restaurants anyway.

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I have trouble understanding how this addresses the question. –  Relaxed Oct 22 '13 at 8:37
    
I didn't mean "safe" to be that I was worried about food poisoning, I tried to explain what I meant in the following paragraphs: more or less things typical westerners find unappetizing, though in my case that doesn't include hot and spicy, unlike a lot of westerners. I've now edited it to put "safe" in scare quotes. In fact I personally love the octopus, squid, and cuttlefish and often search for it on the menu (-: –  hippietrail Oct 22 '13 at 15:59

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