A balance of sweet, sour, bitter, salty and spicy flavours, Thai cuisine appeals to almost every palate: if you like it hot try a tom yam soup, for rich flavours go for a green curry, and for a super-healthy salads try tongue tingling Tom Sum made with shredded green papaya. Sweet deserts and fresh fruits add to the appeal, with everything from pineapples and watermelons, to strawberries and dragon fruit grown on Thai soil.
When I visited Thailand earlier this year, I couldn't wait to try authentic versions of my favourite takeaway dishes, which include Pad Thai noodles and massaman curry. But I also wanted to discover new flavours and regional dishes that don't typically appear on takeaway menus.
Each Thai region is known for its particular cooking styles and dishes: Central and Southern areas typically use lots of coconut milk, which is less common in the landlocked North; and while the coastal areas are big on seafood, the north focuses more on meat, veg and river fish.
Before my visit, I'd learnt that Thai cooking is so regional that it's possible to pinpoint certain towns by a single dish. Determined to test this theory, I tasted my way through South, Central and Northwest, Thailand. Here's what I discovered:
In Thailand green curry is just the begining
Food in the remote northwestern provinces tends to be simpler and more rustic than in the south. In Nan province, I was introduced to some typical local flavours by Toun Upajak – a local who runs Boklua View guesthouse . Toun (pronounced too-wan) took me for lunch in the town of Pua where he ordered fresh chicken broth, chicken-flavoured rice and shredded chicken with a ginger dip. Simple yet full of flavour, my meal was truly delicious and a complete change from the richer dishes I'd tasted further south.
To show me something more adventurous, Toun ordered another meat broth, which was swimming with giblets and pigs blood – I braved a few spoonfuls but couldn't stomach a whole bowl of offal.
During my time in the north, I also tried the local curries. Often made without coconut milk, northern curries are quite different to the milkier versions we typically associate with Thailand. Pork is also very popular, and you'll find it curried, served on the bone, or spiced and shredded.
Nan province may be almost 400-miles from the coast but its hills and valleys are cut through by flowing rivers, so fish still makes it onto the menu. The fish I tried was caught from the River Nan and served battered and fried, topped with a mound of sweet basil.
Chiang Mai Soup and Sausage
West of Nan, Chiang Mai province is also in the far north, yet its cosmopolitan capital serves up a massive range of Thai and international flavours at its night markets and restaurants.
Despite this, Chiang Mai remains faithful to its roots with traditional dishes that, like in Nan, are based on locally available ingredients from the hills, rivers and forests. The city's signature dish is Khao Soy soup – a blend of wheat and egg noodles served with a thin curry sauce. Pickled vegetables, sliced onions and fresh lime are offered on the side, and you can add meat, fish or extra veggies.
I had my first taste of Khao Soy at Chiang Mai night market – it was so good, I ordered a second bowl straight away.
Like other northern provinces, Chiang Mai is also known for its love of pork. The capital is a great place to try plump Thai sausages, which are flavoured with fragrant herbs as well as ginger, lemongrass and chilli.
Bangkok – full of flavours
Thailand's capital, Bangkok boasts the country's biggest diversity of flavours, from French fine-dining to regional foods from the Central Plains. Traditional local dishes here are often quite sweet, with coconut milk and palm sugar used regularly. Being close to the coast, Bangkok also has plenty of seafood – you'll notice this everywhere, from the fish specialities on restaurant menus to live crabs waiting to be boiled at street-side stalls.
For several centuries, Chinese immigrants have influenced Bangkok's cuisine, so I headed to Chinatown to experience this fusion of flavours. Working my way around the area's food stalls and informal eateries, I tucked into everything from sticky rice parcels and deep fried vegetables to Chinese mushrooms topped with crab.
One of Thailand's national dishes, Pad Thai is thought to have originated from the Central region and, as such, is a Bangkok staple. To create this classic dish, rice noodles are stir-fried with beansprouts and egg, then flavoured with chilli, fish sauce and ground peanuts. Shredded veg is sometimes added, as is chicken, pork, tofu or prawns.
I also tried a green catfish curry and a red pork curry in Bangkok. Both were far better than any I've ever tasted in the UK.
With two coastlines, thousands of islands and countless fishing villages, seafood is abundant in the south – expect everything from giant prawns and squid stir fry, to crab curry and whole fish. In the beach resort of Khao Lak on the Andaman Coast, even the Pad Thai I ate was topped with plump pink prawns that were cooked to perfection.
Coconut milk, palm sugar and fish sauce are used a lot in the south, as are cashew nuts, fermented fish and satay sauce. The south also has some of Thailand's saltiest and spiciest dishes – something I discovered in several of the stir-fries and curries I worked my way through.
One of the south's most famous dishes, "geang" is a spiced soup or curry that can be served with vegetables, fish or meat. It takes many forms and can be rich and creamy, watery or even dry but the one I tried at Anurak Community Lodge was thin, light and full of flavour – perfect for a starter or snack.
One of the richest Thai curries, yellow curry uses coconut cream as well as coconut milk. Coloured with turmeric, it's common in the west and southern provinces. While I was on the southwest coast, I ordered a yellow curry made with freshly caught squid.
So much more
Tasting my way around Thailand certainly opened my eyes to the massive diversity of regional dishes and different ingredients found across the country.
I was astounded as the variety of dishes I tasted, yet I barely scratched the surface – there's still a whole world of meat on sticks, spring rolls and different types of rice to try, along with island delicacies and salads, not to mention the flavours of the northeast, where the cuisine is said to be vastly different from the rest of Thailand.
One thing's for sure: I'll certainly be more adventurous next time I order a Thai takeaway.