It's little wonder that Thai food — known for its potent spices and savory flavors — has become wildly popular around the world. And nowhere is this more true than in the United States, which has welcomed an extraordinary amount of Thai restaurants over the last several years.
But how does the experience of eating Thai food in the U.S. compare to the real deal?
It turns out, there a lot of differences between the two dining experiences. In the U.S., traditional recipes are often adjusted, both to appeal to Americans’ palates and to account for the availability of ingredients and spices. Plus, there are crucial differences in how the cuisine is served.
We spoke with six people who have lived in both Thailand and America for their thoughts on the differences — and to weigh in on what they like best. Spoiler alert: Most people strongly prefer Thai food in the place where it originated.
To Spice or not to Spice
If you’re from the U.S., accept the fact that what you consider spicy is very different from what Thai people consider spicy. With its reliance on ingredients like chili peppers, ginger and peppercorn, Thai food in Thailand packs a serious kick — enough to make a lot of Americans cry.
Phubej Pangphairee (Pluem), a 15-year-old student from Chonburi who spent the first few years of his life in California and Florida, says that when he’s in Thailand, his go-to order is “Thai basil with pork, not spicy.” Pluem is used to eating spicy food, but in Thailand, the mild option burns plenty.
Since American restaurants often dial back the spice intensity, if you want to enjoy Thai food in the authentic way, you should specifically ask for extra spice.
Just remember: If it’s not numbing your mouth, it’s not real Thai food.
According to Minky Tee — who moved from Bangkok to Ohio in 2009 and now runs a Thai restaurant in Cleveland called Banana Blossom — the use of frozen vegetables in dishes like stir fry and fried rice is a more common practice in America than in her homeland. The reason? Frozen veggies are often cheap, easy to store and have a long shelf life. Thailand restaurants, conversely, typically use vegetables that are in season, locally available and freshly picked.
Mew Fry, who grew up in Bangkok and moved to the U.S. about a decade ago, also notes that the American version of Thai food often includes unusual vegetables, like broccoli and bell pepper, not found in authentic Thai food — the result of America not growing all the vegetables found in Thailand.
Veggies that may be difficult to find in the U.S., but that are common in Thailand, include leafy greens such as pak kadon, pak waan and pak thew. Food in Thailand also uses Thai eggplant, which is small, round and green — quite different from the deep-purple vegetable familiar to those in the states.
A Bit of Garnish
Since main courses are often shared in Thailand, restaurants generally have an array of condiment and seasoning offerings available — think fish sauce, chili paste and vinegar — so you can tinker with the flavor profile of your own plate. In America, though, you may only have soy sauce and sriracha on hand to liven up your meal.
You’ll also find that Thai dishes in Thailand usually come with a side of vegetables consisting of cabbage wedge, cucumber slices and sometimes green onions — a healthy addition often missing from American Thai food menus.
Keeping it Simple
In Thailand, you’ll find the best, most authentic dishes being served in styrofoam containers by families along the side of the road. That’s quite different from the U.S., where food is served in a much more formal manner (because, well, food regulations).
Of course, Thailand has nice sit-down restaurants as well, but eating in them isn’t the norm for Thai people, who prefer their fare served with minimal fuss.
Not-So-Nice Fried Rice
As one of the most popular Thai dishes, khao phat (fried rice) is an essential part of any Thai food menu. Chanachon Boonphakdee (Nam), who hails from Chonburi, Thailand and spent nine months studying abroad in Nebraska, says it's his favorite dish — and he has strong opinions about the way American Thai restaurants prepare it.
“From what I can discern, the American version of fried rice contains peas, carrots, chicken, onions, water chestnuts and way too many other things,” he says.
In addition to lacking the simplicity of authentic fried rice, the American variant often lacks a crucial ingredient. “Typically [in Thailand], you cook fried rice with either fish or soy sauce, to provide a salty-ish taste,” Nam notes. “That taste is noticeably absent in the American version.”
A staple at Thai food restaurants in Bangkok and beyond, pad kra pao is a flavorful basil sauce typically served with chicken and a side of rice. But when Sean DeGraw — a Florida native who spent a year teaching elementary school in Kanchanaburi, Thailand — orders pad kra pao gai in America, he is always disappointed.
“It has a lot of vegetables and the meat isn’t minced,” he says. “The sauce is almost too sweet and not spicy enough. The basil is different here, and there isn’t a side of fish sauce.”
He could probably go on forever, but you get the point. Pad kra pao just isn’t the same to him on the Western side of the world.
Curry is a key component of traditional Thai cuisine — but it tastes quite different in Thailand vs. the U.S.
Elise Lamoreaux, who moved from Massachusetts to Thailand a few years ago, says Americans “crave creamy and comforting;” as a result, the curries they’re served are creamier, made with additional coconut milk and less of the acidic and spicy ingredients, like fish sauce and chilis, that Thai people love.
Taking it to the Streets
“Thailand is famous for street food, and it’s not like that in America,” DeGraw notes.
For many Thai people, dinner involves ordering from a street cart or picking up food at an open-air market. Walking through the crowded aisles of a neighborhood market, you’ll see people carrying soup in plastic bags, as if they were transporting goldfish. Whole salt-crusted fish roast over an open flame at one stand, while bags of sticky rice and piles of fried chicken give off heavenly scents from the next table over.
“You can try so many things and not have to look at a menu for 30 minutes to pick one thing,” DeGraw recalls. “The portions are perfect, and people share more. You just walk around a market and dabble around” — sampling dishes like meat on sticks, quail eggs and soup.
While America has its share of Thai food trucks, the traditional Thai market experience just doesn’t exist in the states.
One Big Family (Style)
Thai culture is centered around sanuk, or the idea of always trying to enjoy life and have fun. And what’s more fun than sharing a meal with loved ones?
As such, when locals go out for dinner or lunch with family or a group of friends in Thailand, usually they order a few larger dishes so each person can have a bit of everything. “In Thailand, if you go into a restaurant, you’re going to share the food," Pluem says. "But when I go to a (Thai) restaurant in America or a chain restaurant, people order separate dishes."
In Thailand, where people buy their food from markets and share meals family-style, there’s a lot more freedom to determine your own portion size. And in general, those portions are smaller than in the U.S.
Our experts chalk this up to American food culture, which typically abides by a “bigger is better” ethos.
Who’s in Charge?
Frye says there’s a trick to finding American Thai food that has similar flavors to those you’ll experience in Southeast Asia — and it comes down to who’s making your meal.
“If you eat at a Thai restaurant in the U.S. that is owned by a Thai person, and you request the authentic flavor, there will be not much difference in taste,” Frye says. “If, however, you go to a Thai restaurant that is not owned by a Thai person — which often can be the case in a small town — there is a significant difference in taste.”
Lamoreaux lived near Chiang Mai and Bangkok, so she’s experienced Thai food from north to south. And she says she’s only found one restaurant in America that has come close to replicating the flavors she’s been searching for since leaving Thailand. Rod Dee Thai Cuisine, which has multiple locations in the Boston area, knows how to deliver that perfect balance of sour, salty and sweet.
Lamoreaux says two of her favorite dishes in particular, som tam and tom yum, just don’t taste the same in America. She thinks som tam, green papaya salad, is too light on dried shrimp, fish sauce and Thai chilis in America. And tom yum, a hot and sour soup with shrimp, often doesn’t include fresh lemongrass, a must-have ingredient in Thailand.
“I always try to order them because they’re two of the most popular dishes in Thailand, so you’d think they’d make them more here, but they change it up when the customer base is American,” Lamoreaux laments.
In short: The best Thai food can only be found in one place. Thailand. So book your ticket now.