Why is Thai food so spicy?

In this blog post, we will answer the following question: Why is Thai food so spicy? We will describe the Thai cuisine and teach you how to enjoy it without doing too much damage to your stomach.

Why is Thai food so spicy?

Thai food is generally spicy because many dishes have chili peppers; otherwise, Thai cuisine is based on rice and pasta, embellished with many vegetables and herbs, meat, fish, or seafood.

Thai gastronomy is based on its ingredients and the way to combine them. This blend of flavors and the way they are prepared to make this cuisine so unique and loved. It is one of the most popular in the world and is a real reason to explore Thailand. Rich and varied, you can enjoy it wherever you go, whether in a luxurious restaurant or one of the countless street stalls.

However, don’t worry! Many dishes are not spicy (pad thai, fried rice skewer, grilled meat, grilled fish …). There will possibly be a hot sauce or chili powder to accompany the dish; just leave it aside.

For dishes which are by nature spicy (papaya salad, tom yam), there are several options to eat them: 

  • If you are in places frequented by tourists, by default, the pepper level is much lower than the original version.
  • In the boui boui, seeing that you are a tourist, chili’s level will normally be reduced.
  • And to be really sure, you can ask “no spicy”, that generally everyone understands.

It gives you time to learn the different Thai dishes and know what you can order without fear. Considering the dishes’ price in the boui boui, at worst, if you cannot eat it because it is too spicy, just leave it aside, you will have lost 1 or 2 $, it is not a drama!

Thai cuisine and flavors 

Thai cuisine is based on recipes based on rice or rice noodles, well seasoned and often mixing salty, sweet, sour, spicy, and bitter flavors. Far from being uniform, it has many variations and specialties depending on the region: very spicy in the south, milder in the center, with Burmese or Laotian influences in the north and northeast.

As everywhere in Asia, rice is the basis of any recipe. So much so that the word “Kao” designates rice but also food in a much broader sense. Preparing it is quite an art since it is first soaked in water to remove the starch and then steamed, in a pot, or more traditionally in a wicker basket.

In Thai culture, food is shared. Therefore, meals with families or friends are a succession of dishes that we share and in which everyone helps themselves.

If today you can see forks, tablespoons, and chopsticks all over the place on restaurant tables, this was not always the case. In fact, chopsticks are used almost exclusively for noodles, and it is the fork/spoon duo, imported by the French in the 16th century, that has remained in favor of the Thais. It is also convenient for dishes with sauce, and the knife will be of no use to you because the ingredients are always cut into small pieces.

So if you want to avoid looking too much of a tourist, don’t necessarily ask for chopsticks! Already because it is not practical to eat rice, and then because you will be doing much more “local” by eating with the fork in your left hand to push the food towards the spoon that you will therefore hold… in your hand right!

In more impoverished rural areas, you may not find cutlery. Here, we eat with the fingers, and the rice rolled into a ball, acts as bread to help push and catch the food, or only to the sauce.

Street food is very, very popular in Thailand and is part of its culture. Many Thai people, exhausted by their long working days, do not cook at home. You will therefore find street stalls where you can eat EVERYWHERE! And that’s why you will find a very varied offer: chicken skewers, papaya salads, pad thai but also rice or noodle soups, dishes in a sauce; you will find everything that makes Thai gastronomy in these stands of the street.

Another characteristic of Thai gastronomy is the freshness of foods cooked quickly in a wok. You will often find the different dishes available with meat (chicken, beef, or pork, except in the more Muslim south), fish or seafood (sea or river), but also in a vegetarian version (especially in the east of Thailand).

Chili is also a staple of Thai cuisine, much spicier than that of neighboring countries. When ordering, it is always best to specify whether you like it to be spicy, a little, or not at all! 

Essential Thai dishes

Here are some of the typical dishes of Thai cuisine that you will find everywhere. This is, of course, only a very small example.

Pad Kao Pao: Minced pork or chicken meat with Thai basil and chili, served over rice with a fried egg.

Tom Yam: Hot sweet and sour soup, made with tomatoes, mushrooms, galangal, lemongrass, and coconut milk, usually served with seafood.

Nam Tok: Grilled marinated meat salad, served with shallots, cilantro, and lemon juice

Massaman Curry: Typical curry from southern Thailand, made from potatoes and peanuts.

Pad Thai: A dish of stir-fried noodles served with vegetables, eggs, bean sprouts, and peanuts, which you can find all over the country.

Panang Curry: A blend of red, green, and coconut milk curry with a touch of lime.

The bottom line

Thai gastronomy is based on its ingredients and combines them—one of these ingredients is the hot chili pepper. So, if you do not like spicy food, mention it! Learn to differentiate dishes with rice (which generally aren’t that spicy) with the famous papaya salad or tom yam. 

Thai cuisine is something you have to try at least once! It is impossible not to find something you will like.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

Hi, I am Charlotte, I love cooking and in my previous life, I was a chef. I bring some of my experience to the recipes on this hub and answer your food questions.

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