7 top southern Thai dishes and where to eat them in Bangkok
Highly underrated due to a lack of exposure, southern Thai food in Bangkok is often overshadowed by the city's obsession with northeast Thai cuisine.
Nevertheless, southern Thailand has a few culinary heavyweights that could put up a fight in any Thai food battle.
In the south, Thai food collides with intensity. When cooked to code it should be deeply spicy. Not that sharp bite of chili that burns for a few seconds and then dissipates, but that internal inferno, like a fireplace lit in your stomach.
But heat is not the only prominent flavor of southern Thai food. Dishes are marked by a natural abundance of herbs, local provisions of coconut cream and the ever present rich spice blends of turmeric, galangal, garlic, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves.
Here are seven of Thailand's most popular southern Thai dishes, followed by a few restaurants that serve them.
1. Gaeng som pla
Called "gaeng leung" in Bangkok, gaeng som is the ultimate bigwig of southern Thai comfort, a soup with such potent delicious flavor it's a culinary wake up call -- like a bowl of orange juice set on fire.
In Thai, it means "sour curry," though it covers a much larger range of tastes. The soup is usually made with a liquid fish base combined with curry paste and turmeric, which turns it into a yellowish orange color.
Gaeng som is commonly cooked with bamboo shoots, green papaya or slices of pineapple.
2. Gaeng tai pla
Admittedly, this one isn't a hit the first time most people taste it. But remove a southern Thai from their cuisine for too long and gaeng tai pla is likely the first thing their mouth will demand.
It's a thick fish soup, more like a multidimensional stew with layers of complex flavor. The ingredients are a combination of fish viscera, grilled fish, fermented shrimp paste, eggplant, pumpkin, string beans and bamboo shoots.
Just like in a lot of southern Thai food, it's the dried chilies, garlic, red onions, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal and turmeric that give gaeng tai pla that invigorating push.
3. Kua kling
I'm a sucker for sauce. I often treat Thai sauce as a beverage rather than a condiment. However, kua kling is one dish where extra flavoring is just not essential.
Kua kling is a southern Thai dry curry that is commonly made with pork, beef or chicken. Lacking the liquid coconut sweet curry (like many other Thai curries), the dry meat is like a sponge that absorbs a high concentration of spice.
The meat is injected with curry paste, chilies, garlic and shaved lemongrass before being sprinkled with a handful of thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves, and sometimes full pepper corns. Each bite is a piquant powerhouse that begins with a spicy kick and ends with a trace of lime.
4. Tom som pla krabok
Another sour fishy soup that is popular in southern Thai cuisine is tom som pla krabok.
Overall, it's not quite as fiery as gaeng som, but it just might be one of the sourest soups that Thailand has to offer.
Every spoonful is a tongue smack of acidity that results in an outward frown, but internal delight.
Along with the delightful sourness, the soup is a fusion of turmeric root, shredded ginger and tamarind juice.
5. Gaeng sataw
Any combination of food made with sataw, which translates to “stink bean,” is a sure sell-out at any southern restaurant.
The bean, which certainly lives up to its name, is both delicious when cooked and extremely healthy.
Stink beans are often stir-fried with a choice of meat or pre-made in a variety of curries.
6. Khao yam
One of the qualities that makes southern Thai food so embedded with rich herbal flavor is that spices, roots and herbs are often minced so they can be ingested entirely (instead of boiled to extract flavor and thrown out).
Khao yam is a fragrant rice salad where grated coconut, dry shredded shrimp and a host of herbs are the dominating ingredients.
Micro-sliced kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, pennywort and turmeric leaves are among the blend of herbs that complete khao yam. The rice salad is mixed together and dressed with a slightly sweet fish sauce.
7. Nam prik goong siap
Nam prik goong siap is one of the more popular nam prik (spicy sauce) variations that originate from the lower portion of Thailand.
The intricate paste is a pestle pounded mixture composed of dried shrimp, fermented shrimp paste, fiery chilies, garlic, lime juice, fish sauce and a sprinkle of brown sugar to level things off.
Made correctly, all ingredients should even each other out in a harmonious sauce that is not too shrimpy, just sour enough, and perfectly balanced. Nam prik goong siap is served as a dip along with a garden of freshly cut vegetables.
Where to find Southern Thai food in Bangkok
Some southern Thai food is available within Bangkok's local market stalls that sell khao gaeng, (rice and curries) but it can be challenging to locate authentic southern Thai restaurants in the city.
Areas near Siriraj Hospital and across the street from Ramkamhaeng University are hotspots for Bangkok's southern food scene. Here are two of my favorite restaurants.
Lan Ahan Puk Tai Dao Tai : 508/26 Phran Nok Road, Bahng Koug Noy, Bangkok. +66 (0)2 412 2385. Open 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m.
In Thai: ร้านอาหารปักษ์ใต้ ดาวใต้ 508/26 ถ.พรานนก บางกอกน้อย กทม
Lan Khao Gaeng Bak Tai Loong Kaun: Ramkamhaeng Soi 29, opposite 7/11, Bangkok. +66 (0)84 660 3278. Across the street from Ramkamhaeng University.
ร้านข้าวแกงปักษ์ใต้ลุงคอนเข้าซอยรามคำแหง 29 ตรงข้่าม 7 Eleven
For something more upmarket, Phuket Town in Thonglor has been getting great reviews from southern Thai food fans.
Items on the menu include southern classics like sataw phad kapi goong (stir-fried stink beans with shrimp), and kanom jeen nam ya poo (rice noodles with crab).
Phuket Town: 160/8 Thong Lor Soi 6. +66 (0)2 714 9402. Open daily, 10 a.m.-10 p.m.