Photo by Jerome Paz / Flickr

Photo by Jerome Paz / Flickr

Thai food is a takeout classic, and as American palates become more adventurous, we’re lucky enough to see more authentic versions of our favorite Thai dishes popping up in cities across the country. Here’s the lowdown on the dishes you’re most likely to see on Thai restaurant menus in the U.S.A.

1. Pad Thai

For many non-Thai Americans, Pad Thai is the first taste of this vibrant cuisine. Unfortunately, the Americanized version of Pad Thai can be a sad affair, featuring a gloppy, too-sweet sauce courtesy of that ubiquitous American condiment, tomato ketchup.

Pad Thai at its best, though, is a revelation to those of us whose prior knowledge of Asian noodles was mall food court lo mein.

To make Pad Thai, rice noodles are stir-fried in a hot wok with onion, egg, bean sprouts, and sometimes chicken or shrimp. The dish is tossed with a balanced sweet-sour-salty sauce, usually made from a combination of tamarind, fish sauce, palm sugar, and chilies. Diners can then adjust the dish to their own liking, by adding additional fish sauce, sugar, chilies, and lime juice. A garnish of crushed peanuts is the finishing touch.

2. Pad see ew

Simple but flavorful, pad see ew is made from wide rice noodles stir-fried with dark and light soy sauce, egg, Chinese broccoli, and seafood or thinly sliced meat. The dish should have a nice charred flavor to it, thanks to the high heat of the wok.

3. Tom kha kai

Thai chicken coconut soup totally one-ups your basic chicken noodle. A light coconut broth is flavored with galangal, chilies, shallots, lemongrass, and lime leaves. The coconut milk helps tame the spice and pungency of the aromatics, while adding a subtle sweetness that pairs perfectly with tender slices of chicken.

4. Tom yum

This sour soup makes the most of Thai food’s bold aromatics, namely galangal, makrut lime leaves, shallots, chilies, garlic, lemongrass, and fish sauce. It often contains both shrimp and chicken, along with mushrooms and occasionally cilantro. The dish can vary from mild to hot, with the spiciness acting as a nice counterpoint to the herbal, sour flavor of the broth.

5. Thai curry

There are several different kinds of curry popular in Thai food.

Green curry: Traditionally the spiciest of the Thai curries, fresh green chilies give this dish its signature color, along with a blast of heat. Other ingredients include sweet and creamy coconut milk, shallots, lemongrass, shrimp paste, and makrut lime rind and leaf, to name a few.

Red curry: Made with dried red chilies, Thai red curry paste can also include galangal, lemongrass, shrimp paste, coriander, makrut lime rind, garlic and more. It is usually blended with coconut milk to create a slightly sweet curry.

Yellow curry: This is the Thai take on an Indian yellow curry. It gets its yellow color from turmeric and a mild heat from dried red chilies. Other ingredients can include cumin, coriander, ginger, galangal, shallots, and lemongrass, among others.

Massaman curry: Usually cooked with lamb or beef in Thailand, though popular with chicken in the U.S., this curry has Persian roots and includes spices like nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, and cardamom, which are otherwise unusual in Thai cuisine.

Panang curry: Made very spicy in Thailand and usually served with beef, Panang curry is a rich dish featuring red chilies, a variety of Thai aromatics, and, sometimes (especially in the U.S.), peanuts.

Sour curry: This simple, water-based curry is typically made sour with tamarind, although other sour tropical fruits can be used. Other ingredients include dried red chilies, turmeric, shrimp paste, and shallots; it’s usually served with pork or seafood.

6. Thai BBQ/grilled chicken

Grilled chicken is a popular street food in Thailand, and is a well-loved menu item in the U.S. Chicken is marinated in a blend of coriander root, palm sugar, soy sauce, fish sauce, lemongrass, white pepper, and garlic, then grilled until slightly charred. It is often served with a dipping sauce – a tangy, spicy tamarind sauce in Thailand, or often a ketchup-based sauce in the U.S.

7. Thai fresh rolls

Rolled in softened rice paper, fresh rolls are the lighter alternative to fried spring rolls. They’re usually stuffed with a variety of raw vegetables and herbs, including Thai basil, cilantro, and green onions, and can also include tofu, shrimp, and rice noodles.

8. Papaya salad

Sour, spicy, and slightly sweet, papaya salad (som tum) is made with tart green papaya, Thai bird chilies, dried shrimp, garlic, fish sauce, sugar, lime juice, tomatoes, and peanuts. It can also include other veggies, like green beans and carrots, and is sometimes also flavored with tamarind and galangal. It’s very refreshing, though it can be quite spicy, and is best enjoyed alongside some rice or chicken.

9. Pad krapow

Fragrant Thai holy basil is the star of this stir-fry, which also includes Thai bird chilies, fish sauce, sugar, shallot, garlic, and chicken or pork. Other ingredients can include soy sauce, oyster sauce, and green beans. The stir-fry is topped with a fried egg and served with rice, along with nam pla prik (a tart chili fish sauce) or lime wedges.

10. Thai fried rice

Kao pad is a simple fried rice that’s used as a sort of blank canvas upon which one can build a meal using favorite meats, veggies, aromatics, and sauces. Generally, the dish uses jasmine rice, and includes egg, onion, and garlic. Sometimes tomatoes are included along with a protein or other veggies. The seasoning is usually a light sauce that can include soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar, chili sauce, and more. Popular variations include pineapple fried rice, basil fried rice, coconut fried rice, and a fancier dish that includes raisins and nuts, which is served inside of a pineapple half.

11. Cashew chicken

A takeout menu staple, cashew chicken is a Chinese-influenced Thai dish that’s popular around the world. Chicken is stir-fried with aromatics, chilies, veggies, and cashews, then tossed in a savory, slightly sweet sauce.

Bonus: Coconut sticky rice with mango

Still hungry? Try this dessert. Sweetened coconut milk is poured over steamed Thai sweet sticky (sometimes called glutinous) rice, which is left to sit until it’s absorbed all of the luscious liquid. It’s then topped with more sweetened, thickened coconut cream, along with slices of fragrant Ataúlfo mango. Take one bite and you’ll forget all about molten chocolate lava cake – it’s that good.