Time to Try Thai – A brief look at the Thai breakfast scene.

thai breakfast

Thai cuisine is pretty popular these days (to put it mildly), and lots of visitors to the island already know even before their plane has landed what they’re going to be eating. For some it’ll be pad Thai, for others a green or red curry, and for still others tom ka gai. All lunch and dinner fare. Very few people will even mention breakfast. Even some of the most avid fans of Thai food may have difficulty in defining exactly what a Thai breakfast is. The thing about Thai breakfasts is that they’re certainly more than the sum of their many parts – if only we knew what those parts were. The truth is that for most visitors to the country the Thai breakfast is a mystery. How come?

Firstly it’s because you never see signs saying ‘Thai breakfast here’ – it’s almost as though it doesn’t exist. Or perhaps it’s pushed to the side by that mighty culinary juggernaut, the western breakfast: a fry-up featuring sausages, eggs, toast … and well, you know the rest. From a cardiologist’s point of view it’s an eye-brow raiser of the worst kind, yet it’s almost universally craved. Ever stayed in an international hotel that doesn’t serve it?

Almost every hotel in Thailand serves western breakfasts, and it might seem to the casual eye that there’s not much else on the culinary agenda, anywhere at all, but the truth is that tens of thousands of places are serving up Thai breakfasts. No fanfare about it, although you may hear the merry honk of a horn announcing that this or that cart has arrived to dispense breakfast in the neighbourhood. If you’re out in the morning, you’ll see many small places, barely more than holes in the wall, serving food; then there are the markets, and then increasingly more and more, coffee shops, cafes and eateries.
They’ll all be dishing up Thai breakfast in some shape or form.

Walk past or into those places and you may just think that it’s the usual Thai fare that’s served for lunch, snacks, dinner or supper. That’s because in no way do the dishes resemble anything like a traditional western breakfast. There’s no white
bread, no jam, no sausages greasily sliding around with fried eggs and the other usual suspects. You’re likely to see garlic, chillies, limes, curries and rice instead. So it’s not breakfast then, is it?

It is – most definitely. And there’s quite a variety of it, too. Much of it is dictated by grab-‘n-go necessities. Thailand is typical of most of Asia in that people don’t sit down to defined breakfasts, and many will content themselves with leftovers from their dinner, while others are simply in a hurry. Thais aren’t confined by the idea of three large meals per day and eating is more frequent with smaller portions.

So saying, what’s on the Thai breakfast menu? The easiest thing to do is to venture out into the early-morning markets and you’ll see plenty of people eating a dish simply named, ‘jok’, a porridge-like congee made with rice and shredded ginger. Both filling and comforting, it’ll cost some 40 baht. It’s a fairly typical Asian breakfast, and you’ll find it in much of the
region, in a variety of different forms. First rice is boiled then enriched with various ingredients such as minced pork, chicken, or shrimp. Very often, if you’re ordering, you’ll be asked if you want an egg on top. It’s lightly poached – almost
raw. You’ll be handed the bowl but your breakfast isn’t ready quite yet. The next bit’s up to you. You can add various other ingredients and condiments such as sliced ginger, cilantro leaves, scallions, fish sauce and vinegar. You may hesitate to add chillies too, but most Thais are not averse to a bit of fieriness in the morning. If all this sounds a bit much for you then opt for boiled rice soup, or khao dtohm.

Still on the mild side, how about some pa-thong-ko? Again, you’ll find this at the early morning market. They’re pieces of dough, joined together in a rough X-shape and then deep-fried in a wok. They’re then fished out with a slotted ladle when golden brown. Pay 10 baht and you’ll get around five pieces wrapped in paper. They’re basically yeast donuts, and Thais often enjoy them with a green tub of pandan custard, alongside a cup of hot Thai coffee, Thai tea, sweetened soy milk, or sweet ginger tea. Many people like to eat dumplings with fillings such as pork or taro; these are round and white and
you’ll most often find them dispensed by carts that have a special steamer. They’re mild in taste, a whole world away from the curries that some people enjoy for breakfast. (Stay in a Thai-style hotel and you’ll invariably find some spicy food at the breakfast buffet. It may look mild – until you try the first spoonful.) You can also find plenty of Chinese-style dim sum, and these are even sold at convenience stores now. Then there’s the alliterative ‘khanom krok’, a sweeter alternative and a very different sort of breakfast. It’s a kind of pancake topping with undiluted coconut milk along with scallions, sweetcorn, taro and pumpkin. It’s street food and you can find it in the markets and also at stalls and carts.

Thais often eat on the hoof and may not even have time for a visit to the market. As you drive along Samui’s ring-road, check out all the places that are selling breakfasts of one kind or another. Or rather get your driving companion to do this,
otherwise your breakfast may be a drip feed at the local hospital. Look out for smoke. In early morning Thailand, where there’s smoke there’s breakfast. It may well be in the form of ‘moo ping’, tiny skewers of pork that are traditionally
grilled over a charcoal fire. The smoky smell is too tempting for some people to resist. And you might wonder what’s so great about grilled pork, but it’s more than that. It’s marinated in a mix of cilantro root, garlic, pepper, oyster sauce, soy
sauce and, what makes it even yummier, coconut milk and honey. It might not look so appetizing, just a patty of meat, but once you bite into one, you may be utterly seduced. Traditionally, it’s eaten with khao niaow, or sticky white rice.

If all of this leaves you cold (or even hot due to all those spices), then you might consider hopping on a plane or train or just driving for a day and a night till you get to the north-east of the country. There, off the tourists’ beaten track, you’ll come across something that resembles the international breakfast, though it’s a complete coincidence. On the border with Laos, in Nong Khai, the typical breakfast consists of bread, sausages and eggs. It’s served in the same pan in which it’s cooked, and consists of the scrambled whites of eggs, with yolks that are left whole. It comes with sausage, Chinese-style, and a
baguette that’s common just across the border in Laos. It’s definitely delicious and may make you think of home despite its slight coconut taste. You can generally find omelettes and fried eggs served over rice wherever you go in Thailand, and not just for breakfast but throughout the day.

Meanwhile, every morning, the choice awaits you: western breakfast or something Thai. Will you opt for limp white toast, raspberry jam preceded by rubber eggs? If you’re in a budget hostel that may well be your fare. But these days, if you’re in even a half-way decent hotel, it’ll include Thai selections too. They’re well worth trying.

And if you’re adventurous, try the market and do as the Thais do, choose from all the possibilities and then customize your choice. Not all Thai breakfasts are spicy, as we’ve seen. But most are unfamed and unsampled by the average visitor. Try them and you’ll see they’re so tasty that they deserve to step into the limelight.

Dimitri Waring