Traditional Thai food offers a blend of flavors and aromas that make it well-loved worldwide, from sweet and sour to spicy and savory.
Ingredients you’ll often see in Thai dishes include coconut milk, lemongrass, galangal, Thai basil, Thai chilies, vegetables, seafood, and chicken.
Many Thai dishes are wholesome and nutritious, despite stereotypes you may have heard surrounding the healthfulness of Asian cuisines. Remember: what makes a dish nutritious depends not only on its ingredients but also on how it is prepared.
This article covers 10 healthy traditional Thai dishes that you can enjoy at restaurants or make at home, plus their nutritional and health benefits.
Papaya salad is an appetizer that uses raw green papayas.
Generally, papayas are eaten as a fruit, but the raw green papayas, in this case, are eaten as a vegetable, similar to cucumbers and green bell peppers.
The green papayas are julienned, then mixed with a dressing like fish sauce, tamarind sauce, and lime juice. Other ingredients, such as garlic, dried shrimp, crushed peanuts, and red chilis, are often added to give the dish extra flavor and texture.
While lycopene is not converted into vitamin A the way beta-carotene is, it may play a role in protecting the skin damage caused by the sun’s UV rays (
Another notable nutrient present in papayas is vitamin C, which acts as an antioxidant that may support healthy skin aging, among other benefits. Eating one small papaya alone meets the daily recommended intake of vitamin C (
Pomelo salad offers a mixture of flavors all in one dish — fruitiness from the shredded pomelo, sourness from the lime juice, and umami from the fish sauce.
You can add shredded coconut, cilantro, and shrimp (or dried shrimp pieces). Thai chilis are optional for extra heat.
Pomelo has a similar texture to grapefruit, which comes in red and yellow varieties. Unlike a grapefruit, pomelos have a very thick outer skin, and they’re much larger in size.
Pomelos are rich in vitamin C. In addition to its antioxidant properties, vitamin C helps absorb iron, heal wounds, keep the gums healthy, and make collagen. One cup (190g) of pomelo alone provides the daily recommended intake of vitamin C (
The Thai fresh spring rolls are similar to Vietnamese versions. Both consist of rice wrappers, cooked rice vermicelli, bean sprouts, and shrimp. The Thai version includes fresh Thai holy basil and coriander.
Bean sprouts often add crunchiness to fresh spring rolls. One cup (104 grams) contains 30% of the daily value (DV) of vitamin K, an essential nutrient for blood clotting (
While vegetables are low calorie — basil, for instance, provides just 5.5 calories per cup — calories may add up in the dish if ingredients are fried. If calorie count is a concern, consider making your own spring rolls with fresh vegetables (
Thai spring rolls pair well with a dipping sauce, such as fish sauce or tamarind sauce.
This hot and sour soup is one of Thai cuisine’s iconic dishes. The “hot” comes from chilies, while the “sour” originates from the soup’s tanginess, derived from the mixture of lemongrass, galangal, and kaffir lime leaves.
Traditional versions use shrimp, which contributes to the soup’s bright orange color. Other versions may include different varieties of seafood or chicken. Vegetables like mushrooms, cilantro, tomatoes, and white onions complete the soup.
Tom yum goong nam kohn is a variation of the original soup, where coconut milk or evaporated milk is added to the original broth. The milk tones down the heat and sourness while making the soup creamier and sweeter.
Shrimp is the source of high quality protein, offering 17 grams of protein in a 3-ounce serving (
Shrimp also contain carotenoids called astaxanthin, which are responsible for giving shrimp its red-orange color.
Older research suggests that astaxanthin may provide several health benefits, including reducing inflammation and the risk of chronic diseases by countering high blood pressure and high blood triglycerides (
We still need more research into the specific health-promoting properties of astaxanthin, though.
Hainanese chicken is a poached chicken dish that is popular in Southeast Asian countries, such as Singapore and Malaysia. The Thai version includes rice cooked with chicken broth and garlic. The broth is also served as a soup on the side.
Chicken is a high quality complete protein that helps maintain good health. Protein is one of the most vital nutrients, particularly for creating body cells, building and repairing muscles, and supporting the immune system (
Since Hainanese chicken is prepared via poaching, it is considered a healthy dish. A 3.5 ounce-serving of chicken offers about 31g of protein (
Asian steamed fish dishes use whole fish, and Thai steamed fish is no exception.
Barramundi, a type of Asian sea bass, is commonly served with the scales and internal organs removed. If barramundi is unavailable near you, you can use other varieties of sea bass or other types of fish.
The fish is laid flat in a steamer and cooked in broth, along with lime juice and garlic pieces. Thai chilies may also be added. The ingredients collectively provide a blend of flavors: garlicky, umami, sour, and spicy.
The dish is garnished with Chinese celery, with the broth used in steaming the fish served as a dipping sauce or consumed as soup.
Fish is a high-quality protein with numerous essential nutrients, such as iodine and the omega-3 fatty acids EPA and DHA.
Iodine is an essential nutrient that makes thyroid hormones, which are needed for metabolism and are vital for the growth and development of fetuses (
Fish is a great source of omega-3 fats, which are known for promoting a healthy heart. The fattier the fish, the more omega-3 fats are present.
While sea bass does not have the same levels as salmon, one 3-ounce serving of cooked sea bass still provides 137mg of EPA and 369mg of DHA. That’s just under half of the recommended daily intake of omega-3s for most adults (
For a saucy dish, consider coconut lemongrass clams. The clams are cooked with lemongrass, galangal, shallots, kaffir lime leaves, and Thai chilis in coconut milk and chicken broth.
Clams are a type of shellfish and offer several key nutrients, including vitamin B12 and selenium.
Vitamin B12 is essential for DNA synthesis, nerve function, and producing blood cells. Notably, clam meat contains significantly high concentrations of B12, with three times the DV for every 68-gram serving (
Selenium is a mineral known for supporting the thyroid gland. It may also help the immune system by reducing cell damage. One serving of clam meat provides more than one-third of the DV of selenium (
Vegetables are essential sources of important nutrients, and Pad Pak provides broccoli, baby bok choy, carrots, mushrooms, and water chestnuts.
Common Thai ingredients like garlic, galangal, shallots, fresh Thai basil, and chili flakes accent the flavor and aroma of the vegetables.
The health benefits of vegetables are endless; they help improve blood pressure, increase fiber intake, reduce the risk for some cancers, prevent spikes in blood sugar, support mental health, and much more (
A classic Thai dessert, mango sticky rice only uses four ingredients: sliced and pitted mangoes, cooked glutinous or sticky rice, coconut milk, and sugar.
Coconut milk is used to flavor the cooked rice and is drizzled on top as a sauce. A healthier version of this dish uses unsweetened coconut milk and minimal to no added sugar.
Vitamin A is necessary for growth and development and helps keep the eyes, skin, and immune system healthy (
While not a dish in itself, a glass of coconut water completes a nutritious Thai meal.
Coconut water is the liquid from a young coconut, and it is a source of potassium, which is essential for the heart, the bones, the nerves, the kidneys, and the muscles (
While coconut water is refreshing and hydrating, it does contain some carbs. One serving (330mL) of coconut water has 17 grams of carbs, with 15 grams coming from natural sugars (
Try to choose unsweetened varieties with no added sugars when choosing coconut water.
There are many tasty traditional dishes to choose from in Thai cuisine.
Remember, healthy eating is not just about choosing specific foods to meet certain nutritional requirements; it is also about having a positive and enjoyable experience.
It’s important to allow yourself to eat a range of foods prepared with different cooking methods, including some fried dishes if you enjoy them.
Here are some tips to keep your meals balanced when you eat out:
- order a Thai salad or cooked vegetables as a side
- be mindful of your portions, particularly for rice, noodles, and fried foods
- share dishes with those dining with you, or pack up leftovers to enjoy at the next meal or day
- try to check in with yourself and eat when you are hungry, then stop when you are full
While the cooking method matters, the amount of fat (cooking oil), salt, and sugar added to the dish are just as important.
All in all, moderation is key to a balanced meal, regardless of the type of cuisine.
Following the MyPlate Method, such as filling half a plate of stir-fried mixed vegetables with a one-quarter plate filled with protein seasoned with Thai flavors and the remaining quarter with Hainanese-flavored rice, may be a good guideline (
Traditional Thai dishes use wholesome ingredients, including lean proteins, vegetables, fruits, herbs, and spices that provide numerous health benefits. Thai dishes are full of flavor and color, with Thai chilis often added to give an extra kick of heat.
Healthier traditional Thai dishes may range from minimal to no cooking, as in the green papaya salad and pomelo salad, to poaching, like the Hainanese chicken, and steaming, like the Thai steamed fish.
Remember, a balanced diet is one that leaves room for all foods and food groups that you enjoy, including your cultural dishes and traditional recipes that have not been “lightened up” or made healthier.
But if you want to add some bonus nutrition to your Thai meal, consider some of the above tips.
Jut one thing
Try this today: Pad thai is another classic Thai dish. Learn about its nutritional profile here.