Cradled by the borders of Laos and Myanmar, northern Thailand takes from the milder, less pronounced flavours of its neighbours. Because of lower temperatures, protein and carbs are consumed in the form of fat-layered pork and sticky rice. Gaeng hang lay (Thai pork belly curry) is one of the signatures in Chiang Mai while a remote Chinese village in the Chiang Rai province sees Chinese-inspired dishes like pork knuckle with mantao. Most restaurants in KL are inspired by the food of the north as well as central Thailand. The north-east region (or Isan) is populated by the rural poor, resulting in modest fuss-free cuisine influenced by Laos. The lack of rain hampers agricultural produce which leads to fermentation and preservation as popular cooking techniques. The north-easterners are liberal with salt, especially when fermenting fish to eat with sticky rice. The ubiquitous som tam (green papaya salad) is heavily featured. Moving away from sticky rice, Thailand’s capital and its surrounding areas serve food prepared with more effort and detail. Central Thailand borrows and tweaks food from all the regions, but adds sweetness, spiciness or sourness for balance and presentation. Because rice fields are abundant on fertile lands without the disruption of highlands, the meals in the capital are more lavish. Green and red curries are staples along with hot and sour soups like kaeng som and tom yam. The humidity in southern Thailand is not unlike that of Malaysia; the same can be said of the food. Seafood and pork are commonly cooked dry with plenty of turmeric, chilli and asam fruit resulting in signatures like khua kling (spicy stir-fried minced pork) and kaeng tai pla (spicy curry with fish stomach). Heavy spice is a trademark feature in southern food, and dishes are often served with fresh, bright leaves to cut through the heat. It’s not uncommon to see northern Malaysian (ie Kelantanese) and Nyonya influences in southern Thai restaurants.
Explore KL's best Thai restaurants
The best Thai restaurant in KL by a mile, Erawan has been receiving consistent critical acclaim for as long as the five years it’s been operating. The mastermind behind the restaurant’s success is Thailand-hailed Chef Korn, who works in the kitchen to produce fit-for-a-king food made from carefully sourced ingredients. As much as it’s a joy to sit down to extravagantly presented dishes like the love letter salad (grilled river prawn salad with a dressing of lime, tamarind and kaffir lime juices) and Alaskan king crab in red curry, it’s inspiring to watch Chef Korn prep and present his food with unrelenting precision. Coconut milk is strained from scratch, tom yam is prepared upon individual orders, seasoning is balanced to pitch perfection while vegetables are carved and contoured into intricate flower petals. If the Michelin inspectors ever visited KL, we’d gladly point them in the direction of Erawan.
Straying slightly from authentic home-style Thai food, Kompassion is a great bet for when you feel a little adventurous. While safer Chiang Rai-style classics like phanaeng curry with pork loin and hang lay curry with pork belly make appearances, we like Kompassion best for its modern iterations like pork satay with kimchi, pork belly with soft-shell crab, cod with chilli, wasabi and lime, and avocado and bean sprout salad. The Thai iced coffee is a blast of cool creaminess at the end of an always exhilarating meal.
The Time Out KL Food Awards 2013 winner for Best Thai wins the popularity contest with a seven-year reign of the market. The neighbourhood favourite was one of the first of the Thai genre to avoid the tacky mall setting or rice served in pineapple bowls, a breath of fresh air for Thai food enthusiasts. While the menu is predictable, it doesn’t take away from the brand’s consistency and reliability. The som tam malakor (hand-pounded green papaya salad with peanuts) is described in the menu as Thailand’s favourite salad, which is understandable – it’s intensely delicious. The roast duck red curry with fruit is always comforting on a rainy weeknight, while the ‘snow’ fish (saltbaked whole sea bass with green chilli sauce) is cooked perfectly – the fish’s thick, crusty skin is complemented by soft, white flesh.
By specialising in no-frills, porcine-leaning Thai comfort food in an unpretentious space, Surisit Thai Kopitiam has firmly established itself as one of TTDI’s finest food destinations since it opened in 2011. Regulars swear by Surisit’s range of deftly executed pork dishes, namely the decadent crispy pork with shrimp paste and the fried pig’s trotter with black soy sauce. Balance your meaty meal by opting for one of the restaurant’s decent kerabu salads – the banana flower salad is something of a revelation.
Formerly known as Lai Thai, Kedai Makanan Frame Thai can no longer be considered PJ’s best-kept secret – this bustling mini mart-restaurant has now emerged as one of the go-to places in town for Thai street food. Although the shop’s dreary ambience is not particularly enticing, Lai Thai has steadily won over new fans by serving immensely satisfying pork dishes (definitely go for the braised pork leg and the punchy stir-fried minced pork with basil) as well as selling packaged goods and condiments from Thailand.
The freshest face to join the city’s nascent legion of porcine-friendly Thai restaurants is Thai Camp, which opened to glowing reviews in January 2014. The cosy Taman Paramount establishment is renowned for its stir-fried roasted pork with red curry and Thai coconut milk chicken soup among other belly-warming dishes.