If food was music, then Thai cuisine would be Mozart – with its harmonious balance of flavors and textures, each dish is a perfect symphony. The beauty with most Thai dishes is that they are lightly cooked with the freshest ingredients, often chosen for their medicinal properties as well as their distinct flavors. Whether you enjoy Thai cuisine or not, it’s hard to deny that as a culture, the Thai people know how to cook.
However, when ordering off a Thai menu, there are a few pitfalls to be aware of from a ‘healthy eating’ perspective, most notably the high sodium, sugar and sometimes MSG content of Thai food – often found in the sauces. The cooking oils employed to create these culinary masterpieces are also not usually the healthiest. That said, we've found some restaurants which are happy for you to bring your own oil for them to cook with so it's definitely worth asking at your regular haunts. You will also find that most places are very accommodating if you request no/low sugar or salt in a dish or beverage.
We look below at some of the healthiest options on a typically Thai menu and share with you where to find the best of these on the bountiful island of Phuket.
Som Tam (Green Papaya) salad is arguably the most widely available dish across all food outlets in Thailand, from street vendors and market stalls to high-end Thai Restaurants. It consists of thinly sliced, raw sour fruits and vegetables which are pounded together in a giant mortar filled with chili, lime, garlic, fish sauce, tamarind pulp and palm sugar. The unripe papaya is full of nutrients and enzymes which promote digestive health, making it an excellent accompaniment to any meal, or to be enjoyed alone. To up-the-ante on its health credentials, you can ask for your order with ‘’mai wan’’ meaning minimal sugar. We love the Som Tam at Pan Bistro on Bandon-Cherngtalay or Sab Sadung Restaurant on the Srisoonthon Road to Monument, where at just 9 Thai baht the price is as popular as the dish itself!
If you haven’t tried this yet, you must! Pomelo has a long list of health benefits – it boosts heart health, reduces cholesterol and one pomelo alone contains several days’ worth of Vitamin C, an immune boosting antioxidant which fights free radicals associated with ageing. Whilst the pomelo itself will take center-stage in most versions of this Asian masterpiece, other ingredients such as nuts, chili, coconut, lime, mushrooms and green shoots also provide additional nutrition. Catch Beach Club make an excellent Pomelo Salad, as does 108 Vegetarian Cuisine at Cherngtalay Soi 4.
KANG LIANG GOONG SOD:
Khang Liang Goong Sod is spicy herbed vegetable soup with prawns - a powerhouse of nutrients, which in Thai culture is widely believed to increase breast milk supply. Every ingredient in this fragrant and nourishing dish provides goodness, from the medicinal properties of the Thai basil leaves and peppercorns, to the hydrating and healing broth with its crunchy local vegetables and succulent prawns. It is also low carbohydrate and considered an excellent choice for weight loss, with no compromise on flavor. Peang-prai Restaurant close to Bang Pae waterfall in Pa Klok is renowned for its version of this healthy hothouse.
Yam Talay (spicy seafood) salad is a menu staple here in Phuket, unsurprisingly given our proximity to some of the freshest local seafood in Thailand. Embracing the typical Thai balance of spicy, sweet, sour, and salty flavors alongside crunchy vegetables and delicately cooked squid & prawns, this salad will put the tantalising in your taste buds. With an average of 300 calories per dish and with the majority of these calories coming from protein, Yam Talay is a great option for those looking to lose weight. Most places that offer fresh local seafood will know how to whip up a tasty Yam Talay, however our pick for guaranteed authentic flavor with the freshest ingredients is Palm Seaside Lounge & Bar in Bangtao where you can sit right by the waters which recently housed your dinner.
YAM WOON SEN
For a dish with a bit more weight, Yam Woon Sen is a salad made of clear glass noodles, crunchy chopped vegetables, dried shrimp and often a smattering of minced pork. The noodles are made from mung bean starch so a great option if you are celiac or prefer gluten free carbohydrates. They are also low GI and won’t cause a spike in blood sugars. These light, silky noodles paired with raw veggies like tomato, celery and onion all tossed in a zingy, refreshing sauce make for a mouthwatering meal your body will thank you for. Try this dish at One Chun Restaurant in Phuket town, masters in the art of Southern Thai cuisine.
TOM YAM SOUP WITH MUSHROOMS:
This fragrant Thai Soup has to be one of the lowest calorie options with the highest nutritional content, so it ticks all the health boxes in terms of vitamins and minerals, weight loss and low cholesterol, however be mindful of the sodium content which tends to be quite high. Shitake mushrooms are a key ingredient in this Tom Yam soup and provide significant anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits, even recently being touted as “one of the world’s healthiest foods”. You will be hard pushed to find a bad Tom Yam cooked by a Thai but if we had to pick an island favorite then it’s hard to look past Blue Elephant Restaurant in Phuket Town.
STEAMED WHOLE FISH:
The precise nutritional content of steamed whole fish will vary depending on the type of fish you order (tilapia, snapper, barramundi, carp…) however a whole white fish, steamed with Thai herbs and spices is a great way to increase your intake of essential fatty acids like Omega 3 as the flesh is sandwiched between fatty skin and gelatin rich bones: also a great protein booster without increasing cholesterol. Steaming the fish whole ensures that all nutrients are kept inside, not being lost to any surrounding liquid. The success of this dish relies as much on the freshness of the fish as it does on the flavors it’s cooked with – it’s therefore hard to beat Salaloy Seafood in Rawai where the fish is bought daily from the local market and cooked to perfection. Laem Him Seafood on the East of the island is also a top spot for the freshest local fish.
STIR FRIED VEGETABLES:
Most Thai Menu’s will have a good selection of stir-fried vegetable dishes to choose from, the most popular being mixed vegetables, morning glory, broccoli or leafy cruciferous greens like bok choy and gai lan – usually flash fried with garlic, chilli and a dash of oyster sauce. The vegetables alone are packed with essential vitamins and minerals & only lightly cooked to retain these health benefits. Attention must be given however to the cooking oils used which can turn a seemingly healthy dish into a not-so healthy option. As with other dishes, it is worth taking your own oil (rice bran is our pick) to local haunts or when ordering ask for “nam man nidnoy” meaning just a little oil.
When it comes to rice the healthiest option is Riceberry, which is a wholegrain variety packed with antioxidants, zinc and iron. Unlike white and even brown rice, it is also low GI and rich in anthocyanin to help lower cholesterol. For additional kudos it happens to be native to Thailand, being grown almost exclusively in north & northeastern provinces. We have noticed this aptly named ‘super grain’ sneaking into menus across Phuket, with our top pick being the creatively put together organic riceberry with mixed herbs from Greze Café, Phuket Town and Yanui.