Asian cuisine is often regarded as healthier than most Western cuisines. The perception is that Asian diets are higher in fresh vegetables, lean meats, fish, and simple carbohydrates that are more nutritious, while Western styles of cooking tend to rely more on processed foods, preservatives, and added fat.
Even compared to other Asian cuisines, Thai food is healthier than most. Traditional Thai dishes are usually prepared by steaming, boiling, and grilling. Seafood is generally favored over other meats, vegetables are abundant, and the hot chilies that give Thai food its characteristic spiciness have many health benefits. However, modern Thai cooking increasingly utilizes stir-frying and deep-frying, which increases the amount of saturated fats in the food. There is also an increasing reliance on prepared and prepackaged foods and ingredients, especially among Thai cooks in America, that is changing the character and nutritional content of Thai cuisine.
As an American with a great amount of exposure to Thai culture and cuisine, I would like to present a list of some of the least healthy options you are likely to encounter at your local Thai restaurant. I have tried to stick to common or traditional dishes that can be found everywhere, including Thailand. After all, not all of the blame can be placed on outside influences. There are some traditional Thai favorites that would be more at home in the greasiest greasy spoon imaginable. Like most things, none of these need to be avoided completely, but they should be enjoyed in moderation.
To prepare this popular appetizer, large chicken wings are cut open and stuffed with a mixture of ground meat (usually pork) and some vegetables, held together with egg and flour as binding agents. The wings are then breaded and deep-fried, and typically served with dipping sauces that are either syrup-based (which are loaded with sugar, calories, and carbs) or soy-based (and therefore high in sodium).
Pad See Ew
I opted to list pad see ew instead of the more famous pad thai due to the higher sodium levels typically found in pad see ew, as well as the larger and starchier noodles. “Pad see ew” literally means “fried with soy sauce;” it is traditionally made with both dark and light soy sauce, sliced meat, broccoli, egg, and wide, thick rice noodles. The liberal use of soy sauce drives the sodium content of pad see ew through the roof, while the noodles are mostly processed rice flour, which is high in carbs. Add meat and eggs, and the poor broccoli is left as the lone bastion of indisputably healthy food in this traditional dish (which, unfortunately, remains one of my favorites).
Coconut Milk Curries
The nutritional values of coconut milk are a matter of some debate among nutritionists, but whatever its other possible benefits, what is known is that coconut milk is high in calories and also in saturated fats and trans fats. Many Thai curry dishes, such as panang and mussaman, are made with coconut milk, and therefore much higher in calories and unhealthy fat than red or yellow curries. Coconut milk also seems to be a common allergen for many people; it is theorized that many people with peanut allergies may also be allergic to coconut.
Cai dow is a Thai-style fried egg, which is sometimes eaten by itself but is also commonly served on top of stir-fried dishes, or eaten over rice with soy sauce. Eggs are loaded with protein, vitamins, and minerals, but are also high in fat and cholesterol. The common Western method of frying an egg involves a very thin coating of oil or cooking spray in a frying pan, just enough to keep the egg from sticking; ironically, this method is far healthier than the Thai method. Cai dow, by contrast, is virtually deep-fried. The oil has to be deep enough to almost submerge the egg, and hot oil is then flipped over the top with a spoon or spatula. The result is a crispy, golden-brown bottom, a lightly cooked top, with a runny yolk. It’s undeniably delicious, but uses far more oil than its Western counterpart.
This one’s a little harder to find in America, but not impossible. You’re more likely to encounter it at a festival or fair than at a restaurant due to the Department of Health’s guidelines concerning meat preparation. Naem sot is hard to describe, but is essentially raw pork that is pickled, fermented, partially dried, and shredded. It has a salty/sour/pungent flavor that is actually pretty tasty, but definitely not for novices or the faint of heart. The meat is not technically cooked; like ceviche, it is the acidity of the brine that “prepares” the pork for eating, but the fermentation and drying processes create numerous opportunities for spoilage, and the shredding process ensures that surface bacteria are thoroughly mixed throughout the dish. Naem sot is definitely a ticket into “without a safety net” territory.
Keep in mind that these dishes are almost anomalies in the otherwise healthy and nutritious Thai culinary repertoire. They are definitely not intended to frighten anyone away from enjoying real Thai food (well, maybe not naem sot…). After all, isn’t every national cuisine entitled to a few guilty pleasures?
Patrick Hayes, “Spicy Food for a Healthier Life,” AssociatedContent.com
Philip Kustner, “Coconut Milk Nutrition Facts,” 7HabitsOfWeightLoss.com
Michael Babcock, “The Truth About Coconut Oil,” ThaiFoodAndTravel.com