What Makes Thai Food So Unique And Popular?

Thai food, along with Japanese, Chinese, and Korean are the most well-known and popular Asian foods in the world.  It stands alone as being very unique unto itself and isn’t closely similar to any other Asian cuisines, except Khmer and Laotian, which developed to some extent from Thailand.

What really makes Thai food unique?  How popular is it?  What are the most famous dishes?  Why are there not more Thai restaurants in the International market?  What opportunities exist to bring Thai food to your local area, and as an investor does it make sense to do so?  These are the questions we will consider in this article.  The next article entitled “What Thai restaurant brands are available in the Middle East and Asia?” will cover some well-known and interesting Thai brands that are currently expanding in our region and maybe available for your city.

What Is Thai Cuisine?  What Makes It Unique?

Thai food is extremely flexible and is constantly changing.  They are experts at incorporating foreign foods and making it “Thai” and part of their cuisine.  Many of their dishes can use virtually any protein or be vegetarian, for example you can have a red, green, yellow, or massaman curry with beef, chicken, pork, seafood, or just vegetables.  This means 20 total combinations for just 1 dish!

Thai cuisine is all about the balance or juggling of multiple elements to create a certain complex flavor.  Thai food is not simple.  They typically fall into 4 categories boiled food, salads, pounded foods (mortar and pestle), and curries.  They also use a lot of bbq, steamed, deep and stir fries that originally came from China but are now part of their cuisine.  You can start to see the massive variety.  There are also 5 key flavors in Thai food that are balanced in each dish.  Sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy.  All Thai dishes have 3-5 of these present and it’s that complexity that wows people’s pallets again and again.  What also adds to the variety is the 5 quite different regional cuisines.  From Bangkok with its Chinese and Portuguese influences, to the central region which focuses on rice and coconut milk, NE to Isan with its Khmer influences, across to the Northern forested mountains, and finally to the south with its high focus on spices, chili, seafood, and even a touch of Malay influence.

There is always something for everyone in Thai cuisine and for most people always something you haven’t tried yet.

How Popular Is Thai Food?

Of course this is hard to quantify, and for every article or study that exists there will be another that contradicts it.  Just as a random sampling though, you can see some trends here:

Almost no matter the source, the year, or the data, there is no doubt that Thai food ranks high not only in comparisons of other Asian foods, but even when compared to all the various cuisines in the world!  You will find more Thai dishes in almost any list of top dish studies, and Thai food in general typically ranks in the top 10 (and normally in the top 5).  Thai food is in demand regardless of where you live in the world.

What Are The Most Famous Thai Dishes?

So, we see how popular Thai food is in general, but what are the most popular and best dishes?  Before we name a few that I am sure you will recognize, we need to understand an important fact, briefly mentioned above.  Thai food has 5 main flavors: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and spicy.  Almost every dish has some combination of 3-5 of these.  No Thai dish has only 1 predominate flavor.

While a matter of preference, the items below tend to top most lists:

  • Tom Yum (sometimes called Tom Yam) is a hot and sour soup, usually cooked with shrimp. It uses lemongrass, kaffir lime, and galangal as its main spices.  Colorful and delicious it can be an appetizer or a main dish and is likely served at every Thai restaurant in the world
  • Thai curry is very flexible and has red, green, and yellow (also Massaman) varieties depending on the chilis used. It can also be made with chicken, fish, shrimp, seafood, beef, pork, or full vegetarian.  They vary from Japanese and Indian curry due to the spices and herbs used as well as the use of coconut milk
  • Satay, which simply means seasoned skewered and grilled meat or vegetables. Malaysia, Indonesia, and Thailand are all famous for satay.  The Thai version is uses coconut milk, curry powder, and peanuts which makes it unique.  It is typically served as an appetizer.
  • Pad Thai is a stir fried noodle dish, common on the streets of Bangkok. Like curry, it can use a wide variety of proteins, and then adds bean sprouts and other vegetables, a salty sweet sauce, and finished with a lime and peanuts
  • Green papaya salad (Som tam), originated from NE Thailand in a province called Isan. It is one of the spiciest dishes in Thai cuisine and not for the faint of heart.  Its combination of spicy, sour, salty and sweet all at once is simply unique and amazing
  • Mango Sticky Rice, a simple yet delicious dessert using special Thai sticky rice, coconut cream, and fresh sweet Thai mangoes, sometimes topped with sesame seeds. Most people find it not too sweet and a satisfying end to any Thai meal

Why Are There Not More Thai Restaurants In The International Market?

If you have read all of the information above, you might already know the answer to this question.  Thai food is not one of the world’s easiest cuisines to cook.  It is time and work intensive, and requires good training and lots of practice.

Also, Thai people like living in Thailand.  There are roughly 57 million Thai people in Thailand and only 2.7 million Thai expats (less than 5%).  This is very low compared to most Asian countries.  This slows the expansion of Thai restaurants internationally compared to many cuisines.

Lastly, is a personal experience and not related to any study.  I find Thai people don’t like spending much money on Thai food, mostly because they feel their family cooks it much better at home, or that the street Thai food for a few dollars is often just as good as the upscale expensive restaurants.  They spend on other cuisines when they go out to eat.  I find that Thai travelers do not seek out Thai restaurants like Japanese travelers seek Japanese food, or Vietnamese seek Vietnamese food.  This also leads to less Thai people who live overseas opening Thai restaurants.

What Opportunities Exist To Bring Thai Food To Your Local Area, And As An Investor Does It Make Sense To Do So?

From the information above, we see 2 key points when considering franchising a Thai restaurant brand.  First, there is huge potential for Thai food in almost every country and city in the world.  There are very few, if any, places that are saturated with good Thai restaurants.  I have lived many places that didn’t have any or at least any good Thai food, and only a places that had a good Thai restaurant (that was always extremely busy).  Second, it is a bit complex.  Thai food, the menu, even store designs, branding, and marketing are a challenge as people have a certain expectation that needs to be fulfilled, even while establishing your own identity.  So, while there is a market need and a good investment opportunity, it is extremely difficult to do without strong brand support.

When looking for Thai brands, it is not always so easy.  For example, one quite well-known brand, Thai express was actually Singaporean.  Its first store was in Singapore, and as far as I know has never operated any units in Thailand.  There are a number of Thai brands that are similar, also started by non-Thai companies when they too saw a market demand.

I, however, am of the firm belief that people know Thai cuisine well enough to demand authentic food.  The first people who will go to any new Thai restaurant in a market will be people who like Thai food, maybe even local Thai expats, and giving them some American or other countries version will just disappoint and lead to bad reviews and social media, and ultimately could lead to failure.  However, if we deliver them tasty authentic food and meet their expectations we have the reverse effect and become an almost instant success.

At VF Franchise Consulting, we took these facts into consideration when we chose a Thai brand to represent.  We picked one that began and still remains based in Thailand, with a long history of domestic and international success, and who supplies its franchisees with certain ingredients to keep their food authentic no matter where in the world it may be served.

Keep an eye out for our next article on “What Thai restaurant brands are available in the Middle East and Asia?” for a detailed discussion about the Mango Tree and Mango Chili Thai brands.  You may also check the links below for more information.

Mango Tree is part of the COCA group with a long 63 year history.  You may watch their special 60th anniversary video here:

(345) 60th COCA Restaurant – YouTube

Or a full webinar about COCA, Mango Tree, Mango Chili, and Yenly Yours brands here:

(345) Thai Restaurant – COCA Hotpot & Mango Tree Franchise Webinar – YouTube

Thai food continue to be extremely popular all around Asia, the Middle East, and the Asia Pacific region.  Trevor and his experienced team are always looking for great new partners around the world to help them expand further.  You may read more about Mango Tree at the link below.  If you are interested to discuss bringing this amazing hot pot brand to your local territory, please contact us at [email protected]

Mango Tree:

MANGO TREE® – VF Franchise Consulting

There are many QSR, Fast casual, and premium restaurant brands that are actively seeking expansion in Asia.  To see some available in your country, check out our website:

Franchise Opportunities – VF Franchise Consulting

Robert Beausoleil is a franchise consultant and has been visiting Asia for 25 years, and has lived in Vietnam for more than 12 years.  He works as the Director of Business Development and Franchise Operations for VF Franchise Consulting.  He has extensive experience in franchising, both as a franchisors and as a franchisee.  You may contact him at [email protected] or on LinkedIn @ linkedin.com/in/robert-beausoleil-6a0027b1

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