No question. Thai cuisine can be a pretty healthy restaurant meal choice – if you’re choosing carefully. We’re so conditioned to believe that all stir-fry dishes are healthy, and all Thai people are slim, we don’t go looking for the excess calorie loaders that typically hide in a Thai menu, waiting to upset our weight loss plans if we’re not careful.
For example, did you know that sugar is a staple ingredient of almost everything you eat at a Thai restaurant? The cuisine is based on a fine balance of salt, sweet, heat and sour, and given all the spicy heat that needs to be adjusted, there’s tons of sugar and salt even in the raw papaya salads and thin, brothy soups you’re ordering. Did you also know that meat is `silkened’ to create that amazingly soft, velvety texture before they are added to any stir-fry? And `silkening’ basically means marinating and frying the meat beforehand?
Navigating an Asian menu with exotic ingredients and different styles of cooking is hard, which is why we’re putting you on guard with a list of 5 most common culprits to watch out for at a Thai restaurant if you’re on a fitness regime. Alas, these 5 dishes are also some of the most popular ones in a Thai restaurant, so don’t hate us after reading this article. When did the path of wisdom and wise food choices ever come easy…
# 1 PAD THAI (NOODLES)
What is it about this peanut-laden noodle dish that appeals to the Western palate so much? Is it because Pad Thai is easier to pronounce than – Khanom Chin Nam Ngiao or Kuai-tiao Phat Khi Mao, which too are frontrunners in the noodles section of a Thai menu? Or is it because it’s familiar, safe and unlikely to be flamingly spicy?
Whatever the reason, Pad Thai is the stereotypical food of choice among foreign tourists in Thailand, and here in the US, where 85 per cent of restaurant orders comprise at least one portion of the noodles.
It’s rather an inconvenience, therefore, to know that Pad Thai is one of the unhealthiest things to eat in a Thai restaurant. A single dish packs as much as 1000 calories, and it could be more if the chef is feeling particularly generous with the ground peanut crumbles that day. The 40 gms of fat in Pad Thai is half of what an average person should consume in 24 hours, and the 2,500 mg of sodium is 175 per cent more than the daily allowance.
In all fairness, Thais don’t recipe this noodle stir-fry quite the same way at home. It’s a farang (foreigner) client driven thing. Pad Thai is sober, circumspect and lot less in calories when Thais make it for themselves.
# 2 GAENG (RED/GREEN/YELLOW CURRIES)
Thanks to the “stir-fry” label put on Thai cuisine by fitness fanatics, the curry section gets an easy pass. Hidden among all the salad, soups and flash fries, it is the clandestine diet wrecker, high on fried-spice flavor and almost obese with high-calorie coconut cream content.
Yes, that rich, delicious aftertaste of a good gaeng (curry) comes from concentrated coconut cream. And while we’re all indebted to the mighty coconut for its myriad health-boosting nutrients, the unexpected overload of calories in a single curry dish is mostly its fault too.
Besides the concentrated coconut milk/cream, the curry paste itself needs plenty of frying. All Thai curries begin life in a plastic package of pre-mixed spice paste (even in Thailand, nobody makes the paste at home), which needs to be fried thoroughly to kill the raw, bitter taste of fresh, ground spice. And when the finished curries are served on the table, we end up eating more rice than usual to neutralize the heat of the curries.
# 3 KHAO PAD (THAI FRIED RICE)
A blend of meats, seafood and rice that’s cooked in oil, a typical restaurant variety of Khao Pad (fried rice) can contain as much as 1200 calories. And it’s only a side dish!
A wise way to eat fried rice would be on its own, like the complete dish that it really is. If you still want to order other stir-fries and curries, sacrifice the fried rice for a bowl of steamed white or brown rice instead. In any case, the true tastes of different Thai food are totally confused when you pair everything with fried rice. Plain rice on the other hand, allows the flavors to stand out, and you can actually tell the difference between each.
# 4 TOM KHA (SOUP)
Tom Yum and Tom Kha are the two soup sovereigns in the Thai menu that even a Thai food newbie will be familiar with. While the `yum’ is a thin, sour, dangerously spicy broth that can keep your head clear of cold and congestion for months afterwards, the `kha’ is a more docile, manageable cousin that soothes and calms the palate with a gentle mix of delicate favors.
Unfortunately, all that TLC from Tom Kha comes from concentrated coconut cream. A 400-calorie bowl of tender, loving cream. See how quickly your calorie allowance can be used up right at the start of a meal?
# 5 PAD KRAPOW (BASIL STIR-FRY)
An absolute stir-fry favorite that tops the popular food list among locals in Bangkok as well. If you like stir-fries then you shouldn’t be able to resist the mere mention of Pad Krapow or Bai Gaprow or whichever other version of the name you know this dish by.
On the face of it, Pad Krapow is an innocent stir-fry and therefore a healthy choice. If you stop to notice that the ground meat is soaked in flavorful oil, and the holy basil leaves have been deep fried to release that heaven-in-a-mouthful flavor, the deception is quickly over.
# 6 SWEET THAI TEA
The Thai beverage made from strongly-brewed Ceylon tealeaves tastes like no tea we’ve ever tasted – and not just because it’s traditionally served cold. Mixed with orange blossom water, star anise, crushed tamarind seeds and food coloring, it’s nothing like the more familiar Indian version – Masala Chai – either. All we know is during a Thai meal, the Thai tea is the savior that provides sweet, cold relief from the worst of the spice assault of bird chillis and galangal.
It’s discouraging really to know that Thai tea is prepared in – not cream, not whole milk, but sweetened condensed milk. A staple in many Asian desserts and sweet drinks, the rich, heavy condensed milk content pushes the calorie meter to about 400 calories per glass. And be honest, you need at least 2-3 glasses of the tea to not go insensible with the unrelenting spice burn on your tongue from a Thai meal in progress.