Thai Menu Words: Why Can't My Server Understand Me?

Posted on 21 Mar 2012 15:50

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The other day I was calling in a carry out order to my favorite Thai restaurant. I asked for the "pra" which is a hot and spicy salad I prefer with minced chicken. If all you've ever gotten are the Thai're missing out. Anyway, I said, "pra" exactly how it was spelled in those Roman letters on the menu page..and the guy on the other
end, nice as he could be, could not understand what in the heck I was saying.

Pra, I said.

Pra, he says, sounding confused.

Yes, pra, I reply.

Heh says he, pra?

I try one more time. Pra, I pronounce very carefully.

Aaaaahhhh, pra! he trills, as if we've not only found, but unlocked the secrets of the holy grail. And to be honest I kind of felt the same way. There is nothing more alienating than to think you are communicating but having the other person find you incomprehensible.

See, me, I am not one of those white folks who would have thought this failure was the other gentleman's fault. I understood that there was some subtle nuance or inflection I was missing. It would be different if Thai food words, or other words, were borrowed words, common in the English language, then I could pronounce it the American way, and he would have no trouble understanding me. But there are no borrowed words from the Thai language (formerly called Siamese) that I know of. They are all still very much "foreign" to our language.

When he finally repeated the correct word back to me, I could hear no difference, but I knew there was a difference. Now, when I order that dish and they understand me even though I butcher the pronunciation, I take it as a gift. Sometimes, when I try to order a Thai dish without just giving the number, I may as well be saying "blah, blah, blah." But if I actually said that to a Thai person, I'd be saying "fish, fish, fish." Which I guess could work, come to think of it, when ordering dinner.

Thai Green Curry (Gang Keaw Warn, Gaeng Keow Wan)

Thai Green Curry (Gaeng Keow Wan)
Image by Thai Jasmine via flickr

Thai Green Curry (Gang Keaw Warn, Gaeng Keow Wan)

Thai Green Curry (Gaeng Keow Wan)
Image by Thai Jasmine via flickr

It turns out that Thai is like other Asian languages. It is a tonal language. It has five tones: low, high, mid, rising, and falling. Depending on how you pronounce the word, it can have a completely different meaning. In other words, if I pronounced pra as if it had a question mark on the end - pra? - with a 'rising' tone, it could mean something utterly different. I don't know if that is the case with this particular word, but that's how it goes with tonal languages. To me, I would be asking a question, like, "pra, what is pra?" To a Thai person, I'd be mean a different thing altogether.

The word for rice in Thai, Khao, is also the word for white, mountain, news, he/she, knee or even "to enter." That might also be spelled, in an effort to transliterate the sounds, as kào or kâo. The first is a low tone, making the word mean white and the second is a falling tone, making the word mean rice. And it doesn't even end there. A low tone would mean news, for instance.

Okay, so the word khao, may also be spelled as kao, with or without the funny a, on a Thai menu. You may just as commonly see it spelled kow. Here's another doozy, the word for stir-fry, a fairly important one for a Thai menu, is pad. That might be spelled as phad, pat, phat, pud, put, or phud. There is no systematized or agreed upon way to spell Thai words with Roman letters. Many Thai people could probably not make sense of a Thai menu written in this way!

Thai dish Drunken Noodles or Drunkard's Noodles (Gueyteow Pad Ki Mow)

Drunken or Drunkard's Noodles (Gueyteow Pad Ki Mow)1

Thai dish Drunken Noodles or Drunkard's Noodles (Gueyteow Pad Ki Mow)

Drunken or Drunkard's Noodles (Gueyteow Pad Ki Mow)2

By the way, the Thai word for curry is gaeng, or kaeng (pronounced with a g like "gang"). But for some reason, there are lots of dishes in my Thai cookbook that use both the word Gaeng and "kari" (the origin of word curry) in their name. Weird. Seems redundant, at first glance. Then I realized that those recipes that used both the word "gaeng" and "kari" were curries which used curry powder along with the Thai curry paste ingredients. The Thai call curry powder, which they are familiar with but use only in a few Chinese inspired dishes, phong kari or pong kari (kàrìi).

Gaeng seemed to denote the style of dish in general, spicy sauced meat and/or vegetables, and kari simply denotes the Anglicized curry spices that gave rise to the word curry, if I'm not mistaken. However, I don't know how often the word Kari is actually used in Thai dishes outside it's several uses in my cookbook. Apparently, kàrìi is also Thai slang for prostitute, so the author may have been having a bit of fun with his Western readers. A bit more research led me to find that the word kaeng denotes any dish with a lot of liquid, and so it can also refer to soups.

Yam style Thai salad

Yam Style Thai Salad

Yam style Thai salad

Yam Style Thai Salad

According to Author Joe Cummings, one curry dish, called Kaeng kari kai, is the only time the word kari is used in Thai cuisine, but I am unable to substantiate this. Kaeng kari kai is the curry that most closely resembles a true Indian Curry. However, you and I are probably more familiar with the famous Massaman Curry, kaeng mátsàman, which means literally Muslim curry.1 This is a southern Thai dish, and, although it more resembles an Indian curry, it is influenced by Thailand's Islamic Southern neighbor, Malaysia. Personally, Massaman tends to be too sweet for me, at least here in the states, and I prefer the more fiery Thai curries.

A list of words not help your Thai waiter understand you, unless you order Pad Thai, that is, which is never misunderstood. Pad Thai is one of those cases where the name of the dish is simplified. Pad Thai simply means "fried Thai style" or something to that effect. For instance, Kow Pad Thai or Khao Pad Thai is Thai fried rice. It's just that the Pad Thai we know, with the noodles is so darned famous. It would be more properly known, however, as Gueyteow Pad Thai or some variation thereof. It is amazing how many people say that Pad Thai literally means "stir fried noodles", when it is only understood as meaning that, but more literally means stir fried, Thai fried, or Thai stir fried. And by people I mean people who write cookbooks. I can understand the mistake, say, in a blog post, but I would expect a few minutes of research for a book.

Thai hot and sour catfish soup (Tom Yam Pla Buek or Tom Yum Pla Buek

Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Catfish
(Tom Yam Plah Buek or Tom Yum Pla Buek)
Plah Buek is the Mae Khong Giant Catfish

Thai hot and sour catfish soup (Tom Yam Pla Buek or Tom Yum Pla Buek

Thai Hot and Sour Soup with Catfish
(Tom Yam Plah Buek or Tom Yum Pla Buek)
Plah Buek is the Mae Khong Giant Catfish

So on with some lingo you can impress your friends and annoy the wait staff with. Remember that all of these words are subject to any number of alternate spellings. So it's the sounds that are trying to be represented, as there is no one way to spell them with our alphabet. I'll try to give as many alternate spelling as reasonable.

Common Thai Food Words

  • Ah-hahn: The correct word for food, combined with times of the day to indicate standard meal times, but the word for rice, Kao, or kow, has become the general word for food, being such a fundamental part of Thai cuisine.
  • Pet: Spicy (phet), which more accurately reflects something like "pungent"
  • Kom: Bitter
  • Whan: Sweet
  • Phat, Phad, Pad: Fried
  • Tort, Thawt: Deep fried.
  • Op: Baked
  • Nerng: Steamed
  • Tom: Boiled, used for many soups that are in the category tom yam, or boiled yam.
  • Yam: Salad, some sources say it means 'sour salad'. Short break for a word on salads and soups and the word yam…
  • Nam : Water or "sauce."

Thai Soups and Salads

Yam are usually described as hot and tangy salads. The yam section of the menu, is my favorite, but it is small as most Thai restauranteurs think we can't handle them. The guys at my place are still surprised when I order from this section. These yam salads are usually translated on the menu as "Thai style salad" or "hot and sour salad." I absolutely cannot get enough of them. You may not have had a Thai hot and sour salad, but you've probably had Tom yam which are a type of soup that are hot and sour. Usually spelled tom yum soup on the menus, it's really a category of soups, rather than one specific soup, but lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, lime juice, and, if you're lucky, lots of chiles and maybe some chile paste (nam prik). Galangal and coriander may also be in. Don't eat the resembles ginger root and is there for flavor. Your menu may just say "hot and sour soup" or "hot and sour Thai soup". Don't get this mixed up with Chines hot and sour soup. They are worlds apart and tom yum is much much more spicy and tangy, plus does not use vinegar for the sourness. Examples are Tom Yam Goong, Tom Yam Talay, Tom Yam Sum, Tom Yum Koong, Tom Yum Gai (yam or yum might be used for all). Most likely, if you had one of these soups in Thailand, you would not eat it alone, but with rice, or it would blow your head off.

There are also some "tom" tangy soups with coconut milk, probably the most popular in the U.S. (I love those too). This is called Tom Ka Gai (tom hah gai), which translates literally to boiled galangale chicken but is usually called chicken coconut soup. The coconut soup counters the chiles so if you've never tried a Thai yam soup and you aren't sure about the heat, ask for chicken coconut soup for your first try..they'll know what you mean.

The other kind of Thai soups are Gaeng jeut or keang jeut. Remember I mentioned above that gaeng, the word for curry can mean any kind of liquid dish, including soups. Gaeng soups are the opposite of tom yams, being mild broths with soy or fish sauce. There are many types of gaeng soup, which would make sense being it's a simple broth to which you could add almost anything. But some common ingredients are mung bean starch noodles (wun sen), tofu (dow hoo), Chinese radish (hoo-a chai tow) and ground pork (moo sap).3. These soups may also have a touch of sour, bitter, or sweet, but are not spicy hot like the yams.

  • Kai: Egg
  • Neua Sat: Meat
  • Gai: Chicken
  • Moo: Pork
  • Neua: Beef
  • Ah-hahn ta lair: Seafood (ah-bahn talay)
  • Plah: Fish (blah), prounced with a "b" sound.
  • Nam Pla : Thai fermented fish sauce.
  • Gung: Prawn, shrimp
  • Plah merk: Squid (bla meuk).
  • Boo: Crab
  • Bet: Duck
  • kow: rice (khao, kao, kaou, etc.) Boiled rice is called kao suay.
  • Gueyteow: Noodles (goo-ay dee-o)
  • Prik: The Thai word for chile peppers.
      • Prik kee noo or Prik Khee noo suan: The peppers that are often called Thai chiles. Prik knee noo translates, disturbingly, as "mouse-dropping-chiles" but this refers to how they look when dried. A common name for them is "Bird's Eye Chiles." (prik ki nu, prik khii nuu).
      • Prik kee nu kaset: Serrano type chiles (prik khee noo kaset0.
      • Prik kee nu fah: Also called prik chee far, is cayenne chiles (phrik chii faa).
      • Prik yuak: A yellow hot and waxy variety.
      • Prik num: Long, green New Mexican chiles
      • Prik haeng: Dried red chiles (phrik haeng).
      • Prik pon: Red chile powder.
      • Nam prik: Chile sauce (literally means "chili water")
      • Nam prik pao: Chile tamarind paste.
  • Pak, Phak: Vegetables.
  • Ma-ra jeen: Bitter melon.
  • Gro-tee am: Garlic
  • Hoo-a horm: Onion
  • Daan gwah: Cucumber
  • Ma-keu a: Eggplant.
  • Dork ga-lam: Cauliflower
  • Man fa-rang: Potato (not very popular but it's in a few dishes, like Massaman).
  • Fak torng: Pumpkin
  • Peu-ak: Taro
  • Makeu-a tet: Tomato
  • Ma now: Lime
  • Ma prow: Coconut
  • Ma moo-ang: Mango
  • Sap ba-rot: Pineapple
  • Bee-a: Beer (yep).
  • Wai: Wine.
  • Cha: Tea chah yen is iced tea..Thai ice tea rules.

Here I've gone and listed all these words, best I can anyway, and I realize I've left out the word that started my on this fit of research. Pra. My restaurant, under Hot and Sour Dishes, which is separate from Thai Salads, there is a favorite of mine which is simply labelled pra with no other words. I figured it was a general word, and perhaps another word for salad, but I wasn't sure. According to the website for Madam Mam's Thai Cuisine Restaurant in Austin:

This is a salad found near the coasts in which fresh shrimp have had their shells split down the middle and are very briefly blanched; then they are dressed with lime juice and aromatics. The salad is what the Thais call ‘cured’, meaning that the shrimp is partially ‘cooked’ by the acid in the lime juice, much like a Latino ceviche.5

This doesn't seem to have anything to do with the dish I order, which is a salad, like a yam, for which you can choose shrimp, chicken, squid, tofu, or beef. Pra goong seems to refer to a shrimp salad on many menus.

The word phra which could easily be mistaken for the same word, turns out to mean 'venerable one' or 'exalted', used for priests or monks. I still am not sure that "pra" is, except what I know it as from the restaurant, but I am wondering if the guy taking my order that time though I was calling him "venerable one" or something! I never did have a gift for languages, except for Latin, but only because they never expected me to speak it.

Say Hello in Thai

Years ago, before I every had and inkling of this blog post and understood any of the menu words, I took a few moments to memorize on important Thai phrase: Sa Wad Dee. Pronounce it how it is spelled and you'll do fine to the delight of the folks at your Thai restaurant. Remember, Thai people are not like the French, they won't get insulted if you mispronounce a word. They will appreciate the effort. Besides hello, there is one other very important word, perhaps even more so: Khob Khun. It means thank you.

Other Helpful Articles and Resources

Instant Thai: How to Express 1,000 Different Ideas with Just 100 Key Words and Phrases!

How to Read and Pronounce a Thai Menu

Talking Thai / English Dictionary Android Application and iPhone, iPad Application

1. Cummings, Joe. Thailand. Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2003
2. Lohaunchit, Kasma. Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
3. Burke, Andrew, and Austin Bush. Bangkok. Footscray, Vic.: Lonely Planet, 2010.
4. "Thai Language." Know Phucket. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <>.
5. "Madam Mam Articles." Madam Mam's Noodle and More. Web. 21 Mar. 2012. <>.

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