Street Dining In Bangkok
Prepared by Harold Stephens
Travel Correspondent for Thai Airways International
Visitors who arrive in Bangkok for the first time are always awed by the display of food they see being sold on the streets. You can almost say that Bangkok is one continuous kitchen.
The many restaurants we see on all the avenues—with their flashing neons—are understandable, but then there are the tables set up on sidewalks right in front of the restaurants. These too are serving food, and that's not all. Walking down the sidewalks with trays of food supported by straps around their necks are huskers selling various condiments like nuts and seeds and even roasted insects.
Where else can this happen but in Thailand?
Most street food is both finger and fast food and is available on the street for a fraction of the cost of a restaurant meal. Concerns of cleanliness and freshness often discourage people from eating street food. Lack of refrigeration is often construed as a lack of cleanliness or hygiene; but on the other hand, street food often uses particularly fresh ingredients for this very reason. And what can go wrong with a steam-hot bowl of mee soup?
Street food is considered fast food and snack food. Considering that Thais usually eat five times a day, street food is very convenient. Street food is also connected with take-out food for those office workers who don't want to leave their offices and for construction workers who want to remain on their sites. Such street food can be purchased on the sidewalk without the need to enter any building. Whole meals, even hot soups, come in plastic bags.
Street dining starts early in the morning. Bowls of "jok” (rice porridge), is commonly eaten in Thailand for breakfast. It can be eaten with salted duck eggs, lettuce, bamboo shoots, and red pork or century eggs. In other parts of Asia it's called "congee." A bowl of rice porridge is a great way to start off the day. We wonder why the Thais remain thin. Maybe it's because they don't start the day with fried eggs, slabs of bacon, side dishes of mashed potatoes, and stacks of toast with butter.
By mid-morning other vendors begin to set up shop. It's a mystery where they hide away their portable stalls. By noon the streets are crowded with pedestrians with choosy looks trying to decide what they want to eat. Many of the choices are tempting: skewers of baked chicken, fresh from the braziers; corn on the cob; fish and squid; and so much more.
Street food in Thailand includes noodle dishes, among which are pad Thai, pad naa (flat noodles with beef, pork, or chicken and vegetables, topped with a light gravy), and its twin, pad see (same flat noodles dry-fried without gravy, with a dark soy sauce, vegetables, meat, and chili). Other dishes include torn yum kung (a soup), khao pad (fried rice), various kinds of satay, and various curries.
Japanese chikuwa and German sausages have also appeared in
Bangkok. Klong food has been sold from boats on Thailand's rivers and canals for over two centuries but, since the early 20th century filling in of the klongs to make way for roads, such food has virtually disappeared. But not completely. Visit the Ancient City and one can still dine on klong food served from tiny sampans.
One of the most common dishes in Thailand is fried rice, Thai style. It is served with chicken, beef, shrimp, pork, and crab, or coconut or pineapple, or vegetarian. Learn to say khao pad, and perhaps torn yam soup, and you don’t need to know anything else. Well, almost.
The other most famous Thai dish, the one I just mentioned is torn yam, that hot and sour soup that is sometimes so hot it almost melt the spoon that comes with it. With shrimp it is called torn yam goong; or torn yam kung with seafood (typically shrimp, squid, fish); and with chicken torn yam gai. You might say that torn yam is the national dish but it is surprising how the taste can differ from shop to shop. I find a shop that serves good khao pad and torn yam and I keep going back to the same one.
Then we come to the Thai desserts. Make-shift food stalls usually do not sell desserts but often nearby are more permanent side kitchens that will have a display of tempting desserts. Among
these, and my favorite, is kao niao ma muang (sticky rice and ripe mango). Another favorite is gluay buad chee (banana in coconut milk). Foi tong, tong yib, and tong yod are different forms of egg yolk mixed with sugar and other ingredients. Each one is an experience by itself. Coconut milk is used in a lot of dishes as the soup or base, and some of the desserts are rolled in shredded coconut for taste and appearance.
It's all there — some great food — in the streets of Bangkok (and most other towns and cities in Thailand). You can be sure, it will be authentic. But I must tell readers one last story. There was a restaurant in Patpong where I enjoyed eating. The food was excellent. Then one day I discovered after the waitress would take my order she would hand the slip of paper to the busboy who would go outside to a street vendor and order the food. It wasn’t for all dishes but a good many.
If one is in doubt about dining on street food, he or she can stick to things like boiling hot soups and dishes. I don’t mean spicy hot; I mean boiling hot.
My one last tip and that is for the best mee soup in Thailand. If you go to The Oriental, now called the Mandarin Oriental, there is a small alley, or soi, before arriving at the hotel. In the alley is a portable soup kitchen. The smiling chef serves the best mee soup in town. I have my soup there whenever I can. That is a treat that I maybe haven’t told to many people.
QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
Q, Dear ROH. I am very interested in your Fly-drive programme. I see that there are many different types. Would it be possible to rent a car in Bangkok and drive all the way thought Malaysia to Singapore? Thanks you. Jane Samson, Seattle, WA,
A Dear Jane, I am sorry but that is impossible. Rental vehicles are licensed only for Thailand. It is possible however to drive to Hai Jai, drop your rental car off there, and catch a shuttle bus to Penang and rent a car there to drive to Johore across from Singapore. Singapore these days has some tough restriction on vehicles entering the country. Rental cars cannot enter but once you are in Singapore you can ran a car there. You can leave your car in Johore and get a bus across the causeway into Singapore. It is a bit more complicated but it is possible. Good travelling. —HS
E-mail: ROH Weekly Travel (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: The article is the personal view of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the view of Thai Airways International Public Company Limited.