Eating Out in Thailand
by Michael Babcock
You might also enjoy Kasma's Thai Street Food.
On my first trip to Thailand in 1992 I arrived in Bangkok around midnight. By the time I'd gotten through customs and arrived at the hotel it was about 2:30 in the morning. We went out and crossed Sukhumvit Road to go to the Soi 38 night market where it was lit up like daytime. Dozens of people sat eating at a dozen or so different stalls set up right in the street. My first meal in Thailand consisted of duck noodles from a street vendor at 3:00 in the morning. Welcome to Thailand!
Food is possibly the best part of Thailand – the restaurants, the open-air markets, the street food, the immense variety of food found almost everywhere. I'm married to Kasma Loha-unchit, a Thai cooking teacher, cookbook author and leader of trips to Thailand. She estimates that the number of Thai dishes we see in United States restaurants is about 5% of the number available in Thailand. At times the Thai food scene is overwhelming – it is a colorful, tasty, world of the senses.
I've taken a number of observations about the food scene in Thailand and turned them into an article about some of the options you have for eating out in Thailand.
I divide most Thai restaurants into two categories: stand-alone restaurants and store-front restaurants. The main difference seems to be that the "stand-alone" restaurants are more similar to restaurants here – perhaps it is merely that they are run more professionally as opposed to the store-front kind. The store-front variety, often family-run, typically are found as part of a group of store-fronts and just happen to be serving food. Usually they have some sort of food display out front so you can see how fresh things are and select seafood to be cooked. They may be noodle shops – in which case they'll have noodles displayed along with the type of meat that goes in the noodle. Décor is usually minimal or non-existent.
One of my favorite store-front eateries is on Sukhumvit road just before Soi 55 (Tawng Law), right next to a little alleyway leading to the Grand Tower Guest House and Inn. A fairly extensive display case shows vegetables and seafood of all varieties. We probably eat there three or four times a trip. It used to be just a store front open to traffic but a couple years ago they glassed in half of the space and added air-conditioning. It is a family-run operation – the same folks have been there since I started coming to Thailand ten years ago. They make a really good dried crispy fish salad (yum bplah krawb), a good pak boong fai daeng (stir-fried morning glory with chillies) and, if the fish looks good, we might get a pompano steamed with Chinese celery and sour plum. The food is good, not great, by Thai standards.
We don't frequent many of the high-end restaurants. The luncheon buffet at the Oriental hotel had some of the prettiest food I'd ever seen but bland. For those who think presentation is 50% of cooking it would be great. I prefer to eat at other places with more flavorful food.
There are an large number of outstanding restaurants in Thailand. On Kasma's trips it seems like every day we get a memorable, delicious meal. Before too long the expectation goes beyond merely good food to expecting great food. By the end of the trip, a meal that would have been considered excellent before the trip becomes just another example of the Thai love of good food.
On occasion we have been guests at more expensive Thai restaurants – often featuring seafood (which can be more expensive). The food at the three or four where we have dined tended to be a bit more Chinese than Thai and also fairly bland. Give me cheaper, spicy Thai food any day!
One thing that westerners must be wary of in Thai restaurants in Thailand comes from the Thai proclivity to wanting people to be happy. In many places, particularly in touristed areas, the restaurants have had experiences with westerners who could not eat spicy food so they have a tendency to bland the food down. On the trips Kasma sometimes has to convince the restaurants that she wants the food cooked as if they were serving Thai people. My suggestion is to learn a few Thai phrases so that you can tell them that you want it prepared "Thai style" and that you are able to eat spicy (hot) food.
Street food is alive and flourishing in Thailand. It is one of the mysteries of Thailand that although the country sometimes seems to be a vast, open air food market and eatery there are myriads of anorexic young people.
In Bangkok we stay at a hotel on Sukhumvit Road right at "Thong Lo" (but pronounced "Tawng Law" – Sukhumvit Soi 55). On the street there is food of all varieties at all time of the day and night – from fresh fruits (mangos, Thai oranges, longan, apples from Washington, strawberries, durian, rambutan, mangosteen) to coconut rice pancakes (kanom krok, available in the morning, see Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok) to mouth-watering trays of prepared foods such as curries, basil pork and Chinese broccoli with oyster sauce. One of our favorite vendors grills sour sausage (succulent with rice grains), sticky rice and haw moek (a fish curry mousse). Another favorite is the night stall with kao ka moo, savory stewed pork leg served over rice with pickled vegetables. Another woman grills chicken livers and pork – her radiant smile proof that someone can be happy cooking on the noisy, polluted streets of Bangkok for almost no money.
Across the street on Soi 38 is a night market where every night the streets are lined with vendors in their carts selling everything from Thai food cooked to order to noodles to fresh fruit drinks or satay. We would eat by grazing – starting from the hotel we bought whatever caught our eyes and noses, finally making our way to one cart where we ordered vegetables cooked to order and served over rice.
At the night market it doesn't matter where you sit: if the chairs where you order are full, sit across the way. The vendors seem to know it will all work out. The vendors don't appear to be in competition with one another, they prefer the spirit of cooperation.
Street food is the ultimate form of capitalism. All you need to start out is a heat source and some food to cook. One vendor was grilling sausages over a large enamel bowl with coals and a grill on top. If the food is good, the vendor flourishes and grows. If the food is no good, no one eats it – instant feedback.
In touristed areas there is less street food but usually you need only walk a little ways toward a residential street and there it is again. This year we noticed a renewal of "hawkers" – vendors carrying their wares in two baskets suspended on a bamboo pole. There were several regulars on our street; one sold plastic bags with a dozen type of kanoms (Thai snacks and sweets); another sold roasted banana and eggs grilled right in one of the baskets; another sold fruit and yet another sold prepared food.
Many people are somewhat afraid to eat street food. I figure that you only need to make sure the vendor and equipment look clean, the ingredients look fresh and then eat only food that is still warm from cooking or that you saw cooked right in front of you. The one time I got sick from street food, I had eaten raw vegetables. Certainly it is wise to be cautious but we shouldn't forget the many incidents in the United States where contamination occurred in presumably safe processed and packaged food. One incident will suffice: in December 1998 Sara Lee recalled thirty-five million (that's right, 35,000,000) pounds of hot dog and luncheon meats that were contaminated with listeria monocytogenes. Fifteen people died, six women miscarried and 80 people became severely ill from eating the contaminated meat. (Thanks to "Caustic Commentary" by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig in the Winter 2002 Wise Traditions for this item.) So which is more dangerous? The worst thing I've ever heard anyone getting from street food is a day or two of the runs.
Fast Food Proliferation
One discouraging trend in Thailand is the increase in the number of western fast-food outlets. The most visible were McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken (300 outlets nationwide) and Dunkin' Doughnuts, with Swenson's, Baskin &Robbins, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen and others beginning to appear in greater numbers. In many locations they are the most prominent stores of any kind, particularly in the newer malls. Even in the domestic air terminal in Bangkok, it is easier to get western fast food than simple, ordinary Thai food: we had to walk downstairs and go out of the way to get the same cheap, healthy Thai food that is available everywhere in Thailand.
Unfortunately, western fast food replaces a much healthier Thai fast food – noodles, grilled meats, curries and pre-cooked Thai dishes served over rice. Most of these fast food chains originate in America, where one estimate has 61% of all adults overweight or obese and 20% suffering from a degenerative illness. The fast food chains, with their large amounts of hydrogenated vegetable oils and sugar rather than vital, nutrient-dense foods surely are one of the reasons for this poor health.
Culturally, the chains replace Thai simplicity and elegance with ugly, garish plastic and they replace the spirit of cooperation with competition – you are not welcome to bring in outside food at these places. The chains aim for uniformity – every dish the same everywhere, replacing the wonderful variety and the creativity of Thai cooks where fifty versions by fifty different cooks will be slightly different but each delicious.
All over there is a proliferation of processed western food. One stall at a shopping center featured "Cup O' Noodles" – pre-made dehydrated noodles and vegetables in a styrofoam cup – just add water. This in a country where fresh noodles in delicious bone broths are found nearly everywhere. It is a mystery why anyone would willingly eat these prepackaged, tasteless noodles when healthy, fresh noodles are so widely available. Another stall featured puffy white toast with various sugary toppings and margarine (loaded with trans fatty acids). In general, it is getting easier and easier to buy the calorie empty, nutrient lacking desserts that westerners seem to favor.
Non-Thai Food in Thailand
This year I was struck by the large number of ads for non-Thai restaurants – Italian, French, Japanese, Indian – anything you could want. I was reminded of many years ago when Kasma's family took us to a trendy (at that time) Italian restaurant. Unlike ethnic restaurants in the states where the staff usually mirrors the ethnicity, the staff was all Thai. The food was Thai-Italian – not quite Italian and not quite Thai – Thai-flavored Italian food.
This year we ate at one of the large number of nearby Japanese restaurants built to accommodate the Japanese businessmen at a hotel in the area. I realized how difficult it is to transfer a culture when we were greeted by a Thai woman in a kimono: one would never mistake her for Japanese – she was much to bouncy. The food was not dissimilar to the Japanese food we get in United States – I have no way of knowing if it resembled food in Japan. It was one of the most expensive meals we ate in Thailand – three or four times a typical Thai restaurant meal and yet still one-half or one-third the price for an equivalent Japanese meal in Oakland, California. We were the only non-Japanese customers in sight.
Why anyone actually would want to eat anything other than Thai food in Thailand is beyond me. I speculate that the main clientele of these restaurants comes from foreigners hoping for home cooking. The time Kasma's parents took us to a French restaurant I came out feeling very heavy indeed – the cuisine did not fit the hot and humid weather of Bangkok in the least!
Even Thai International Airlines flight gets into the act of serving western food. On our flight from Chiang Mai to Bangkok we were served a mediocre box lunch containing exclusively western food. I expected the Thai government owned and operated national airline to proudly showcase one of the best parts of their culture. Their failure to even offer Thai food as an option is incomprehensible. Why serve bad western food when there is so much delicious Thai food?
This year there was an explosion of places serving coffee; there is now even a Thai coffeehouse chain, Black Canyon, that serves western-style food along with some standard Thai fare. Many gas stations and shopping malls now have espresso bars – the two or three that I tried had surprisingly good coffee. In the past most coffee drunk in Thailand was in the form of gkafae yen – iced coffee served with evaporated and sweetened condensed milk – almost a liquid candy. I do not know the extent to which Thais are now becoming coffee drinkers.
Thai Restaurant Chains
I have found through the years that the best Thai food is usually found in one-of-a-kind restaurants ranging from rather posh to hole-in-the-walls to street food stalls. For instance, one of our favorite restaurants is in on old wooden house in Krabi; another is a middle-of-the road (pricewise) restaurant behind a gas station in Bangkok. Our favorite duck noodles are found in a storefront open to the traffic. This year we sampled food in a couple of Thai chain restaurants that are beginning to appear more frequently. In appearance, at least, these restaurants are somewhat reminiscent of Denny's in the United States.
S&P has boon around since 1973 and now has over 150 restaurants and bakery shops in supermarkets, office buildings and the like. They also market snack items and frozen meals. Although they serve mostly Thai foods, they offer Chinese and Japanese dishes and one of their trademarks is the display of western-style desserts such as frosted cakes, cookies and the like.
Here, unlike your usual Thai restaurant, you get paper place mats, water coasters and individually plastic-wrapped toothpicks – western-inspired throwaway packaging and paper. The atmosphere comes across a bit sterile and plastic. The waiters are in white shirts and Thais with black pants – westernized, neat clothes – uniforms.
The menu does have a great number of traditional Thai dishes but the dishes that we ate there – fried rice, roast chicken, basil pork – were a bit blah, acceptable but not great. (There are so many good restaurants in Thailand that you come to expect great food rather than merely acceptable.) At least, like nearly all eating places in Thailand, you can request prik nahm blah (the Thai salt and pepper) – little Thai chillies cut up in fish sauce – to spruce up the somewhat underspiced food.
Another chain we visited was Kruathai – meaning "Thai Kitchen." As with S&P, the menus are in both Thai and English with photographs of most dishes. The choice here is a bit more Thai-oriented. There were eight pages of Thai dishes and also three pages of Vietnamese food on the menu. Unlike S&P all of the desserts here were Thai – dishes such as pandanus, sago and cantaloupe in coconut, dried taro jam in coconut, and water chestnut ruby in coconut milk. S&P offers a few Thai selections in addition to their western desserts and a full range of sundaes and ice cream dishes featuring Hagan Daz Ice Cream rather than a local product.
The decorations at Kruathai were mostly western style, with lots of plastic and booths as well as tables. The walls were covered with huge photos of attractive-looking Thai dishes – blow-ups of those found on the menu.
The prices were modest (figure about 40 baht to $1.00 U.S.) – 60 to 80 baht per dish, 160 baht for a whole steamed fish. We ate there with Kasma's mom and ordered three dishes plus water and it cost us about 286 baht. This is not outrageous for a Thai restaurant. The yum blah dook foo (catfish salad with green mango) was very spicy, fluffy and delicious. The nahm prik gkabpi (vegetables with dipping sauce) was a little bit too limey. The haw moek (steamed fish curry mousse) was quite good. All in all, for a standard chain restaurant, I was impressed. I would be more inclined to eat here than S&P – the food was better. However, one disquieting note was a microwave oven.
Another growing chain in Thailand is the Black Canyon coffee chain. Here the food includes more western foods (pork chops chicken salad, etc.) along with Thai food (noodles and the like). We did not eat here and I feel disinclined to try.
I do find it interesting that the two chains I've tried have had reasonably tasty food. All of the dishes were at least fair and some were good even by Thai standards, for the food in many restaurants there is often breathtakingly delicious. The food at these two chains was a cut above most of the Thai restaurants I've sampled in the United States – at least it is still recognizably Thai-oriented in taste rather than Thai food adapted for American taste buds.
I do wonder if these will catch on with the Thai people, who routinely go out of their way on a vacation to sample the specialty of a little shack in the middle of nowhere. Even in Bangkok it is said that you can tell the best restaurants not by their appearance but by the number of Mercedes parked outside – location and ambiance are often less important when taste is involved. It is not unusual in the night market where we eat to see a Mercedes pull up and park while the occupants purchase street food from one of the stalls.
On the other hand, things western often acquire a status of their own. It could be that such chains will attract "tuppies" (Thai urban professionals) and their family who want the status and can get at least acceptable Thai food at the same time.
Hospital food &Thai Food Centers
When my mother-in-law was in the hospital in Bangkok, the hospital served her tasty Thai food. One dish was a very spicy basil chicken that would have left most Americans gasping, a complete antithesis to the bland hospital food we accept here in the United States. When Kasma and I went to visit, we would go early so we could eat in the hospital cafeteria. Imagine going to a hospital to eat the food! There was great variety. You had your choice of a dozen or so pre-made dishes – two dishes over rice went for 30 baht, about seventy cents. You could get noodles and some individual dishes made to order. There were three or four concessionaires – not unlike the Thai food centers found in department stores and business centers. When Kasma told her Thai drivers about our experience one mentioned a particular hospital known for its green curry – he always ate there when he was in the area.
Certainly this reflects both the Thai love of good food and the general societal expectation that food be delicious and good. If it is not, people won't eat at a place – mediocre places don't survive for long.
Thai food centers are the perfect place to get good Thai fast-food. Typically they will be found at the top floor of a department store or somewhere in a high-rise catering to businesses. Even at a mall we visited in On Nut, where the signs for fast-food places screamed at you as you entered, there was a food center with about ten or twelve stalls tucked away in back. There were far more Thais eating there than in the western outlets – at lunch time every seat was taken while a sprinkling of people sampled western burgers and chicken. There is hope! We ate an excellent Panang curry there, better than any comparable dish I've had in the United States. And cheap – 40 baht (about $1.00 U.S.) for two dishes over rice. My second dish was stir-fried bitter melon. Yum.
These centers are essentially street food stalls brought inside under one roof. There are always several noodle stalls (each one specializing in a certain type). There will be a stall with kao man gai (plump, steamed chicken over rice cooked with chicken fat and served with a melon soup). There will inevitably by a couple stalls with pre-made food – anywhere from six to twenty prepared dishes such as curry, basil pork and steamed fish served over rice. There will be a stall serving stir-fried noodles cooked to order, such as pad Thai or pad siew. You can often get an oyster omelet made to order. Inevitably there will be a Thai dessert stall with bowls of various goodies that you can select to be served in slightly sweetened coconut milk with ice.
The usual drill is to buy tickets that you give to each vendor – that way they don't have to handle money. Two people can easily eat for under 100 baht, less than $2.50, American.
Of Pigs, Chickens and Broth
Noodles are one of our favorite fast foods in Thailand. You can usually order non stir-fried noodles to be made dry or as soup. One of our favorites is pig-innard noodles in broth. Thai soup noodles are served in a nourishing bone broth made by stewing bones to extract all the nutrition. Organ meats are probably the most nutritious part of the animal and a good pig-innard noodle dish would include a full complement of the organs – spleen, liver, kidney, intestines, pancreas stomach. It is said of the Thais that they use every part of the pig except the squeal. Duck noodles often include a nice chunk of coagulated blood.
Rice porridge soup is made with the same nourishing broths. There is one strip of rice porridge shops right next to an area known for its night life – Thais know very well that a nourishing bowl of kao dtom (rice soup), with its healing bone broth, is a great cure for a hangover.
I'm going to close by giving a shameless plug it to one of our favorite restaurants in Thailand – even though it has the seemingly western name of "My choice." we have probably tried forty or fifty dishes on the rather extensive menu and enjoyed every one of them. The menu has a great variety and it is all made from fresh ingredients. We ate the best green curry we have ever had there, although to be fair, the next time the dish was merely excellent.
One meal consisted of a banana blossom salad (yam hua bplee) that was slightly sweet with a coconut milk dressing and lots of fried shallots. The haw moek taleh included mussel, squid and fish with vegetables on top and was cooked over coals to give it a slightly smoky flavor. The pak boong fai daeng (stir-fried morning glory with chillies) was made with lots of chilli peppers, including green ones dangerously lurking in silence. We finished off with coconut ice cream, its slightly icy texture indicating that it was made exclusively from coconut, no dairy.
Some our favorite dishes there are roasted eggplant salad, southern style chicken curry (no coconut milk), wing bean salad, bitter melon salad, crab dip served with vegetables, pad chah taleh (a spicy, seafood stir-fry) and roasted duck with gourd leaves.
Luckily, the menu is in English as well as in Thai, except for the specials. For years the English version had only a fraction of the items found on the Thai version.
My Choice is located at 5 Sukhumvit Road, Soi 36 in Bangkok.
See also: Kasma's article on Street Food in Thailand.