Thai Fast Food: Crowded Sidewalks and Waterways
by Kasma Loha-unchit
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One of the greatest joys of Thai people is our love of good food and the sharing of food. We like to nibble – a little here, a little there – around three light meals. We like variety, too, preferring not to eat a lot of one thing, but a little bit of a lot of different things throughout the day. In Thailand, these eating habits are easily satisfied by the wealth of varieties of tantalizing "street food" that are sold each day along the sidewalks near shopping areas and marketplaces, bus stations and business offices and busy neighborhood centers.
Enterprising food vendors set up clusters of stalls, transforming major street corners, empty lots and alleys into lively food bazaars. Many are mobile, peddling from one area to another on tricycles and motorcycles with fixtures attached, or pushing mini-kitchens around on wooden carts. More modest are hawkers on foot, bearing filled baskets balanced on a wooden yoke upon one shoulder. Along the klong (canals) and waterways, sellers paddle their mini-shops from home to home, offering "boat noodles," curries over rice and an assortment of kanom (sweetmeats and snack foods).
Whenever I think of street food, a profusion of images comes to mind. It is difficult to separate the taste and character of street food from the context in which it is made and sold: the people, their imaginative personal touches, the on-the-spot cooking demonstrations, the elaborate displays and set-ups, the often festive environment, and the enveloping sounds, colors and aromas. A gray-haired grandma in a well-worn sarong squats all day long, patiently making crispy golden crepes. A chirpy woman in the bustling morning market turns out little round coconut hotcakes as fast as she can sell them. A boat noodle man whips up one bowl after another of steaming hot-and-sour soup noodles for a hungry crowd sitting on low stools along the landing. The sharp cry of a hefty woman announces her presence as she huffs and puffs down the street, carrying woven baskets neatly arranged with goodies, and the aroma of chicken, pork and satays barbecuing on charcoal stoves under bright, colorful tarps wafts pleasantly in the air. The sizzling sound of fishcakes frying accompanies the visual treat of deep yellow peeled jackfruit and neatly shaped packets of banana leaves filled with delicate sweet treats. The noonday crowds in fancy work clothes eagerly search from stall to stall for the delicacies that tempt them most that day.
Nibbling on street food is an inexpensive way to dine out in Thailand. You can fill yourself with a soulful lunch for a dollar or less and spend not much more for a hearty, well-balanced supper of several courses. A refreshing mid-morning or mid-afternoon snack can cost just a quarter. But the low price does not indicate a low quality of food. In fact, a lot of street cuisine is very good and rivals some of the more refined gourmet restaurants, and the variety to choose from is immense, including many wonderful treats rarely seen on restaurant menus. Among these are traditional delicacies that are complicated to make and labor intensive, requiring the constant care and attention during cooking that many street vendors are able to give owing to their specialization in only one or a few items. They become experts at cooking their specialties, after having done it every day for years, and often become well known and patronized in their area of the city. Some of my students who have traveled with me around Thailand insist that the best food they had there was along the streets and canals, in parking lots and at truck stops along highways.
Bangkokians are known to travel great distances in horrible traffic to particular corners of the city, where an "aunt" or "uncle," "grandma" or "grandpa" makes the best of this or that. Some of the city's most affluent citizens can be seen mingling with the crowds or sitting next to laborers in tattered clothes on rickety stools around well-worn tables. The vendors need no advertising other than their products, as news of good food spreads like wildfire in a culture with a highly cultivated sense of taste.
My mother once jokingly told me that if she ever ran low on her savings, she would set up a portable stove outside her front gate and make my favorite street food, kanom krok, a savory coconut-rice pancake. Because she is such a good cook, she probably would not have much trouble building up patronage among the neighbors on her street. That's what street cooking is all about: a small, non-pretentious business enterprise dedicated to serving good food that tastes homemade – because it is homemade.
There are many independent, undiscovered great chefs along the sidewalks of Bangkok. Give yourself a treat the next time you are in Thailand and walk the streets, allowing your eyes and nose to guide you. Don't stick to what looks familiar; try out the more exotic delights that have yet to see their day in Thai food places in the Western world. Do not worry too much about getting sick; use your discretion and common sense. Today's cosmopolitan Bangkok is not the same as twenty or thirty years ago; the cleanliness standards are remarkably high. But if you are hesitant to try "Thai fast food," seek out restaurants that provide refined "street food" in settings that may be more appealing to you. Silom Village is one such restaurant, offering a demonstration area where pretty ladies neatly dressed in traditional Thai costume turn out some of the favorites from the streets to order.
Street cooking today is threatened by a move in recent years to ban sidewalk vendors from selected areas around Bangkok. The contention is that the vendors contribute to the horrendous traffic problems for which the overpopulated capital city has become famous. Perhaps a compromise can be reached, for street vendors provide an essential service by making inexpensive food readily available to busy working class people with meager salaries, long working hours and limited mealtime breaks. They also provide an unceasing source of the colors, smells, textures and tastes that make the city culture of Bangkok unique. Visitors to Bangkok usually recall with great enthusiasm the magnificent array of exquisite sweetmeats and other fabulous treats along the sidewalks of the city. Perhaps these lively images, coupled with recollections of all the mouth-watering smells and friendly smiles of people serving and enjoying food, make them forget the terrible traffic, which is likely the least favorite of their experiences in the crowded city.
See Also: Our blog entry, Pad Thai at Aw Taw Kaw Market