When Bangkok’s city authorities took a decision in 2018 to ban Thai street food stalls on major thoroughfares, they may have thought they were doing a good thing: helping shopkeepers who were hidden by the stalls, improving health and hygiene, or easing circulation on the streets.
Little did they know an international furor would be the result.
The Bangkok street food ban made headline news around the world: for those of us who love the city, the thought of streets emptied of their stalls was almost too much to bear.
On a recent visit to Khao San Road, once the thriving epicenter of Thailand’s backpacking culture, I was sad to see that a vibrant and near chaotic street had been turned into an average, dreary thoroughway, slightly gentrified and taking its distance from a raucous past. To see Bangkok Thai food stalls, you’ll have to come by in the evening, a shame for those of us who loved stopping here for lunch while plying the Chao Phraya River.
Along Sukhumvit, another hub for street stalls, many remain but you can feel everyone looking over their shoulders in case government officials sweep in and decide to enforce the ban strictly.
While there’s something to be said for eating in restaurants – table service, decor, ambience (and high price) – some of the best food in Bangkok Thailand is eaten on the fly, by the roadside, sitting on rickety chairs and pointing at things you would rather not recognize.
Even if the ban does eventually come into effect more strictly, stalls will continue to inhabit alleyways and hidden corners. Still, one of the things that makes Bangkok such a lively city is its diversity – luxury hotels, shrines, tourists, harried office workers, honking horns and the aroma of cumin and coriander and curry drifting into your nostrils.
Some of that would inevitably be lost.
THE BEST THAI FOOD IN BANGKOK IS ON THE STREETS…
The variety of street vendors selling food can be overwhelming, so what follows is a mere sample of the kinds of things you’ll find as you hop from stall to stall, whether right on the street or in one of the many food malls or in a Bangkok street market.
Topping the list of what you must eat in Bangkok are noodles
If you’ve ever had a Thai meal, chances are it was Pad Thai – sauteed rice noodles with a mixture of shrimp, chicken and tofu, chillies, a pungent tamarind-based sauce, and crunchy buts on top, either peanuts or crispy fried onions.
Finger-licking good, as they say.
But how about something a bit different?
Constant Traveller suggests a local Thai dish cooked by a native Frenchman! That’s exactly what’s on offer from Samuel Montassier, just a few steps from the Shanghai Mansion Hotel in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Samuel learned to cook Thai dishes from his wife Maem and is a hit not just with tourists but also fellow hawkers, who call him Farang Yum Woonsen (farang means foreigner in Thai, and Yum Woonsen is the dish he’s most popular for.) Sam’s Woon Sen is basically Thai Glass Noodle salad peppered with spices, fish sauce and crunchy bits all tossed together in a wok, which allows him to display true artistic skill.
You can customize your dish by specifying what you’re looking for beforehand. Just be clear about what he’s adding to the wok. For example, when asked for a vegetarian Woon Sen, he still added fish sauce. Also clearly express your tolerance for spices because his dish is spicier than you’d expect, so if you can’t take the heat…
Of course, since he’s friends with everyone, a drink from fellow vendors can be quickly arranged. His cart is decked with write-ups about him from local papers and if he has time, Sam will gladly tell you his story in person.
Some of the best Thai street food in Bangkok is… SOUP!
One of my favorite street stall dishes in Thailand is soup – any soup. I’m afraid I lack originality and my two favorite Thai soups are Tom Yum Goong (clear and spicy prawn soup) and Tom Kha Gai (a velvety chicken soup). Both are heavenly and radically different, and both are familiar to most Western palates who have sampled a Thai meal or two.
The Tom Yum is slightly sour and hot, hot, hot. If you happen to breathe in the wrong way while you’re slurping, it’s a sensation you won’t forget. Coupled with handfuls of fresh herbs, this is a soup worth fighting for. Just be careful if you’re not accustomed to chilies – but it’s definitely one of the top things to eat in Bangkok, especially if you’ve never tried it.
The other soup is as different as can be: it’s slightly spicy but mostly smooth, with a coconut milk base and a sweetish aftertaste. Both are so ubiquitous you’ll find them absolutely everywhere.
In Thailand, street food is often just a snack
A lovely touch in Thai cuisine is its sheer simplicity, which sometimes outshines the most complex cuisines. And remember, Thais like to nibble throughout the day so portions are small and snacks are abundant.
Take Thai basil, long cultivated in Southeast Asia. It’s different from sweet basil. It has a licorice note to it and a slight spiciness. It can sustain high heat and cook much better than fresh sweet basil and it’s used in many, many Thai dishes.
But one of the best ways to appreciate its unique flavors is in a little cup of tempura-fried Thai basil. It’s a really simple, but oh-so-delicious Thai street food. The Thai basil leaves are coated in tempura batter, which is a light batter made from water and soft wheat flour, and then quickly dipped in hot oil for deep frying. It’s light, and good Thai basil tempura won’t be oily at all.
Luxe Adventure Traveler suggests you try tempura Thai basil at Bangkok’s Taling Chan floating market.
What to eat in Bangkok? Curries and meats, of course
Thai curries are famous the world over and watching rows of pots bubbling on street stalls is a delightful experience. For the novice, pointing will be enough. Just try everything until you find something that’s not too hot for you and that you love. Then keep coming back.
One favorite food to eat in Bangkok is Pad Kaprao (stir-fried holy basil), a dish prepared using various meats, such as minced pork (moo saap) or chicken (kai), or even better, mixed with crispy pork belly (moo grob). It is also ridiculously quick to make, by stir-fry frying the crispy pork belly with garlic, red bird’s eye chilies, and seasonings of oyster sauce, light soy sauce, and fish sauce. Add a final handful of peppery holy basil leaves before serving, and top with a fried egg (kai dao) for perfection.
The stir-fry is then served on a bed of local jasmine rice and eaten either at the stall or to take away. It is easily found but try some Bangkok food courts like Paragon, Pier 21 (Terminal 21) and the top floors of Pratunam for excellent versions. For something a bit more off the beaten path, Live Less Ordinary recommends a great place on the small soi connecting Sukhumvit 31 and 23.
Where to eat in Bangkok when you’re craving sweets
Sweets are ubiquitous along the streets of Bangkok and it’s hard to walk around without being seduced.
A perennial favorite is the oddly named rolled ice cream, also known as still fried ice cream. It is always freshly prepared with milk, your choice of fruit and (optionally) some kind of sweetener like condensed milk or sugar.
The entire process of making Thai ice cream takes about two minutes. First, the seller mixes all the ingredients and pours them onto a chilled plate. Then he chops them with a spatula, until they reach the right consistency. The final step is to spread the mixture on the plate and shape it into 6-7 tubes. The cost of this mouth-watering Thai dessert ranges between US$1-3. Rolled ice cream is available to buy everywhere in Bangkok, but for Karolina Patryk, the best place might just be Asiatique, an open-air market located at the Chao Phraya River.
For Travel Drafts, the ideal dessert is coconut pancakes, or Pan Gi, best sampled in Chatuchak Market (but available in many other venues).
These small pancakes are made of coconut milk, glutinous rice flour, and fresh shredded coconut, and are particularly delicious when still hot. Have them made right in front of you on a hot grill?
Similar to Pan Gi is the Kanom Krok, which are also coconut pancakes but with a coconut filling. They are crispy outside but soft inside, and usually served with different toppings like green onions, corn, or taro. Also, Kanom Krok is made in a special pan with a round format.
Bangkok will make you thirsty
The extraordinary selection of fruits available in Thailand make desserts colorful and attractive, not to mention delicious. Stop off for fresh fruit snacks sprinkled with sugar, salt and chillies (sounds strange, I know, but trust me – this is addictive).
After that experience or a day in Bangkok’s blistering heat, you’re bound to be thirsty. Look around and you’ll spot vendors selling whole fresh coconuts to drink.
Once you buy a coconut, the seller will hack it open for you with a giant knife and you drink the sweet, cold coconut water straight from the shell (for eco-conscious points, bring your own reusable straw with you). There’s actually a lot of juice in coconut and it’s quite filling ⎯ if you do manage to finish it you can also bring the shell back to the vendor and ask to have it split open so you can eat the “meat” inside.
You can find whole young coconuts for sale wherever you go in Bangkok, but Temples and Treehouses happened to be shopping in Chatuchak Weekend Market, where they were delighted to find perfect rehydration after a day of bargain-hunting.
Bangkok street market staples usually include ‘the unmentionables’
If there’s one delicacy I haven’t yet been able to bring myself to try in Bangkok, it’s fried insects. No matter how many times I’m told they’re delicious, I’ll just have to take everyone’s word for it. I simply haven’t been able to crunch down on a fried grasshopper or crispy worm yet…
HISTORY OF STREET FOOD IN BANGKOK
Bangkok’s street food has always reflected the makeup of the city’s residents. As people from the provinces converged on the capital in search of jobs, they often brought their food with them.
Yaowarat, or Chinatown (one of the top must eat places in Bangkok) is a good example of how street food grew to serve a specific population.
Sometimes new arrivals opened their own restaurants or street stalls and disseminated their cooking traditions that way. At other times, they became street food customers themselves, when homesickness set in and they yearned for familiar foods.
A good example is the huge Isan population in Bangkok (Isan is in northeastern Thailand), which accounts for the proliferation of som tam (green papaya salad) and fried chicken with sticky rice on every other street corner.
All this cultural wealth is part of the street food restaurant scene, the same scene authorities are threatening to attenuate. But at what cost?
Take Singapore. When it moved its street hawkers indoors in the 1980s, what it gained in hygiene and traffic decongestion it lost in character and charm. Still today, many Singaporeans and visitors aren’t quite sure whether the move was a good thing.
Additionally, decreasing the number of Bangkok street food hawkers would have economic implications: most people who eat at street stalls are Thai workers whose income is modest so if the stalls go, those who depend on these tiny businesses will be hard-pressed to feed themselves.
So far, the ban remains on paper and there’s plenty of street food around… and that’s a good thing because Bangkok without its street food wouldn’t be Bangkok anymore.
EATING SAFELY TIPS
Concern about the safety of street food is not misplaced, however: you can get violently ill if you’re not careful. But by following a few simple rules, the chances of getting sick will be much lower.
- Be grateful you can see the food being cooked in front of you. If someone behind the closed doors of a kitchen drops something on the floor, you’ll have no way of knowing. This way, nothing will escape your eagle eye.
- Know thy food. Yes, it may look good, but a bit of knowledge about what’s in your food will reveal any allergies you may have or anything you should stay away from. Read up on street food and choose a few things to experience before you go. The above dishes make a good starting point.
- You already know this but I’ll repeat it for good measure: food needs to be properly cooked all the way through. Whenever you feel attracted to meat (beef, pork or chicken) or fish on a grill, make sure it is cooked in front of you. Something cooked earlier and left to cool can make you quite ill.
- Look around the stall. Are ingredients stored safely and separately? Are cooked and raw ingredients kept apart from one another? Is the stall clean? Do the owners look like they’ve been doing this forever?
- Choose a stall crowded with locals. First, crowds mean Bangkok foods will be fresher and second, all those locals can’t be wrong. If the food was awful or caused untold illnesses, word would get around. Eat at mealtimes when turnover is highest.
- Be extra careful with water. If you’re eating fruit, remember the ‘peel it’ rule. The same thing goes for your dishes: if your soup bowl or spoon is washed in dirty water, you might indeed get sick. And if your drink is made with water or ice whose provenance isn’t clearly a sealed bottle, don’t drink it.
If you do get sick, get thee to a doctor. I usually carry ORS (oral rehydration salts) with me and failing that, I know how to make my own. A little bit of planning can go a long way.
Just because you’re not in a high-end restaurant with waiters hovering doesn’t mean there aren’t certain rules to follow when you’re eating street food in Bangkok. Here are just a few:
- That little condiment tray is there to enhance the taste of what you’re eating, not to be abused. It’s like adding salt to your food before tasting it: it’s not the done thing. Same here. Taste your food first, and then decide whether it needs extra chillies or sugar or fish sauce.
- You see those little plastic chairs that seem almost too low to sit on? If you can manage to find a comfortable position, that’s great. Just don’t try to rest your feet on the chair opposite you. That’s not done either. You may be resting your disgusting shoes or sandals, but someone else will be placing their clean clothes on that same chair. It’s just plain rude. (And the only reason I mention it is because I’ve seen it done…)
- Don’t eat with your fork. In Thailand you’ll often get a fork and a spoon: the spoon is made for eating, and the fork is to help you push food into the spoon. And no, no knives. The food is pre-cut.
- And then there are the rules of etiquette common to most of Asia, like not leaving your chopsticks upright in your rice bowl (symbolizes death).
For now, at least, it seems the many places to eat in Bangkok streets have got a reprieve. That may change so if you’re headed to the city for the first time, enjoy the street stalls while they’re still here. And use this foodie travel guide to make sure you don’t miss anything.
— Originally published on 12 October 2018