Thailand's street food: In search of disappointment
By Philip Moss
A frequent traveller to Southeast Asia, Philip Moss is a true enthusiast when it comes to Asian cuisine. Here he explores the food scene of Bangkok, wondering whether it's even possible to find a poor meal in this vibrant city.
Recent research shows Bangkok coming second out of thirty cities around the world for the quantity and quality of its street food. Visitors and locals alike are askance at being pipped at the post by Hong Kong with some declaring that it’s actually quite difficult to find a poor meal on the streets of Thailand’s capital nowadays. Never one to turn down a culinary challenge, I decided to put this proposition to the test.
By night a neon-lit jungle of bars and massage parlours. By day (except Monday which is traditionally Bangkok’s street-cleaning day) Nana fills with food vendors and their carts which fuel all the nocturnal activity. Don’t be fooled by the humble, and some may say, slightly grubby setting. I have had one of the finest Pad Thai I have ever tasted at a pavement-clinging stall near the Ibis Hotel - fried noodles with vegetables, chicken, pork or prawn for just 60 Baht.
Up towards Nana Plaza, amidst stalls selling fabulously ripe watermelon, papaya, mango and pomegranates, there’s more of a regional vibe with stalls offering classics from Isaan in Thailand’s North East like Som Tum (green papaya salad pounded in a pestle and mortar with garlic, chillies, dried shrimp, roasted peanuts, long green beans, tomato and shallot with lime, palm sugar and salty fish sauce) served with Moo Ping (king-size pork satay at just 80 Baht for four sticks). The chicken equivalent is Kai Ping. Chicken is marinated in a sweet soy preparation before barbecuing over charcoal and is often served with Isaan’s signature sticky rice.
In the afternoon there is a highly mobile metal handcart selling pork leg (Khao Ka Moo) braised in a sumptuous sweet and salty stock flavoured with coriander root, star anise and coriander. Served with wilted mustard greens and rice, it’s a firm favourite with kids who love the sweetness of the dish. Buy it when you see it. The cart never seems to be in the same place for longer than five minutes. On the way back to my hotel, I weaken in the face of mango and sticky rice with reduced coconut milk sauce at The Vienna Cafe on Soi Nana and order a plate. Not strictly street food, I’ll admit, but it is nonetheless the best I’ve had in ages.
So, Day One and no signs of culinary disappointment here. Soi Nana is best reached via the crisply air-conditioned BTS aka SkyTrain to Nana station.
Soi’s 8 & 38
Disgusted with my own gluttony, I determine on a more frugal street food regimen. The following day, I am walking to Sukumvit Soi 38 in the late afternoon when I am ‘reeled in’ by a vendor of Khanom at the entrance to Soi 8. Khanom are Thai canapés that come in all shapes and sizes. Khanom Bueang are tiny taco-like structures which can have sweet or salty fillings ranging from bean paste to puréed sweetcorn. Khanom Krok are small, salty rice and coconut pancakes topped with a delicious creamy sweet coconut layer. These are usually skillfully cooked for you on the spot on a blistering hot, open waffle pan.
My undoing, however, are Khanom Jeeb; a very more-ish Thai take on the Chinese Dim Sum classic, Siu Mai. A bite-sized temptation of delicately steamed rice pasta, pork and shrimp with a delicious soy-based dipping sauce (dangerously priced at 10 Baht each).
Having tried most of the offered variants I should burn off the excess by walking back to the hotel but, like the true gourmand, I persevere in my efforts to reach Soi 38 and am rewarded with an array of wonderful light and vegetarian dishes at Soi 38’s food court. The area gets busier in the evening but even at 1730 I managed to sample some great satay chicken (60 Baht) another satay of fresh fruit and chillies, some grilled prawns in a fiery garlic sauce, water morning glory fried with chilli and garlic and, reverting to bucolic type, a dish called simply Ka Ki which comprised pickled & fresh mustard greens with gelatinous sections of pig’s foot that had been braised long and slow and wok-fried Choi Sum. I stagger back to base - again un-disappointed. If heat is not your thing then buy a ticket on Bangkok’s wonderfully air-conditioned SkyTrain to Thong Lo station. The exit on the south side is the beginning of Soi 38.
Day three and the challenge continues. On my way to the SkyTrain in the morning, I spy a rather dilapidated food stall on Soi Nana - one which I avoided two evenings before. I know it’s cheating but surely if I’m going to get a below average bowl of Chinese-style Kway Teow noodles anywhere, it’s going to be here. How wrong is it possible to be? I woke the vendor who was snoozing in the morning heat. He set to work like whirling dervish. Not only was the whole dish with prawns, bean shoots, broad noodles, celery stalk and coriander delicious, the enveloping dark broth was also amongst the best I’ve ever tasted. 80 Baht and worth every little Bahty thing.
Fortified but unsettled by my lack of disappointment, I continue my BTS journey beyond Bangkok’s famous victory monument; no mean street food destination itself and head for Soi Ari - aka Phahonyothin Soi 7 (Ari is the nearest BTS station). A much more mixed shopping area than Soi 38 or Nana, the place is really only beginning to open for business when I arrive at 0930 with fruit vendors preparing their displays of water melon, mango and rose apples. Some are gently barbecuing the flesh of the tiny local bananas to concentrate the sweetness. All of these are freshly arrived from the wholesale market. Juice sellers vie with one another for early sales. Try the zingy, sweet freshly-squeezed tangerine juice; a bargain at 60 Baht. There are flower sellers and clothes shops mixed in either food offerings.
In the small court, away from the main drag, coffee stalls are doing a roaring trade. Thai iced coffee is made with condensed and evaporated milk and is something of an acquired taste for sugar-averse, foreign tourists. I have no such qualms. At 80 Baht there’s no better way of getting sufficient sugar and caffeine to see you through to the evening. It still retains a popular local following.
A lone cabin offers some new and fashionable flavours in the form of Vietnamese Pho; a vibrant combination of herbs, salad leaves, flat noodles, sliced beef brisket brought together with a wonderfully fragrant beef bone broth. Still Kway Teow’d out, I opt for a modest but no less delicious plate of chive and garlic rice pasta dumplings from a neighbouring stall - six for 40 Baht. There’s nothing thick or stodgy about these dumplings. The rice pasta which surrounds the filling is delicate and thin and steamed perfectly to the point of translucency. Both these and the earlier Kway Teow noodles are good examples of foreign dishes (in this case Southern Chinese) which have been incorporated into Bangkok’s foodscape over the decades.
I pass a shophouse selling a traditional Chinese-Thai staple, Yen Ta Fo - noodle soup with fermented soy bean broth but I have already ‘noodle souped’ to the max and now need something a bit more substantial. An adjacent shophouse has just what I am looking for: Emperor Noodles. Egg noodles served dry with an array of garnishes - in this case salted egg, pickled greens, fresh mustard leaves, salty sweet Char Siu pork, slices of braised pig knuckle - and bowl of light broth. All that for 140 Baht. Very Chinese but in a strangely Thai way. The dish is another triumph.
Again, I leave Soi Ari bereft of the much sought after ‘disappointment’. Bangkok’s forty or so street food hubs have a well-deserved reputation for quality, quantity and diversity. On my way back to the hotel, I even briefly flirt with idea of cheating and getting a bowl of Boat Noodles with pig blood added to the broth but know that even this is a bit of a fix. I would only be ‘disappointed’ because I find the black pudding flavoured broth too rich for my delicate constitution.
I feel my resolve begin to weaken. Perhaps I have to concede the point. Perhaps there is no such thing as disappointing street food in Bangkok. It’s only then that I notice the long queue stretching out of the door of a well-known international burger restaurant chain onto the boiling pavement beyond.
Well, I think I’m happy with a draw.
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