Bangkok, Street Food

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At the risk of giving the impression that the only thing we ever do in Bangkok is wander around the streets looking at and for food, I’ll conclude my account of our travels in Thailand in early 2004 with a description of some of the delicious street food we came across. Of course we do other things in Bangkok! (They just don’t stick in the memory quite as long!)

Around Thong Lo (“Tawng Law”)

IBanana Vendor once heard a description of Thailand as “a giant open-air market” and sometimes think that is the most accurate description. The markets are possibly the best part of traveling in Thailand and you can usually find one that is lively and colorful, morning or night, just about everywhere.

WhenFried Chive Cakes we are staying in Bangkok we stay at a hotel on Soi 55 of Sukhumvit Road. This particular soi is known as Thong Lo or Thonglor, in the rather idiosyncratic and inaccurate official spelling, but pronounced more like Tawng Law. (A soi refers to a tributary street off a main street; the street system is not really a grid, so a soi may or may not lead to the next main street over.) We love the location because it is a real Thai neighborhood (as opposed to a tourist area), despite a fair number of restaurants and businesses catering to the many Japanese who stay nearby. There is a very lively street scene in the streets right around the hotel, with produce, clothes and, most importantly, street food vendors, who sell everything from grilled bananas to chive cakes. So, although the hotel has a buffet breakfast, we nearly always opt to go eat elsewhere, usually grazing the street food before we settle into a shop for rice porridge, noodles or regular Thai food.

OurKanom Krok Vendor first stop is nearly always to get some of the delicious coconut hotcakes called kanom krokkanom meaning “snack” and krok meaning “mortar,” for they are cooked in a cast iron pan with indentations that are reminiscent of a mortar (see picture to left). (I won’t go into too much detail here because I’ve written about this on Kasma’s website, at Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.) After purchasing a basket full of these delightful treats, we might head off to a noodle or johk (congee, or rice porridge) shop. As with nearly all Thai eateries, there is no problem with bringing food from outside and consuming it on the premises.

ManyBankside Vendor mornings we opt for street food; we eat at a kao/gkaeng (rice/curry) stall directly next to the ATM machine of a bank. As you walk past the display of around 40 pre-made dishes, you can’t help but stop — it looks delectable indeed! From the street it extends down an alley between two buildings where there are tables plus a burner with a wok for cooking.

ItCooking Street Food is a bit more elaborate than many street food operations, which might consist of nothing more than a grill or cart. The main proprietor is the woman shown serving the food in the picture to the right. She usually starts her day around 3:00 am, going to the food market to buy the day’s ingredients. She gets back and starts cleaning and chopping. Her faan (significant other) shows up around 6:00 pm to help out and to start cooking. Dish after delectable dish shows up in the trays out front. There are also a couple other people who help with clearing, serving and dish-washing.

ThePre-made Street Food only real problem is deciding what to eat! I usually go with what looks the best to me that morning — reluctantly narrowing it down to two dishes from the initial half-dozen (or more – it all looks good!). The usual price is about 25 baht (say, 60 cents) for two dishes over rice. They serve food through lunch. Even with the low prices, the woman has sent two children through university and is justifiably proud about that. We have walked past the stall, on occasion, after eating dinner, so around 7:00 pm in the evening, and she is sitting there, relaxing after a long day of work. Even so, she greets us with a big smile.

One of the mysteries of Thailand is how much street food you see being sold — it just doesn’ seem possible that it could all get eaten!

Around On Nut

Food Vendor #1Street Food Vendor #2 mother and brother live further out on Sukhumvit Road, on a smaller soi (number 6) off Sukhumvit Road soi 77 (On Nut). Although their soi is situated a far distance in from the mouth of soi 77, we sometimes take the sky train so that we can enter right at the mouth and stroll amongst the stalls and carts lining the street.

There is the usual array of food along with a stalls selling everything from clothes to household goods. Like nearly every market (the market around our hotel has two) there is a seamstress (who may be male or female) set up with a foot pedal operated sewing machine where you can get alterations or repairs done. We’ve taken to bringing clothes with tears in them to Thailand — to hem a pair of pants is about 15 baht, or 35 cents.

I’ve included a couple pictures here of food vendors; the picture on the left (larger version) gives a sense of all the stalls lining the street with traffic going right past — it shows a green papaya salad stall. Green papaya salad is really from the northeastern part of Thailand (isahn) and is, nonetheless, one of the most common street foods throughout most of Thailand; many of the street food vendors are from the northeast, forced to go elsewhere to make a living; they often leave their children behind with the grandparents and send money back home.

Night Markets

StreetNight Market Vendor food is a great option for dinner, as well as any other time of the day (or night!). Actually, my very first meal in Thailand was at a night market. My flight got in around 12:30 in the morning and by the time I had cleared customs and made it to our hotel at Thong Lo, it was probably around 3:00 a.m. Kasma took me across Sukhumvit road to Soi 38, where there is a bustling night market. Despite the late (early?) hour, the street was lit up as bright as day as something like 15 or 20 stalls sold their food. I had a bowl of duck noodles that was absolutely delicious; perhaps this first meal explains why I always eat a lot of duck noodles in Thailand — that bowl of duck noodles imprinted me! (Or was it vice-versa?)

QuiteNight Market Stall often in Bangkok we find ourselves grazing for dinner. Our hotel sits back from the street so we walk out onto Sukhumvit and pick up anything that looks particularly good that night. There’s a woman quite close to where we come out on the street who has a very basic set-up — she grills on an enamel bowl filled with coals, producing sour sausage, chicken livers, other meats and rice cakes. We often start our grazing right there. Many evenings we don’t even make it to the skytrain escalator, which we use to get us up so we can cross busy Sukhumvit road — we’ll get Pork Leg over Rice (with some pickled vegetables) and eat right on the street. No extra charge for a radiant smile.

Usually,Night Market Vendor however, we make it over to Soi 38. The picture above and to the right shows a stall taken from the walkway above the market. Expand it to get an idea of a basic street cart with tables and stool set up right in front. Usually each cart or stall sells one thing — you’ll find noodles, kanom (sweet snacks, in this case), drinks such as fresh coconut and blended drinks, and also stalls that cook food to order. It’s not unusual for us to get a few sticks of satay with peanut sauce and then have a vendor, such as the one to the left here, cook us up an order of vegetables over rice. As usual, you can bring food from other carts and sit in another area, as long as you are ordering some food from the owner of the chairs as well; usually they’ll even collect the money and return the dishes for you. The various vendors aren’t really competing: they work more on a model of cooperation and support. It’s a very refreshing contrast to business as it is usually done in the United States, where the goal often seems to be to bury the competition. I wish we would learn from the Thai people rather than the other way around!

Recently there has been a proliferation of American-style fast food places in Thailand — a discouraging sight, especially given all the healthy, delicious food already so widely available. All the Western fast-food places have signs saying you can’t bring in any outside food — not only are we exporting our lousy food, we’re exporting our lousy values as well! It is apparently considered chic among some people in Bangkok to eat at these places. The one encouraging thing is that, at least so far, the street food alternatives seem to always have a lot more customers. Long may it remain so!

Aw Dtaw Gkaw Market

I’llMarket Vendor finish with a few images from one of the best markets we’ve found in Bangkok — Dtalad Aw Dtaw Gkaw (Aw Dtaw Gkaw Market), Dtalad meaning “market” and the other three words being letters of the Thai alphabet. It is out near Chatuchak Market (the fabulous weekend market with thousands of vendors). The easiest way to get there is to take the skytrain to Mochit station, as if you were going to Chatuchak, and then get a taxi — that close to the market, they’ll probably know where it is. We seldom make a visit to Thailand without at least one visit here.

TheFruit STall market is “indoors,” under a large roof open on all 4 sides. The stalls are very neat, almost immaculate, and the food is always attractively displayed. The prices are a bit higher than other Thai markets, even in Bangkok, but worth the price because of the presentation. To the right you see Kasma and her mom selecting fruit.

WeStir-frying in the Market generally spend some time here, wandering around the market and taking pictures. It eventually gets rather hard to use the cameras because we are laden down with purchases — fruit, roasted pork, young coconut and beautifully made kanom, such as the ones shown in the picture below. When we get tired, we’ll eat at one of the stands in back and then shop some more, eventually boarding a taxi back to the hotel — we may come on the skytrain but we return in a taxi — there is usually too much to carry!

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Copyright © 2004 Michael Babcock.
Last updated 27 August 2004.