Thailand’s ‘street food’ revolution ( published www.hackwriters.com)

Posted: February 12, 2012 in Uncategorized

I first came to Thailand by way of India thirty seven years ago. At that time the quality and variety of available food astounded me such as I had never witnessed in any of the third world countries I had visited up until that time . I had become accustomed to eating the spicy deep fried street food in  alleyways and railway stations of the subcontinental cities  and before that a  carbohydrate-centric diet in the mountains of South America.   I had a hunger for something other than curried vegetables on rice or beef steak asado and papas fritas. Mass budget tourism had not been invented , guide books wouldn’t be published for a few years .  There were very few tourists or business travelers visiting the Kingdom of Thailand except for the  purists and an executive class of NGO workers and embassy staff.

Thai urban infrastructure had not diversified into the kaleidoscope that we observe today. It was a golden age for backpacker travel to Thailand, but at the same time  more difficult and rudimentary. It was common for travelers chance meetings at bus stops, border stations and airports to be used as an opportunity to exchange information on accommodation and expectations  as you retraced the ground of your counterpart and he yours. Sorry girls but I never once met any women traveling on their own in those early years.  It was a bit like the meeting of Dr. Stanley and Dr. Livingstone at times. In area’s of the world that were considered to be ‘hard travel’ I remember exchanging food dreams with fellow routards when good food was scarce and rare gastronomic gems that couldn’t be missed were plotted out in crude cartographic glyphs into dog-eared diaries. It may sound strange but after several  isolated months of nothing but rice and okra  or their dreary equivalents you will dream of fast food favorites whether you like it or not. There are brilliant foods in every country but without the hard work of a guide-book travel writer or local contact they can be hard to find. A revolution in the cuisine offerings of Thailand has changed that.

When I arrived in Bangkok in 1975 I found  it a wonderland of street food cart cuisine. My first experience was with the amazing barbeque chicken that had been thoroughly marinated in sweet chili and crushed tamarind then grilled to perfection over charcoal fire. The savory Som Tam papaya salads with fresh lime and sizzling hot bird chilies became an everyday favorite. After that I ate everything  that could be slipped onto a stick and eaten standing up. On any given day I would eat anything from deep fried garlic water beetles to sweet fish balls candied with chili sauce.  Fried rice and noodle dishes are whipped up on pedestals of blue bottled gas flame. The roar of that gas jet is like music to my ears. Pad Thai is a traditional fried rice noodle dish  topped with crunchy baked peanuts and alive with the flavors of kaffir lime, palm sugar and lemon grass. A side dish that accompanies this popular favorite includes small green onions, bean sprouts, a square of fresh lime and a sliver of banana heart. It is the custom to share a table at the hawkers stall. The etiquette is to pull up a chair and dig in, no reservations. I noted that the locals relied on these food vendors for at least a couple of meals a day and the bulk of the customers were not transients like myself. The vendors took that responsibility very seriously and treated the art of open food vending with respect and skill.

The Thai’s didn’t appear to be suffering any ill effects as opposed to the general malaise I’d witnessed in India, myself included, so I took my queue and dove right in. Common sense in eating at food stalls in the street still prevails and it’s always best to eat what is cooked fresh in front of you and delivered to your plate steaming hot. In over thirty years eating off the stalls in Asia I have rarely become ill, certainly with no greater frequency than I would eating at restaurants in Europe or North America. There is one proviso, and it’s almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The food may be fresh and cooked right, but look closely and you’ll notice that there is no fresh running water. The dishes, cups, utensils and glasses are rinsed continually in the same bucket behind the stall front. It is not the food that will make you sick, it is the dishes and drinking vessels that may be contaminated. So choose your food cart drinks and dishes wisely. Many modern vendors have solved this problem by using Styrofoam plates and plastic forks spoons and straws. Speaking of water, drink bottled, exclusively, even to brush your teeth.

A government initiative in the 1990’s changed the food cart scene in Bangkok forever. We purists decried the move at first but I realize now that it was for the best. Although not ubiquitous today, the laws regarding the offering of cooked food on the street was changed to force a majority of the street vendor culture into the new food court spaces that were being made available in a new wave of mall construction. In twenty years I can’t count how many new malls have been built-in and around the city. They have sprouted like mushrooms seemingly overnight and continue to develop at a mind numbing pace. I have to conclude this was both a good business decision to benefit mall developers revenues but also a huge improvement in public health and sanitation. In truth the street carts did leave behind a tremendous amount of garbage to slog through at the end of the day with all the accompanying vermin issues to contend with.

The food courts of the twenty-first century are the street carts of the last, only better. The variety is still incredible, the environment is air-conditioned and clean. Local people love the food courts and use them as an extension of their own kitchens. Food court food is cheap, there is no other word to describe it. A nice meal of noodles or rice will range from thirty-five baht ( one US dollar as of writing) to sixty baht (two dollars)  which includes fresh meat, seafood and vegetables, all served on a plate washed in running water with detergent. Yes, it is romantic to eat a Pad Thai in the street at midnight after a wander out, but when you can take your children out to eat for an inexpensive and healthy meal in air-conditioned comfort you would be joining the mindset of the Thai people in foregoing the outside cart and going inside to be served by an apron clad server with  cleanly washed hands in a supervised setting. I won’t belabor not having to deal with flies and mosquitoes in the outdoor spaces, especially at night, it goes without saying. Remember, 99.9% of the patrons of all food outlets are local Thai. Tourists make up an insignificant percentage of the overall trade.

Indoor food courts can be found in every shopping mall or large commercial application. You will buy a swipe/credit card from the central register and use it at any of the standard price carts. Everyone pays the same, the quality of the food is homogeneous from one customer to the next. Management has thoughtfully assured that a minimum of English is spoken at most outlets. Thai people themselves have taken to speaking English with great delight and will want to practice their new-found skills on you at every opportunity. This is a profoundly important and underrated benefit for today’s visitor to Thailand considering that twenty years ago there was almost no English spoken anywhere in the country. If you’re smart you’ll be generous with your hospitality, Thai people are good hearted and will reciprocate kindness without reservation. The term ‘Land of Smiles’ was not an entirely made up slogan for the tourism industry. Of course the standard restaurant logic applies in Bangkok as anywhere, “Be kind to people who serve your food”.

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Comments
  1. India is a multicultural country known for its diverse flavors. The most sought after food is Indian street food, which leaves taste buds tingling even after the dish is finished. The spicy and tangy nature of the food can always leave you wanting more.

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