Thailand: Thai Street Food (Cooked Foods)
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Thailand is famous for so many things - for its temples and its music, for its beach resorts and its hill tribes, for its elephants, and for the shopping malls and the night life of Bangkok. No doubt some of these will appeal more than others to any visitor from Europe or America, some will be embraced with great delight and some will be avoided, depending upon your individual tastes.
Of course speaking of tastes, there is one aspect of Thai life which cannot be avoided - its cuisine. One, after all, has to eat. But for many tourists, eating in Thailand is no chore which has to be done. Eating in Thailand is for many the greatest delight that the country has to offer, for its distinctive blends of spices and herbs and regional flavours. And whilst one can sample all these dishes in a Thai restaurant, for many the trueist way to enjoy not just the taste, but the aromas, the sounds, the sights and the culture which all go to make up a Thai eating experience, is to go to a roadside stall and sample street food.
This is the first of two pages looking at Thai street food. The second will look at fruits, desserts and drinks (and if when you think of Thai street food you only think of stir frys, rice and noodles, you really need to see the extraordinary inventiveness which goes into the cold snacks and treats!) But this first page will be an illustrated look at some of the cooked dishes which really makes Thai street food so renouned in the world.
My thanks to Wanna Sonkunha and Fern Butsawa for helping to identify the foods in some of these photos. Thanks also to Wanna for one of the photos on this page.
About This Page
The author is no cullinary expert - just an ordinary tourist. But the appeal of Thai street food is as much about its sheer variety and its presentation, and the Thais really do have a knack of making their street food look so much more appetising than that to be found in most other countries. This photoessay is therefore much more about the cultural experience of street foods than the details of the cuisine - nonetheless I almost guarantee you'll be wanting to sample some of the dishes before you reach the end !! :) All photographs unless otherwise stated, were taken by the author on several trips to Thailand.
The History And Ubiquity Of Thai Street Food
Perhaps for as long as Thailand - or Siam, to give the country its ancient name - has existed, makeshift outlets by the wayside have been a common way to supply food to the people. And given the abundance of navigational rivers and canals, particularly in the region around the ancient capital of Ayutthaya and the present day capital of Bangkok, the traditional floating food market was the way to do it. That is still regarded by many visitors to Thailand as a quintissential part of the culture of the nation, though the floating market as a genuine way of life has long since passed away and in the modern day, exists for the most part just as a quaint novelty for the tourist to enjoy.
The tradition of supplying food by the wayside however, remains; it has merely been transfered from the canal boats to the streets, and in this form it survives and thrives like never before. It can be found everywhere. Along the roadsides, both in cities like Bangkok and in the countryside one may see stalls with pots boiling and pans sizzling away. Early in the morning (before 7.00 am) stalls will already be in place in busy commuter areas providing the workers with their on-the-go cooked breakfasts. And late at night after midnight, the cooking will still be going on, feeding the tourists on their way home from the various attractions and the locals on their way home from work or from the shops. And all through the day they will also be serving - for Thai locals such stalls provide a convenient place to pick up a quick snack or a cheap lunch.
The sight of street food being bought and consumed in Thailand today can scarcely be avoided by tourists. And nor should it be, for the country is one of the best street food destinations in the world. The experience is a memorable one and for most, it will be an enjoyable one - literally, to be savoured.
Variety Of Outlets And The Variety Of Street Food Stalls
In a country where street food is so commonplace, it is rather difficult to generalise too much about it. Street food may be served from a single stall on the roadside to be eaten on the go, or it may be a larger enterprise with a kitchen behind the scenes and a serving hatch and a set of permanent chairs or benches and tables on the pavement - effectively an open air restaurant. Some locations in the cities are famous for their street markets and these, in addition to stalls selling every other conceivable kind of merchandise day or night, may also feature a whole line of ten or twenty stalls in close proximity all offering their own specialities. Almost any local food - as well as some Western food - can be bought here, and also food of the styles distinctive to different regions of Thailand; particularly in a cosmopolitan centre like Bangkok where migrant traders from the northeast bring their distinctive Isaan cuisine, and Muslims from the extreme southern provinces bring their own signature dishes.
And the concept of street food has even found its way into the luxurious shopping malls of Thailand. No longer on the street of course, but the food courts in some of these malls offer a range of glorified stalls where one can pick up foods of a similar kind, sampling a dish from one stall, a couple of meat skewers from another, a bowl of soup from a third, a dessert from a fourth - and all to be consumed in air-conditioned comfort, albeit without the same atmospheric food experience of the streets.
It is on the streets and in the markets where the true experience is to be had, and all the photographs and descriptions in this article are taken from the streets of Bangkok, the northern city of Udon Thani, the town of Chiang Khan and the ancient city of Ayutthaya.
The Cultural Experience
Much of the snack food on street stalls may be ready packaged in plastic bags or boxes, or displayed in open trays, or prepared out of sight in kitchens. But much else - even a complete meal - may be prepared in the open, in front of you, and that can be an experience of cultural as well as cullinary interest. The ingredients may be laid out in an array of bowls or pans on the counter, and if the recipe involves a little bit of creativity, then you can watch the whole procedure in action.
Cooking on the street engages all the senses - the sight of the vendor / cook preparing the food, of meat roasting on a BBQ, the sounds of chicken or fish sizzling in a flaming wok, the smells of spices and sauces as they are added to the recipe, and of course ultimately the taste of the finished product.
But many of the more interesting experiences come with the smaller snacks and side dishes, some of which may be peculiar to Thailand and unlike anything one is likely to see in a Western kitchen or restaurant. Some of these are desserts shown on the companion page to this one, but the 'roti' flatbread shown below is just one example of a cooked snack prepared on a small street stall.
Roti is known throughout southeast Asia, but the form described here is typical and popular in Thailand, made to order as the customer waits. Made from wheat flour, egg, butter and water, the dough is rolled flat and fried. Various fillings may be added, but the one shown below was stuffed with fresh banana chunks. A light sprinkling with sugar and condensed milk and a little further frying, and the roti is ready to eat. This is Thai street food at its most basic - this was prepared on a little trolley on a street corner off the Sukhumvit Road in Central Bangkok; and it was the only food snack being sold by the owner of that particular stall.
(Incidentally, English spellings vary in Thailand. I've also seen Roti spelled as Rotee or Roh-dee. This is because the Thai alphabet is very different to ours and so translations to the English alphabet can only be based on pronunciation.)
This article, I repeat, is not a detailed account of Thai recipes, but of course I cannot continue without at least some acknowledgment of the kind of foods and recipes to be found here.
Almost anything including international foods can be bought on the street, although the more appropriate place to buy good quality Western food is not surprisingly in the restaurants of the hotels and shopping malls. Cooked food on the stalls is really about Thai staples. After all, street food is there first and foremost to cater to the locals.
Among the staples of Thai cuisine which may be found anywhere on the streets are noodles and bean sprouts, and of course rice in all its forms. To accompany these, chicken or pork are popular meats, and fish of many kinds both familiar and unfamiliar, often presented whole with the heads still on. Meat will be included in stir frys and soups but as a simple snack, skewered meat is perhaps more widely available than anything else on the street.
Sauces and pastes, including soy and oyster sauce, popular salty fish sauces which contain anchovies, and chili pastes, are all very commonly added to recipes, as are many herbs and spices - mint, coriander, lemon grass, lime, shallots and garlic, ginger and of course curry powders, chili and coconut milk.
Among the most familiar recipes encountered are noodle stir frys such as 'phad thai', red and green Thai curries, spicy papaya salad, stir-fry dishes, Thai style omelettes, fish cakes and soups.
Fish has already been mentioned, but sea food in all its forms is a prominent part of Thai cuisine - not surprising given the length of the coastline on the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand. Crab, scallops and mussels and of course shrimps or prawns are very common ingredients in stir frys, curries and soups, but surely among the most distinctive of street foods will be squid or calamari. Whole squid may be found on street stalls grilled over hot coals. Squid eggs too may be found, sometimes deep fried or pan fried and coated in a chili sauce. Squid has never appealed to me, so I can't say that the sight of these appeals very much to me either, but each to his own!
A Taste of the Exotic
Any visitor can be unadventurous on the streets of Thailand and stick to noodles and rice and skewers of meat, but many will want to try something a little different. And in parts of Thailand prawns and shellfish may not be the only invertebrates on the menu. Insects may also be encountered.
Although not a major part of the diet - more a delicacy - beetle grubs, ant eggs, grasshoppers and even giant bugs, are all possibles on the plate with sauce or spices for flavouring. But the only one I've tried are I think the crickets known as 'jing leed' shown below, and sampled in Udon Thani. I can't say they tasted wonderful, nor that they tasted hideous. Just a bit crunchy, like peanuts. Best not to think about it if you're a Westerner of delicate sensitivities :)
Quality, Taste And Price
When I first visited Thailand I must admit to steering clear of street food and the reason - apart from a naturally conservative attitude to food - was a fear about hygiene and health. That fear was not quelled by the numerous flies and wasps which may congregate around some of these stalls, nor by the frequently overflowing bags of garbage which may be found on the floor. But please don't let that put you off - the surrounds don't necessarily reflect the quality. Vendors tend to take pride in their work and the foods I have had at these stalls has generally been perfectly cooked. And the only time in ten visits to Thailand that I've been seriously sick, came from eating, not cooked foods, but a salad (probably washed in local water to which my Western metabolism is not atuned!) However, further advice on the question of hygiene and health is available in the 'Top Tips' below.
As for taste - coming from the UK, I'm used to 'street food' meaning overcooked, dry and stodgy burgers, tasteless chips (french fries) and kebabs of dubious origin. But not so Thailand. Food has been well prepared. Meat in particular has always been tender and succulent and as good as you'd get in a restaurant. It puts British street food to absolute shame.
Finally price. It almost goes without saying that you can't buy cheaper (though the food courts mentioned earlier in this article are also extraordinarily good value compared to restaurant prices). A skewer of meat may cost 10 or 20 baht (20 - 45p or 30 - 60 U.S cents). A small meal may be 50 baht and a large meal may well be no more than 100 baht - setting you back a couple of British quid or three American dollars.
Top Street Food Tips
These are just a few tips aimed at staying healthy, and enjoying the experience:
1) Regarding health, eat at stalls where trade is busy. Not only is it a good indicator that the locals like the food, but a rapid turnover means the food will be freshly produced - it won't have been lying forever on the counter exposed to the sun or to flies. And watch the vendors to see how they handle the food and ideally how they cook it.
2) Avoid lettuce and cold salads or fruits eaten with the skins on which may have been washed in tap water - tap water may be fine for the locals but not for you. Similarly you may want to avoid ice, unless it is of the rounded cube type with a hole in it - that ice is commercially produced and safe. Particularly be careful in more remote areas.
3) If you suffer from any food allergies or have special requirements, carry translation cards to explain. But if it's a serious issue, street food may not be the best option. Communicating your needs will not be easy, and given that one characteristic of Thai recipes is the mixing of many ingredients including sauces of uncertain composition, you cannot expect a street vendor to reliably inform you. A vegetarian recipe may include meat extracts, nut products may be in condiments, and 'gluten-free' is not necessarily easy to translate. Of course you can always stick to single or simple ingredient foods - meat, eggs, sticky rice, noodles - with a degree of confidence.
4) Unless you know what you like, start by trying the smaller fayre - a skewer here or a small dish there - like at a buffet or when eating tapas, it enables you to sample a wide range of Thai food for just a few dollars. That way you'll soon find out what you like.
5) In the streets, unlike many of the restaurants, one cannot expect everyone to speak English, but there will often be English translations and prices displayed. It may be helpful to take a dictionary with you. In outlets where the choices are laid out in front of you, or photos of the dishes are provided, you can simply point to what you want.
6) Often a knife is not provided - spoons and forks are used with the fork being used to move things on to the spoon. Chopsticks may be used for some dishes. And some foods, including 'sticky rice' - a form of rice whose constitution binds it together into lumps - may be eaten by hand. If in doubt about the confusing array of new foods on display, just watch how the locals handle them! But don't worry too much about cullinary etiquette - Thais are tolerant about other cultures' habits, and well used to tourists!
For The Tourist
Speaking personally I must admit I don't eat cooked roadside food in Thailand as often as I'd like, but the reasons are nothing at all to do with the quality, the range on offer or the price. I hope that much has become very clear in this article. No, it's simply that coming from a relatively cool Western nation, one tends to find the heat physically very draining and when I am spending a day out exploring particularly in hot and sticky and noisy city streets, I feel the need for a relaxing sit down in a calm, quiet and, above all, air-conditioned restaurant or shopping mall food court. Then after half an hour or so, I'll feel refreshed enough to go back into the heat and continue exploring.
But that's just me. And of course there may as I say be opportunities particularly in the larger street markets to sit in relatively calm surroundings perhaps beneath a spinning fan. Certainly however, one should grab the opportunity to try street food, whether it be a full blown meal or just a 20 baht skewer of meat or a bowl of soup when feeling peckish. It's always hard in the modern era for the average tourist to get a full appreciation of the local culture in a foreign country, because so much of the shopping, the transport and the recreational experience nowadays caters to Western values and standards. But when it comes to Thailand and its cuisine, the opportunities are there and easy to take. It is clearly still very possible to sample the local flavours when walking down the street, and to get a true taste of real Thailand.
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Thai street food is world famous for its variety and its taste. This photoessay illustrates some of the extraordinary desserts and cold snacks which can be found here
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