Thailand: Thai Street Food (Desserts, Sweets and Drinks)
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Think Thai food and one tends to think of the world famous street markets and street stalls with the sights and sounds of sizzling frying pans and the aromas of cooking, an attack on all the senses which many will find difficult to resist. And think Thai food recipes and one thinks rice and noodles, seafood, spicy hot papaya salads and curries, herbs and sweet and sour flavours.
What one doesn't immediately think of are sweets and desserts and chocolate or fruits and drinks. And yet, desserts and cold snacks available at street stalls in Thailand are every bit as varied as the cooked hot foods and even more enticingly displayed. And there's no doubt in my mind that in a country where the temperatures in any month of the year and throughout most hours of the day can exeed 30°C, thirst quenching drinks, light desserts and cold treats can be at least as important, not least to the poor Western tourist unused to such sweltering heat.
This is the second of two pages looking at Thai street food. The first looked at the hot, cooked cuisine for which the country is so famous, and for which roadside stalls offer a range of dishes of surprising quality. But this second page looks at some of the treats and desserts and the cold snacks, and the extraordinary creativity which goes into their presentation on the streets of Thailand.
My thanks to Wanna Sonkunha and Fern Butsawa for helping to identify the foods in some of these photos. Big thanks also to Wanna for contributing twelve of the thirty photos on this page. These are credited by clicking on 'Source' under each photo.
About This Page
No doubt some of the less adventurous who travel to Thailand on vacation from Europe or America will be more attuned to a Western diet of burgers and fries, roasted meat and veg and the like, and may be less inclined to try some of the more exotic ingredients of Thai cuisine or the spicier recipes. But even if you are not so keen on cooked Thai dishes, I guarantee that the appearance of some of their desserts and cold snacks will make any self-respecting sweet tooth or chocoholic develop a craving they will find hard to resist! And that really is what this article is about - the presentation, even the artwork, not to put too fine a point on it, which goes into the produce to be found on a simple roadside stall. And also the cultural interest in the preparation of these desserts. There will be no detailed recipes - this is a photoessay, and the emphasis is on photos and videos. Videos are linked to from YouTube, and my thanks to the contributors of these. All the photos were taken by the author on several trips to Thailand, or by Wanna - my favourite Bangkokian resident :) Enjoy!!
The Variety Of Street Food Outlets In Thailand
Street food is a major component of life in Thailand. You can't escape it. In the early morning there will be stalls along major commuter routes supplying the locals with their breakfasts as they go to work, and throughout the day there will be stalls providing cheap and quick snacks for their lunch breaks or for anyone out shopping. Into the evening, and food stalls lighten up the air with golden red flames blazing under a stir-fry wok or a BBQ grill, and with the sounds of fish or vegetables bubbling in hot oil, serving the commuters as they go home, and the tourists as they head out for a night on the town.
And it's not just on the roadside. Street markets - both day and night markets - are commonplace in the cities of Thailand, and these will often feature a whole chain of vendors all serving food from small trolleys and from stalls or from larger kitchens. Vendors may also be found in public places such as train stations selling refreshments to travellers, and even in shopping malls the food courts offer an equivalent, if more air-conditioned, option.
For the tourists these street food outlets do not merely offer a quick and cheap alternative to restaurants; they also offer an insight into authentic Thai cuisine, catering as they do to the locals and offering a range of foods, the like of which may be hard to find in Thai restaurants and impossible to find elsewhere in the world. Street food is a cultural experience and a visual experience for the tourist as well as a taste sensation.
More about the variety of street food can be found on the companion page to this one.
The Four Food Experiences - Quality, Variety, Presentation and Preparation
Thai cuisine is famous the world over - famous for its fresh, locally grown ingredients and for its blends of spices and herbs, and the hot and spicy, sour and sweet flavours they produce.
But speaking of 'sweet', not so many people perhaps will associate Thai food with sweets and desserts. But maybe they should, for reasons of quality, variety, presentation and preparation.
The quality, as with the cooked foods, is high - much higher than is usually the case with street food in the West - but it must be sampled by the reader for proof of that.
The variety of desserts both traditional and modern, and from all the regions of Thailand, is considerable, and I hope at least some impression of that will be apparent on this page.
The presentation of the food on the stalls is hopefully also apparent on this page in some the photos Wanna and I have taken.
Finally, there is preparation. Thai desserts as sold on the street offer a genuinely authentic cultural experience as the tourist may see local recipes being prepared and created entirely from scratch. That aspect will be covered in the next few sections.
The Cultural Experience
Many Thai deserts are quite unique to that part of the world and are certainly unlike anything one may encounter in Europe or America. But the simplicity of some of these recipes together with the need for freshness also means they will often be prepared right there on the street in front of you. That makes any walk along a line of street stalls an interesting experience in its own right. And if you buy a dessert, then watching its preparation from its beginning to its edible conclusion is fascinating, adding to the enjoyment of the experience.
Several of the examples shown in the following sections illustrate this. The first photos show a dessert known locally as 'khanom krok'. In English it is known variously as Coconut Pudding or Coconut Rice Dumplings, Coconut Pancakes etc a Thai recipe often prepared on the street. Khanom krok consists of a crispy cupcake with a soft coconut filling. Special khanom krok trays are used with hemispherical metal moulds, in which a little oil is heated. A mix of coconut milk, rice, sugar and flour is then added and swirled around to coat the lining of the moulds and to form a base layer. Then more coconut milk, sugar and flour is poured in to create the filling. At this stage, toppings such as sweet corn or onion may be added for colouring or additional flavour. Further steaming of the pudding continues until the ouer layer is golden brown and the filling is soft but solid.
A Lesson In Making Khanom Krok
Unlike most of the food highlighted here, khanom krok is usually eaten hot, but it is a dessert, and a light snack, and it is, I am sure, well worth tasting on a visit to Thailand.
(Note that the Thai alphabet is very different to ours and so translations to the English alphabet can only be based on pronunciation. Khanom krok for example may also be spelled kanom krok, ka-nom krok etc).
'Roti saimai' is a characteristically Thai version of what we in the UK call candyfloss, and what in America is best known as cotton candy.
Preparation of this dessert was seen by the author at Ayutthaya, the historic former capital of Thailand, and the location most associated with authentic roti saimai. According to some, the roti saimai freshly prepared on the street stalls here is still the best that can be bought anywhere. Wafer thin crepes of flour and eggs are made and filled with delicate strands of spun sugar, like candyfloss. The crepe is then folded over on itself to resemble a burrito.
Both the crepes and the candyfloss come in different novelty colours and flavours. This 'cotton candy burrito', as it is sometimes called, may also be known as 'sweet angel hair' or 'silky threads'. All terms are appropriately descriptive of this very sweet dessert.
Mung Bean Desserts
Yellow mung beans are a common ingredient of traditional Thai dishes, but they are also the main ingredient of a very sweet and fragrant dessert known as 'Look Choup', shown in a photo here. Looking for all the world like jelly beans, but much more fun to make, look choup are intended to appeal to children. The alternative English name of 'delectable imitation fruits' gives the game away. Mung beans are mixed with sugar and coconut milk and then pounded and cooked to produce a thick paste. The paste is then moulded into the shapes of miniature fruits, much as one would do with modelling clay or plasticine. Food colouring is applied to make the 'fruits' look more authentic. Each 'fruit' is then dipped in an agar jelly / water mix. Imitation fruits made this way include oranges, apples, watermelons, bananas, mangoes, chilies, dragon fruits and many others. Look choup may seem like a novelty, but the sweet has a very long history of tradition.
Decorating A Dragon Fruit Shaped Loop Choup
'Med khanoon' is another dessert made of mung beans, and the first stage of its creation is similar to that described for look choup. The beans are mixed with sugar and coconut milk, and cooked till they become paste-like. This paste is then moulded into a pellet shape and dipped into egg yolks, and coated in hot syrup before being cooked for a little longer. The resultant snack is sweet and nutty, and is eaten at room temperature.
Potato Crisps (Potato Chips) And Flower Petal Crisps
This section shows two variations on what we in the UK call 'crisps' and what in America are known as chips.
First there is a treat which was seen being prepared at Chatuchak Street Market in Bangkok. A special kitchen utensil - a type of hand cranked cutter - is used, with a potato impaled upon a wooden skewer. Turning the handle on the cutter, wafer thin curls are sliced in a continuous spiral, and whilst these are still attached to the stick, they are fried before being sold for consumption. Sounds interesting? The preparation certainly is, but the snack is basically curly crisps on a stick!
A second kind of Thai fried crisps involves slightly less preparation, but the ingredients used are rather more unusual than potatoes. On the companion page to this one I described the exotic Thai dish of fried insects, eaten hot. But how about fried flowers, eaten as a cold snack? 'Dok mai thot' means 'fried flowers', and involves coating edible petals in a flour and water batter, and deep frying them in a pan of oil. Sometimes described as a 'flower tempura', the resultant fried petals are eaten like potato crisps, perhaps with a dip such as chili sauce.
Many types of of petal including rose petals,and even orchid petals are picked for frying, but illustrated here are the modified leaf bracts which provide the colour in that most ubiquitous of exotic tropical plants, the Bougainvillea.
A Pink Version Of Khanom Chan
And One More Dessert
'Khanom chan' is one of the most traditional of desserts, once served on joyous ceremonial occasions, such as weddings or career promotions, but now available to all, every day of the year. Why was it originally prepared for auspicious occasions? Khanom Chan means 'layered cake' which describes perfectly its distinctive feature - bands of differently toned sweet and sticky dessert. Traditionally nine layers were put together to create the dessert, and 'nine' in the Thai language sounds very like the Thai word for 'progress' - as such Khanom chan was served to people who were progressing in life.
Once again those familiar ingredients of coconut milk, sugar, water and flour (tapioca and sticky rice flour) are used, mixed together in a bowl, but then separated into two portions. To one of these portions, a blend of green pandanus, sugar and water, is added. A small quantity of the green portion is then poured iinto a pan to create the base layer, and this is steam-cooked until partially congealed.Once sufficiently solid to avoid intermixing, the same quantity of the colourless portion is added to form the second layer, and steamed to solidify. The process is then repeated until nine layers have been created. Once set, the dessert is then cut into cubes with green and colourless layers.
That is the traditional method, but today anything goes. Sometimes jasmine extract or other flavours may be added to alternate layers, and sometimes food colouring may be added to different layers to create a multi-coloured khanom chan. Different shaped moulds may also be used to appeal particularly to children.
Chocolate Treats? Caramel Treats? Or Something Else?
If the preparation of desserts such as those described above have a uniquely Thai flavour, one may think that when it comes to chocolate, there's not quite so much that can be done with it to make it original. Maybe not with the taste, but there's certainly plenty that can be done to present it in a novel way. Take a look at the chocolate bites shown above, photographed in a Bangkok night market. Letters, symbols, even cartoon faces. There does seem to be some pride in these hand-made treats, and that does not extend only to chocolates with coloured letters and pictures on them. Caramel sweets, lollipops and the like may also be seen, the caramel sweets glistening like little jewels.
A Particularly Elaborate Version Of Custom-Made Ice Cream Rolls
A brief mention should now be made of ice cream. By its nature ice cream is generally pre-prepared and stored in freezers and for the most part is no different on a street stall to that bought in a supermarket or shopping mall. However, there are vendors, notably in the tourist resorts, who will create rolls of ice cream on plates chilled to -35°C. Dairy milk or soy milk is mixed with berries, nuts or chocolate on the plate, and as it freezes, the blend is rolled and the rolls are placed in tubs for sale.
Presentation is everything in the display of many sweets and desserts in Thailand. The aim is to make them stand out, to appear unique, to appeal to children, or may be just to show care and attention to detail. I must admit when I checked out the photograph below, some time after taking it at a street market in Udon Thani, my first thought was that these were yet more coloured chocolates. But no, they are little sushi cakes.
Fruits - Familiar ...
For first time visitors to Thailand, who are a little wary of the range of local recipes and desserts on offer, the sight of familiar fresh fruits may be very welcome. Apples and oranges, grapes, water melons, bananas, pineapples, pears, coconuts and all other fruits to be found in Western supermarkets or greengrocers are also to be found here.
One word of caution - be aware of hygiene in street markets and roadside stalls when heat - and flies - are common inconveniences. Freshly cut fruit or fruit wrapped in cellophane as in the photo of oranges below, may be preferable to fruit eaten whole and possibly washed in tap water. (The only time I have been sick in ten visits to Thailand was the result of food washed in tap water - not fruit sold in a city, but salad washed in a village, but the principle remains the same - tap water may cause upset stomachs).
... And Unfamiliar
The range of fruits available to buy in Thailand is huge, and many are tropical varieties formerly uncommon, but now increasingly available in the West - mangoes, guava, papaya and dragon fruit for example. But even in this day and age, there are many which are still relatively unknown in the West.
What about some of these other fruits which visitors to Thailand will encounter on street stalls? What about jackfruits and durians, longans and langsats, mangosteens, rambutans and rose apples? These will all be encountered on street food stalls and they will be of interest to any tourist looking to explore new taste sensations whilst vacationing in the country.
Try them all and see what you think!
In a hot climate cold foods and light desserts and even fruit, will never of course be enough. It is important to also keep the liquid consumption up. Again the usual Western diet of alcohol (including Thailand's own brands), fizzy drinks and bottled juices are available, usually stored and often chilled not in a fridge but in a big tank of icy water. Water should be drank in quantity, and I'll repeat the advice above concerning this - drink bottled water rather than water from the tap. (In a similar vein one should also be careful of ice. If the ice is frozen tap water, it may be best avoided. But ice chunks with a hole in them are commercially produced, and these are safe).
There are also the less familiar tropical juices, including watermelon juice, pomegranete, guava, mango and of course, the ubiquitous coconut served straight from the shell of a coconut. Milky iced tea is also a common and very popular beverage, and so are iced herbal teas, with lemongrass, pandanus, chrysanthemum flowers and other flavours. All should be safe to drink given the precautions about ice mentioned above. Smoothies and shakes can also be bought. You will never want to be far from a drinks stall wherever you go!
For The Tourist
Street food in all its forms is well worth trying if you are on vacation in Thailand. Cooked meals and hot snacks are featured on another page and these are an essential part of the Thai cullinary experience, for their quality, for the value for money they represent, and for the authenticity of their preparation.
But even more interesting perhaps are the wide range of sweets and desserts which are unique to this part of the world, many of which may be prepared in the street before your eyes. Some of these are quite amazing to see, and perhaps deserve an award for presentation as much as an award for taste.
But whether or not they are custom-made or pre-prepared, when you are exposed to temperatures of +30°C every day, they may also prove more welcome to even the most dedicated and sophisticated foodie as the heat takes its toll and the need is for cooling refreshment.
Whatever the reason for trying it, take advantage of your visit to Thailand, check out the street stalls and sample a few of the enticing sweets, desserts, fruits and drinks on offer there.
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All My Other Pages ...
I have written articles on many subjects including science and history, politics and philosophy, film reviews and travel guides, as well as poems and stories. All can be accessed by clicking on my name at the top of this page
- Thailand: Thai Street Food (The Cooked Foods And Meals)
This page illustrates the range of extraordinary cooked foods and meals to be found on the streeets of Thailand. It also relates the story behind Thailand's street food stalls
- Thailand - A Travel Guide with Links to other Pages ...
This page includes a brief resume of the key facts about Thailand, the main tourist attractions, the people and the culture. It also includes links to all my Thailand pages