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Thai Cuisine - Top 10 Bangkok Street Food

Updated on October 24, 2015

It was very fortunate of me to grow up in Bangkok, where yumminess was basically everywhere to find. My grandmother was a profoundly skilled chef but not a very diligent one. She had her "low-energy" days, and street food vendors turned out to be decent substitute chefs. Bangkok street food was almost as dear to me as Grandma's home cooking. There were lengthy arrays of food carts stretching on both sides of our neighborhood canal. Some sellers even wheeled or pedaled their carts all the way to our alley and conveniently stopped right in front of our house. Without having to poke my head out of a window like a starving puppy and try to spot them, I knew exactly when those vendors were coming. I could differentiate each of them by their sound. Repeated bongs of a hand bell signified the presence of the Pad Thai vendor. The old man who sold noodle soups always announced his grand arrival by striking his wood blocks together. And the papapa-salad lady's approach was pretty blatant. She usually yelled from the top of her lungs "som tum ma laew ja!" meaning "Papaya salad has arrived."

I consider myself "an offspring of Bangkok" as much as the daughter of my parents. Below are some of the most delectable foods my mother city has fed me. Whenever you pay a visit to this marvelous city, don't waste your opportunity to taste these street foods.

Photo Courtesy of shinyai, Flickr.com
Photo Courtesy of shinyai, Flickr.com
A typical noodle vendor
A typical noodle vendor

Bangkok Street Food # 10 - BBQ-Pork Noodle Soup (Kuay Teow Moo Dang)

Whenever I eat this, I feel like I am a top chef, and the vendor is just my prep cook. The ultimate savoriness of my noodle soup is in my own hand. Most of the time, BBQ-pork-noodle vendors happen to be men since it is a profession that requires quite a bit of strength. The seller usually rides on a bicycle with a wheeled cart in the front. The cart contains a big pot of constantly boiling broth and a glass box displaying cooked BBQ pork and meatballs along with several types of noodles. It probably wouldn't be easy for a small woman to pedal such large vehicle with all that bunch of stuff and a propane tank under the broth pot.

There are usually four basic kinds of noodles you may choose from: sen yai (broad, flat rice noodles, similar to the Chinese chow fun), sen lek (thin rice noodles, also used in pad thai), sen mee (extra thin, wiry-looking rice noodles), and ba mee (yellow wheat noodles, similar to spaghetti). Once you request the type of noodles you fancy, Mr. noodleman will cook them in the broth with BBQ pork, meatballs and chopped Chinese broccoli. At this point, your noodle soup won't have much flavor in it yet, but you will get the "kruang prung" or "the four seasonings" to spice your own dish. These four seasonings usually include sugar, fish sauce, rice vinegar and chili powder. Some BBQ-pork-noodle vendors also provide crushed roasted peanuts and roasted chili oil for their customers to create a more adventurous taste.

Photo Courtesy of chooyutshing, flickr.com
Photo Courtesy of chooyutshing, flickr.com

Bangkok Street Food # 9 - Pork Satay (Moo Satay)

The original satay was certainly not made with pork because it was introduced to Thai people by Muslim-Malay hawkers who worked at seasonal carnivals in the south of Thailand. Instead it was probably prepared with either chicken or lamb. The Thais later adapted this dish to their own taste and came to the conclusion that pork was the way to go. What makes pork satay more special than other types of Thai BBQ is its curry marinade. It lends an herbal aroma to the dish as well as makes the pork turn the color of turmeric. The smell of satay on a charcoal grill often makes my stomach growl. Traditional satay sellers never put big chunks of meat on one skewer, but just a tiny curl. To eat it the Bangkok way, dunk the pork in a rich peanut sauce and put the whole piece into your mouth. Besides the peanut dip, Bangkokians also enjoy their satay with cucumber salad and lightly toasted bread.

Bangkok Street Food # 8 - Fish Cakes (Tod Mun)

Unlike western crab cakes, the texture of a Thai fish cake is not supposed to be soft, but dense and slightly chewy, almost like meatballs. Vatcharin Bhumichitr, a Thai restaurant owner in the UK and author of several Thai cookbooks, has compared the process of kneading a fish cake batter to the art of body massage. You've got to do it gently yet firmly, or else you won't achieve a desirable outcome. The main ingredients of Thai fish cakes include ground fish meat, red curry paste, eggs, chopped string beans and shredded kaffir lime leaves. To balance the robust taste of the fish and curry, they are usually served with a sweetish, refreshing sauce, made from vinegar, sugar, chopped shallots, chilies, fresh cucumber slices and crushed roasted peanuts. On the streets of Bangkok, you will see many vendors frying fish cakes along with meatballs and sausages. Try to find ones that sell fish cakes only. The specialists are always the best.

Photo Courtesy of Kat n Kim, Flickr.com
Photo Courtesy of Kat n Kim, Flickr.com

Bangkok Street Food # 7 - Fried Mussels with Bean Sprouts (Hoy Tod)

This street food is absolutely my DD (delicious decadence). It might be a bit high in calories, but it’s so divine I am willing to risk my slender shape for it. Originally, hoy tod was probably created in some fisherman provinces by the sea. Now no one can deny its ubiquity on Bangkok streets. It doesn't cost street vendors much time to prepare this dish or much money to start up a hoy tod business. The hoy tod batter is simply a mixture of flour, eggs and a pinch of salt. The topping sauce isn't a big mystery, either. It is a basic concoction of rice vinegar, sugar and chilies. What I love most about this street food is the interesting contrast in its texture. There's crispiness in the egg batter, chewiness in the mussels and delicacy in the fried bean sprouts. Combining them all together in one bite can produce a delightful gastronomical result.

Bangkok Street Food # 6 - Pad Thai

Pad thai is usually made with sen lek (thin rice noodles), but wun sen (clear bean noodles) has recently become a more popular choice among women on a diet. In Bangkok, there are quite a few versions of this dish, not based upon the chefs’ preferences but the customers' budgets. The most affordable type is cooked with tofu and tiny dried shrimp. If you have more baht to spend, you may ask the pad-thai lady to add some fresh shrimp in it. The most luxurious version of pad thai is prepared with fresh mixed seafood and wrapped in a golden net of extra thin omelet. Bangkokians believe seafood and pad thai are perfect soul mates; you would rarely hear anyone order it with pork or chicken there. Before enjoying this noodle dish, don’t forget to sprinkle some crushed roasted peanuts and fresh bean sprouts on top.

A street seller preparing pad thai

Photo Courtesy of Kenneth B. Moore, Flickr.com
Photo Courtesy of Kenneth B. Moore, Flickr.com

Bangkok Street Food # 5 - Spicy Basil Chicken (Gai Pad Kraprao)

Chow mein might be a staple food among the Chinese, but for us Thais, pad kraprao is one of our main chows. Most Thai people know how to cook it. Most street vendors and restaurants serve it. Even an inept Thai chef can probably prepare this dish with no difficulty. Bangkokians are used to eating spicy basil chicken with steamed rice, the same way most Americans might feel about hot dogs. I have ordered this dish at a few Thai restaurants here in California, and it always turns out to be a bit disappointing. To prepare it, Bangkok vendors stir-fry finely ground or thinly sliced chicken with chili sauce and fresh basil leaves. It doesn't take long to cook ground meat, thus the dish is ready to be served before the basil leaves start to wilt. But here, they tend to use thicker slices of meat, which prolongs the cooking time and accordingly "slaughters" the fragile basil leaves during the process. As a result, the aroma of basil is there, but the leaves appear overdone and completely dead. I usually advise my fellow Bangkokians not to order spicy basil chicken in California.

Bangkok Street Food # 4 - Chicken Rice (Kow Mun Gai)

It looks like plain boiled chicken with boring steamed rice, doesn't it? This street food might appear insipid, but the preparation of it is extremely meticulous. All the challenge of this dish is in the process of making rice. Kow mun gai literally means “oily rice with chicken.” Not very yummy-sounding, I know. The rice must be cooked in rich chicken broth that contains a large amount of fat from chicken skin. In other words, you have to boil a whole chicken for hours and hours to make the broth. If the broth is even a tiny bit too light, the rice might just come out wrong. Once the rice is done, the rest is simple. The sauce can be made in a just few minutes with fresh ginger, rice vinegar, soy sauce and green chilies. A perfect dish of kow mun gai is usually accompanied by fresh cucumber slices and a little bowl of clear chicken soup. As for the origin of this dish, many culinary experts believe it is from Hunan, a southern province in China.

Bangkok Street Food # 3 - Fried Noodles with Dark Soy Sauce (Pad See Ew)

This noodle dish might not sound very appetizing in English because of the word “ew.” Its taste is actually not "ew" at all, though. In Bangkok, it is always made with sen yai or large flat noodles. If you want it with sen mee or sen lek instead, you will have to make a special request. Never order it with wheat noodles or clear bean vermicelli; that is blasphemy! Okay, that's an overstatement; you could order it that way. There's really nothing wrong with it, but people might just think you're weird. A good analogy for cooking pad see ew with wheat noodles or bean vermicelli would be to top macaroni with peanut butter.

The preparation of pad see ew is pretty straightforward; just pan-frying noodles with meat, chopped Chinese broccoli, eggs, garlic, dark soy sauce and a few other seasonings. You may order it with any kind of meat or seafood, though pork and chicken seem to be the most popular choices among Bangkokians. Somehow this noodle dish means a lot to me personally. It is my comfort food. Sometimes when the whole world seems to be against me, a big bite of pad see ew will remind me to stop struggling for a minute and just appreciate this simple happiness on my plate before resuming the battle.

Photo Courtesy of nakedchefgun, Flickr.com
Photo Courtesy of nakedchefgun, Flickr.com

Bangkok Street Food # 2 - Boat Noodles (Kuay Teow Rhua)

I like calling this "an amphibian dish." Before it became a renowned Bangkok street food, it used to be sold on little boats in canals and rivers. It was born in the water and grew up strong on land, so to speak. This type of noodle soup is usually made with either beef or pork and chopped morning glory. Crispy pork rinds and fresh bean sprouts are the extras upon request. Unlike BBQ pork noodles, boat noodle soup is usually quite tasty in itself. The “four seasonings” are always provided by the vendors, nonetheless. If you order boat noodle soup made with beef, don’t be surprised to find your soup rather thick and strangely piquant; it probably contains a special ingredient. This might sound gruesome, but many vendors like to add cow blood in the broth. Have I tried a boat noodle soup with cow blood? Of course! I'm a real Bangkokian. It is cooked and thus should not be perilous. And don't worry, it tastes nothing like blood.

Photo Courtesy of Rheanna2, Flickr.co
Photo Courtesy of Rheanna2, Flickr.co

Bangkok Street Food # 1 - Papaya Salad (Som Tum)

Som tum is a northeastern dish, formerly considered to be "a poor people's food." Now it has become the most famous street food almost everybody cherishes. No one will assume you are poverty-stricken anymore when they see you gobble this salad. Even a royal member of Thailand, Princess Mahachakri Sirindhorn, loves this dish so much she has composed a whole song about how to make it. Som tum is usually prepared with shredded green papaya. Some vendors also use shredded carrots, string beans or cucumbers, though green papaya has always remained the most popular key ingredient. There are many varieties of som tum. The two broadest categories would be “tum thai,” a milder and sweeter type spiced with roasted peanuts, and “tum lao," an intensely fiery version made with salty little crabs.

To make som tum, you can’t just toss the ingredients together in a bowl like other salads. You have to lightly pound the shredded papaya with garlic cloves, tomatoes, green chilies, lime wedges and all the seasonings in a mortar to make sure all the flavors are ingrained in every strand of papaya. That’s how this dish got its nickname “papaya pok pok”, which mimics the sound of the pestle hitting the mortar. In America, som tum might be categorized as a side salad or appetizer, but for many Thais, it is an entrée to be savored with grilled meat and sticky rice. No surprise, most som tum vendors also carry a little charcoal grill for barbecuing meat, as well as a large bamboo container called “kratip” to keep the sticky rice warm.

Which Bangkok street food sounds most appetizing to you?

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