When traveling through Southeast Asia for the first time, one of most apparent aspects of the culture that will remain in your mind is the unavoidable presence of the street food vendors. Whether they are small carts pulled by a motorbike, full-on trucks decks out with grills and burners, open-air shophouses with chairs thrown out on the sidewalk, or simply an old woman carrying a basket over her shoulder, the sheer volume of street food that is available in any given city — both in the number of vendors and the staggeringly vast array of culinary options — can be a bit overwhelming. And no where does that sentiment ring more true than in Bangkok. In a city of roughly 10 million people, there are an estimated 500,000 street food vendors trolling the streets — that’s one vendor for every 20 people. Virtually every street corner, alleyway, nook, and cranny seems to be filled with vendors selling things that smell, look, or taste good (hopefully all three).
For us Americans, street food is still in its infancy,at least compared to this other side of the planet. There are obviously pockets of activity dotting several major cities (Portland comes to mind, for example), but on a whole, it is something that, as a culture, we haven’t full embraced. And we’re missing out. Besides being some of the cheapest digs out there, most of the foodies here will also tell you it happens to be the only way to find some of the best food being offered anywhere within the city. Sure, sitting down to a 10-course gustation menu at a Michelin-starred restaurant is a great experience, but nothing nearly as rewarding as trekking through the winding alleys of Chinatown or the smokey atmosphere of a night market with your sights set on a particular plate of noodles or a much-hyped soup vendor.
More than simply the food itself, it is the experience of street food that draws us in. The sounds of radios blasting from passing tuks tuks, the harsh glare of the neon signs, the somewhat tacky feel of plastic tables and chairs, and the fact that you’re just as likely to be seated next to a businessman in a full suit as taxi-driver coming off a 12-hour shift. Further complicating things, however, can be the fact that menus often aren’t written in English, the food is often undiscernable to a Western palate, and the vendors can sometimes take on the air of the “soup-nazi” when etiquette is broken. So when I find myself in a pinch, much like I did at the Hawker Center in Singapore, I’d simply find the vendor with the longest line, queue up, and then point at the dish that everyone else is ordering and say “One Please.”
The street food in Bangkok does vary a bit, however, from what many would consider traditional Thai cuisine (i.e. – coconut milk curries, spicy papaya salads, seafood and tomato-based soups, etc.), but that will, again, have to wait until another post. And further, as mentioned earlier, there are estimated to be over a half million different vendors within Bangkok alone – meaning any attempt to summarize what is available or to classify it all in a few shorts paragraphs would be a futile exercise. So with that in mind, I’ll just skip to a few of my favorites from my time spent in the city:
If you’re in a hurry, however, and don’t have time to pull up one of the sidewalk tables, another option is to take advantage of one of the many “fry-stations” that make up a large percentage of the vendors. It’s easy to pick these guys out: just follow your nose to the huge vats of boiling oil, then just point at what you want dropped in, and voila, you’re on your way.
Don’t worry, even I (who has no problem scoffing down a lamb’s head or pig’s intestines) couldn’t quite amass the courage to sample the wares of the above vendor. Instead, I stole away to sweeter pastures, and found some of the many drink and dessert carts that also troll the streets:
I’ve still got another post dedicated to the culinary delights of the rest of Thailand, but until then, cheers from Bangkok!