While you might not be able to get a taxi or cross the street in Bangkok without a struggle, there’s always one thing you don’t have to worry about: going hungry. Almost everywhere you go—whether it’s outside a fancy shopping mall in the center Bangkok or down a small alleyway on the outskirts of the city—you can find a ton of cheap, delicious, and unpretentious street food.
I eat street food most of the time, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t cooked once since I’ve been here. But unlike the US, it’s much cheaper to eat out than cook. How can you turn down dinner for a dollar?
While each stall is different, there are a few staples in the street food scene:
-What my friends and I call “street meat” is almost everywhere. There are multiple standard varieties, including meatballs of different shapes and colors, sausages, octopus, and my favorite—chicken satay. Thai people love their pork (I swear I’ve eaten more pork here than I have in my entire life), so grilled pork skewers are another common snack.
-On most streets, you’ll find a fruit vendor selling produce as familiar as pineapple and mango (my favorite) and as unfamiliar as mangosteen and durian (not my favorite). The smell is so pungent that most cabs prohibit people from bringing cut durian inside.
-You’ll almost always find a street vendor serving up a delicious, crispy omelet studded with mussels (hoi tod).
-Salt-encrusted, roasted whole fish are another popular eat in waterfront towns like mine.
-For dessert, you can almost always find someone selling these crispy crepes filled with sweet cream and coconut. They’re a little too sweet for my taste, but they hit the spot if you want a quick dessert.
This is very small sampling of common street food vendors you can come across, but I just wanted to give you a taste of what you can find in most neighborhoods. Food stalls are pretty diverse, and you can read more about some of my favorite dishes in Part One and another post that will hopefully be up soon!
Before then, here are a few trends and oddities in the Thai culinary world you should know about:
Sit down to eat
Street food is fast, but it’s not “Fast Food.” Eating and walking is considered rude, so either take your food home or sit at a table on the street or sidewalk.
Sweetened condensed milk is king
Outside of an annual Thanksgiving pumpkin pie, me and Carnation Sweetened Condensed Milk don’t see a lot of each other the rest of the year. I’ve seen enough of the stuff to last 100 Thanksgivings because this sticky sweet substance is everywhere. They put it in everything from “fruit shakes” (which often contain a sugary fruit syrup and only sometimes contain actual fruit), iced coffee, iced tea, and almost all dessert. It’s sprinkled on roti (a delicious thin egg crepe that’s often covered in banana and/or chocolate) and on most shaved ice desserts. I’ve become convinced that Thailand fuels the entire Carnation brand.
The most important phrase you’ll learn
As expected, the food here is SPICY. One of the first and most useful Thai phrases I learned was “mai phet” (not spicy). But as I’ve gotten used to the punch of chilli at every meal, “mai phet” is slowly becoming phet nit noy (a little spicy). Don’t get me wrong—my nose still runs at almost every meal, but I’m slowly getting accustomed to (and even enjoying) the spice. Let’s just hope my Tums don’t run out.
Where’s the knife?
At any Thai table, your two weapons of choice are a fork and spoon. You won’t miss having a knife, as most meat and large vegetables are chopped up to bite-sized portions. While using a fork to scoop food into a spoon made me feel like a toddler learning to eat with silverware for the first time, I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. But I still look like a ridiculous foreigner when confronted with chopsticks, which are generally used with noodle soup dishes. You’re supposed to use your chopsticks to expertly pile the noodles and broth into a spoon, but I generally just end up awkwardly slurping it straight from the bowl.
The Thai colonel
I wasn’t too shocked to find McDonald’s, or even Dunkin Donuts, at most malls and shopping centers around Bangkok. But what I wasn’t expecting to see was the Colonel. KFC is ridiculously popular here; my students go crazy for it. You wouldn’t think an old white guy peddling southern classics would resonate with Thai’s, but they seriously love fried chicken. Fried chicken with sticky rice is a classic Thai meal, so KFC has become the fast food equivalent. I still haven’t tried what the Thai Colonel has to offer, but like most fast food chains in Thailand, it has its own Thai flair. Crispy chicken with green curry rice is just one of the many Thai-influenced offerings.
A literal interpretation of “ice cream sandwich”
Thai’s take the “sandwich” in “ice cream sandwich” very literally– to the point that street vendors use a long white bread bun as their ice cream vessel. Scoop some coconut ice cream in the soft roll, spoon on some peanuts, and you’ve got yourself a Thai ice cream sandwich.
A quartet of condiments
If you sprinkle salt and pepper on everything, you’ll be out of luck in Thailand. The salt and pepper shakers of the Thai table are jars of 4 ingredients: prik pon (dried red pepper flakes), nam blaa (fish sauce), (nam taan) white sugar, and nam som prik (sliced chillis in vinegar). These four ingredients, which are referred to as the “four flavors,” are all diners needs to add hot, sour, salty, and sweet flavor to their meals.
Plastic, not paper
Don’t tell the Whole Foods crowd, but Thai’s love their plastic. Almost all take-out containers take the form of plastic bags tied with a small rubber band. At first, the sight of chunky multi-colored curries in see-through bags didn’t seem so appetizing. But it’s a convenient way to cart around your meal. This love affair with plastic even applies to drinks. If you buy a bottle of coke, it often gets dumped into a plastic bag with a straw. And your iced tea, coffee, or smoothie cup will always come with a plastic sleeve to use as a handle.
That’s my random take on Thai food so far. More info on some of my favorite new dishes is coming soon!