Bangkok’s street food provides a wonderful culinary adventure at a bargain price, with the added bonus of unbeatable neighbourhood atmosphere, writes Brian Johnston. Tuck in, and enjoy.
t a market stall, an old man in a virulent green T-shirt is making coffee, using what looks like an old sock as a filter. He squeezes the coffee out in long dramatic spouts into an old tin mug, adding a good dash of condensed milk. He hoots with pleasure as I squat like a Lilliputian on a rickety stool, knees up around my ears as I slurp. Not many foreigners loiter on this street corner, and he seems as amused by me as I am by him.
Market stalls in every direction are crammed with ziggurats of tropical fruit and racks of roast duck, sliced up in front of customers and served with chilli sauce. Silver glints from the earlobes of wrinkle-faced grandmothers, and kids spin wooden tops under trestle tables.
Whether it’s just for a coffee or a whole meal, Bangkok is one of the best cities on Earth for street food. A visit gets you in among the ordinary life of the throbbing city and will transform your tastebuds: flavours explode here in ways different from the food in Thai restaurants in Australia. Tuck into spicy salads, coconut curries, stuffed dumplings, spring rolls, satay sticks and rice cakes. Slurp up noodles, the cheapest, most satisfying meal you’re ever likely to enjoy. Thais eat noodles endlessly: for lunch, as a snack, as a late-night filler.
There’s just about every food imaginable, really, and some you mightn’t have imagined at all, such as insects. Don’t believe the adage that these delicacies (especially favoured by the Isan people of north-eastern Thailand) taste like chicken, unless your chicken normally comes with crunchy exoskeleton. If your courage fails, stick to more enjoyable Isan favourites such as sticky rice dipped in chilli sauce; green papaya salad with dried shrimp; or skewers of barbecued chicken.
Surawong, Sathorn, Silom and Charoen Krung roads are good places for street food, as is the area around transport hub Victory Monument and Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road. However, the government has recently declared that street vendors will have to move on from the sides of Bangkok’s main thoroughfares. The well-known Soi Sukhumvit 38 street stalls have already been shut down, and Yaowarat Road appears to be in the firing line.
Still, street vendors will simply move on elsewhere, and street markets will stay put. Apart from more permanent markets, night markets often appear near major intersections and bus stations towards late afternoon. These are congregations of moveable handcarts, trundled into position and soon heating up as woks flare. Wander about, choose what you want, and then squat on a tiny plastic stool — Thais think it bad manners to eat while walking about — and tuck into your roasted chicken basted in herbs and honey (kai yang), or a hundred other dishes.
The name ‘night market’ is no misnomer, since many keep going until the wee hours of the morning: just the spot if you wake up in the middle of the night with jetlag and a craving for banana fritters in sweetened coconut cream. You’ll find night markets in just about any neighbourhood, so ask your hotel concierge where the nearest one is located.
Chatuchak Market (commonly called JJ Market) has abundant food stalls, as well as a huge food hall across the road with outstanding temptations. The market also sells everything from songbirds to stuffed toys and Buddha statues in a dazzling kaleidoscope of 9,000-odd stands. It’s touristy, but an easy introduction to the street food scene. At Pratunam Market, you can pick up cheap clothes in the afternoon and Thai and Chinese food at night. Suan Lum Ratchada night bazaar near Lat Phrao MRT subway station is also terrific, and entertains with kick-boxing shows and cabarets too.
Still got the munchies? Try snackers’ paradise Wang Lang Market and the pleasantly old-fashioned Nang Loeng Market, especially good in the morning. Or simply head to the gates of any of the city’s universities, such as Ramkamhaeng or Chulalongkorn universities, where you’ll find budget eats from dozens of types of khao gaeng (rice and curry) to grilled mackerel or duck noodle soup.
Wherever you might be, leave some appetite to round off your culinary explorations with a light dessert or some fresh fruit, which comes in amazing varieties. There are two-dozen kinds of banana alone, and you can delight your tastebuds with an investigation of starfruit, mangosteen, rambutan and custard apple, whose lumpy green skin conceals pearly flesh. Fruit is often cut up and served in plastic bags, with a wooden skewer to spear the pieces. Thais often dip the fruit in salt or powdered chilli, not a combination to every visitor’s taste.
Otherwise, desserts include coconut custard cooked in a miniature pumpkin (sangkaya), or variations on sticky rice and coconut cream (most famously with mango) wrapped up in neat banana-leaf parcels. Sticky rice cakes are often filled with black bean or banana. Life is sweet indeed on the streets of Bangkok — especially if you’re a food lover.