It’s true: Bangkok is cracking down on illegal street food vendors in certain neighbourhoods, culling the sidewalks of some of the estimated 500,000 stalls set up throughout the city. But in a city of 8 million – a vast majority of whom buy a street food item nearly every day – it’s highly unlikely that street food will ever really die.
What the crackdown has achieved is to boost the popularity of the vendors who have stayed. These vendors form the backbone of Thailand’s food world, providing reasonably priced sustenance for workers whose average income hovers around 13,000 baht (US$400) a month. It’s a mini-miracle, then, that some well-crafted dishes that have taken generations to perfect are still available for as little as 50 baht a bowl.
For visitors to Thailand, street food still offers the easiest way to immerse yourself into local life. But the array of choice remains dazzling and, for many unused to the chaos of the city, more than a bit daunting. Put simply, Bangkok’s street food scene resembles an edible safari, with the most intense interest reserved for the “Big Five” dishes: fried noodles; Isaan (or North-eastern Thai); rice porridge; soup noodles; and rice dishes. But which places offer the best versions of each? Here, a rundown on where to go when you want the best of the best in Thai street food.
1. Fried noodles
Thai street food is famous for its range, and this category is no different, encompassing everything from foreign dishes such as chow fun or fried wide rice noodles (guay tiew lard na) and sukiyaki (shortened to “suki”) to ‘drunken noodles’ (guay tiew pad kee mow; below) and, of course, pad Thai.
But some vendors can do it all – almost. Except for pad Thai (which can be found next door), the no-nonsense, goggle-wearing septuagenarian known as Jay Fai (327 Mahachai Rd; below) can make any fried noodle dish you can think of, and probably more you’ve never heard of before. Dubbed the “Mozart of the frying pan” by local media, Jay Fai is most known for her ‘drunken noodles’, but also fries up a mean crab omelette (kai jiew pu) and offers spicy lemongrass soup with seafood (tom yum talay), a pitch-perfect rendition of Thailand’s most well-known dish. Don’t forget your wallet – at up to 1,500 baht for a big bowl of tom yum, a trip here doesn’t come cheap.
Influenced by the culinary traditions of neighbouring Laos, Isaan food is known for its spicy, sour and salty flavours, grilled meats, and sticky rice. However, the most popular Isaan dish is probably green papaya salad (som tum; below), which can actually be made with any fruit or vegetable in Thailand, including green banana and grilled corn.
Considered the most popular street food among Thais, Isaan food spots abound in Bangkok, making the ones that stand out all that much more extraordinary. One of these spots is Jay Oun Moo Jum (entrance to Suan Plu Soi 3), an unassuming streetside eatery across the road from Bangkok’s Immigration Office on Suan Plu Road. Besides the Isaan trinity of green papaya salad, grilled chicken and sticky rice, Jay Oun offers great grilled pork collar and moo jum, an Isaan-style sukiyaki in a spicy broth.
3. Rice porridge
A mainstay in all Asian street food, Thai rice porridge (khao thom) differs in that its boiled rice grains are left intact in the broth, served either with a protein like chicken or fish, or plain with a variety of dishes on the side. One of the more famous vendors of this type of porridge is Khao Thom Bowon (Phra Sumen Rd), located directly across the street from Bowonniwet Temple. Popular side dishes accompanying the rice porridge include braised pork trotter, deep-fried seabass, and pickled cabbage.
For Chinese-style rice porridge, in which the grains are stirred continuously until they break down into a silky sludge, the most famous vendor remains Joke Samyan (Chula Soi 11; above), where this dish has been served for the past 40 years.
4. Soup noodles
There are so many types of soup noodles – featuring everything from fish, duck, chicken, beef and pork – that it is hard to whittle the best soup noodle vendor to just one. But when it comes to popularity, the Chinese-style yellow egg noodle (bamee; below) probably takes the cake. Typically served with red-barbecued pork, pork wontons, blanched bitter greens and occasionally bits of crab, bamee harkens back to Thai street food’s Chinese immigrant origins, when vendors sold soup noodles alongside the many canals which once criss-crossed the city.
The most well-known bamee purveyor in Bangkok is Bamee Sawang (Rama IV Rd), a short walk from Hualampong train station and marked by distinctive fluorescent green lighting. The egg noodles are made fresh in-house daily, and the crab claws and pork are both buttery and flavoursome. Alcoholic drinks are prohibited, however.
5. Rice dishes
Out of all the rice dishes in the Thai street food lexicon, chicken rice is likely the most popular, not just in Thailand but across Asia. Cleaving to the Hainanese-style dish of steamed or boiled chicken accompanied by rice grains plumped by chicken fat and a cup of chicken broth, vendors outside of Thailand usually focus on the tenderness of the chicken or the flavour of the rice. In Thailand, it’s the sauce that matters most, with purveyors occasionally serving up to four sauces at a time next to their chicken rice plates.
Of all the chicken rice vendors in the city, the most famous, hands down, is Go-Ang Kaomunkai Pratunam (Petchburi Soi 30; above), just a short walk from Bangkok’s main shopping district. For more than four decades, the pink-shirted waitresses have served custardy flanks of chicken meat atop mounds of rice, flavoured by a garlicky, chilli-spiked soy sauce – a nice reprieve from shopping at Central World.
– TEXT BY CHAWADEE NUALKHAIR
PHOTOS: 123RF.COM, INSTAGRAM, FLICKR USER ÄNGELO PEREIRA (MAIN PHOTO)
This article was originally published by Singapore Press Holdings.