Today was devoted to food. It turns out that our food tour and our reservation for a fancy Thai tasting restaurant happened to be on the same day, so let me be the first to share that I am completely stuffed and have tried some incredibly good and different Thai food today.
We arrived at the start of the food tour, which is in a more historic area of Bangkok than where our hotel is. The area is called Bangrak, and we spent about four hours exploring the area and trying five different types of Thai foods: Thai-Chinese (brought with many Chinese immigrants around a hundred years ago); Thai-Islamic food, Thai-Indian food, noodles, and sweets. The main rules of the food tour were that we were only going to support local restaurants, and that the restaurants needed to have been in business for at least 15 years. It was a really cool way of showing how diverse Thai culture and food is, especially as we had started to notice some of the influence but weren’t sure.
The cool thing is you can see the many years of Thai history in the city itself – the old buses, the beautiful old buildings mixed into the newer designs, and of course, the many, many layers of wiring that have gone up over the years. As we walked, our guide explained some of the neat aspects of Thai street food, starting with an explanation of all of the different veggies and fruits being sold at the carts.
One interesting thing is the lunch sets that are available. The above is the “American” lunch meal. It consists of rice cooked in tomato water, a piece of deep fried chicken, and an egg. She also explained that in Thai, there is an expression for the women in Bangkok who have “forgotten” how to cook and only eat take away: “Plastic Bag Moms”. The name is derived from a practice we’ve seen many places, where people fill plastic bags and then assemble curries away from the restaurant/vendor.
For example, this man sells 4 types of curries, which are ladled into baggies. While he does that, the customers serve themselves the toppings, which are equally important to Thai food.
We stopped by several different open air food stalls and markets, and it became clear that the plastic bag method is incredibly popular.
Of course at some point, we had to start trying things. Our first stop was Thai-Chinese, at a restaurant famous for its duck dishes. We tried the traditional duck dish, as well as the crispy pork, which was simultaneously very crispy and very tangy.
Up next, at a restaurant run by a fourth generation owner, we tried Thai-Indian food. It features a lot of similar dishes to Indian food, including things like stir fried okra, as well as some food that is Thai-Islamic, like a halal Masaman curry and an omelette type dish.
For our next stop, we had to walk across town, so we learned a little bit about life in Bangkok as a local. Gambling is fairly popular, and one of the fun traditions is that the person selling the tickets will have a premonition of the winning numbers and write them so prospective buyers can share in the winnings. Also, Bangkok’s mail system is quite efficient and I’m jealous the US hasn’t picked up a similarly clear format.
We also stopped by a beautiful Wat, and learned that there are two main sects of Buddhism in Thailand: one that is Chinese, and one that is more indigenous to the area. This somewhat explains the different designs on Wats that we have been seeing so far. There are other differences to – for example, one sect is vegetarian, and the other doesn’t have any dietary limitations.
Perhaps most interesting, though, were the foods being sold at the street carts pretty much everywhere we walked, from major streets, to the highway underpass, to small little back alleys. Food is a huge way of life, and the options are quite creative. Amazingly, this is only a small fraction of the things we saw and could have tried – there are too many photos to share them all here, but anything and everything you could want as a street food, Bangkok can offer.
For example, that man is making little pancakes with fried egg inside them, filled with hot dogs. The banana leaf pouches hold fermented pork, something that has been brought down to Bangkok from the Northeast region of Thailand, near the border with Cambodia (this will also become relevant later in our tour). We proceeded to one of our favorite stops of the day, the noodle stand. You can select from four different types of noodles: rice, verimicelli, egg, and pandan noodles. We had very crispy spring rolls and I got the pandan noodles while Perry got the rice noodles.
Then, we continued to our last two stops, which were across the river. The ferry that guides you over barely stops for you, so you kind of just hop on as it approaches shore and hop off at the other side. Thailand is very efficient in this way.
Once across the river, we continued to see the residential side of Bangkok, including houses built over the water, lots of alleys filled with places to eat, and a woman right by the dock who has about 6 pet cats, including this cute kitten who happily eats the leftover fish of the day (I think Cinder would be jealous).
For our last savory meal, we tried chicken with fried lemongrass and fried kaffir lime leaf, which is something I’ve never tried before but was great. They smash the lemongrass with a mortar and pestle until it is soft and able to be coated in flour and breadcrumbs and fried. They eat it with sticky rice and a dipping sauce.
Then, we tried the papaya salad in two different styles. The first includes anchovies and is tailored such that everything goes with the fermented flavors – i.e., using dried chilis instead of fresh, no fresh tomato but instead raw eggplant, etc. We tried this one first, and it tasted very reminiscent of the fish prahook we had in Cambodia. If anyone recalls that dish, it was basically fish slathered in fish paste and aromatics, baked in the sun until it started to decay, and then wrapped in a banana leaf and left to ferment. And yes, I tried it, and it is served with raw eggplant and generally was not pleasing to my palate (my stomach somehow managed it just fine). This…. is basically the same dish flavor-wise, just including papaya and in a different format.
Interestingly, this dish comes from Northeast Thailand, right next to the border with Laos and Cambodia. The land isn’t good for raising animals or growing food, and there isn’t a good water supply for seafood. So, they preserve everything in fermentation processes. This includes everything from the fish to the anchovies in this salad, to the pork wrapped in banana leaves. We tried a non-fish version of the salad and found that much more palatable, although our guide preferred the anchovy version.
Our last stop was for a sweet bun filled with pandan custard and some Thai iced tea. Then, we headed to the Mandarin Oriental hotel to check out the famous lobby and grab a drink, since it is right next to the pier area. Of course, it was beautiful.
We headed back to our hotel for a quick swim and some downtime during the afternoon, before heading to the restaurant Nahm for our tasting menu dinner. We opted to have the chef’s choice, which meant we didn’t know what we were getting before it arrived. The food was delicious and was fairly unique flavors (even given what we had experienced this morning). They included a sea bass in aromatics, a crab curry with crispy shrimp, ox tail curry (extremely flavorful and sweet-spicy), a beef salad, liver and mushroom soup with tapioca balls, pigeon and crab tom yum soup (‘tom yum’ actually refers to any kind of soup that has a water base and ‘yum’ or the four flavors of Thai aromatics: sour, sweet, salty, spicy – anything can be made into this type of soup!), curry scallop, egg nest beef balls, and pandan noodle dessert with black sticky rice and coconut cream, as well as a tropical fruit dessert.
Overall, it was a great day with a lot of great flavors. We really enjoyed getting to walk around some of the back streets of Bangkok with our guide and seeing a slice of what locals eat on a daily basis. Tomorrow, we continue our food journey with a Thai cooking class to learn more about the way these foods are actually prepared.
One thought on “Street eats in Bangkok, Thailand”
OMG, I would not have to eat for six months! It all sounds wonderful.