Street food is one thing. Thai street food is another. It was, in fact, a book about Thai street food that perked up my interest in visiting Thailand in the first place, a wonderful heavy, huge, hard-cover book with beautiful photos, aptly named “Thai Street Food” by David Thompson. I received the book as a going-away present from my ex-boss in Boston, and unfortunately, due to the fact that it weighed as much as a baby or a bomb, could not bring it to Argentina with me when I left. I did, however, have a few days before to look at it and I got a chance to visit it again upon my return to Boston in December. The photos therein, as well as the stories my ex-boss told me about the diversity, the accessibility, the explosions of flavor characterizing this type of food have stayed with me and have haunted me, pushing me ever nearer to Thailand since then.
Right now the book is still sitting on a shelf of my bookcase in my room back there, hopefully not collecting too much dust, and it’s presently one of the number one things from that old room I wish I had by my side (my ancient teddybear, Morgi, being another). But I am no longer dependent on it for wishful fantasies of flavor. Both my mind and my hard drive are to capacity with memories of all those stunning stand snacks, those vibrant flavors and surprising textures, and the penetrating aromas surrounding them. Street food is both an art and a science in Thailand and folks take it seriously. Out of a dizzying variety, they will tell you what’s good, what’s good this month and what’s good at the stand you’re standing in front of. This becomes obvious as the night markets become packed with people, each one pointing and seemingly negotiating with the stall vendor about what they’re selling. Unfortunately I am not one of them and had no idea what to get. But it’s all 20 baht anyway, so might as well get one of each, right?….Am I right?
First things first, the fried insect, mealworm and frog stand. I went there. I didn’t pay 10 baht to take a photo but I did pay 40 for a frog and 30 for a cricket (and then realized this was crazy overpriced). The frog wasn’t bad at all. The crispy limbs and thin little body reminded me of the thin tip of a fried chicken wing, a bit dry and very crunchy, with a general mild poultry flavor. Biting down on the head (which was around 1 cm in diameter) was a bit strange, as it definitely FELT like a tiny frog head – not for a moment could I forget what I was eating. It was a bit gummy, chewy with two crunchy holes for eye-sockets. The frog also had its mouth open into a horrific smile which my tongue could feel out as I swallowed it.
The cricket was pretty bad, way more juice than I had expected. In the case of edible insects, the rule of thumb is “The drier, the more “fried”, the better.” A dry mealworm, for example, can appear a Cheeto at times, a beetle can resemble a potato chip texturally if it is sucked clean of its life-giving juices before. However, if that “bug juice” is still in there, making the thing squishy and conducing the bitter, dusty sand-paper “bug flavor,” spreading it around your entire mouth, the result is not pretty. You are reminded of what you are eating and your body rejects it. In my cases it was only a look of disgust (which met my friends’ questioning looks, as they stared at me to gage my reaction), instead of the vomit I’m sure would project out of others, upon trying this. Considering the fact that there were cockroaches in that stand and almost as many live cockroaches seemingly of the same species on the ground around us – making it painfully clear where the products came from – I’d say holding back the vom is a pretty strong feat.
Next up, pad thai. Real pad thai assembled infront of me in a cart for only 30 baht. Two big piles of golden rice noodles and one of bean sprouts. Thrown into a pan and sauteed up quickly with an egg which scrambles up and melts in with the noodles perfectly. Squirted with a bit of fish sauce and tamarind juice from plastic squeeze bottles, a few chopped chilis added. Bits of juicy white chicken are added for a bit of protein. The plate is topped off with extra chilis, chili powder, chopped peanuts, scallions and fresh lime to squeeze over it. My favorite topping was the kung haeng, tiny little dried shrimp which add a deep, earthy umami essence. Each bite was comforting and texturally complex (from the slimy, warm noodles to the crispy, cool, refreshing bean sprouts), sweet and savory, hot from the chilis but fresh from the citrus, nutty and buttery from the chopped peanuts. This is definitely a food to eat in big bites, whole mouthfuls.
Black pepper crab, tiny one. Tiny little crabs in a wok with a bunch of chilis, chili pepper and black pepper. Not much meat in the claws of these bad boys but the body was plump, buttery and delicious and easy to eat since the shell was very thin, crispy and soft and could be eaten whole.
A little choripan, anyone? This version is sai krok nua, Thai beef sausage grilled over a charcoal fire, 3 little lumps of it for convenient eats. As good as it looks. Crispy casing, tender, mushy insides characterized strongly by a ginger flavor. Definitely one of my faves.
Thung thong, Thai fried “money bags,” interesting because of the filling, otherwise kind of plain. Fried pastry shell hardened into a purse shape with one quail egg inside. The yolk was moist and silky, much denser than a chicken egg and perfectly cooked inside of its fried casing. Dipped into a bit of plum sauce (handed to me in a separate plastic bag), not a bad snack to start with.
Congee, or chok in Thailand. Didn’t have this here but really wanted to at least take a photo of this stand and share it. 7 pots of boiling hot rice porridge, surprisingly super popular (unsurprisingly, only amongst the locals) in the 95 degree summer heat. A variety things were added to the pots or used to top off each bowl of the stuff. Among other things eggs, minced pork/beef, spring onions, and pathongko (fried garlic, ginger and pickles) made appearances.
Cockroaches with a bit of coarse salt anyone?? Noooo thanks.
These little bags of liquid dessert are sold almost everywhere and though I didn’t get one of these specifically, I did try one of them later on in a restaurant, the khanom bua loi. A little chewy but otherwise flavorless balls of taro root and pumpkin mixed with rice flour which are cooked and served in sweet coconut milk. Gummy, lumpy, a bit like tapioca pudding.
This to me is truly perfect street fare. Pla meuk yang. A plump, juicy, fresh squid pierced through with a bamboo stick and grilled. Very minimal seasoning – I think just salt, actually. Served with sweet chili sauce. A bit chewy and far too large for one person. The insides also were still a bit wet and slimy, which freaked me out at first, but the flesh on the outside was perfectly smokey and tender. The tentacles were my favorite part, curled up and bumpy, chewy little mouthfuls of more manageable flesh.
The “greens” cart. I didn’t actually get anything but this stand was so beautiful, I had to take a photo. A huge variety of lush leafy greens, everything from morning glory to kale to chayote melon leaves to broccoli sprouts to Brussel sprouts. Customer picks out what they want onto a plate, stand lady throws them into a large wok to mix and stir-fry them, adding any combination of the huge variety of mixing sauces which send sweet aromas of ginger, lemongrass, lime, Thai lemon basil and turmeric lingering in my direction. Most of these sauces were chili based, I saw some with 4 different types of beans and one black sea snails in a chili, onion, garlic sauce which was meant to be tossed with the greens.
Incredible complexity and variety. Street food like none other I’ve seen before.
A bit of grilled corn with salt for the Westerners…
Thai style fried chicken, gai tod, one of the best I’ve ever had. Sorry, Popeyes, this stand lady has you beat. Pure golden brown (more like red), crispy as all hell, with plenty of garlic and turmeric flavor weaved through the tender, juicy flesh. Served with a gooey sweet chili sauce to dip in. The wings and drumsticks were fantastic, although I don’t know if I could handle a whole deep-fried bird (and they ARE deep-fried whole), including the head and beak and everything. To each their own?
Deep fried fish cake. I think it was called phat phet. Not exactly sure what part of the fish these amorphous little fish balls came from but they was absolutely delicious, spongy and airy and then a bit chewy, while fried golden brown. I think they were fried in the oil along with some ginger, turmeric, garlic and chilis which inundated them with plenty of sweet, sour, tangy flavor. Served with a bit of lettuce and cucumber to lighten the flavor a bit and give it a crunchy companion.
Khanom khai nok krata, fried sweet potato (or was it yam?) balls. A perfect snack to pop into your mouth while strolling through a Thai night market. Only a tad bit sweet, a very natural sweet from the sweet potato it’s made from. A thin, crispy layer on the outside and a pillowy soft, very light and airy texture on the inside. Sweet chili sauce to dip in. Yummm.
Fish (mackerel) wrapped and grilled in banana leaf with plenty of morning glory, water mimosa (stalky, slightly tough stem), chilis, garlic and some delicious spices I could not figure out. The fish was incredibly moist and fell apart almost too easily after being cooked in the steam inside the banana leaf. The wilted morning glory leaves and softened mimosa stems gave it a beautiful peppery green flavor and aroma while the bits of red chili added a ton of heat. The little banana leaf packages (top photo) came with pork, chicken or fish. I’m glad I got the fish this time.
A layered, “mixed it yourself” fried rice. No idea what this one was called. Mushy, soft brown (red?) rice topped with slivers of fried egg, crispy raw okra, some raw red onion, red chilis and julienned green papaya slaw.
And these are just a few of the curries. Creamy coconut Thai curries, Burmese curries, green curries, khilek leaf curry. Wish I could’ve tried them all…
Grilled, salt-encrusted and lemongrass-stuffed short bodied mackerel (top) and grilled catfish (pla duk yang, bottom) on the BBQ at a fish stall.
Hoy tod, Thai crispy mussel and beansprout pancake broken up with the spatula into little bite-sized bits. Also referred to sometimes as a mussel “omelette” which I find misleading since egg is an optional ingredient. This one lacked egg completely and consisted instead of battered and fried shell mixed with bean sprouts and spring onions. The batter was, in my opinion, a bit too thick and not cooked through completely, leaving some parts a bit chewy and wet. The mussels, however, were fresh and moist with a slightly murky, seawater tang, tossed in with garlic, spring onion and coriander and the bean sprouts gave them a nice, fresh, wet crunch. I ended up just pealing off the fried coating and eating the plump little bastards stripped bare. Delicious.