Thailand today is firmly placed on every foodie’s must-visit list of gastronomic havens, all thanks to the sheer variety and quality of street food the country has to offer. As the sun goes down, Bangkok comes alive in all its glory… bright neon lights, enthusiastic locals and tourists thronging the markets, and, yes, talented housewives-turned-street chefs busily clanging away at their woks, turning out steaming bowls of Thai, Malay, Chinese and Indian delicacies along with platefuls of exotic deserts.
A typical culinary journey through the streets of Bangkok comes with the great flavours of Pan Asian foods and the charms of the hundreds of women vendors, who set up shop in the numerous ‘sois’, or lanes. One can find street food anywhere in the city and at any time of the day. In fact, a tourist’s first glimpse of Thai street food comes just half an hour after exiting the Suvarnabhumi International Airport – off the main road, there’s a place where rows of eateries beckon the hungry traveller.
While the men come on fancy motorbikes with baskets or trays attached on either side, the women simply set their wooden tables, throw on a plastic tablecloth and spread out their sumptuous, freshly-prepared fare. And, unlike some of the other street-side eateries in South Asian countries, utmost hygiene is maintained here – none of that dish water flowing across the road or used plates brimming out of the trash cans.
A stroll amongst these sidewalk stalls presents a whole world of flavours. For non-vegetarians this surely has to be the shortcut to heaven – shrimps, prawns, fish and other sea foods vie for attention with fried pork, beef and chicken. But vegetarians needn’t fret because the Thai mamas have an alternative – just add the word ‘jay’ to any dish on the menu and, voila, the problem is solved! Kwai tiao jay, phad thai jay, yam wun sen jay… it’s a long list. Incidentally, ‘jay’ means vegetarian. One could also try asking for kwai tiao tae pak; ‘tae pak’ means ‘only vegetables’.
But before the food come the drinks, so start off with a refreshing orange juice. Thai tangerines are called som keow wan, and they have a lovely thin peel and a sour-sweet flavour. Mango, pineapple or any other seasonal fruit juice is on offer, too. Generally, the juice is made to order, but for those who like their beverages cold, fresh juice stored in small plastic bottles and chilled in portable coolers, is available. A bottle of orange juice costs about 10 bahts. One can also go in for fresh coconut water at 20-30 bahts per piece.
Next stop: A stall that serves Chinese-Thai soups. The filling kuai-tiao nam has the maximum takers. Kuai-tiao means rice noodles. It’s fun to watch this mix-n-match dish of Chinese origin being put together. In a long-handled sieve, the skilful chef puts in a generous amount of rice noodles, vegetables and any other accompaniments of choice. Then the practiced hand swiftly dunks this into a boiling cauldron of broth. A minute later, when the noodles are done, she gently transfers the contents of the sieve into a bowl, pours some broth over it and hands it with a set of chopsticks. But wait, kuai-tiao nam is not yet ready to eat. There’s an additional array of vegetables and seafood at the counter and one can add them to taste. There are also bamboo shoots and different types of bean sprouts for that typical Thai touch.
Had enough of broth, then go for the thick Thai noodles fried with oyster sauce and prawns or different varieties of shrimps, prawns, pork and chicken served up with sticky rice. The rice is kept in bamboo stems and the meaty accompaniments are roasted or fried on order. The use of spices is very gentle with most of the flavour coming either from herbs or lime, squeezed as the final touch. Lemon grass, basil and fresh turmeric are some of the common flavours of Thai food, while the curries have a distinct coconut milk and coriander flavour. Apart from the typical papaya salad, one can also ask for customised combinations. A tip: Most salads taste good if sweetened ginger and fresh herbs are added.
For pedestrian Thai food at its absolute finest, do visit Sukhumvit Soi 38 near the Thonglor BTS Skytrain Station. For many years, an army of vendors here – quite a few women included – has been feeding hungry party-goers starting early evenings until dawn. Get a gentler tasting version of the phad thai or bamee moo daeng, which is a combination of egg noodles and roast pork. The stalls selling these pull in the greatest crowds. Then back to the entrance and a right turn later are stalls that specialise in desserts. Try the mango sticky rice or the more exotic Cheng sim ii, a mixture of longan juice and nuts.
Of course, one of the unique aspects of taking in the sights and sounds of a Thai street food market is that the entire experience needn’t be just about the food. Ever taken a closer look at the smiling faces of the women who serve up all that wonderful fare? Ever wondered about the kind of lives they lead? Well, all it takes is a casual chat at the counter while waiting for one’s meal, to know that these smiling servers actually lead tough lives, juggling multiple responsibilities and, at times, even facing abuse at home.
There has also been a study on their lives – ‘Fighting Poverty from the Street: A Survey of Street Food Vendors in Bangkok’ – by the International Labour Organization, which reveals that it’s the poor who chiefly depend on street trade for their survival and a majority of the vendors are women. Whereas girls and women of all ages find ready employment at the many street food markets that dot Bangkok, this study takes a look at homemakers, migrant and rural women, who operate food stalls in a public space in order to make ends meet. Like Rat Burana district’s Boonma, a 36-year-old housewife and mother of five children aged between two and 12. With two school-going children, mounting expenses and a husband who’d blow up a major part of his income from manual labour on drinks and cigarettes, Boonma decided to set up a food stall in front of their rented house to sell papaya salad and grilled chicken.
There are also women like Julia (her western name, which she uses for the ease of her customers), whom one caught up with at a street market. Julia’s husband left her two years after her second child was born and today she sustains herself and her children by selling fresh and cut fruit to tourists. “No life is good life, it just depends on what you make of it,” she says in her broken English.
There’s hard work and long hours in street vending, but these women don’t mind. That’s because setting up a food stall does not require a great deal of start-up money and they can keep flexible hours, which is convenient given their family responsibilities.
Good food and inspiring women, who are able to share their lives with strangers, are eager to feed hungry crowds and are confident about giving their children a better life – that’s the perfect Thai street food experience.