Soup noodles anyone?
It’s taken me a while to figure out how to structure these blog posts about travelling in Thailand. My diaries are hardly insightful – they’re more like excessive to-do lists with descriptive snapshots – and I don’t really want to create a chronological account of what we did and why. Rather, I want to try and convey a feel for the country, as we encountered it.
So the obvious place for me to start is with the food. The first thing we noticed as we landed in Bangkok and hurtled towards our city apartment was that the pavements overflowed with food stalls. A moment’s wait at any traffic light and you’re either watching someone set up a stall, ogling someone’s tasty takeaway, or cringing as a food seller crosses the intersection on foot, laden with a food cart bulging with wares and apparently oblivious to the flow of traffic.
Step outside the car and the streets smell of a heady mix of food, litter and petrol fumes. We chose an apartment in the Lumphini Park area, and were amazed to see that even our small road turned into an incredible food street throughout day. There seems to be a system as certain stalls are there in the morning, then packed up and removed for the lunchtime sellers, which are likewise dismantled and replaced by the evening sellers. Very few stayed in one spot all day, which seemed like an awful lot of effort – but I guess that’s what’s required to feed millions of people around the clock.
The stalls are put up with ridiculous speed and ease. You can literally walk down a quiet street one minute, admiring the gnarled trees blessed with holy scarves, and walk back down it the next, unable to find the trees at all. Instead, you dodge queues of hungry workers, and buckets of water thrown over the plastic tables for cleaning (if nothing else, it’s a very efficient way of removing the cats).
In some areas of Bangkok, if you’re unlucky, the usual smells are joined by the odour of durian fruit. The stench is as bad as legend decrees, but we couldn’t resist trying it. We bought our durian freshly peeled from a stallholder in a random part of the city we stumbled upon by foot – and we were so excited, decided to keep it until we arrived home. Half an hour later and we’re being removed from the Metro station by security – on account of the smell – and we try our first bite of this foul-smelling fruit, leaning over a bin.
David Attenborough once described durian as ‘pretty good’ like ‘slimy caramel creme’. Well, he is either very taste bud challenged or he lied. It was like eating a fart. The durian was quickly binned and we spent the next ten minutes trying not to breathe too deeply on the other SkyTrain passengers (true story).
It’s easy to spot which stalls to eat at – you choose the busiest, or the ones that look most inviting. You choose the ones that cook the food from scratch (which is most). And you forget very quickly about the surroundings, and soon sit slurping Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) or munching on Tom Sam (papaya salad) by the traffic-clogged roadside, in car parks, under flyovers, next to rubbish tips. The food’s that good, you honestly don’t care. And you’d be surprised also how quickly you adapt to eating everything off a spoon.
Fresh, unripe papyaya for spicy salads
Breakfast is the one meal in Thailand that we struggled with as there is no specific breakfast food, and we spent a bit of time searching for something we enjoyed at that time of day. In the end, there were lots of roasted eggs and fruit involved, so we managed. And if you’re thinking – why didn’t you just make something at home? – the answer is, most apartments do not have kitchens. The food is so cheap that everyone eats out on the street.
When I say cheap, I mean on average €1 for a plate of Chicken and Prawn Pad Thai or Prawn Fried Rice. Whole barbecued squid and giant prawns came in at around €1.50 a plate, so you can feast on seafood, salads, noodles and rice for around €3-5 euro per night (for two people). But the cost in no way reflects the quality – everywhere we went, the food was incredible; tasty, healthy, and with well-balanced flavours. A pure delight.
I was surprised to see that many stalls used msg in their cooking, as I’d never equated that ingredient with Thai food. But the ones that didn’t use msg were easy to find, thanks to their huge signs. It’s also worth knowing that if you’re vegetarian, fish sauce is a staple ingredient in almost every meal. So you really need to learn how to say ‘no fish sauce’ in Thai – ‘mai sai nam phla’ if you don’t want it in your food. (Here’s a good page on useful Thai vocabulary for vegetarians).
Another useful phrase is ‘mai phet’ which means ‘not too spicy’. Personally, the hotter the better where I’m concerned, but my husband doesn’t quite like it as volcanic. We’d been warned that it would be way too spicy but we didn’t find that the case at all – and the cooks were always willing to tone it down. The most important thing to the vendor was that you enjoyed the food.
One of the spirit houses, complete with food & drink for the ancestors
From the very start, it was obvious that Thai people have a real respect for food that borders on reverence. Indeed, it is an important part of Buddhist worship. In mornings across the city, you see monks heading out with bowls, looking for alms. And in the temples, there are always food parcels left at the altar.
Food and drink is even provided for the ancestors on shrines and spirit houses. On the pavements you have to be careful where you step so you don’t upturn an open bottle of Fanta Orange or Yakult, complete with straw, that has been left out next to the shop shutters for good luck.
Food is also important to family and community life. The food business is definitely a family affair, and you often see several people and their wares bundled onto a single motorbike, or pick-up trucks piled to the last, with the kids and kittens wedged in, ready to set up for the night. The parents cook, the older siblings serve, and the younger children play on their iPhones or tablets in the driving seat, taking a snooze when needed.
Although we did see many sights in Bangkok (some of which will be covered in a later post), we found that the street food and was the real city experience. We spent our days walking and observing, jumping on local transport to see different areas, searching out recommended three-seat stalls and delicacies, and basically eating our way round the city.
It was very easy to see why Bangkok is dubbed the food capital of the world. The buzz, the noise, the smells – and of course, the taste – we loved it all. And it gave a wonderful introduction to Thai culture.
Another happy chef…
Waiting for the night to end