Bangkok, THA: Potluck on the food streets of Bangkok

A street in Bangkok lined with eateries

By Mihir S. Sharma  |  Business Standard

A street-side vendor doles out chicken satay
A street-side vendor doles out chicken satay

Not one of the many vendors near the Ekkamai exit of Bangkok’s elevated metro bothered with crying their wares to the commuters streaming by. They stood self-assured behind their stalls, confident the sight and smell of their food was enough. It certainly was for me — though I also knew what I wanted. I could see a stall selling green papaya salad with grilled chicken, and had for some hours been contemplating that as a mid-morning snack.

I walked over and pointed, with the tentative finger that one uses in foreign countries, a gesture balanced precariously between the desire to avoid being rude and the need to make oneself understood. The sixty-ish man nodded, took out a papaya and a knife — then washed the knife, put on some rubber gloves, and began to cut it.

Street food, or so many of us Indians like to claim, tastes extra-good because it is so clearly unhealthy. Not just because our idea of street food is mainly various forms of deep-fried starch, but also because a somewhat casual approach to hygiene is part of the charm. A visit to the city near-universally acclaimed as the street food capital of the universe shows how untrue that is. It turns out that eating on chairs on a pavement is a much nicer experience when you’re not doing it next to a pile of discarded garbage, and when you are relatively certain that the subtle bouquet of spices that’s making your mouth water does not include E.Coli.

Bangkok’s street food isn’t just good; it’s excellent. And, more than that, the stalls themselves are welcoming. They are crowded, they’re cheap, they’re open late. You sit, inches from the city’s unceasing traffic jam, surrounded by harried office-goers in suits gingerly eating noodles and green curry, by families solemnly getting their money’s worth out of a giant tilapia covered in garlic-tamarind sauce, and by young couples having a leisurely Beerlao, the rice-cum-wheat beer from Laos that’s even fresher-tasting than the local Singha.

You can sit there as you determinedly work your way down what’s on offer from every stall in sight — and, each time you do, you are likely to be astounded by the sheer variety and quality of what’s on offer. No endless paratha-and-samosa-and-tikki here.

Thailand is a country of almost 70 million, the twentieth largest in the world. Fourteen million of those people live in Bangkok, and it feels like most of them are either driving or eating at any given moment. But the country and its vast capital are truly, startlingly, diverse.

If you try, you can see it in the faces of the people on the streets; the man on the corner hawking an egg-and-banana version of roti canai might look distinctly Malay, and the tailor in the shop behind him might have Han Chinese features.

But, above all, you can taste it. Whatever the struggles between countryside and city, between Thai and Malay, Buddhist and Muslim, between south and centre and northeast, their most scrumptious dishes meet on the street of Bangkok in perfect harmony.

A street in Bangkok lined with eateries
A street in Bangkok lined with eateries

Food and politics often intertwine. Across the world, the best known Thai dish is, of course, the ubiquitous Pad Thai, stir fried rice noodles with tamarind and egg and pretty much anything else you want. Well, except cilantro and ginger and chili, if you’re doing it right. And never with pork. Why, you ask? Well that’s where the politics comes in.

is — and there is no polite way to put this — a fraud. It isn’t a traditional dish at all; it was invented by a military regime 70 years ago as part of a campaign to make Siam less Chinese and more “Thai”, or free. The government didn’t just release a simple recipe for Pad Thai, it got vendors out on the street in little movable cook-stalls, trying to wean people away from a bowl of wheat noodles soup, which had to be imported.

The moment that Siam became Thailand is also the point at which Pad Thai was born, and Bangkok’s street food culture with it. And so the point of Pad Thai is that these are noodles that aren’t Chinese — and since the Chinese love pork, there shouldn’t be any pork in Pad Thai. Though it does feel a little odd to contemplate this history under one of the many Chinese bank billboards that have flooded Bangkok in order to endlessly repeat the phrase “Renminbi: World Currency”.

Not to say that you can’t find Thai Chinese food everywhere. Thai Chinese isn’t like “Indian Chinese”; it’s a tradition, not a localisation. There are nine million Thai citizens of Han Chinese descent, and the food that’s associated with their culture has flavours that are difficult to pin down, but are very distinct from the southern Chinese cuisine of which it is no doubt a descendant.

Perhaps it uses a palm sugar-fish sauce combination instead of soy or Hoisin sauce. But it is very definitely both Chinese and Thai, one of the great gharanas of Thai food, alongside the food of Central Thailand, of the Malay-influenced south, the Burmese-influenced northeast, and the Laotian northwest.

There are differences as obvious between these regional styles as there are between North and South Indian food. For example South Thailand uses coconut cream with all the flair of the Malabar coast; it seems to be completely absent in the food of other areas. Up in northwestern Thailand, they put zeera and haldi in their gravies, and their taste is strongly reminiscent of the best Manipuri curries.

In fact, at Soul Food in Thonglor, a beautiful wood-and-bamboo restaurant dedicated to regional cuisine, I tried a northern dish of pork belly, marinated in tamarind but braised in a ginger-garlic mixture in the manner in which the north of this country cooks anything meaty. (The caramelised, slightly pickled watermelon they served alongside, however, was completely foreign to me — and quite delicious.)

What much of these do have in common, though is fermented fish sauce. That, together with dried shrimp powder, kaffir lime or lemongrass, and palm sugar, seems to be a giant part of the basic flavour-set of Thai food. And the fact that most of those ingredients are simply left out of Thai food in India is part of the reason why it tastes so very uninspiring here.

Ah, fermented fish sauce.

That something so dreadfully pungent can simultaneously be so delicious is one of the great conundrums of history. And I do mean history — ours is one of the few great civilisations to have ignored fermented fish sauce. The Romans were, in particular, mad for it; they called it garum, and put it in broth, on bread, and in gravies. Today, however, it’s in Southeast Asia that fish sauce is practically a staple.

Prawn Pad Thai
Prawn Pad Thai
One survey found 95 per cent of Vietnamese ate fermented fish sauce daily; the number must be similar in Thailand. In a well-made Tom Yum soup — which is, in my opinion, the finest distillation of Thai flavour — you can distinctly taste the fermented fish, the tart base on which the shrimp and lemograss flavour builds.

The fermented-fish — ok, let’s say it, rotting-fish — taste is overpowering, almost inedible if tried alone. But combined with other flavours — even something as mild as cucumber — the whole becomes something quite different, something exalted. There is a metaphor about teamwork in there somewhere, but when wolfing down Tom Yum I’m usually too busy to work it out.

Here’s a salutary reminder that ours is an even more diverse country: I lied when I said we ignored fermented fish. Manipur has not. Get thee to the Internet, go to the wonderful, and order hentak, little fish-paste balls, or ngari, fermented sardine fragments, and you’ll know what I mean. Add ngari to a lemongrass-and-shrimp soup, and it will suddenly transform itself into something special.

Bangkok’s a city alive with energy. And with entrepreneurship; its people have figured out how special their country’s food is. Restaurants have sprung up all over the town that promise domesticated street food combined with that modern marvel, air-conditioning. In ridiculously trendy Thonglor and Ekkamai, restaurants like the Supanigga Eating Room share old family recipes with the world; and those like Soul Food bring every part of Thailand to your table.

But for an experience that combines indoor comfort with genuine tradition, just a stroll north of Khaosan Road in old Bangkok — a short, narrow street that is nevertheless the backpacker capital of the world — is Krua Apsorn. I still had to point, though — at a dish of giant prawns at the next table, which looked too delicious to pass up. Jumbo prawns are common in the deltas of central Thailand, and, like Bengalis, the Thais seem to believe that size does matter when it’s your prawn. I then embarrassed myself further by ordering the dish again.

But I don’t want to leave you with the feeling that Thailand’s capital is about Thai food and nothing else. This is completely untrue. A city so welcoming, and which eats out with such relish, has superb food of all strains and persuasions. Perfect Szechuan in old Chinatown, for example. But stronger, even, is the Japanese presence. Along Thonglor there are dozens of Japanese restaurants. Casual drinking places, or izakayas, where you sit with rice wine and order one small plate after another for hours.

Yakinukus, or barbeques, where you should grill fine cuts of meat at your table — some of which allow you to eat as much as you can for under Rs 1,200. And even high-end kaiseki places, where you put yourself in the hands of a famed chef, who presents course after traditional course of the most perfect, seasonally appropriate dishes. If you can endure the touch of awe that being around Japanese aesthetic perfection always induces, eat at one such: Maru, also on Thonglor.

The full kaiseki is, well, expensive. But arrive earlyish and they have a limited-course special. That was strange and inventive and wonderful enough for me. At one point the awe was leavened with a touch of guilt, when I bit into what I think was whale bacon. Poor whale. But it was very good, mainly because it tasted like bacon.

There’s fine Italian, and fine French — the charming 4 Garcons, run by four Thai professionals, lawyers and doctors and accountants who moonlight in its kitchen, has as good a duck confit as anywhere without a Michelin star. In the winding lanes south of Sukhumvit, the old neighbourhoods and tiled bungalows are giving way to some of the snazziest condos being built anywhere.

This is expat city, and they demand a lifestyle to match the real-estate prices. The coffee at Kuppa, on Sukhumvit 16, is Colombian or Kenyan. Across the road, as I waited for a medium-rare New York strip, the genial Midwesterner who owned The US Steakhouse assured me business was good. Lots of Australians, who knew their beef. And a few from Mumbai, too, he added with a grin.

As we chatted, the delicious scent of the grill rose — and, around us, the city stirred to early-evening life. Down the road, the Khlong Toei fresh market was bustling. Over on Sukhumvit 38, the lobster were being put on the grill. Bangkok, fresh and welcoming, was beginning to smell of the best food in the world.