Eat Thailand: a guide to street food and markets

John Krich - 05/02/2016

With Asia's 50 Best Restaurants moving to its new host country of Thailand this month, we're starting to get excited about the local cuisine. In the first of our four-part Eat Thailand series, we talk you through the local markets.



STREET EATING IN BANGKOK

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In Bangkok, the streets belong to the people – actually the people-feeders. No city on earth fills so much available sidewalk with mobile kitchens that are often crudely wheeled carts with slicing boards or gas flames attached.

Are we ready to declare the street food of Bangkok as all mankind’s cultural patrimony, a Unesco World Heritage site? Certainly, it’s a rolling museum of edible culture – but where this is good value and hearty, it’s also bold and unapologetic. Casual dining just fits the Thai lifestyle, which is playful and spontaneous and can burst into a communal meal at almost any hour. Plenty of white-collar office workers patronise the stands every lunch hour; there’s no social stigma whatsoever attached to pulling up a stool at a foldable table and slurping up some of the world’s spiciest noodles.


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Many of the specialties will be obvious: battered bananas deep-fried in coconut oil, Hainan-style chicken rice or slow-cooked pork shoulders, hot dogs on sticks, rice meals of spicy lotus root and pork, omelettes and sandwiches or the ubiquitous barbecued chicken served with small bags of sticky rice. Just point and eat.

It’s extremely tasty, proof of a culture with a special touch for all kinds of food, even chocolate lava cakes or corn flake cookies. Where else in the world can you pick up passion fruit juice at every subway stop?


 

BANGKOK'S FRESH MARKETS

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Travelling foodies who want to cut their teeth in a less hurried, more hygienic environment, can try wandering in one of Bangkok’s fresh markets. The Yannawa Fish Market and the sprawling Klong Toei Market are best very early in the morning, and wearing galoshes.

Best for beginners is Or Tor Gor, a state-run farmers’ market that’s top quality but which most tourists miss, even though it’s just across one busy boulevard from the famed Chatuchak Weekend Market. All kinds of seasonal fruit are here, from pungent durian to many gradations of the world’s best mangoes. Try a crab curry from a giant pot or smoked catfish on a stick. It’s an introductory course to a bounty of sensual colours and flavours no supermarket can match.


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Surprisingly, the other place to forage for the most authentic Thai specialties are the crowded and seemingly unending back alleys of Bangkok’s Chinatown. This place is not about won ton soup, or anything especially Chinese beyond a few dim sum joints and plenty of bird’s nest soup (the valued swallows’ saliva from Thailand as well). The presence of Chinese traders on the eastern side of the Chao Phraya River actually pre-dates the founding of royal Bangkok itself. Where the rest of the city has become a cavalcade of modern malls, gritty Chinatown is a virtual historic preserve, keeping alive all forms of heritage, especially the edible kind.

Discover more fun facts, recipes, and the Amazing Tastes of Thailand.

Have you travelled to Thailand's markets? Share your pics and tips with us on Instagram and Twitter.

 

Next week: we take you through the cuisine of Thailand's four main regions.