Thai Street Food
It’s all about the food. Even a fleeting visit to Thailand can leave you in no doubt of this. Walking down the street - almost any street in Thailand - you can only be struck by the variety of stalls (sometimes literally) and amazed at the variety of food. Thais are obsessed by food, talking and thinking about it, then ordering and eating it. Markets brim with produce and snacks. Streets often seem more like busy restaurant corridors than major thoroughfares for traffic.
Much of Thai culture expresses itself through food. It sits happily at the centre of all occasions and celebrations: births, weddings, making merit, dispensing generosity and repaying obligations. Food is integral to the Thais. Its diversity and profusion clearly shows the importance of food and eating in their daily lives.
There are two distinct parts to the Thai culinary repertoire. Firstly, there is food eaten with rice (arharn gap kao), which forms the basis of the meal proper. This encompasses the largest variety of Thai cooking: salads, curries, soups and relishes, all of which are eaten with rice, the heart of the meal. Several dishes are put on the table along with rice and are shared, family style. Thais consider this style of food to be traditionally Thai: it is what is served and eaten in the home, and is what they mean when they talk about food. The other main component is single-plate food (arharn jarn dtiaw), which is literally just that, with the dish normally plated in individual portions intended for one person. Although once it arrives, it might well be shared by friends. Unlike regular Thai food, this food may be eaten by itself - that is, it is not always eaten with rice. Originating in the markets and then later finding its way onto the streets as an occasional meal or snack, these noodles, pastries and other complex desserts, and deep-fried and braised dishes are unlikely to be prepared at home. And it is this diverse and distinctive food that is the subject of this book.
Thai Street Food offers a glimpse into the vibrant world of Thailand’s streets and markets, following the sweep of time as day slips into night, and the people and food change accordingly. It contains a small selection of a few of my favourite recipes - it is by no means an exhaustive survey. It depicts the beguiling Thai food culture at its source, in the markets. There is a nod to history as the development of street food in Thailand is tracked. For me, it is vital to understand the past in order to make sense of the culinary mosaic that comprises street food. It may not help you cook better or yield tastier results, but it will give more meaning to what you do.
The book traces the traditional rhythm of the day, from morning to night, a progression that is often refreshingly different from the pace of modern life. Each chapter contains the food you are likely to find at that time. But like so much of Thai culture, these dishes are not easily confined and many can be found throughout the day, much as food stalls spread beyond the market out onto the streets and into the night.
In many ways, food from the markets and streets is the most accessible of all Thai food. Stalls and vendors fill the street, making it a delicious obstacle course. It is also the easiest of Thai cooking to enjoy and eat - not just for the Thais but for the stumbling visitor too. Even though it is prepared fresh every day and packed up every night, such vending feels as if it has withstood the test of time.
Pervasive as it now is, street food is a relatively recent addition to the Thai culinary landscape. Despite the prominence of hawker food among Chinese migrant communities in Bangkok in the early twentieth century, it was really only in the 1960s, perhaps slightly earlier, that street food came to the fore, gradually spilling out onto the streets as Thais left their family homes and farms and moved to the cities in search of new, more lucrative jobs in emerging industries.
Traditionally Thais ate at home, staying within the orbit of the family and its food. As farmers working the land they had little need or desire to leave their farms. Only when it was necessary did they eat outside the home - at markets, during temple festivals and village celebrations. Sometimes itinerant hawkers came to them, plying their wares: necessary items that could not be made or grown, such as salt, shrimp paste (gapi), charcoal, simple pieces of equipment, plates and the like, as well as some prepared food.
While farmers rarely strayed from home, women often did - and headed towards the market to barter and trade surplus produce for required items. Along the way some of the more enterprising traders sold food, portable snacks to those who gathered at the markets. Women have always played a large role in the markets and on the streets. Rarely have men intruded - they were farmers, soldiers, bureaucrats and monks, and often regarded such financial acumen with disdain, thinking it somehow improper. Historically and culturally women have always had a greater freedom to pursue trade. These women of the market (mae khaa) banter to barter! They are full of character and sass, and love nothing more than to have a chat, bitch and play - with one another and with passing trade. Polite Thais modestly decline such rambunctious fun but smile inwardly, possibly considering a response but constrained by convention. A hallmark of Thai culture is the delight in a well-turned phrase, a graceful aside, incisive good-humoured repartee - and it is in the markets and on the streets where this is most freely expressed. It’s enjoyed as much as the transaction itself. Sometimes more so, it seems.
Thai markets are as vivacious as the Thais and their food. They provide pleasure and materials for living. You can pick up food at every stage of preparation: from raw and straight from the fields (live, cleaned, cut and sliced), through assembled packages of raw ingredients, to finished dishes to take home or to eat then and there. But the market is more than a place that feeds the body. There is always a coffee shop where men will sit, read the newspapers, talk about affairs and, naturally, gossip. Women, on the other hand, go to the markets to shop, spending more time than they ought and as much time as they like, having a chat and maybe even a gossip too.
Traditionally the market was the place where people met, talked and exchanged information. Until recently people, if they lived within walking distance, went to the market once a day, sometimes twice. It was an important centre in society, second only to the temple. It was a lifeline to the outside world. Sadly this role of the marketplace is changing. Fewer people shop there now, and Bangkok’s burgeoning middle class often prefers the newer supermarkets with their Western ways. While the supermarkets are doubtlessly more hygienic, they contain little of the atmosphere, the welcome or the quality of fresh ingredients.
Within the market there is a strong bond between the stallholders, who spend much of their day - most of their life - with their neighbours, chatting, sleeping, selling, occasionally working and always looking forward to eating, safe in the knowledge that the food will be good and robustly flavoured: real Thai market food. They can be certain of its quality.
Often the finest food comes from the most humble operations, such as one veteran noodle-seller I first encountered in Phetchaburi, to the south-west of Bangkok. Surrounded by bamboo baskets in which she totes all her food, and a few small stools on which her customers sit, eat and chat, she sells only one dish, kanom jin noodles dressed with pineapple and dried prawns, a dish she has been selling for the last 30-odd years. She’s never used a fridge, let alone a freezer - there’s simply no need. Her dish is based on local ingredients, with everything freshly purchased each day from the nearby market: good pineapples, dried prawns, green mango and chillies. She starts about 5 a.m., going to the market before returning home to do the simple preparation necessary. She’ll probably offer some food to passing monks on their dawn alms collection, then at about 9 a.m. she’ll head back to her street corner. She opens about 10 a.m. and generally runs out of food in the early afternoon. She knows all of her customers, some of them for years - they’ve grown old together. Most come at least once a week, but they’ll often stop by for a chat on a daily basis. They are attuned to each other, as she is to the market and its food. That’s why her noodles are so good. She, and a legion of hawkers like her, face their customers every day, so they can ill afford to obtain a poor reputation. And that’s why the good people of the market can expect a satisfying meal.
The other major influence on Thai street food has been the wave of Chinese migration that accompanied the transformation of the Kingdom of Siam into modern Thailand. There have been Chinese merchants, adventurers and coolies in Thailand for hundreds of years, but during the nineteenth and especially the early twentieth century, the development of Bangkok was fed by Chinese coolies. Seeking to escape the hardship and poverty that was afflicting the south-eastern seaboard of their country, they came to try their luck in a new land. Some stayed for only a few years, but others settled, finding work on the wharves, in factories and in market gardens. Housed in communal accommodation, the Chinese could not eat at home, so they ate on the streets or canalside, in the fields and the factories. Their food was the basic, peasant food of their home regions: noodles, rice congee, pork offal and braises infused with five-spice powder. Among the Chinese there was less demarcation of roles, with men often becoming involved in food and its commercial preparation. There was often little choice for these immigrants and their offspring as many occupations were closed to them.
The Chinese brought with them hawkers, mendicant sellers of food. They carried their wares in two baskets supported by a bamboo pole slung across their shoulders. Most of the food they carried was prepared and cooked, as it was easier to serve and would keep more successfully in the tropical heat. They walked the streets and tracks and patrolled the land. Their sweep was small, determined by the weight of their baskets. They really could only carry enough for half a day - besides, the food would only last that long.
As the pace of modernisation accelerated, canals were dug to open up new areas and allow produce, rice, charcoal, sugar, to be brought easily into the city and its merchants. Main roads were non-existent and the tracks that did wind their way through the land became unusable during the rainy season. Small communities settled along the canals, and boats plied the waterways, supplying people with ingredients, household goods and simple prepared food. On board might be noodle soups, snacks and sweets, together with the equipment to prepare and serve them: a small, smouldering charcoal stove beneath a pot of simmering stock, and some bowls and utensils, which would be washed in the canals.
But as Bangkok grew, the modern city was established and streets began to supersede the waterways. Bamboo poles and baskets fell by the wayside, replaced by a cart (plaeng loy) that was better equipped to serve large communities, factories, building sites. Late one afternoon in Suphanburi, a small town in the heart of the central plains, I encountered the perfect example of such an operation. I had sought shelter in an old wooden market - a dark, cool and quiet place seemingly overlooked by time as it sat half in the shade, lapsing into disuse. But with the appearance of a woman of perhaps sixty slowly pushing a large rickety trolley, the marketplace came back to life, restored by the prospect of something to eat. Her cart was filled with pots and bowls full of curries and noodles, rice and a large wooden pestle and mortar for making salads.
At first I was a bit dismissive, thinking decent food unlikely in such a forgotten place. Having already had lunch, I could afford such indifference! Gradually people emerged from the surrounding shophouses and ordered their meal: one had a green curry with some leftover kanom jin noodles, another had some crunchy and still-warm spring rolls. Intrigued, I sampled a red curry spooned over rice and a green papaya salad (som dtam) with some salted beef on the side. Everything was exemplary, wonderful and richly seasoned - she’d been cooking these dishes every day for some forty years and it showed. Uncommonly good though this food was, I don’t think her talent was unusual; there are just so many fine cooks preparing food in Thailand. She stayed and chatted, longer than she ought, seeing the delight in my eyes and possibly sniffing another sale (she had some desserts, you see - and yes, she was right, I succumbed to a few little dainties) before moving on to continue along her route.
About forty years ago, around the same time as this market woman and her trolley started out, ‘made to order’ (dtam sang) stalls began to appear, where raw food was cooked in woks over charcoal burners - or, later, gas jets. These stalls catered to the needs of an influx of Thai workers who had left their homes and paddy fields to move into a newly developing world of factories and workshops. In the city, they were housed in communal dormitories with few facilities. Lacking the means to cook for themselves but having the cash to pay for meals, these uprooted people looked to the streets for simple, portable and affordable food. The ready availability of cheap ice allowed the more established hawker to set up shop and chill raw produce through the afternoon into the night: trays were filled with food to tempt a tired Thai and make a worthwhile and happy conclusion to a long day’s work. Plastic bags also became available and this meant that a greater variety of food, including soups and curries, could be taken away. Sometimes these stalls became so successful that the operator bought a nearby property, turning in his or her wheels and setting up shop.
Curry shops started up in much the same way, although some authorities believe that the dishes offered by these stalls mirrored the offerings made to monks: from such a meal, enterprising women began to provide similar dishes to passers-by. These stalls sprang up near thoroughfares, crossroads, markets and large communities, wherever customers were likely to be. Some became more permanent while others remained ad hoc, set up in front of the cook’s house.
As the Chinese and their descendants moved out of their enclave in Chinatown and into the wider community, they brought noodle shops with them - and the popularity of these stalls among the Thai paralleled Chinese integration into Thai society and culture. The first generation of hawkers became ensconced and now a second generation has followed, staking their claim on the streets as they begin their rise to more established businesses.
Increasingly over the last twenty years, traditional Thai dishes, such as nahm prik relishes, hot and sour soups and salads of all kinds, are finding their way onto the streets and into night markets. Such food was once the preserve of home cooks and was seldom seen on the streets, but its appearance reflects the fact that Thais are working longer hours and are increasingly relying on prepared food. Who can blame them? The food is good, fresh and so convenient. The streets cater to modern Thais - everything that was à la carte is on the carts now.
When I first went to Thailand in the 1980s there was a certain opprobrium surrounding people who regularly brought dinner home for their families, rather than cooking it themselves. They were considered irresponsible, and their family was considered quite unfortunate to have to rely on the cooking of strangers. The women were referred to as ‘plastic-bag housewives’, since they returned home after work laden with a multitude of plastic bags filled with dinner. However, times have changed and now there are few people, at least in Bangkok, who spend all day at home preparing food. Most urban Thais work outside the home and have little time to prepare food as their grandparents once did. But few are to be pitied as they partake of the bounty of the streets.
In any provincial town, and in many crowded areas of Bangkok, there is always a place - a corner or two, a few blocks or a square - that is brightly lit well into the night. These are the night markets of Thailand and they are filled with people, food and noise, as flames lick around woks and wood smoke from charcoal grills lingers in the still night air. Dtam sang stalls are among the brightest and busiest, but there will also be noodle stalls offering their wares in steaming soups or briskly stir-fried, and curry shops with an array of colourful curries in trays. Other stalls will be selling Muslim pastries, madtarbark and roti; elsewhere, fish cakes will be fried to order. Cooks develop different dishes to attract customers. A good place is always busy, with tables clustered around the cook and his or her stand. These precincts are all about eating and pleasure. They contain everything that lures a Thai out: good food, people, atmosphere and laughter - the Thai world on a plate. It really is all about the food.
The morning starts early in Thailand. Well before dawn, markets all over the country open. Around dawn, monks leave their temples and make their morning rounds to collect their culinary alms. At some stage almost every Thai will contribute: it is part of their religious obligation. Wisely the monks will often head to where there are the most people - the markets - to give the faithful an opportunity to make merit. While many people prepare and cook food specifically for the monks, some purchase food for them - and of course the stallholders offer food, as they too want to improve their karmic lot. Curries and sweets are the most popular dishes to give, along with kanom jin noodles and bags of cooked rice, but anything edible can be given. As the monks return to their temples, the day’s business begins. Most markets start in the cool of the morning and close by lunchtime. The market slowly fills with people unpacking their goods and setting up their stalls. A little later the early shoppers arrive. These hours can be quite flexible. I have been to one in the remote north-west of the country that closed around 9 a.m., and to another in Chiang Mai that only began in the middle of the afternoon. But it is mainly in the morning when they bustle with shoppers and jostling trolleys, with workers who whistle or click their tongues to alert stragglers that they are in the way. The stalls are usually arranged in a recognisable order, with each type of stall clumped together. For instance, fruit and vegetables are often at the centre of the market. The produce is displayed with tender care and refreshed throughout the day with regular splashes of water. Familiar staples like garlic, lemongrass, galangal, ginger and kaffir lime and of course chillies of all kinds are there. More exotically, there are bundles of aquatic acacia with their fluffy roots, fresh turmeric, apple and pea eggplants, betel leaves, and basils holy, lemon and Thai. But this is only a small part of the cornucopia. Nearby are stalls laden with small plastic bags that contain everything a cook needs: white pepper, dried chillies, sugar, tamarind pulp, cumin and coriander seeds; fish, soy and oyster sauces. A lot of commercial products are also creeping onto the stalls, including prepared lime juice, chilli pastes and canned coconut cream. But in sight is the coconut stall - a blessing for all determined cooks. The fresh coconuts are cut in half then grated and pressed to order, yielding a succulent fresh cream very different from its canned cousins. Down one of the aisles there is a fish stall, selling the most pert, clear-eyed fish: sea bass or barramundi, red emperor, red spot whiting, glorious squid and live prawns and crabs. There is always a tub of live fish, usually freshwater catfish and serpent-head fish. Very often one or two of the beasts will have escaped and be wriggling across the floor. These fish are killed and cleaned as required. Prawns and crabs are sold still kicking. Even in the smallest markets, the quality of seafood is outstanding. Meat, pork, beef and poultry take the sidelines, having been introduced quite late into the diet due to the Buddhist prohibition on the taking of life. Those who consume meat circumvent this by saying that the beast is already dead. Even now, though, few Thais are butchers; mostly they are of Chinese descent. Near the exit there is often a small stand where caged finches or bowls of small fish and eels are for sale. Mercifully they are not for eating. They are bought to be released in a nearby river or canal to earn merit and expiate the sins after a day’s shopping, eating or just plain living. In every market there are always three or four stands selling prepared food. Stallholders seldom leave their posts in case they miss a sale. The nearby vendors will often drop off a plate of stir-fried noodles, some kanom jin noodles or rice topped with curry, some Thai cup cakes or sweets like sticky rice pikelets. The spicier dishes might come as a surprise to some as welcome tastes for so early in the morning, but many of these people have been up for several hours and their palates are well and truly awake.
Breakfast and morning snacks
The sounds of the morning announce the breaking day: dogs begin to scratch and roam, cars and bikes rev up their engines and people stir as they prepare themselves for the day ahead. The rhythmic clunking of pestles in mortars can be heard.
Already the market is up and running, busy with cooks and hawkers shopping for their provisions and diligent housewives hankering for a chat. People are on the streets, heading off to work or simply out for a stroll, and they will pick up a snack or two on the way. Their breakfast snacks, though, are nothing like the Western meal - perhaps some Thai cup cakes, a few pieces of deep-fried bread to have with coffee and friends, or maybe a bag of warm sticky rice pikelets to dip into on the way back from the markets.
As the morning starts in earnest, school kids hit the streets, often three or four piled on a single bike, and they need something to make the prospect of school more palatable. A few yellow sugar plant puddings - picked up from a stall that’s little more than a large metal steamer with a small side tray - should sweeten the learning process.
However, the almost always sunny morning doesn’t mean sweet treats alone. A shophouse opens out to the street and on a bench some stretched dough will be proving, ready to be deep-fried while people wait to take away this bread to eat while it is still fresh, hot and crunchy.
Modern Bangkok heads to work at a hectic pace: women riding pillion - sitting side-saddle on motorbikes, defying any known laws of cosmetics and physics as they apply their make-up elegantly and precisely, at the same time balancing plastic bags filled with snacks to have on their way or at the office. Buses huff and puff and roar forth; traffic gnarls as the temperature rises and the modern world and its pressures ensue.
The market, however, follows a different pace - it is never so intense, it never loses it humour, its humanity. After all, its very raison d’être is to supply the community with the stuff of living: food, laughter, interaction, contact, life in the Thai manner.
Well inside the market, old ladies sit in the shade and cool - a few of them might be chewing on betel nut, which stains their lips an ancient red. They will be dexterously wrapping sticky rice with various toppings in banana leaves that will be exchanged for some baht, a bit of banter and a story or two. The market is at its busiest, brightest and best at this time, as shoppers set about their daily tasks, gossiping, laughing, buying and eating. Thai cup cakes
These wonderful cakes are eaten throughout the day - and they deserve to be. They are addictive... although cakes is perhaps not a true description of these crisp, golden-skinned wafer cups with soft and creamy centres. Be careful when they just come out as when they are fresh and hot, the centres are molten. But I suspect that won’t stop you from being compelled to eat several; I certainly am. Makes 40 cakes or 20 pairs, enough for 4-5
small pinch of lime paste
125 g (4 oz) rice flour
1 scant teaspoon arrowroot flour
1½ tablespoons cooked jasmine rice
¼ cup grated coconut
2 tablespoons thick coconut cream
good pinch of salt
3-4 tablespoons white sugar
pinch of salt
1 cup coconut cream
2 tablespoons chopped spring (green) onions - optional
2 tablespoons boiled corn kernels - optional
2 tablespoons steamed cubed taro - optional
grated coconut wrapped in muslin (cheesecloth) or a little vegetable oil, for greasing moulds
First make the batter. Dissolve the lime paste in ¾ cup of water and wait for about 15 minutes until it has completely precipitated. Drain off and reserve the lime water, discarding the sludgy residue.
Mix the rice and arrowroot flours together with 2-3 tablespoons of plain water. Knead to a slightly wet, dough-like consistency. Add a further 2-3 tablespoons of plain water bit by bit to make a thick batter. Leave the batter to rest, covered, for an hour or so.
Meanwhile puree the rice, grated coconut and ½ cup of the lime water in an electric blender until smooth. (Keep the remainder of the lime water for later use.) Add the coconut cream, the salt and perhaps a little more lime water, then continue to blend until a fine batter is achieved-it should be quite runny but able to coat the back of a spoon. Make sure there are no lumps whatsoever; if there are, the cakes are bound to stick. Leave to the side to settle for a few hours at room temperature or refrigerate overnight.
Bring the batter to room temperature before using. It will probably be necessary to lighten and dilute it with a tablespoon or two of the remaining lime water, but do not add too much otherwise the cooked cup cakes will be overly crisp and brittle.
Now make the topping by mixing the sugar, salt and coconut cream together in a bowl, stirring until completely dissolved. Put this to the side.
Heat the cup-cake pan over a low-medium heat for 4-5 minutes until quite hot - ideally over gas, but without the flames touching the base of the mould (a cake ring should be able to assist with this). Grease each well with some grated coconut wrapped in muslin or a little vegetable oil, then pour batter into each sizzling well until it is three-quarters full. Cover with a lid and cook over a low-medium heat until the cup cakes are just beginning to set around the edges-this should take about 3-4 minutes but it depends on the thickness of the mould and the heat underneath it. Carefully pick up the hot pan and swirl it in a circular motion to redistribute the batter so that it thinly lines each well to the top. Don’t worry if a little, or a lot, splashes onto the shoulder of the mould, it can be cut away later.
Return to the heat and let any batter from the sides of the wells settle back in the centre. Cover once again and allow the batter to cook until it is just beginning to set. Gingerly add a tablespoon or two of the coconut cream topping to each cake - each well should be almost filled - then cover and let it cook for a few moments. This is the time to add a pinch of either chopped spring onions, boiled corn kernels or steamed taro to the mix, if using, just as the topping begins to thicken. Cover once more and continue to cook until the edges of the cakes are golden and the centre is slightly but not overly set.
With a small knife, cut around the edge of each well and remove the cup cakes carefully with a Chinese soup spoon. Use the point of the spoon to lift the cup cake away from the mould, gently prising the edges of the cup cake from the well, then working your way down until the cake lifts away from the mould.
If the first batch of cup cakes are not crisp enough, then stir a tablespoon or two of the remaining lime water into the batter. Just be careful not to add too much or the flavour of the batter will be diluted. If, on the other hand, the cup cakes are too brittle, then stir in a few tablespoons of coconut cream. Repeat until all the batter and topping is used, greasing the wells in between batches.
Serve as single cup cakes or as culinary Siamese twins in pairs. Thai cup-cake moulds
There are a few tricks to making these little fiends. Firstly, you must have the correct mould, which is a heavy pan with small rounded wells and a lid. These may be available at Thai specialty shops; otherwise any heavy non-stick, round-bottomed mould can be used. It must be well seasoned, otherwise it will be difficult to extract the cooked cakes. Season the pan by filling each well with some freshly grated coconut, possibly coconut from which cream has already been extracted. Heat the mould over a very gentle heat for an hour or two. Let it sit over the flame as the oil seeps out of the coconut. Don’t worry if it goes brown and toasty, as long as it doesn’t burn. Once done, wipe out the coconut, then rub and clean the wells to make sure every bit is removed. Never, ever wash the mould - it will destroy the seal, virtually guaranteeing the cup cakes will stick. Before adding the batter, rub the inside of each well with some grated coconut wrapped in muslin (cheesecloth) to oil them and help to prevent the cakes from sticking. Plain oil will do. The wells must be smeared with oil or coconut before and after each use. After every third use, it is wise to re-seal the mould with grated coconut.