IS STREET FOOD THAT GOOD ?
Street Food, A Quick Guide ….. But what’s it all about ?
Well, rather than being sold in restaurants with serving staff it’s often usually sold roadside from a food stall or mobile cart. Street food vendors often start out with a cart and then move into a larger shop or house in a permanent location which has more space plus a place for them to live. But they will still sell the same dishes as they did when they just had a small roadside stall.
The majority of street food vendors also specialise in just one dish or one type of food from a region of Thailand. This avoids competition on the roadside; allows vendors to sell the dish that they are best at preparing and also means that people know where to go to get a specific dish.
Another characterisation of streetfood is that it must be either pre-made at home or quick to prepare on-site. Buyers don’t want to wait 20 minutes for their meal. They want it now.
This need to hurriedly eat or get food on the go all started when Thailand began to urbanise in the 1960s. As the cities grew and people moved to them to work, they had less time to cook for themselves. Instead of living in an extended family where there would always be one or two people at home to cook for the family, people lived in their own small apartment and were out virtually all day. Within a decade the idea of buying cheap food on the street had displaced home cooking in urban areas.
Nowadays it’s quite rare to find a couple or even a family living in a city that cook their own food daily. Wherever you work or live, there will be something cheap and tasty to eat close at hand. It’s not as cheap as cooking for yourself, but far less time consuming. One major downside of this reliance on take-away food is the amount of plastic and polystyrene waste it creates. Another negative is that as it is price sensitive, it’s rare you get good quality ingredients used. Nowadays, more vendors rely on processed ingredients and MSG-laden, super sweet sauces to add flavour. Shortcuts are often taken so that vendors can still make a reasonable profit.
Is Thai Streetfood Safe to Eat?
It’s as safe as any other type of food. But there are too many variables to give a simple Yes or No answer.
Personally, I stick to foods that are cooked in front of me and are hot and freshly made. I avoid any stalls that have a pile of pre-cooked pieces of meat sitting out waiting to just be reheated; anything displayed in lukewarm glass case or kept stored in a leaking, lidless ‘coolbox’. Another rule if you’re a bit worried is to go for food with the least number of ingredients – i.e. – the simplest things to prepare. For example, you’re very unlikely to get sick from eating BBQ corn on the cob or a plate of mango and sticky rice.
I’ll also look for stalls that are popular. Partly because it means they will probably be pretty good and partly because as they have a high turnover, so the food will be fresher. Also consider who are the customers. Your stomach might not be as resilient as those of a gang of Cambodian labourers, but if families with kids are queuing up, then the parents obviously trust the source.
You may well find a stray dog licking it’s balls under a stall, but that doesn’t mean the stall is unhygienic. It means the owner likes animals. Watch what’s going on. Do the raw ingredients look fresh? Is the meat kept in a cooler? Is the stall clean, or as clean as it can be under the circumstances? Does the vendor wear gloves? Do they handle food and grubby banknotes with the same hand?
Another tip for eating street food is to do so when the locals do. For example, carts and stalls will be busiest when people leave work late afternoon and early evening. So that’s the best time to go to see which is busiest and to be sure of getting freshly prepared items. If you prefer to eat at 8 or 9pm then most stalls will be closing down and either won’t have much stock left or all only have the a few, unsold bits and pieces on display – which that stray dog will happily devour if you don’t want them.
If you plan on sitting down and eating at the stall, your food may well be freshly stir-fried or boiled but where do the plates, bowls and cutlery get washed? Unlike restaurants, food stalls don’t have taps and running water. They might have a couple of large tubs one full of soapy water and the other with clean water which only gets emptied out at the end of the night.
So, choose wisely and you’ll be fine. If you don’t, then you’ll know about it in the morning.
But you’re also just as likely to get sick eating at, for example, a buffet where dishes are kept lukewarm for hours or in a restaurant where you choose your seafood from a selection that’s been outside at ambient temperature all evening.
Is Street food Healthy?
Most of it isn’t. It’s like any fast food.
Many dishes are very high in sodium, sugar and fat. There’s a lot of cheap carbs and not a lot of protein. So it’s calorific. For example, a large plate of Pad Thai can come in at 900 calories and Khao Mun Gai ( a delicious chicken and rice dish found across southeast Asia ) is getting on for 600 calories as the rice is cooked in oily chicken stock.
Also, whilst it’s true that some ingredients used in Thai cooking are renowned to be natural remedies for many ailments, in reality these don’t make up for the lack of fresh vegetables. Vegetables are often limited to a lettuce leaf or few slices of cucumber as a garnish.
So it’s definitely worth sampling, but you wouldn’t live off it.
Ten Thai Street Food Dishes to Try
These aren’t in any particular order and the aim isn’t to give a long list of every possible type of food you might find. These are just some that are either common or worth seeking out and trying
Meats on Sticks
There are various categories of meats on sticks. The best being chicken satay – strips of marinaded chicken served with a medium spicy dipping sauce. However, there are many others you could try. These range from grilled pork, which can be delicious but often contains chunks of gristle and fat to abominations like chewy, grey fish balls and 5 Baht sausages both of which are made from parts of animals you probably didn’t know could be eaten.
I’d avoid the artificially coloured, processed meats and also anything unrecognisable. Although some people do enjoy a skewer of chicken sphincters. If you want a sausage search out stalls selling small round Isaan sausages or larger, pinker grilled rolls of sour pork. Both of these are served with pickled ginger. Look for a busy stall and not the cheapest, as the cheap versions often substitute rice for meat.
One of my favourites. These are little coconut and rice flour pancakes that are baked on a skillet over a charcoal fire. Sellers wil also often add a bit of sweetcorn, taro, pumpkin or ( for some unknown reason) spring onion into the mix for a bit of variation.
They should be served hot,golden brown and crisp underneath and soft and gelatinous on top. A great snack.
Kao Mun Gai
Thailand’s version of Hainanese chicken rice which is found across Southeast Asia. Slices on tender chicken with a spicy, ginger sauce and garnish of coriander ( as a token vegetable ) It has around 4 million calories per serving – as the rice is cooked in oily chicken broth, but it is delicious. It should be served with a bowl of the aforementioned chicken broth. And, if you’re lucky, a chuck or two of congealed chicken blood. It’s a filling breakfast dish if you get bored of cornflakes.
Rice and curry. Just a stall with a selection of up to 20 or so different Thai curries.
You pay 40 or 50 Baht for a plate of rice with a couple of curries of your choice. The food is all precooked, so don’t expect it to be hot. Places like this are best visited at busy times when there’s a high turnover. Ordering is easy – just point at a couple of things that don’t look too weird and hand over your cash. Alternatively, take a chance and order some something weird and possibly wonderful. Roadside Khao Gaeng restaurants are very popular for a quick breakfast or when people are travelling for a lunch stop.
Most people’s gateway to street food. Stir fried egg noodles with tamarind, beansprouts, fennel, egg, tofu, peanut and (usually) shrimp.
It’s non-spicy which is why you’ll always get a choice of condiments to add to it to give it some additional flavour. Little fact – this was created in the 1930s, as the dictator of the day decided not only to change the name of the country from Siam to Thailand, but also to make all men wear hats in public and introduce a new national dish. ( One of those plans failed. )
The new national dish was basically a Thai version of stir fried Chinese noodles.
However, because it’s ubiquitous, you can often tell that quality of a Thai restaurant simply by trying their Pad Thai.
Basically a Mussel omelette. And often sold at the same stalls that sell Pad Thai.
It’s cooked on a super-heated hotplate, half pancake / half omelette and lots of mussels. It takes a minute to cook. Served on top of a bed of beansprouts and with chilli sauce. It should be crisp, so best eaten fresh as it gets soggy quickly in humidity.
As seafood is involved, check how busy the stall or shop is before you buy. And don’t buy one that’s already been cooked. You want it straight out of the pan.
Banana fritters. When they’re hot they are excellent. When they’re cold they’re limp and awful. In theory it’s just slices of short, fat battered banana which is deep fried in a few litres of oil. The art is in the batter and getting it to not only be crisp and crunchy but also to have a little additional flavour, usually due to the addition of a splash of coconut milk, palm sugar and sesame seeds in the mix. Then you want to buy them piping hot. Once cold it’s too late.
The bananas should be sliced thick enough that they aren’t mushy and thin enough that they aren’t too chewy. They’re sold by the bag, 20 Baht will get from around 6 – 8 pieces.
Thailand isn’t big on desserts, so unless you just want fruit or ice-cream it’s best to leave some room in your stomach for a roti.
The roti stall is a fixture of any tourist destination in Thailand.
Many stalls offer a wide range of fillings and toppings but by far the most popular is banana with chocolate sauce on top plus a splash of condensed milk for added sweetness.
If banana roti is too modern and you want to try something more traditional, keep an eye out for Khanom Buang. These look like mini-tacos. So are easy to spot.
They’re thin wafers which are folded, taco-like- and filled with a coconut cream type of meringue plus various different toppings. The most popular being golden orange coloured shredded coconut. This desert dates back hundreds of years and the ability to make them was once considered one of the prerequisites for an ideal wife to possess.
Better known as noodle soup.
There are numerous variations and you’ll find noodle stalls wherever you go.
Stalls will usually sell a particular type of noodle soup but this will have various permutations of type of noodle, broth and meat.
So knowing how to order is very handy. Here’s a quick guide that covers the basics . . .