Spend any amount of time walking the streets of Bangkok and you will be struck by the volume and variety of food carts hugging the pavements of the Thai capital. It’s something Bangkok is rightly famous for but it’s also increasingly under threat. New government regulations mean crackdowns citing health and hygiene issues have begun in different parts of the city. Some night markets have since disappeared altogether and, although the total ban talked about earlier this year was sensibly abandoned, stricter regulations are being enforced on stallholders, such as forcing them to move to permanent, rented spaces.
In a bid to highlight the value of the city’s street vendors we took a tour of Bangkok with the Thai Leisure Group; one of its founders, Kim Kaewkraikhot, started her career as a street vendor before opening a famous restaurant in the city and then, finally, moving to the UK to establish the Thaikhun and Chaophraya restaurant brands.
Our Bangkok street food guides were James Hacon, strategy director of the Thai Leisure group, Woody Leela, group development chef for Thaikhun and Chaophraya, and Tana Wanwatanakul, an importer who supplies most of the fresh ingredients to Thaikhun and Chaophraya (as well as other famous Thai restaurants such as Som Saa, and major Thai supermarkets).
Chef Woody regularly travels to Bangkok on tasting trips, refining existing dishes on his restaurants’ menus and bringing in new ones. Our mission was to meet some of the traders, try as many street foods as possible and track down some new dishes for Thaikhun and Chaophraya’s 2018 menus. As well as eating just about everything in sight. Here are some of the highlights from the trip.
A common breakfast snack in Thailand, this is basically thick white sandwich bread fried in butter until crusty and golden, then liberally dusted in sugar and cut into bite sized pieces. We also tried a version drizzled with condensed milk, but you can choose from various toppings including chilli and pineapple jam. It’s a sugary jolt to the system and incredibly comforting.
THAI ICED COFFEE (Kah-Fen Yen)
Blindingly sweet but in the swampy morning heat of a Bangkok street food market it’s the perfect drink. Strong iced coffee is laced with sugar, condensed and regular milk. We also ordered Nestea – not actually tea as we know it – but a choice of either green or pink Nesquick syrup blended with milk and, again, incredibly sweet. It was a step too far for some but one of our group proclaimed it the perfect hangover cure. Here’s our iced coffee recipe to try at home.
RICE PORRIDGE (Chok/Joke)
This is a kind of Thai take on congee, the savoury rice porridge that’s popular all over Asia. The rice is cooked for a long time in a stock (often chicken or pork) until it breaks down and becomes porridgey. Once we’d ordered, our vendor scooped a portion of pre-cooked rice into a pan and heated it through. She then transferred this into a bowl and added a topping of shredded ginger, fried garlic, spring onions and a good shake of powdered black pepper and fish sauce.
PORK SATAY (Moo satay)
Snacks on skewers are an incredibly popular Bangkok street food snack, so when you come across a stall with a long queue – as we did in Bangkok’s Chinatown one evening – you get in line and wait. Pork tends to be the most common meat; in this case the thinly sliced meat was marinated in coconut milk and turmeric then grilled and served with a punchy peanut dipping sauce, cucumber and shallots. Eaten with an ice-cold Chang beer it’s snacking heaven.
GRILLED BANANAS (Kluay Ping)
We stopped at a stall that looked like it was grilling sausages but in fact was grilling stumpy little bananas. These are a particular kind of Thai banana, slightly more floury in texture than a regular banana. Here they were skewered whole then pressed onto the grill until golden and caramelized on the outside. You can take them plain or with a bag of syrup for dunking.
Although pad thai might be a familiar dish to us, it’s set apart here by the method of preparation. On our stall was a collection of dishes filled with different ingredients (dried shrimp, fish sauce, glass noodles, wide noodles, beansprouts, eggs) so we were able pick and choose how much of each went into the finished dish to create our own bespoke pad thai.
DEEP-FRIED CHICKEN WINGS (Peek Gai Tod)
These crisp little chicken wings look a bit like familiar fast food wings but they are marinated first in soy, coriander root, white pepper and garlic to give a really subtle spice. The most surprising element was the addition of flash-fried kaffir lime leaves which you eat alongside the wings. Frying makes them deliciously brittle and they disintegrate in your mouth when you crunch into them.
CRUNCHY PRAWN FRITTERS (Gung Foi Tort) and THAI FISH CAKES (Tod Nun Pla)
Deep frying is at the heart of a lot of Thai street food. First we tried the classic Thai fish cakes – a bright orange mix of minced fish and prawns flavoured with lemongrass, chilli paste, ginger and fish sauce and bound with cornflour and egg white. This mix was scooped from a large bowl then dropped in little nuggets into smoking oil. The finished cakes had a familiar ‘bouncy’ texture and a really deep fishy flavour.
Next were prawn fritters made with whole tiny shell-on prawns, which became tender when tossed in a spicy batter and deep-fried – the texture not unlike a deep-fried soft-shell crab.
CHICKEN WITH HOLY BASIL AND FRIED EGG (Kao Ka Prao Gai)
This was one of our favourite Bangkok street food dishes and it’s one of the most popular so pretty easy to track down. In the version we had the chicken was chopped really small, almost minced, then stir fried in a wok with smashed up birds eye chillies, garlic, soy, sugar and holy basil.
The dish is served with a fried egg, steamed Jasmine rice and dipping sauce on the side. It also happens to be one of the most popular dishes on the menu at Thaikuhn.
CHICKEN RICE (Khao Man Gai)
This is a Thai version of Hainanese chicken rice and there are stalls that concentrate on serving only this as it’s quite a complex dish. Whole chickens are poached to create a broth. The chicken is then carved and served with rice that has also been cooked in the broth, and some chicken fat, alongside a bowl of really punchy dipping sauce (Nam Jim Tow Jeaw) made from fermented soy bean sauce, garlic, ginger and chilli. Most stalls will also serve you a bowl of plain broth to drink with the dish.
Chef Woody chose this dish as he explained it was really typical of a meal you would grab to sit down and eat rather than a street food snack. The beauty of the dish is that all its different elements rely on each other to make something special. Woody plans to put this on the new menu in a simpler version but with the authentic punchy sauce.
BBQ SQUID WITH DIPPING SAUCE (Pla muek yang)
It’s all about the contrast in this dish as whole squids are cooked over open flames until soft and chargrilled then sliced and served with a fiery Nam jim dipping sauce of lime, fish sauce, birds eye chilli and garlic.
SPICY SOUP NOODLES (Kuay Teow Tom Yum)
Although Chef Woody described this to us as Tom Yum it bore no resemblance to dishes I’ve eaten with that name. The soup was dark and almost creamy and Woody explained it had ground peanuts mixed in for richness, along with chilli and vinegar to lift the soup. The slippery noodles were similar to wiggly instant packet ramen (check out our way to pimp your instant ramen here) – the whole bowl was a deeply savoury serving of comfort.