Bangkok is the world’s hot spot for delicious street food. While street food in other cities around the world may be constrained to a few areas of a given city, Bangkok’s food scene stretches across the limits of the city itself. Vendors range from people setting up blankets along the roadside, to funky and very cluttered shop houses, where generations of a family may have been hawking the same dish for decades.
If you’ve never been here before it’s easy to underestimate how much there really is to try. Each week we help visitors navigate the streets, introducing them to everything from exotic tropical fruit, to deciphering the different types of meat in a specialty bowl of street-side noodles.
We are approaching the one year anniversary of our Street Food 101 Tour and wanted to offer some tips on identifying the qualities of outstanding street food tours in Bangkok. Whether you roam the streets snacking with us, on your own, or decide to take another tour, we hope the following tips will help you have an adventurous, fun, and delicious street food adventure!
1) Off the Beaten Path, Dense Street Food
Let’s face it, Bangkok often tops the list of most visited cities in the world. With hotels and luxury condos occupying prime real estate, how can we also expect to find the best food in the city’s central business district? In fact, many of these areas (Sukhumvit, Silom, Chinatown, Khaosan Rd., and similar areas) were the topic of controversy when Bangkok’s city authorities began to crack down on illegal street food vendors in the past few years.
So there’s no coincidence that the further you are from your hotel, the better the street food is likely to become. Outside of the main downtown areas, street food still thrives, and large communities of the city’s working class people are dependent upon it. This is why it’s important to choose a tour that takes you to places you wouldn’t consider visiting on your own.
Great guides are never afraid to get lost, or wander with you into the labyrinth like shophouse alleys of old town, or graffiti’d streets in parts of the city you’ve never heard of before. Often the payoff for such misadventures is finding neighborhoods where the street food is not only delicious, but dense— meaning you have a great selection of dishes to try in a small area. Bring your camera, an adventurous appetite so you’re prepared to try something new, and be extra friendly incase people are curious to know how you found their local hotspot.
2) Interaction with Street Food Vendors
The ugly truth about street food is that it’s difficult, unstable work. The expectation that food is cheap, is at odds with constantly rising food prices, unpredictable monsoon weather, and inflation. Unfortunately in our enthusiasm for $1 goodies, we tend to glaze over the struggles of people who provide this awesome cuisine for us to enjoy.
For example, there is a woman in our nearby market who sells a flavor gushing betel leaf wrap (a Thai snack called miang kham). Often when we meet her on our tour she’s still wearing her maid uniform, meaning she’s worked all day before coming to the market to sell her delectables for another 4 hours, before she can rest. We love stopping by to support her, but want to go beyond just snacking and taking pictures alone. Each time we bring guests we include a tip, reminding her we aren’t only paying for the few bites of food, but for the opportunity to interact with her and experience one of Thai cuisine’s most unique dishes.
We should note that tipping is not normal in Thai culture and can lead to tension. A vendor may initially refuse your money, or think you’ve left it at the stall accidentally. This is where tour guides who have an ongoing relationship with the vendors is important, so they understand you love their food, and that you value them as well. We would all be wise to remember that lack of support for street food vendors locally, can also exacerbate the forces depreciating the quality of food on offer in Bangkok as well.
3) Wandering Bangkok’s Dizzying Local Markets
Bangkok has her eyes fixed on cosmopolitan grandeur, but her feet remain firmly rooted in the rich merchant heritage of the past. This is a contradiction found in the types of restaurants on offer, but also embodied by Thais raised in the city themselves. You could argue that the aforementioned ‘off the beaten path’ parts of Bangkok, are merely a network of wet markets, each the epicenter of local communities sprawling in every direction around them.
People depend on the wet markets to supply them with a constant supply of affordable fruit and vegetables grown in the neighboring provinces (often called Thailand’s bread basket). Other goods, such as fresh meat and seafood, coconut milk pressed before your eyes, and even factory fresh rice noodles that are mass produced and cut to order, are indispensable in each community. Without a doubt, the wealth of ingredients available in the local markets are the backbone of the incredible street food available in Bangkok, and you shouldn’t miss the chance to explore a market with this in mind.
Proximity to the market makes it easier for vendors who push their carts up and down busy streets, but is also important for larger operations of restauranteurs, and street food vendors who’ve evolved from push carts to open air shophouses. On our tour you may spot the uncle who owns the Southern Thai curry cart praying in front of the market for good sales, just as the evening rush begins. Nearby in another corner of the market, an auntie is single handedly frying, steaming, mixing up 3-5 dishes to sale at her small rice and curry stall. We stop by to get advance access to a few sample nibbles before she loads everything on her cart to sell. On our next stop we may plop down on flimsy plastic stools in a shop house
These experiences give you a wider cultural perspective on street food, tell why it’s invaluable to people of Bangkok, and will aid you in discovering and enjoying Bangkok’s best street food on a tour, or on your own.
We first met Chef Josh Venne a few years ago when he was touring the world. He made a stopover in Bangkok (one of his favorite cities) and reached out to us. His passion for service, culture, and food deeply aligned with our mission, and naturally he dove right in the kitchen and instantly became part of our Courageous Kitchen family.
We wanted you to get to know him, and asked him to share his story with us. In the interview below he gets candid, reminding us why it’s so important for us to share stories of overcoming struggle with our young leaders. Journeys from tragedy into triumph like Josh’s, inspire us, and give much needed hope to our students.
Read below to learn more about Chef Josh and see why he exemplifies courage in every way!
Q: I love how you’re making a name for yourself in an unconventional way. How long did it take you to get to this point?
So glad to hear it! I started cooking around the age of five for my siblings, and used it as a great stress reliever. I was interested in food very early and essentially wanted to be able to cook and eat every thing possible. When I was 15 I realized I wanted to pursue a career in food which was actually quite lucky. Some people take a lot longer so I was able to focus early and get lots of experience. Since then I have worked in some 25+ kitchens in five states in the USA. I have also traveled to 40+ countries for food research, and that’s really given me a huge base of experience and probably given me a good deal of an edge on my competition in the USA.
Many people are becoming more and more familiar with obscure cuisines. Take Thai food for example, there is so much more to it than just curries and papaya salad. Although I love the mainstays such as those, the more people learn about different cuisines and culture, the more I can cook things out of their normal comfort zone.
Q: What got you interested in food and sharing it with others, and when did you realize you had a knack for it?
I am heavily self-taught but I also graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, highly regarded as the best culinary school in the USA and one of the best in the world. However class learning is no replacement for experience, so I believe I have a good collection of both.
“It gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction that not much else did.”
When I was younger, often times I would be forced to cook for myself and sometimes my siblings out of necessity. I would let friends try my items and got a great sense of pleasure from that. I also starting working at a pizza place in my young teenage years so that was a great source of pleasure as well. We wouldn’t cook much from scratch, but sometimes when we would run out of things made not in house, for example alfredo sauce, I remember making it from scratch, and completely baffling co-workers. After an especially stressful day at home, I would make large batches of things like Shepard’s pie and Bolognese. It was always way too much so I would gift it to friends. I realized I had a special gift to be able to not only taste items and make them my own, but that I also needed to share my gift with as many people as I could. It gave me a sense of purpose and satisfaction that not much else did.
Q: As a first-gen Lao American, I never wanted to embrace my Asian identity until I was much older. Have you always been a proud Asian American, or has it been a slow realization?
My mother was born in Korea, and had a pretty horrific childhood that plagued her entire life, and ultimately led to her death when I was 17, of a heroin overdose. She just couldn’t escape the darkness that followed her. She was adopted around age 8 I believe, to a single Irish woman who taught English in Massachusetts. My father was born in the USA to a German immigrant. Some of his siblings were born in the USA, and some in Germany.
I wouldn’t say I proudly identify as either German or Korean, but as an amalgamation of the both. Culturally I grew up in German influenced Massachusetts, with a little Irish culture peppered in. Korean culture wasn’t present because as my mom left when she was so young. We would occasionally go to the Korean market and get lots of panchan kimchee, and spicy marinated shiso leaves (my favorite), but that’s about it. Traveling around the world, and especially Asia, was certainly influenced by that.
But mostly I grew up eating American food with Massachusetts and German influence. Pasta, potatoes with kielbasa, schnitzel, German potato salad, sauerbraten, etc. The biggest influence is probably coastal Massachusetts. So I often cook seafood, lobster boils, and Portuguese influenced stews. Korean and German food make their way into my cuisine but not super often.
Q: Courageous Kitchen works with several refugee youth providing food education and teaching basic nutrition skills. What advice can you give to some of our students who may be in a situation similar to what your family experienced?
“Positivity breeds opportunity.”
Just keep pushing forward. Focus on the positive and try to ignore the negative. Positivity breeds opportunity. No one wants to take a chance on someone being negative and sad. Try to do things that advance your life, career, and display the positive parts of your day and feelings. It will help if you surround yourself with other positive people and never look back.
Q: Can you tell me what being courageous means to you?
Being courageous means to be brave in the face of danger and opposition. Life will only get harder, so I like to face the hardships head on to conquer them. Being courageous means getting out of your comfort zone and doing things that can be frightening. It also means going against the grain even if people don’t like it or approve. It also means being somewhat selfish at times.
For example, some people may not appreciate being served fish or other meat with the head still on. I will do whatever is needed to keep a dish enjoyable and authentic. It may not be well received by the majority, but if it is true to what makes the dish memorable for me, I do it. This keeps me innovating and pushing to educate and help people explore culture through cuisine.
Q: What have been the highlight moments of your culinary career? Alternatively, what have been the most challenging?
Catering my first solo wedding when I was 21, I was faced with every possible obstacle. The presents got stolen, the power went out, we were missing tons of ingredients, guests stole someone else’s plate while they were in the restroom, etc. but I still made it happen.
Taking my first solo trip to Taiwan was eye-opening. I realized I didn’t need a friend to travel with, and since then I’ve been to over 40 countries. So my highlight would be the opportunity to taste awesome food I would have never been able to try in the USA. And, of course, the weird stuff, like dog, eggs fermented in horse urine, bats, tarantulas, etc.
Q: I know you’ve got a lot going on — i.e. private events, catering, traveling and cooking classes in the mix. What’s next for you?
Right now I am trying to secure a job in the private chef sector. Restaurant work in amazing and fun but not financially rewarding. I’m ready to stay somewhat permanent for a bit and chip away at my student loan debt. In five years I’d love to be debt free, and starting to save to open my own restaurant. I’d like to focus on fast casual so more people can enjoy my food rather than fine dining. I’d also liked to be married or almost married with kids in the near future.
Q: Can you share your favorite recipe with our readers?
This is tricky, but I will share my scallion pancake recipe that really carried The Beacon Bite, the food trailer I previously co-owned in Beacon, NY. It is a yeast risen pancake that acted as a vehicle for our Korean marinated pork wrap.
All purpose flour, one part
Bread flour, three parts
Water, warm 1 part (by weight)
Salt, 1 pinch
Yeast, 1 tsp per cup of flour
Thinly sliced scallions
Sauce made of soy, sesame oil, mirin, rice wine
Mix the yeast in the warm water. Mix the flour with salt in a mixer or by hand. Pour in the water and mix gradually. If it needs a little water or flour to adjust consistency, add it. The dough should be homogenous and slightly sticky. Work the dough until the gluten is well developed and the dough bounces back almost fully when you stick your finger in.
Portion the dough into dough balls 3-6 ounces as desired. Roll nicely and rest on sheet tray while you cut the scallions and make the sauce.
Roll the dough ball into a kind-of flat circle, using a rolling pin and as little flour as possible. Brush the sauce on the entire surface facing you, and sprinkle lightly with scallions. Roll the dough up tight, into a long snake. Then coil the dough onto itself and squish it together. The last tip may need a pinky finger full of sauce to stick. Flatten the dough out with your hand and roll again into a perfect circle again using as little flour as possible. They may need to rest a bit before to let the gluten relax.
Cook the pancake on a flattop or pan with a little cooking oil. Enjoy with the sauce you made for dipping, or stuff as a wrap with meat, vegetables, mayo, etc. At the Beacon Bite we did a spicy gochujang marinated pork shoulder with sesame carrot slaw and toasted chili mayo.
We are grateful to call Chef Josh Venne a good friend, and thankful to him for sharing, and serving our community with his whole heart. His love of adventure shines through in his cooking, his infectious smile, and his zest for life.
To connect with Chef Josh, find him on instagram as @jawshey.
We love social validation when we’re shopping. This goes for everything from taking a friend shopping when you’re feeling indecisive, to asking a friend their opinion on the charity you’re choosing to support. That’s why it’s a huge accomplishment that our Courageous Kitchen cooking class for tourists has surpassed 100 reviews on Airbnb Experiences. This is no easy accomplishment, and we’re proud to have garnered so many positives feedback in less than a year on the platform.
What is an Airbnb Social Impact Experience?
This past January we celebrated a year since the launch of our social enterprise offering cooking classes to travelers visiting Bangkok. As a new business, we really struggled during the first year to get new customers. Fortunately, we did have some success as one of the early experiences on the Airbnb marketplace called Airbnb Experiences. Most people know the company as an affordable way to find lodging when traveling, but they have recently begun offering other activities to travelers looking for things to do in new cities, including some with a significant social impact.
Without a doubt it can be hard to choose a cooking class in Bangkok. There are so many classes at different price levels and there are a variety of other online markets as well. This means when customers find our class highly recommended by Airbnb’s customers, they can expect our class is different from the run of the mill cooking classes offered by tour companies. In addition, as a recognized 501c3 in good standing, Airbnb collects no commission on the bookings made on their site. That means more money for buying quality ingredients, equipment, and funding our outreach in Bangkok!
Growing Pains and Negative Reviews
We’ve been teaching children in the marginalized community we serve to thrive in kitchen spaces for 5 years now. However, when we started this fun activity to help pump nutrition into the community, we didn’t expect it to prepare us to later host professional classes. In fact, teaching 30 children to cook at once would seem a lot more intimidating to most people, compared with the stress of teaching a small group of foreigners. However, we’ve had to learn other aspects of running the business beyond the teaching the hard way. For example, pricing can have a big impact on experience. If we’re priced too low, people book in hurry, classes are more crowded, and guests may arrive not knowing much about our organization. On the contrary, if the pricing is too high, we have fewer customers and their expectations for the cooking class are unrealistic.
Everyone who steps into our kitchen is different and we want to have an experience all can enjoy. This presents a unique challenge, however, that is especially difficult when managing different languages and personalities in a group. So while our reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, we have also had negative reviews impact our bookings. When customers are unhappy, we discuss their feedback as a team and consider how to improve the experience in the future. Here are common reasons people don’t enjoy the class, that we’re working to mitigate or have already solved:
Customer doesn’t know the class is charity run
Customer is uncomfortable because of heat, chairs, chili, amount of standing, etc…
Customer does not speak strong English
The most common problem our team has encountered when hosting guests from around the world has been around managing expectations. Since many customers book in a hurry, they often don’t read all of the info about the class. This means customers can arrive expecting to be cooking in a professional kitchen, or in today’s tense political climate, may not know until arriving they have booked a class in support of refugees — often a divisive political issue. All of these issues are exacerbated when customers don’t speak much English or Thai. We won’t be able to solve all of these problems instantly, but we strive to produce a high quality class each session, and want to be transparent about the challenges.
How You Can Help
As people learn about opportunities with Airbnb, it becomes more competitive. We have to work harder at generating more direct bookings, instead of being overly dependent on Airbnb or another third party. We always need help sharing our cooking class with friends visiting Bangkok, and need continued support for the educational support we offer those in need. Finally, if you’ve attended a class, consider leaving a review on our growing Tripadvisor profile as well!
Thank you for following our project, and until the next update stay courageous!
June marks the beginning of summer for many of us, but it also marks the start of another significant event for the Courageous Kitchen and many refugee communities across the globe. Every year in mid-June, several organizations host what has been declared as ‘Refugee Week’, with June 20th serving as the week’s capstone — this year will commemorate the 20th Annual World Refugee Day! As we join in the double-decade long celebration, we urge you to also join us by honoring the resilience and contributions of refugees and asylum seekers worldwide by taking action in the following ways:
1) Listen – All over the world events are happening for world refugee day. Be sure you find a local event and show your support by attending and listening to the stories of struggle and triumph. Events range from food tasting parties to discussion panels, join or start a conversation near you!
3) Cook/Eat – This may come as no surprise, but we believe the kitchen is one of the best places to learn about someone new, and connect with their culture. In diverse places in the west, we may take for granted how someone, or their ancestors, made harrowing journeys and sacrifices. World Refugee Day gives us an excuse to ask people about their heritage, culture, and an opportunity to celebrate these differences over something that binds us all, food!
4) Share – In today’s political climate it can be unpopular to show your support publicly for refugees. Refugees are used as a political tool in some countries to propel xenophobic campaigns and policies. Wherever we are in the world, we can show our support for refugees and insist people recognize their human rights. If you join in the celebrations, document them by using the hashtags #RefugeeWeek2018 and #WithRefugees.
5) Give Back – When you connect with your local refugee organizations find a way to donate, volunteer, or give back another way. These organizations are often underfunded and understaffed (speaking from experience), so if you can find a way to donate funds or time consistently for a few months, you can really make a difference for people in need and small organizations serving them. We’re asking people interested in supporting our mission to help by sponsoring a family.
Photo: Courageous Kitchen’s pre-teen students pose with Canadian chef Cameron Stauch.
Doing anything special this World Refugee Day? Please reach out and let us know!
We’re excited to share the latest fun activity between our junior chefs and the super chefs over at Bangkok’s Marriott Marquis Hotel. If you’re unfamiliar, the hotel is one the largest in the region and they often play host to the internal conferences and other activities for the brand. The hotel chefs recently invited our Courageous Kitchen students to participate in a family lunch event they were organizing for the upper management from hotels in the region. The activity brought the families of local Thai staff to create their favorite home recipes in the hotel, with our Courageous Kitchen students helping out.
The recipes the families chose exhibited the diversity of Thai cuisine. A few of the dishes were popular Thai foods, like one granny’s recipe for pad thai, but not all of them. In fact, many of the recipes brought regional foods and little known homestyle recipes to be showcased. However, before we were welcomed into the hotel, the head chefs came to find out more about our charity and how we teach Courageous Kitchen students. To do this, they visited our outreach center in the outskirts of Bangkok to demonstrate two recipes for the students. One of the dishes was a crab curry and ended up looking and tasting amazing!
Not long after the chefs visited the community, we joined the chefs in their kitchens to help during their event. Our students began the day with a buffet lunch, and a behind the scenes tour of the hotel’s back kitchens. The students, most of whom have never visited a hotel, were introduced as “guests of the head chef” and treated to tastings, and conversations with the chefs about what they were working on. In the bread making kitchen, our students made all sorts of miserable faces as they tried sourdough bread for the first time! This was a big contrast with their elated reactions to all of the sweets on display in the pastry kitchen. Afterwards, the students came back to the banquet room where they helped prepare and serve the special Thai recipes, fruit, and desserts to the guests.
This kitchen exchange was the highlight of our activities over the past few months. Memories we made with the students and chefs will long be treasured by all involved. Most importantly, our students, who may likely think of street food when imagining a career in food and beverage, had the chance to visualize what’s possible if they continue to excel in the kitchen. Finally, to show their commitment to the development of the youth we serve, the hotel has also designated a special donation for improving our educational efforts. Bravo to all our students for doing so well in a new environment, and thank you to everyone for so warmly welcoming us!
Big special thanks to everyone at the Marriott Marquis for welcoming our students so warmly, especially the head chefs and their teams!
We’re proud to announce Courageous Kitchen’s Dwight Turner has been selected as part of the cohort in an exciting new program to accelerate social businesses for the most at risk. The program, run by Santa Clara University’s Miller Center, targets businesses serving people on the margins, such as migrants, refugees, and human trafficking survivors. Dwight will receive business training and mentorship over a six month period, which includes a non-cash scholarship to participate in accelerator program’s culmination events in the bay area this October.
What is Social Entrepreneurship?
A regular business is created to take profits and distribute them to the owners, shareholders, or reinvest them back into the business. When a business reinvests profits into efforts to assist society instead, we refer to them as social businesses or social enterprises. The excitement about this new type of ethical business in recent years has led to many private sector and government backed efforts to support and stimulate their growth.
Over the past 15 years, the Miller Center at Santa Clara University has been especially active in the development of social entrepreneurs. The programs they have created coach, train, and mentor future social impact makers to prepare them to meet with potential investors. Dwight will be part of the Global Social Benefit Institute’s (GSBI) first Social Entrepreneurship at the Margins Cohort. He is selected to represent Courageous Kitchen with 21 other organizations, out of over 100 applicants.
Who is Dwight?
If you haven’t met Dwight Turner, he describes himself as both the director and janitor of Courageous Kitchen. These dual roles exhibit his willingness to do any task to help his team, and the families we serve in Bangkok. This isn’t an exaggeration either! On a given day, you may catch him coaching our young chefs in the kitchen, leading a street food tour through Bangkok, and speaking about the plight of urban refugees to a local school.
Dwight was surprised to learn he is selected, saying: “Courageous Kitchen is largely funded by the cooking classes we provide and have never had an opportunity like this cohort program. So, I’m really thankful. Also it’s great to see the Miller Center pivoting to tackle complex issues that would normally be overlooked by the business sector. It’s exciting to think that Courageous Kitchen will be a part of this new conversation, I can’t wait!”
We’re excited for Dwight’s journey to Silicon Valley, although we’ll miss him while he’s away traveling! You can read more about this program, and the other fascinating organizations selected to participate, in this announcement from the Miller Center.