We’re lining up our favorite plates of Thai noodles to discuss their origin, ingredients, and sometimes complicated names. This list includes the best noodles that you’ll find stir fried, or served in curry or gravy broth at restaurants in Bangkok or around the country. If you’re a fan of Thai food, read on to learn all about the noodle dishes you should be ordering!
1. Pad Thai ผัดไทย
First, let’s talk vocabulary. The Thai word pad, pronounced ‘phat’, means to vigorously mix over heat. You’ll see this word often in the rest of this article, and when you see it on the menu at your favorite Thai place, you’ll know instantly which dishes are the stir fries. At the top of the list of Thailand’s most popular noodle stir fries is pad thai. Pad thai is easily the most well known Thai dish outside of Asia, but like the flavors of the dish, the history behind these tamarind tinted noodles is complicated.
The second word, thai, referring to the Thainess of the dish is equally is telling. For all the hoopla about authenticity, it turns out pad thai is a fairly recent addition to the Thai food canon. The dish came to fame thanks to a nationalism push, and is seasoned with anti-Chinese sentiment. Long story short, the invented dish may have served to get more Thais cooking their own street food, but isn’t as popular today, as you might imagine.
Not the traditional Thai dish you thought? There’s no shame in finding out you’ve been loving a propaganda plate, most of us have! To make matters worse, finding a delicious plate of pad thai in Bangkok is indeed a challenge. The number of ingredients makes it prohibitive to cook with rising food costs, and there are few deterrents to using recipe shortcuts, like ketchup, to improve the taste, color, and shelf life of the renown dish. Add on top disappearing street food culture, and you’ll begin to understand why the quality of the dish varies so widely in Thailand.
Thais don’t eat pad thai on a regular basis. For their regular lunch and dinner choice, the nation-state turns to a curry noodle dish called ‘kanom jin’ (often written as khanom chin). These noodles lack the international glory many of the others on this list enjoy, but they are by far the most popular domestically.
To enjoy the noodles, simply pour your choice of curry over the top. The most common options include green curry, and the less well known, extremely spicy yellow curry called ‘nam ya kati’. After picking a curry, you top the noodles with the fresh condiments you prefer, often situated on a communal table. The condiments are a mix of ingredients intended either to enhance the flavor, such as lemon basil, or more commonly to aid in the digestion of the oft spicy dish, such as bean sprouts or bitter melon.
KJ noodles aren’t devoid of geopolitical implications either. The dish is often mistakenly translated directly as ‘Chinese snack’. The irony of this lazy translation is that it implies these ethnic noodles originate elsewhere. Only the opposite is true, the noodle made of fermented rice, may be the oldest of those eaten widely by people in South East Asia.
3. Mama Noodles มาม่า
We would be remiss not to mention, that a close runner up for the most popular domestic noodle is one that you may not expect— instant noodles! Much of the popularity of these ubiquitous noodles is due to their price and availability. With the second highest number of 7-11 convenience stores in the world, Thailand’s convenience addiction makes finding a wide variety of instant noodle brands, types, and flavors easy all over the country. The most popular of those choices being the brand named ‘Mama’ noodles.
The brand is so popular that in the context of food, ‘mama’ is almost always a reference to those iconic crinkly noodles, paired with a seasoning pack. There are restaurants in Bangkok popular for serving suped up versions of the noodles with every topping you can imagine— including jumbo seafood. But the noodles also appear in popular Thai dishes made in a hurry at street food stalls.
Since they’re so easy to cook, some Thai street food stalls’ entire existence is customizing instant noodle dishes for customers with bonus protein items like hot dogs, poached eggs, minced pork, or the seafood of your choice! You won’t find them often on the menu in fancier restaurants, but you can be assured of their popularity among the Thai populace, whether they be school children, working class, or hungry party goers.
4. Pad See Ew ผัดซีอิ๊ว
Next up is a stir fry dish, iconic for the color of the wide rice noodles used. Pad see ew gets it’s brown tinted noodles from ‘see ew’, which is Thai for soy sauce. But to get your noodles the correct distinctive color, you can’t use just any run of the mill soy sauce. You’ll need to find what Thais refer to as ‘see ew dam’, or dark soy sauce. This particular sauce stands out because of its bitter taste and deep black color. In fact, the sauce is mostly molasses and only a small percentage soy, so be careful when throwing it into your wok, as it’s potent enough to really alter the flavor of a dish.
Pad see ew is the stir fry on this list with the strongest link to Chinese influence. The dark soy sauce, the use of Chinese kale, and the stir fry (aka Chinese wok hei style cooking) cooking method are a sure thumbprint of the migration of centuries of Chinese cooks to Thailand. This means you can find the dish being served in Bangkok street food stalls, which almost pre-date the existence of pad thai. Around the region, you can even find similar dishes in other countries, like Malaysia’s char gway teeo noodles (often spelled char kway teow).
Our favorite part of this popular Thai dish are the noodles themselves. Thais typically make the dish by flash stir frying fresh rice noodles, which begin to meld together from the intense heat, as well as absorbing the stir fry sauces and smoke from the wok. After emerging from the hot wok the plate of noodles is dusted with chili flakes and black pepper, but it may surprise you that this isn’t a spicy dish. The relative mild amount of spice heat makes it an approachable dish for newcomers to Thai cuisine, and a common runner up to pad thai for popularity outside of Thailand.
5. Pad Kee Mow ผัดขี้เมา
You can’t really talk about pad see ew without bringing up the spicier Thai cousin, pad kee mow. In English these noodles can often be referred to as ‘drunken noodles’, a direct translation from the Thai term ‘kee mow’, meaning someone who is regularly drunk. Alternatively, this could be a reference to dousing the noodles in dark soy sauce, but that isn’t nearly as fun an explanation.
This hangover busting dish is a favorite of mine, because it is a Thai spice lover’s departure from the humble, mildly flavored grand-cestor pad see ew. While you can find similar dishes to pad see ew around the region, this chili fueled plate of noodles is uniquely Thai. So while many will overlook ‘kee mow’ for a calm and delicious pad thai or pad see ew plates, hot headed spice lovers will come to Thailand, and make the version found at Bangkok’s street food vendors their new favorite Thai noodle dish.
What makes pad kee mow so spicy? This heat level doesn’t come from fresh chili alone, but layers of different types of spice. In addition to Thai birds’ eye chili, you have the larger Thai chilis added for color and their mild flavor. But what stands out most is the addition of fingerroot, a gangly root that is more intense than the galangal that flavors your favorite tom yum soup. The fingerroot is paired with intensely peppery, mildly bitter young peppercorn, and together they give the dish a mouth and face numbing type of spice that makes it perfect for the ailing drunk!
Visitors to Chiang Mai need no introduction to khao soi noodles. Enjoying the creamy curry noodles has become synonymous with visiting the city itself, because a delicious bowl can be troublesome to find or make elsewhere. This is because the noodles are often misunderstood, and have been reinvented several times based on the influx of people in the highlands of south east asia.
Whether you credit the Burmese, Chinese muslims, or some other group with khao soi, a quick taste or glance at the ingredient list is enough to tell you the origin isn’t Thai. The name comes from the Burmese word for noodles, but the current version most popular with tourists looks little like the dishes of the past. Many of the oldest recipes call for the richly spiced curry, reminiscent of Indian or middle eastern curries, and pair the flavor with red meat.
There may be great debate about the origin of khao soi, but the popularity of the dish is undeniably. The mild amount of hot chilies and meaty broth make it appealing to foreigners who fall in love with the dish in their stints in Thailand’s largest northern city. Today you’ll find the most celebrated versions served with chicken, and garnished with fried noodles, pickled shallots, lime, and mustard greens.
7. Khao Piak ข้าวเปียก
The least well known of our favorite noodle dishes is surely ‘khao piak‘ (pronounced KOW bie-ek). Even the wikipedia page on this hearty bowl of rice noodles looks skinny on info! But that doesn’t mean you should be in the dark about these tasty, usually handmade noodles. If you translate the name literally, khao means rice and piak (BIE-ek) means wet. Now wet rice doesn’t sound too appetizing unless you know it’s a reference to the noodles being made of rice flour and tapioca starch, and served in a gravy like broth.
Lately, the little known noodles are having a resurgence, thanks to the increasing popularity of Laotian food, where the dish is often referred to as ‘khao piak sen‘. The country of Laos shares a border with Thailand, and a long history of trade, war, and blending of language, culture, and cuisine. As Thailand has become one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the region, often the influence of Laotian cuisine get left out of the explanation of dishes that people may assume are authentic Thai recipes, such as papaya salad.
Whether you’ve had them on the Thai or Lao side of the border no matter, this is a special, extra satisfying meal. They’ll make you nostalgic for a hot bowl of chicken noodle soup, except they’re better. When the rice noodles are added to a richly seasoned pork or chicken broth, the starch in them thickens the soup into a flavorful gravy. Since they’re so filling, even families with few resources can stretch this dish into a meal!
Thai Noodle Vocabulary Review
pad – ‘phat’ – stir fry
kee mow – a drunkard
pad kee mow – drunken noodles
kanom jin (pronounced ‘ka-nom jeen’) – fermented rice noodles
see ew – soy sauce
see ew dam – dark soy sauce
sen yai – wide rice noodles
khao piak – literally wet rice, a reference to making the noodles by adding boiling water to rice flour
Time to talk about Bangkok’s fresh fruit buffets! Come to Thailand and experience an overload of tropical fruit, available for ridiculously affordable prices. Imagine kilos of fruit for the price of what people are paying, for a single fruit in colder parts of the world. This makes enjoying fruit in Thailand, easily a bucket list item everyone should be checking off!
We’re blessed to be able to enjoy this fruit regularly and to bring our Bangkok cooking class guests, and street food tour foodies to our favorite local markets. Each time the adventure is a feast for the senses, and we want to answer common Thai fruit questions you may have when planning your trip here.
Gorge of fruit Thai style by hunting these five fruits during your trip!
Mangosteen is one of Thailand’s most loved tropical fruits. If you’re hunting an exotic taste in Bangkok’s markets this fruit is a great place to start. The eye-pleasing spherical purple fruits usually have a sprig of greengage from the top when they’re fresh. You’ll want to pull that off and squeeze the fruit, allowing it to come apart naturally with the interior white and fleshy fruit still intact. The sweet and tart fruit is delicious and will have you coming back for more! Just keep in mind the best mangosteens aren’t in season all year long, but those of you visiting during the rainy season will find them plentiful and cheap.
Durian is the most infamous of fruits on this list. Unlike the unanimously loved queen of the fruits above, this King of the Fruits isn’t for everyone. That’s because the extremely creamy texture, gym sock funky smell, and the mix of sweet and savory this fruit can offer can be off putting.
However, along with tourists gagging on youtube, there are also videos of devotees who swear by the fruit as a sweet, and filling source of natural fat. The breed and quality of durian can vary, so take a Thai friend to your local vendor to help you get what you’re looking for in the $6-10 treat, and write us a comment to let us know whether you’d love it or leave it.
Although there’s some stiff competition, to me rambutan is one of the strangest looking fruits. You’ll know when you’ve spotted them in the market because the appearance is more similar to a multicolored nerf ball, than the juicy fruit you’d expect.
Once the colors on the outside nodes of the rambutan begin to dim, the fruit has started to rapidly ripen. When you’re shopping in Bangkok’s markets, grab the brightest ones and gently squeeze, pulling from both sides until the hull splits somewhere in the middle.
When you enjoy the fruit, be sure to be careful of the scratchy seed on the inside which can pull away with the flesh of fruit and be unpleasant to eat. Buy $3 of this fruit and you may already have more than you can carry!
Mango needs no introduction. The tropical delicacy is idolized in places whose frigid climates could never support their cultivation. Many of our guests also complain that where they live the quality of the imported mangoes isn’t high and they can be bland or difficult to eat.
In Thailand, there are more than 200 hundred types of mangoes. Thais eat them both green, sour, crunchy, and unripe, as well as sweet, succulent, and ripe and juicy. With quality mangoes going for $1-$2 per kilo, this splurge is definitely in your budget when you visit the local Thai market.
Think of this as a jumbo, bland kiwi. You don’t really get the idea behind the name unless you see them when they’re small at the end of their stems, over looking the rest of the plant with its unique dragon-resembling shape. These fruits are best served chilled and should be mildly sweet. In other countries they can be downright bland, so you can also jazz them up with a simple squeeze of lime.
The Best Bangkok Markets to Visit:
Where are the best places to try fruit in Bangkok? Here’s a short list you should add to you itinerary if you’re staying near them on your visit. If not, dig around for the nearest fresh market near your hotel or airbnb, and you should still be able to find an abundance of fresh fruit for cheap!
Or Tor Kor Market
Easily on of Bangkok’s nicest markets, the well lit and organized spot, offers a soft landing to tourists. When you visit, you won’t be able to miss the large corridor where many of the vendors are selling fruit, but look around other spots in the market to spot the odd fruit vendor as well. Don’t forget to stop in the Royal Project Shop on the premises for organic produce as well.
Reach Or Tor Kor Market on public transportation, using the MRT Kampaengphet and BTS Mor Chit Stations. Open 8am-6pm, daily.
Khlong Toey Market
The largest and craziest of Bangkok’s markets, is located quite near the city center. The key to this market having so many ingredients is the strategic location of the nearby ports. If you visit the market above to ease into Bangkok, you visit this market to fully experience the chaos and calamity that a busy Thai market can offer. Renovations have made finding your way around the market easier, but don’t underestimate the crowd, and be aware of vendors who may not like you photographing or touching fruit that you don’t intend to buy.
The closest public transportation to Khlong Toey Market, is the Queen Sirikit MRT Station. Open daily, 24 hours, but for the best produce visit early morning.
Walk through aisles and aisles of fruit in Samrong market, which is easily accessible by skytrain for people living in Eastern Bangkok. The large and stretching market has large fruit vendors, but be on the lookout for the mom and pop vendors who may sell more exotic fruit than what you can source from industrial farms.
Conveniently, the expansive Samrong Market is located just a short walk from the BTS Skytrain Samrong Station. Open 6am-8pm, daily.
8 Tips for Enjoying Thai Fruit
Enjoy with friends – With the fruit so cheap and abundant, you’ll want some friends for backup while enjoying these healthy and delicious treats. A few dollars in Thailand can buy more fruit than you may be able to carry alone.
Peel fruit like a local – If you have a Thai friend, bring them along for your market adventure. Be sure to follow their instructions on how to open your fruit, to keep from getting it all over your clothes! For jumbo fruit like jackfruit and durian, leave it to the local experts, please.
If it’s funky, spit it out – Just like tasting fruit anywhere, occasionally some of the fruit has spoiled or gone bad. If you detect any sores or discoloration on the fruit, or odd smells and tastes, don’t feel pressured to consume it.
If exposed, wash it – Just like you would at home, you want to wash any fruit with edible or porous skin. For fruits with a significant husk, be on the lookout for other pests like ants that may be on the outside, and rinse away dirt to keep in from contaminating other parts of the fruit when peeling.
Be adventurous – Be brave! If the fruit in front of you doesn’t look like something you would normally love, try it anyway. Don’t like the first bite of durian? Try another bite. This isn’t to contradict advice about safety, but to remind you that you have to be adventurous to make the most of the wide range of exotic Thai fruit.
When possible, enjoy chilled – Bangkok is hot and the markets are our favorite places, but they can become sweltering as well. Stay hydrated, and get that fruit back to your fridge where you can chill it and enjoy it even more.
Store properly – If you’re buying fruit you expect to ripen over a few days, take the advice of the vendors on how to store it. For proper maturation, many fruits do not need to be refrigerated. Others, however, may spoil before you have a chance to eat them, if not properly stored.
Dip to enhance flavor – We recommend for your first time trying fruit on its own. However, many Thais enjoy their fruit with tangy, spicy, or sweet condiment sauces. These may range from a fishy sauce for dipping sour mangoes, to sugar-chili mixes for enjoying popular fruit like guava, rose apple, and pineapple.
Consider this a beginner’s guide to a few Thai fruit! There is much more to discover when you’re in Thailand, and we hope this article has helped to stoke your appetite for fruit and foodie adventures.
We’re proud to announce our Bangkok cooking classes have banned the use of single use plastic. Thailand is among the worst plastic polluters in the world, and we hope being the first cooking class to go plastic free will challenge other businesses and people to do the same.
The signs of global climate change can be felt in Bangkok. The temperatures are rising, the city is sinking, and flooding becomes worse every year. The climate crisis is just the backdrop to a culture wide preference for cheap plastics used for on the go food, especially street food, of which Bangkok is known world wide. In fact, we’re still recovering from our cooking class space being flooded last month. This is a problem that can feel overwhelming, so the key is making small changes that can empower us to rethink our impact, and inspire others at the same time.
It started with straws…
We have been weening off of single use plastic for the past year. If you’ve attended our class then you know, we’ve never served plastic straws since our cooking classes started in 2017. Instead guests drink their cooling herbal teas through morning glory (a water spinach that has mostly hollow stems) straws that we provide. They’re not only a better alternative than plastic straws, but have a better mouthfeel than the metal ones, and can be stir fried or thrown in a soup in a pinch. The edible straws have gotten good feedback from our guests as well, and we’ve been building off of this enthusiasm in our war on plastic. We’ve even been bringing our green straws to teach about sustainability in Bangkok’s international schools.
From straws we moved to bowls, probably the most important plate-ware in a Thai household. Here we use a variety of solutions from plain ol’ regular bowls to biodegradable palm wood bowls, and as often as possible plating your food in a natural bowl. This means that pineapple fried rice is served in, well, a pineapple. Your pomelo salad? Dished up in the beautiful carved pomelo bowl. From everything we’ve observed, Thai culture already has the local knowledge to use less plastic. Part of our job is recognizing this wisdom, and turning back the clock to bring some of these trends, such as cooking and packaging food in banana leaves, to our classes and outreach.
There are challenges to going green…
One misconception is about what we mean by refusing to use single use plastic products. We don’t want anyone to think you’ll come to our class and won’t see any plastic present. We do still use reusable plastic containers and plates, as many of the alternatives are considerably more expensive. This is something we want to be transparent about, because ‘plastic free’ seems to mean different things to different people. We’re anti single use plastic and strive not to even accept plastic or styrofoam from vendors in the local market. This means even on our street food tour in Bangkok, you’ll catch our staff bringing our own containers and silverware for you to use to eat!
Also, for many restaurants and food providers like us, there are real food safety concerns when switching from plastic. For example, how do you naturally clean your morning glory straws before giving them to people? These are real challenges we have to spend energy on remedying, and training our staff as we abandon plastic. The hardest thing to give up? Plastic wrap and plastic gloves! We don’t want not using them to increase the chances someone will become sick from what we’re serving. This means being thoughtful about preparing for each class, and making sure our entire team is cognizant about food safety concerns that come along with these changes.
Our mission to be more environmentally friendly isn’t over. We’re learning, growing more of our own food, and doing our best to share what we learn as well. Let’s all strive to do better together!
The creators of the Netflix show Chef’s Table will soon debut a series dedicated to Asia’s heroes of street food to the network. When guests on our own street food tour first mentioned this show’s upcoming launch, it was hard not to feel excitement followed swiftly by— well duh, about time!
Watch the trailer for the show, which promises to take viewers to 9 destinations in search of Asia’s best street food.
Judging by the trailer this should soon be one of Netflix’s most successful food shows yet, and foodies will have a snack ready to watch when it becomes available April 26th. Short of rewatching earlier episodes of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown, there is a serious gap between documentary style food shows, and travel shows with cursory discussion of food. We hope Street Food, even if the show is set to the pace of Chef’s Table, will usher in more interesting content about delicious, approachable food.
Let’s be clear though, to be successful the show has to navigate beyond the pure novelty of street food and actually tell people’s stories. The promise to “Meet the Local Heroes” is the most promising aspect of the coming show— well, that and the youtube trailer subliminally suggests we should all be eating more chili crab at least 3-4 times. Cravings aside, food is the access point for better understanding a hardworking group of courageous folks who hit the streets without any of the investment, resources, and even the legal status traditional businesses enjoy.
Future seasons will also have to answer for the first criticism to be leveled at the trailer — hey where the heck is Malaysia? Viewers quickly noticed that the Chef’s Table team is definitely missing an episode featuring Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur’s (or more casually known as KL) absence definitely feels like a snub, but we’re confident the show will get there. Hopefully along with a few more eating trips to show off more of the culinary scenes in Japan, India, and, fingers crossed, Thailand too.
Hunting some scenes to savor until Street Food launches? Here’s the most notable mentions of Thai food on Netflix. You’ll certainly see why we’re craving more:
Parts Unknown – S03E07
Somebody Feed Phil – Episode 1
Chef’s Table – Bo.lan Feature S05E03
Here’s the 9 cities where the Chef’s Table film crew ended up eating for the first season of Street Food:
Jay Fai (Michelin starred crab omelet, tom yum soup, drunken noodles), Khun Suthep (hand-pulled BBQ pork noodles) & Jek Pui (khao gaeng curries)
Toyo (tuna cooked with a blowtorch), Mr. Kita (takoyaki), &Goshi (okonomiyaki)
Since we launched our social enterprise in 2017, our main business efforts have centered around giving our visitors great cooking classes. When we’re speaking to schools or promoting our efforts in the US, we point to the smiley photos of guests with smoking hot plates of pad thai, as a symbol of our efforts. But making your Thai favorites in our cooking class is NOT the only way travelers to Bangkok are supporting the Courageous Kitchen. In fact, more and more people are beginning to discover our tours and community work because of our obsession with Thailand’s street food.
Experience from years in Bangkok hunting great street food and restaurants was channeled into our tour Street Food 101 in late 2017. We’ve pushed the goal of the tour beyond overstuffing you with tasty Thai treats (which is definitely a major part of the plan), to introducing you how to navigate the amazing and intimidating hawker fare available in the main streets and back alleys all over the city. This doen’t just begin when the tour starts, but guests can even download our street food pocket guide to begin studying in advance for our crash course in street food mastery.
Still we didn’t expect the tour to become popular. But with nearly zero promotion, people hunting a unique street food experience began finding us. This always comes as a surprise because the tour description is written in a way as to turn away many of people reading. With only a few seats available on the tour each week, we want to make sure we’re attracting adventurous eaters who’ll make the most of the chance to feast on authentic, and often terrifically spicy street food fare. For a tour of Bangkok’s Chinatown or for a more general survey of popular street food, we’re happy to point people to another company instead.
The controversy surrounding Thailand’s street food bans, and Michelin stars being dished out to such low key eateries in Bangkok, must have also helped propel travelers’ curiosity because we have been busy. What else could explain our local newspaper mention below, sent by a family from South Africa?
We’re still incredulous!
“You’ll end up having a better understanding of why Bangkok is considered one of the top street food cities in the world…”
Through word of mouth or social media, so many of you found us online, that midway through 2018, the cooking class and street food tours were starting to provide a significant amount of fundraising for the families we help. This has meant more budget for kids cooking classes, and being able to distribute rice and other staples to families in need.
For now atleast, our cooking classes are still our most popular activity. But don’t be surprised if you began to hear more about our street food exploits. We know that impacting our local community by serving people in need, and encouraging our guests to become better travelers, is what truly makes this unique experience a fully flavored food tour, and we hope to share it with more of you in 2019.
PS – Special thanks to Karin and family for finding, scanning, and sharing this article with us!
Dwight is the director of Courageous Kitchen, and loves sharing his passion for food with new people.
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.