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’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!
For all of our guests joining in on our Bangkok classes this coming April, we’re proud to announce a special menu!
Songkran is one of Thailand’s most famous holidays, especially for locals. When the heat of the Thai summer is in full swing, people come out to celebrate Thai New Year and the harvest season with great food, drink, and giant water fights! The holiday lasts for several days, so during this time people usually make the migration back to their hometowns in the provinces to be with family. If you’re visiting Bangkok, during this time we’d also like for you to get a taste of the Songkran celebration.
The Songkran in the Countryside menu is as follows:
Soothing Jungle Soup with Pumpkin and Mushroom
Papaya Salad Sans Papaya with Traditional Herbal Thai Whisky Tasting (optional)
Choice of Glazed Pork Neck or Banana Leaf Steamed Fish with Fresh ‘Jaew’ Dipping Sauce
Dok Jok Lotus Cookies and Ice Cream topped with Crispy Mung Beans
Fresh Fruit from the Local Market
The festival with origins in India aims to celebrate the harvest season and inaugurate the start of the rainy season. Traditionally this is an extremely important time for people around the country, especially in the rural Northeast. Issan, pronounced ‘e-san’, Thailand’s poorest region is often where people forsake village life to earn money living and working in Bangkok. The five course menu pays homage to the people of the Northeast, while giving you a chance to experience a taste of these special provincial dishes. This experience is especially recommended for people who may already be familiar with the typical Thai dishes you see repeated daily in the average cooking classes in Bangkok. That means if you want to go deeper than pad thai and green curry, this is the perfect time of year to try cooking some new dishes with us!
Read These FAQs to Be Prepared for Songkran
When is the 2018 Songkran Festival happening? Friday, April 13th – Monday, April 16th in most places. However, some cities may have their own dates.
Should I be prepared to get wet and splashed by strangers? Yes. When we visit the market in the morning, many of the market goers, people in the street, and even cars going by may be splashing water.
What items should I bring with me? We keep towels available, but you may want to bring along dry clothing if you’d like to change after visiting the market. We have a dry bag where you can safely keep your cell phone or other important small items. If you have a water gun, bring it! Most importantly bring a sense of adventure and your appetite and it should be a fun, festive, and wet time for everyone involved.
Is Songkran a safe holiday? Motor accidents, especially due to drunk driving make Songkran a dangerous holiday. You should avoid riding motorbikes, and wear your seatbelt when traveling. If joining large events happening in Bangkok, avoid taking valuables to prevent petty thefts and them getting ruined by water. We hope you come and enjoy Songkran without incident, but consider it our responsibility to inform of some dangers associated with the festival.
Should I book in advance? For the best experience, we do recommend booking in advance. Since we prefer to do small classes, the spaces can fill up quickly. If our morning 10am class is full, we may give you the option to come during our 2pm session. We will also be running our evening kids dinner and demo classes during this period.
Can I request a different menu? If you would like to cook more classic Thai dishes, hilltribe or other menu theme, please let us know in advance and we’ll try to adjust accordingly. Please message us with other special requests, but due to the amount of interest during this time of year, we may not be able to honor every request.
This past weekend we had a very special activity for our junior chefs, our Courageous kids aged 11-14. This is a special age group because they have been watching their older brothers and sisters in the kitchen for several years now and helping in small ways. In 2018 however, we’re pivoting to focus on this age group more, and really working on building their skills and confidence.
This past weekend we jumped into Thailand’s most famous flower market, the Pak Khlong Market. In the Yodpiman building there, we met friends at a company called Expique who run several different types of cooking classes known as The Market Experience. The fun Thai food they create is not unlike what we cook in a typical Saturday in the Courageous Kitchen, but by pulling these students away, we gave them an opportunity to shine without pressure from their older brothers and sisters. In addition to this freedom, they also had a chance to explore the market, learning about it’s rich history and of course, having a plenty of small treats along the way.
After the students toured the market, the washed up and got ready to get their hands messy in the kitchen. The Expique staff was great with the students, watching carefully as they used adult sized knives, and helping the group prepare their ingredients for three dishes with precision. The excitement was palatable as the students rushed to answer the questions from our hosts, and experienced some new methods of preparing their minced pork larb, green curry with chicken, and shrimp pad thai.
At the end of the class, the students were beyond thankful for the opportunity. They went around the room (not without some prodding), sharing what they enjoyed about they class and expressing their gratitude to Simon, Alyssa, and the whole team of Thai teachers.
The day was a special one as the group was not without it’s kids who have persisted through extraordinary challenges in their lives. One young boy with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis in his knee had so much fun, he didn’t notice how long he had been standing. Another girl, who’s family had spent time in immigration, loved the outing and voted with a few of her friends to go swimming during the next school holiday. These are just a few stories of triumph over adversity the kids in the group, and seeing how far they’ve come, made us anxious to see what mountains they will move next!
Today we’d like to share a simple and delicious recipe with all of our supporters. If you watch the video below you catch our students making a big pot of the spicy, satisfying tom yum soup with chicken. Then continue to read below for all the details on how to make this recipe at home. We’ve even included a few frequently asked questions at the bottom, to be sure you’re confident when cooking this homestyle soup for your friends and family.
This recipe serves 1-2 people, but if you have all your aromatics on hand, it’s easy to make a much larger pot like the one seen in recipe video above. Preparation time is typically 15-20 minutes, while your cooking time can be as quick as 10 minutes.
2-3 Tbsp of fish sauce
Juice from 1 lime
2-3 Tsp of palm sugar
1-2 Tbsp of Thai chili jam
500ml of Water
4-6 Oyster Mushrooms
2-3 Bird’s eye chili
1/2 Beef tomato quartered
1/4 of a roughly chopped white onion
100g of sliced chicken breast
5-6 Cilantro leaves for garnish
1. Prepare your aromatics. Smack your kaffir lime and tear it, being carful not to remove the leaves from the stem. Pound your lemongrass stalk and tie it in a knot. Cut your galangal root into large slices. For the best final result you want to keep these aromatics large and easily visible (avoid chopping small), because although they are used for their aroma and flavor, they are not typically consumed with the rest of the soup.
2. Roughly chop 2-3 chilies for an average level of spicy. You can chop the chili more finely or add more if you prefer your soup extra spicy.
3. Cut your lime in sections by moving your knife around the core. This will help you remove the seeds more easily. You can also tilt your knife down into a bowl and use the blunt side of your knife for squeezing the lime without making it too messy.
1. Bring your water to a boil in small pot and immediately add your aromatics. Cook a few minutes until fragrant.
2. Add your chicken breast and after it cooks, your onion, tomato, chili, and mushrooms.
3. Let the soup lightly boil uncovered as the vegetables soften, while adding your fish sauce, chili jam, and palm sugar.
4. Taste your soup for saltiness and sweetness.
5. If you are satisfied, remove from heat and add lime juice (remember adding lime too soon can cause the juice to become bitter).
6. Serve in a bowl and garnish with cilantro leaves.
7. Remember you can remove the hard to eat aromatics (galangal slices, lemongrass, and kaffir leaves) before serving or remind guests not to eat them.
Frequently Asked Tom Yum Recipe Questions:
1. Why don’t you add coconut milk to your tom yum soup?
CK: Tom yum has a sibling soup called ‘tom kha’ which is made with coconut milk. The creamy coconut milk is a good match for the spice and a better menu option for people sensitive to the heat from Thai chilies. The confusion comes because some restaurants do a version of tom yum called ‘nam khon’ where they top the soup of with evaporated milk. This is especially common in Bangkok and at wester restaurants abroad. The milk adds a creaminess to the soup without changing the flavor like the coconut milk can, however, many people mistake this for coconut milk.
2. Can I use other mushrooms or forego the chicken altogether?
CK: If you would prefer to make a vegetarian version of this dish you can! The meaty, buttery mushrooms work best. For example, we often mix oyster mushroom with straw, shimeji, and even the small stringy enoki mushrooms. In general most mushrooms will work, however, you may want to limit your portion if you’re using really bulky mushrooms, such as portobello. To completely make this recipe vegetarian you should substitute white salt for fish sauce, and buy or make a vegetarian chili jam.
3. What is the Thai chili jam (nam prik pow) used in the recipe?
CK: An essential ingredient in tom yum, Thai chili jam is not an ingredient many people are familiar with using. The jam is typically made by reducing dried chili with fish sauce, palm sugar, and shallots. A litany of other ingredients are added in homemade recipes and they tend to be more intensely spicy, and less sweet than the ones commonly sold in Asian supermarkets. We often make our own veg and vegan versions for our cooking class guests with special dietary needs.