I still remember the faces of my Japanese friends when they slurped into the spicy, sour, and herbal fragrant soup of tom yum and some other ubiquitous Thai dishes for the first time. I was perhaps in my senior year and thick in excitement for joining series of cultural-exchange programs at the Bangkok YMCA. It was then, at around the age of 19, that I learnt how Thai food, which I grew up eating and thinking nothing of, can be out-of-this-world experiences to those who are from other places. It was a mixture of joy, pride and pleasure when I saw those faces deep in thought, brows creased and furrowed, trying to figure out the explosion of flavours, pinpointing the particular stems of roots in their bowl, furiously fanning their lips, begging for water. And recently, I got a chance to have that kind of fun again. This time, she is a journalist from Chile’s main newspaper, and she was looking for Bangkok’s famous street food (of course) and we got to walk the streets, yes, for her scoops.
Above: Chinatown on Monday with durian pushcart freshly peeling their fare for tourists.
As you might have already heard. Bangkok has been trying to ‘organize’ our indigenous street food for years (since perhaps 2014) and now many areas such as Sukhumvit 38, Ekkamai, Ramkamhaeng, Victory Monument etc… have already been cleared. We got our footpaths back, but thousands of vendors had vanished. There is no supporting plans that I heard of. No proper food hawker centers (as in Singapore) have been mentioned to be built. Nothing to help both those who need cheap daily eats and those who make a living out of it. Ask me, and I’d say this is typical for Thailand. Good policies, but hell with directions.
Chinatown Bangkok is still one of the few remaining areas that you can still find good-old clusters of street food. Every day, except for Mondays, Chinatown is still packed with their signature pushcarts. Only during nighttime, though. But Monday when we were there, most vendors are off, except for some with supporting shophouses of their own that they could sell from the inside.
I do support the street food regulation. I want my footpaths clean, to be able to walk on them without having to duck my heads precariously through their dusty and sloping umbrellas. I want the sewage clean and I dread thinking how most, if not all, vendors opt for convenience and selfishness by dumping everything into the storm drains. In a nutshell, I want my footpaths back, my Bangkok clean and all the available civilization.
But I also want the street food not just to survive, but also to thrive and become hygienic enough for people to actually enjoy and depend on without getting sick. I want it to be not just a colourful photo opt for tourists, but a real living culture for middle class for the long future. Personally, I am not a fan of eating off the streets, inhaling the car fume, and trusting the food cooked by vendors who do not even care to take note on cleanliness. The flies are everywhere. Basic sanitary non existent.
This is my question. Can we be honest and sincere to each other to actually materialize good and sustainable measures for our foods to be safe, clean and affordable, especially for those who rely on them every single day? Along my sometimes area of Langsuan where a few permanent street food vendors are still around, I was looking for breakfast one day. Grilled chicken so garlic-cilatro-pepper aromatic and sticky rice steaming and warm from the pot looked darn tempting. But then there are flies, giant fat flies, not one, not two, not three, but I could, even at a panic glance, count four, five and more, landed right there on the pieces of chickens I was about to pick, pay and savour. So, nope, the Jap convenient joint nearby, despite their blander choices, was my go-to instead. And what about the uncontrolled, unmonitored personal hygiene of the vendors? Who know where those hands had wandered before they were touching your food? And don’t get me started on their procedures of basic yet very opaque at best cleaning of the ingredients and all. I seriously doubt that those, I mean cleaning, would be a case at all.
So, here are a few tips for those who really want to try street foods in Bangkok. Go for hot food. Noodles, freshly-cooked dishes should be safer. Choose food that is nicely covered. Curry in a pot, glass cabinet if possible for cooked food, or steamers with lids on. Clean carts, if you can. Clean and neat looking vendors (despite the sweat), if you can. Avoid shellfishes, raw or half-cooked stuff. Oh I know I sound like a boring aunty, but you are responsible for yourself.
So, back to the Chinatown. It was a Monday night and the streets that should have been crazily bustling with vendors dropped to an eery quiet. This is only because now the BMA imposes a regulation that there must be no food on the street here every Monday. That’s all. But the two famous – always contending – seafood vendors (the green and red corners) are still selling. But completely tucked away in their own shophouses. That they do have their own shophouses is a news to me. The green one might have a slight advantage for their storefront fortunately lines the street. But again, you can browse for the food, the price and decide for yourself.
Above is the famous ‘Guay Chab Nai Uan’ known for his super peppery soup. Guay Chab is rolled rice noodle. Very old-school Chinese soup with pork slices, crispy pork belly and pork organs. The line is long, but the brisk management helps. The venue is inside an old (and dusty or classic you name it) cinema. But does it look good in photo? Damn yes. The taste, ok, if not to look around and overthink things. The boss here is still working the cart which for me is pretty awesome.
Above: Guay Chab – rolled rice noodle in clear soup with only crispy pork belly. I am not into organs and others. Taste, ok, with the super peppery soup adding to the already streaming-down-the-spine kinda sweats. (Bt50/normal bowl above)
Above: Moo Krob – crispy pork belly traditionally served with dark sweet soy sauce. (Bt100)
Above: The queue is long for this one and still packed with locals. Which, as always, is a good sign.
Muriel is the reason we got to try this world-famous ‘street food’ queen of Bangkok – Jay Fai. This is a one-star Michelin restaurant, no less. And that I guess is the whole reason people from all over the world keep flocking her restaurant. The walk-in queue even on a Tuesday daytime is hours-to-indefinitely long. Muriel got us a table fast because she was wise enough to email and reserve one (and miraculously received the confirmation) at 14.30.
Eating at Jay Fai makes me wonder, yet again, about the recipes for success in the highly competitive restaurant business. Good, tasty, reasonably food seem to cover the basics. People will definitely go and go back to those kind of reliable and affordable and delicious restaurants. But here, with the crabmeat omelet at Bt1,000, seafood tom yum at Bt800, rice topped with seafood with toasted chili paste Bt500 and a plate of chicken basil rice and egg (krapraw gai kai dao) at Bt220, the prices that will still keep people hesitating to pay even for a quasi fine-dining restaurant, I just have no idea what is going on.
So, I will use the same theory that my Singaporean friend applied to me when I was queuing up – amidst throngs of tourists from around the world – for the ‘famous’ Tien Tien Chicken Rice at one of their properly managed and monitored food hawker centers.
“How many Singaporean you see queuing for this place?,” he asked pointedly with a desperate frustration, hands-throwing-up-in-complete-surrender after failing not once but twice to persuade me to go to other places for a much more delicious Singapore famous chicken rice. “Look around,” he was now air-jabbing his chubby index around in a real angry mode. “Is there any local standing here? At all?”
my story on eater.com ‘The 38 Essential Bangkok Restaurants.”
Above: Jay Fai’s corner shophouse with the side alley turned into her charcoal-fired stoves and cooking corner.
Above: Her world-famous crabmeat omelet. Bt1,000.
Above: Seafood tom yum, Bt800.
Above: left: seafood toasted chili paste on rice Bt500, right: chicken basil rice with rice Bt220.
Above: The price for Jay Fai experience. Thank you Muriel.