If food was ever so integrated into a nations identity then it’s most visible in Thailand. Food carts, hawkers and local eateries are the mortar that binds Thailand together, to walk through local areas in Bangkok or rural food markets is to immerse yourself in smells and sights of Thai cuisine.
Thais are always eating, no matter where you look food is literally everywhere. Those who have lived in Thailand know the experience of chilli eyes – the steam that comes of a hot wok when crushed chilli hits the smoking hot iron. It’s potent, eye watering stuff that represents the beginning of so many Thai meals. It’s these smells and sights that make eating in Thailand so special, it’s fully immersive and your always included weather you like it or not.
THAI FOOD MAKES YOU BRAVE
You awkwardly try positioning yourself to look less sweaty while waiting at the local somtum stall. This place is super famous with a bustling line that’s stretched around the corner, its midday and the humidity is almost unbearable. You turn around scanning the crowd for more suffering faces to sympathize with but realize you’re the only one sweating. A lone foreigner in a sea of smiling, sweat free Thai faces, office workers and locals waiting for their lunch.
Finally, you arrive at the front of the line, now it’s decision time. As you waited the smokey, charred smell of grilled pork had you salivating, your expectations rising with every sweaty shuffle forward. Finally, you see the, huh? Flies! So many flies! The 7-eleven bag spinning on a small motor above the raw pork seems to be gently reliving the feasting flies from the humidity. Ok, try to ignore this and let’s look at the other lady sitting on the floor with a cat carefully marinating the next batch of pork. Is she smoking? Why no gloves? Is that where they wash the dishes? Is the water brown?? Why is nothing chilled? Am I the only one who can see all the flies? Whose cat is that anyway?
Sure, we all understand basic hygiene principals, everything is systematic, sterilised, refrigerated and recognisable. Its considered normal with the assumption that everyone follows and understands these rules, if not you will get sick or worse. Well in life it’s just not true and in Thailand there is a lot of grey area in such cases. At first your hesitant, selective and worried but a week’s/months later your sitting on a plastic chair eating the most delicious grilled pork you ever tasted from the ladies I described above. You need to understand that Thai people know what they are doing and have been doing it for years, if too many people got sick the vendor would be out of business the next week. Reputation of the local street vendors in everything as there is so much choice. Of course some are only for Farangs and have prices that reflect this while others are the regular meals of the local population.
All that said your bravery should be connected to some line of rational thinking. Street food is not restaurant food, it designed to be sold quickly and sold out every day. Look for the busy vendors, they are successful for a reason while it also means the food is constantly fresh, even if it’s not refrigerated. Look for vendors who specialize in only a few dishes or single items, nothing is scarier than a big menu especially on the street.
WHAT DO I KNOW?
Thailand’s visitors always look back reminiscing on the delicious, abundant, powerful and sometimes scary food experiences in the land of smiles. It’s also important to understand that Thai food only tastes perfect in Thailand, the products especially fresh herbs are invaluable recourses for creating that impactful Thai taste. Not only the herbs but the freshness and quality is key. For example one of my Thai friends taught me that once you pick Krapow (holy Basil) it can’t be stored in the fridge or kept for more than 1 day as the flavor is lost. Thai flavors are intense but the balance is subtle and completely product driven, you can source Thai curry paste anywhere is the word but it won’t compare to the wet markets in Bangkok.
Thais are shamelessly guilty of toning down their own food, making it more “international” to appease the masses. Especially in high density tourist locations where they rely on this income to survive. With this is mind there is a lot of bad Thai food posing as authentic experiences, in some ways the tourism that fuels the Thai economy is the biggest threat to the nation’s food identity.
The willingness to accommodate is second nature for Thai people, avoid confrontation at all cost and why not if someone else paying. Give me a stubborn southern Thai lady who only makes the same soup every day and yells at her customers like they are naughty grandchildren. Something’s can’t be changed to often otherwise eventually they will be forgotten, many condiments in Thai cookery have slowly been replace with mass produced store-bought options. Everyone is adding to the same base flavor rather than creating your own.
IT’S A FOODIES PARADISE
Thailand offers so much more than Phad Thai and Tom Yum Goong, more specifically Bangkok itself is a foodies mecca. In my opinion Bangkok is one the world’s greatest food cities. It’s the underdog, often overlooked when compared with its bigger, fancier brothers in Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo. Bangkok always does things at its own pace, it’s impossible to rush Thai people and it’s just not the Thai way. For all the talk of efficiency and productivity in Asia’s other capitals Thailand equals this with creativity, care and genuine love for hospitality
Bangkok made German food cool…that’s not a typo, I said German! The hypnotically identical Suhring twins Thomas and Mathias were awarded 2 Michelin stars in as many years. The twins who are possibly the nicest guys you will ever meet serve inspired, modern German cuisine. Their style oozes so much class and finesse that even non-believers will be converted.
Bangkok taught us that Indian cuisine can reign supreme after Gaggan’s contemporary Indian restaurant won the best Restaurant in Asia a record 4 consecutive years in a row. Gaggan’s success was first met with disbelief that grew into a cult like following and a fully booked restaurant months in advance for years to follow.
Thailand made us fall in love with traditional Neapolitan pizza. Specifically, Peppina’s original location on Sukumvit Soi 33 in Bangkok where you still find Chef Paolo not far from the fire. Peppina sets the stage for authenticity strictly adhering to the Associazione Verace Pizza Neapolitan regulations, while promoting and protect the heritage of Neapolitan pizza worldwide.
Bangkok is all grown-up, fully evolved and already out-shining its expensive Asian Neighbors. Enjoy your Phad Thai of course but don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s the pinnacle of what Bangkok has to offer.
Thai food addiction is the leading cause loneliness and severe depression in Thai students and expats living abroad. A person suffering from Thai food addictions often displays the following symptoms – adding chili to everything, food in general being bland, short temper, home experiments at fermenting fish, a never-ending search for green papaya and hoarding Mama Noodles like the apocalypse is coming.
For most Thais there is nothing to compare with or replace Thai food, full stop. While many cultures are open to all kinds of flavor pallets Thai are very singular when it comes to food. We just assume because their food seems adventurous to us they must be super adventurous foodies, well I’m sorry but in general they are not.
Young Thai chefs will smile politely when eating the subtler western dishes saying “hmmmm, its delicious chef” but all they really want to do is add Nam Jim Talay (seafood sauce) or Nam Jim Jaew (spicy tamarind sauce). It’s not their fault, they were saturated in flavor from around the time they could walk, when you were slurping spaghetti Bolognese they were enjoying Pad Krapow loaded with garlic, chili and fresh herbs. It’s these early food experiences that set the stage for our most desirable dishes and flavor expectations. It’s for the same reason that everyone’s mother makes the best version of something, even if only in their children’s eyes….or stomachs.
After leaving Thailand I finally understood what Thai people go though, I miss the intensity, I miss the fresh herbs bursting with flavour and most of all I miss the burning heat. I can appreciate the subtle balance of Cantonese cuisine in Hong Kong but after several years in Thailand it honestly just tastes bland.
Sitting her finishing this article in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic that’s sweeping the World, it also fills me with a deep sadness. Not only the horrific loss of life around the world but also the small business and street vendors in Thailand, especially Bangkok that will not survive this. I can tell you know i will be one of the 1st to return once it’s safe to travel to spend money and support the country & people I have come love.