Today, we out ourselves: we’re scared to eat street food in Thailand. Prudent or scaredy-cat? A spell of developing-world-dysentery (not in Thailand) put training wheels on edible exploration. Since then, besides pancakes, noodles and mango-sticky-rice, we’ve never had a bite of real Thai street food. Until now.
‘Thailand’s Best Street Food’ – Book review
You’ll love this book if…
1. You want to try everything – once you know what’s safe
2. You want to find Thailand’s best street food – immediately
3. You’re spending any amount of time in Bangkok or Chiang Mai
When her publisher kindly asked us to review the book, they couldn’t have known just how well we fit its target audience: “Street food newbies” who’d love to enjoy this “huge part of Thai dining culture”, but need a little hand-holding to get started. The author knows where to find us – and insists there’s “no need to cower in one’s hotel coffee shop”. Busted.
“Chawadee, we’re greedy people. Really – we want to eat it all.
We try our best to be adventurous in other ways …
it’s just … we’re scared of germs.”
The author understands – she’s been there. Thai-American Nualkhair moved to Bangkok twenty years ago and recalls the intimidation she felt when she “contemplated buying a street food meal on her own”. Luckily she persevered. Today, her expertise will help you dig into Thai street food safely, and with confidence. You’ll learn where to eat, and exactly what (and how) to order.
How to eat Thai street food safely? The first page addresses this primary concern. You’re offered tips for choosing a vendor and, in Bangkok, learn the health inspection badge to look for. As for the author’s own recommendations, she includes only long-standing vendors (a few of whom are second- and third-generation) with very high turnover (so ingredients are fresh). Another tip we spotted in an author interview:
“If the condiment tray is clean, the food will be clean.”
If you’re a truly timid street food beginner (no judgment from us), start at the noodle place with “unquestionably hygienic surroundings” that’s within the Bangkok Hospital compound.
What’s to eat, and where? Ok, so what have we been missing? The book starts with a crash-course in what’s out there, waiting to be eaten. Amongst these: noodle and rice dishes, appetisers, snacks, desserts and drinks.
Penny-what juice? As a hint at just how much you’ve never tried – juice varieties include pennywort juice, pandanus leaf juice, pickled plum juice and butterfly pea juice* (which is apparently a dark purple juice and therefore probably very good for you) – seen any of them at Whole Foods?
Using the book to explore Thai street food
Regional Thai street food? Turns out, there’s huge regional variation – and you immediately learn the differences between Bangkok and northern Thailand’s street food in terms of flavours and ingredients. Find out what you’re missing and it’s reason alone to head north. Let’s eat!
Bangkok and Chiang Mai: The book covers Bangkok and northern Thailand in particular, with slim Phuket and Hua Hin coverage as well. Its Bangkok and Chiang Mai details are such that we recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone going to either city for any length of time – whether days, months or years.
Why you’ll find the book useful: It’s as suited to backpackers on a budget as it is to foodies and expats living in Thailand. There’s enough range and content to take ages to try everything or, with very little time, you can find the best immediately (Bangkok has an “estimated 500,000 street food stalls” – let someone else do the legwork!). With no question or worry, you’ll find Bangkok’s best stuffed flat noodles – instantly (and for THB 35, approx. US $1). A glossary helpfully lists stalls by food type – whatever you’re craving, you’ll find it right away.
Each street food recommendation includes the following:
#1. Fantastic maps: It’s very easy to coordinate a street food meal with nearby sightseeing.
#2. Its exact location: a map, its address and helpful directions (“in front of the Seiko watch shop”), plus photos and its name in Thai if you need even more help.
#3. Opening times (which are are rarely standard – see the fried chicken place that operates from midnight to 5 am)
#4. Prices of the main or most popular dishes, plus recommended options, extras or toppings, the drinks available (and their cost).
#5. What to expect: Find out whether to expect seating, tissues, and what the ‘plumbed facilities’ constitute (if available): “Western toilet, no paper”.
#6. Personnel heads-up: You even get advanced knowledge about the owners’ personalities – who’s “no nonsense”, where to expect “grumpy faces” or even “taciturn, frequently disgruntled” service. Only you will meet the three Thai people who don’t smile – bag the hat trick!
#7. Plus extra tips: Where to sit (where applicable, you’re told to sit near the chef, or away from the extra-steamy frying station) and what’s on the table (the mystery bottle of black stuff? It’s ‘zisho’, Chinese black vinegar).
It’s hand-holding, but it’s appreciated – these are the ‘scary unknowns’ that would keep many inside their hotel or leave others culture-shocked and traumatised. Throughout, good photos showcase an authentic bowl/dish/product – it looks honest-to-goodness delicious with no signs of excessive food styling.
Thailand’s Best Street Food: The best bits
Funny, relatable, readable: When the book arrived we sat down, expecting to have a preliminary skim-through. Instead, we read it cover-to-cover in one fascinating sitting – it’s funny, relatable, readable and – sorry Nancy Chandler – has jumped to the top of our very favourite guidebooks for Thailand. You could find the Grand Palace or Chiang Mai’s Night Bazaar without a guide book, but you will never find these food stalls on your own – and they sound like total gems. For instance, the place that’s “a cross between a curry rice restaurant and someone’s backyard” (page 51). Finally you get to be that smug, in-the-know, traveller – without ever getting lost (or sick). It’s a fantastic confidence-boost.
Noodles are noodles: On her blog, Bangkok Glutton, the author confesses her dislike for “high-design restaurants” and the book has a refreshing lack of foodie pretension. Nor is there any waxing euphoric about cross-cultural experiences and getting-in-touch-with-the-beautiful-people-of Thailand. Noodles are noodles, and she wants you to eat the best ones.
The 1 thing we didn’t like: Just one aspect – we were disappointed to see the inclusion of a shark fin soup vendor – if Yao Ming has voted, then we foreigners don’t need to endorse animal cruelty and shark decimation (see which Koh Samui restaurants are 100% shark fin free).
Ready to eat Thai street food? Bring your turkey pants: Without a doubt, this book will help you to:
(A) eat better in Thailand
(B) save a fortune in your travel budget
(C) be more adventurous
(D) see more of ‘real’ Thailand than otherwise would be possible
Packing space? It’s perfectly backpack- or purse-sized (just a little bigger than a Kindle Paperwhite) and is very lightweight.
We’re newly converted street food fanatics – and we’re ready to
*Butterfly pea juice: When we looked for a photo, we learned that the Latin for butterfly pea is Clitoria ternatea. Just passing it on.
Photo credit to Bernard Oh, orangebrompton, Sofitel So Bangkok, Daniel Foster, Austronesian Expeditions, Paul_the_Seeker, J Aaron Farr and Ashit Desai X2 via Flickr Creative Commons. Further images used under license from Shutterstock.com