To truly appreciate and embrace the vibrant Thai culture, you have to take the time to know and understand the food because it is central to the Thai identity. And though Thai cuisine has been influenced somewhat by neighboring countries such as India and China, it still retains much of it's own unique and distinct flavors. But the most important thing I learned about Thai cuisine is this: the exclusive use of fresh ingredients. Everything is made fresh, including curry pastes which don't contain any curry powder or other dried and ground spices. And by far the best and most affordable place to sample such cuisine is out on the streets. A short stroll down a soi (side street) can yield some of the most exquisite culinary discoveries.
ma-phrao juice off the streets
thom khaa kai
It's not unusual to see carts on the sidewalk not only serving every item from the Thai kitchen, but also cooking it right there in big woks or pots. Nor is it unusual to see luxury cars vying for space with tuktuks in front of these portable al fresco eateries. Some of the best street food can be found at the markets such as the Suan Lum night bazaar where I ordered a bowl of thom khaa kai (or tom ka gai - chicken coconut soup) with steamed rice. Those who cannot take the heat of the tom yam kung can opt for this milder version. The chili factor is slightly muted by the coconut milk making it more palatable for sensitive tastebuds. I love both soups and when at a Thai restaurant, I like to alternate between the two.
I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record here, but I can't stress enough how hot Bangkok is this time of year! And brave as we tried to be soldiering on in this sticky climate, we longed for the comfort of airconditioning. And when longing turned into desperation we went to the mall. There is no shortage of malls in Bangkok. The only attraction these malls had to me were the food courts where street food could be had at sidewalk prices but in airconditioned comfort.
I've heard varying opinions on which mall has the best food court but because we were already there during the lunch hour, we ate at the MBK Food Centre . Here, they employ a coupon system like in the Suan Lum night bazaar. You exchange your money for coupons and whatever is not used may be redeemed later. Usually 150 Baht ($ 4) is enough for a substantial meal, drink and dessert. There are some stalls though that only accept cash like the one we bought our catfish salad from.
So there I was clutching my coupons. I was good to go but I didn't know where to start. The place was already abuzz with hungry shoppers and the sound of food cooking. Usually the rule of thumb is to go where there is a crowd, preferably a crowd of locals. That didn't work this time though because it was fairly late and most of the diners were already at their tables chomping away. So I turned left and went from stall to stall surveying my options until I made a full circle.
crispy noodles with chicken and gravy
Eventually, I settled for 'crispy noodles with chicken and gravy' as my main. Ok, so it's not exactly Thai but the smells wafting from behind this counter reeled me in. What can I say? I'm a sucker for crispy noodles with
MSG heavy sauce. My decision had nothing whatsoever to do with the cute tanned guy with the nice tush and strong-looking hands who was ordering from the same stall and speaking to the vendor in pure Thai (swoon). Nothing at all. This might have been the best decision I made all week, it was great!
the flaming hot catfish salad
My friend and I shared a side of the spiciest catfish salad I've ever had in my life. Look at those chilies! After the initial jolt of heat though, all the elements of the salad came together and it turned out to be very good. I really love this dish, this is one of those things I could probably have everyday without getting tired of it.
khanom buang, crispy pancakes
So this is where I tell you about my favorite foodie discovery in Bangkok - the khanom buang or crispy pancakes. I didn't do the actual discovering of it, my friend did. At first I thought they were tacos and waved them off, full as I was after wiping my noodle plate clean. I was surprised when she told me they were actually sweet and not savory. I took a bite and fell in-love. Where has this been all my life?!
What it is, is a thin wafer-like sheet (similar to our barquillos back home) made with rice flour and topped with a thin sheen of coconut cream, what seemed like palm sugar or panucha and toasted shredded coconut. The yellow strips you see on the pancake on the left of the photo are sweet egg yolk strips which I later learned are called 'golden threads' and are usually made from duck egg yolks. I can't remember much now, 'twas a delicious crunchy-chewy blur! Does anyone know where we can get these here in Manila? Or know how to make them at home?
guava with chili salt, when you need a break from the plum powder
I found this at the Sky Train station and it was just what I needed after 3 hours in the Chatuchak market. Now I'm gonna buy me some lemongrass and pandan leaves and try to recreate it.