Bangkok Phil

What's with the fuss about street food?

Is it really all it's cracked up to be?


"If street food was the only choice of food available, I wouldn't live here" - Teacher Mark on the ajarn Facebook page.

I suspect this article is going to be controversial but there's a perfectly good reason for writing it. What is it about Thai street food that brings tourists, travelers and even long-term Thailand expats to virtual orgasm? I would genuinely love to know why.

I don't dislike Thai street food but I only eat it once or twice a month and it's usually out of necessity rather than by choice. But occasionally I do enjoy something like a ‘khao man gai' (boiled chicken over rice) or a khao mook gai' (Muslim style chicken and yellow rice)

Street food can certainly hit the spot when you're feeling peckish.

Street food to go

I've got street food on my mind because my wife has just arrived home from work with a couple of plastic bags of ‘khao moo daeng' - red pork over rice with some sort of accompanying sauce, a few slices of cucumber and what looks like half a boiled egg.

My wife thinks she's doing me a favor (God bless her) because I rather cocked up the weekend's supermarket shopping and I've almost run out of food.

No, honestly, I do appreciate the gesture.

After wrestling with the elastic band ties for several minutes, I pour the contents of the plastic bags on to two good-size dinner plates. First the rice, then the pork, and finally the egg and cucumber are arranged on top.

I have to say it looks like the most unappetizing plate of food I've ever seen and two minutes in the microwave does very little to improve things.

Oh, they're 'nubbins'

Before I take the first mouthful, I want to spend a moment analyzing exactly what sits on the plate.

There are five ‘nubbins' of red pork. They are not large enough to be called ‘pieces' so I'm going to refer to them as ‘nubbins'. And those five nubbins sit atop a clump of lumpy, bumpy low-grade rice. And that's basically it.

Half a boiled egg and a few slices of cucumber aren't going anywhere near saving the day here.

I separate the red pork on the plate so I can get a clearer picture of exactly how much ‘meat' the customer is getting for their 40 baht. I know pork. I buy it every week at my local supermarket and pay about 50 baht for three decent size fillet steaks.

By my reckoning, there is barely three baht's worth of pork on my plate.

You often hear people talk about street food and immediately start gushing over the cost - "oh it's so cheap", "it's such terrific value for money" Now hold on a minute.

Let's dispel the first myth about street food. It isn't cheap. Not when you weigh up the vendor's buying costs and the overall quality of what you're getting. Words like ‘cheap' and ‘bargain' go straight out of the window.

In street food's defence, I suppose there is a time and a place for it. There is certainly a place. Funny how street food instantly looks and tastes better when it's eaten at the curb-side whilst choking on noxious exhaust fumes and surrounded by stray dogs, all sitting in a semi-circle with that look of hopeful expectancy.

And of course, street food should only be served by a vendor with enough dirt under his fingernails to start growing potatoes.

"The Thais love eating street food" is something else you hear foreigners say. But how many have truly asked for a Thai person's opinion of it?

I decided to make some enquiries - starting with my wife.

Food for the working man

"Street food means that people can at least get some sort of meal for a dollar" she said. "If you travel around Europe for example, it's just not possible to eat at that sort of price. When you have Thais earning salaries of 10,000 baht a month, it's all they can afford. That's the way it is"

"We have a company canteen at work where the prices are even lower than what you pay on the street - about 10-15 baht a dish. But of course the quality of the food is lower as well. Our security guards (good examples of low wage earners) eat in the canteen twice a day - but I'm sure they would love to eat better given the chance"

What about the Thais who can afford to eat better?

I asked around at the gym where most of the Thai trainers earn between 25,000 and 35,000 baht a month. It's a decent salary for a young, single Thai (and most of them are single I might add)

Hobson's choice

"I eat street food on every working day for two reasons" said Ben, a 23-year old trainer from Suphanburi. "Firstly, I don't have cooking facilities at my apartment and secondly, when I finish work at 10.30pm, street food is the only thing available. Well, it's either that or a microwave meal from 7-11, and I think street food probably comes out on top"

I asked Ben if he ate street food on his day off.

"Never" he said. "A day off gives me the opportunity to eat at a Japanese restaurant or some other place, usually in a shopping mall. I think many Thais are like me in that respect"

And yes, it seemed to be an opinion shared by the other trainers I got into conversation with.

Hygiene standards

I worked for many years with Mike, a teacher from England. He lived on one of those Sukhumwit sois lined with street food stalls from one end to the other. Mike, it's fair to say, lived on nothing but street food. He ate it at least twice a day.

And I've never known anyone have more sick days off work and suffer from a greater number of stomach-related health problems.

The hygiene and cleanliness of street food often comes up for discussion. Touch wood, I've never had a single instance of ‘a dicky stomach' but I've heard stories from many foreigners who haven't been quite so lucky.

Mad Dan

Back at the gym. I asked Australian Dan for his opinion. Dan is a man mountain. His neck is thicker than my waist. I'm the only person at the gym who's not scared of him but he's a teddy bear once you get to know him.

"Street food!" Dan exclaimed "Don't talk to me about f***ing street food. It's a snack, that's all that f***ing is!"

The veins in his neck bulged and I sense I may have touched a nerve. I fanned him with a towel and eventually he calmed down.

Between deep breaths, Dan told me that he'd recently installed a new kitchen in his condo. "I know cooking can be a pain because you haven't always got time - but fresh meat and vegetables are so cheap here. By cooking at home, you eat far healthier and don't really spend that much more"

I wasn't going to argue with that. Well, to be honest, you'd be nuts to.




Comments

To a certain extent I have to agree, Thai food isn't very good. This is personal opinion, I personally think there are countries in Asia with better food. As far is it cheap, it certainly is. Hygienic? Some places are probably better than others.

I know I will be attacked by the "Thaiophiles", but I do speak Thai, I do have a Thai family, and I do eat Thai food (limited to certain foods).

Everyone is entitled to an opinion. Though sadly, I know from my nearly two decades in Thailand I know "Thaiophiles" will say I hate Thais, Thailand and should go back to where I was born,- now that's a place I really hate. Everyone is entitled to an opinion.

By John Smith, Bangkok (24th April 2018)

Lou, I think what comes across more than anything else in your rants is that you clearly dislike English teachers. The street-food is merely the 'sub plot'?

By Phil (ajarn.com), Samut Prakarn (24th April 2018)

This is total tripe, it demonstrates you know nothing and I mean nothing about Thai culture

Thais do NOT eat for pleasure. How do I know this? Well, how many 'posh' Thai restaurants are there geared for Thai people? It's the cheapest gunk that wins the battle almost every time. By Mark Newman, Thailand

The essence of This culture is its food. Thais don't go to posh restaurants because they are a waste of money. The Thai will spend hours over a meal, further unlike most western drinking cultures, the Thai always have not merely snacks to drink with - but cooked foods. Further, the Thai eat many times a day, why? Because they love the culture of eating. It's still thought a bit weird to eat alone anywhere but in the street. Eating is social! What's the familiar greeting? Have you eaten?

I could simply go on forever how wrong you are. Ironically but not surprisingly you've been here years and know nothing about this culture. Sad.

By Lou Mak, BKK (24th April 2018)

I realize this is my second comment, my apologies. Perhaps if you do post the first you might add:

I've just read all the comments above. You not only dislike Thai food, but Thailand. It's absolutely hilarious how isolated your petty little lives are.

I'm always amazed how clean street food is and to the length poor people go to keep their food sources and products safe. My hat's truly off to the working poor for that. Effort and cost.

I eat in the street wherever I am, hell I ate street food in Cambodia in 94. East Asia has a rocking' good kitchen but all you slobs trash it...its not clean, its not this, that wah wah wah.

All of you are whitebread* farang as the day you stepped off the boat toooooo lol.

Incidentally, I'm never sick, ever. Yeah, OK once every few mos I rush to the toilet, but its a small price to pay.

So you married a Thai, but don't eat the food, interesting marriage I'm sure.

You don't speak Thai, eat Thai, live with Thais, holiday with Thais. Why were you here again? Oh yeah..30k a month. rotglmfao.

By Lou Mak, BKK (24th April 2018)

I'm not going to nitpick this to death and this obviously won't be posted but you not only dislike street food, you don't like Thai food.

Quite OK, you might not be in good company, but it is plentiful. A survey over the years of some thirty teachers I've worked with only one enjoyed Thai food although he far preferred farang grub.

Thailand has one of the best kitchens on the planet so...sorry, if you don't like Thai, you don't like or know food.

Some street food is not very good, much due to low cost ingredients. The notion it's not cheap is by and large rubbish and why would you know, you don't eat it.

There is still excellent food to be had in the streets of Thailand, and by and large a good value.

If you want to attack bad food in Thailand, go after the food courts. Now that is overpriced and quite mai aroi.

Teachers in Thailand know absolutely nothing about food - or culture for that matter.

Plebs go home, plenty of fish n chips in the E End.

Khao Phat, Khao Mun Gai, fried eggs...kill me.

By Lou Mak, BKK (24th April 2018)

There are many levels of "street food". For the same price, you can get fresh cooked food from a list of options, sometimes in a place with 3 walls and an open front. Where I live a big plate of fried rice with an egg comes to 37B. That is value.
As always in Thailand, you cannot presume, you cannot expect. Just because 1 Moo Daeng is good, another may not be. Taste, like portion size, is opinion based. Enjoy what you find, find what you enjoy.

By Rob, Bangkok (24th April 2018)

I don't really think you can compare street food to restaurant options. I think it has to be compared with its most similar equivalent: American fast food. They are both cheap, tasty, and widely available. And, let's be honest, street food beats American fast food hands down. It's cheaper, tastier, and healthier.

Also, I'm not sure where you guys shop, but I can't cook anything as cheap as Thai street food, even shopping at Tops and Tesco. Excluding my college days eating eggs, pasta, and rice, I have never been able to cook a 1 dollar per person meal.

By Will, Bangkok (24th April 2018)

Well written and funny to read, but you’re a tad harsh with your kao moo dang review. Be honest, it's not a dish that travels well. It's a dish that's eaten in situ and not lobbed into plastic bags and microwaved at a later date.

I, well my wife, run a Malaysian food biz in the UK, and whilst we don't forbid takeaways, even doggie bags from posh weddings, etc., we don’t exactly encourage it. The customer could well dump his takeaway on a table overnight. Next day, he’ll microwave it for 20 seconds, take a snapshot for Instagram, eat and spend the next day or two on the bog. As far as I know, this hasn’t happened, but just saying.

Point being, streetfood is just that, although you were nice enough to credit your wife kindly bringing home something to eat.

It’s been a while since I enjoyed, or otherwise, streetfood in Thailand, but I’d like a mention in dispatches for Thai food served in Europe be it in restaurants or street stalls. Just who is paying for and eating this bland overpriced crap? I might be a bit biased, but as a Thai food fan, I reckon it’s had its day in Europe.

By John K , United Kingdom (24th April 2018)

Have you ever eaten Thai food with a Thai? I have and never once has any one of them sat down at the table, wet their pants and said " I can't wait for this... I'm absolutely starving!" whilst sporting a big adoring gaze at the plate with trembling hands clutching the spoon and fork.

Thais do NOT eat for pleasure. How do I know this? Well, how many 'posh' Thai restaurants are there geared for Thai people? It's the cheapest gunk that wins the battle almost every time.

If dopey hippies want to coo over it and squirt their way through a rice and gristle diet then that's fine. But please don't try to fool normal people into thinking that this stuff is anything other than cheap!

I taste food with my imagination.

I imagine how the ingredients for Thai street food are procured, stored and prepared... none of my imaginary answers give me much of an appetite.

Filthy barbecues within spitting distance of dog shit and diesel fumes isn't any way for any human being to satiate pangs of hunger.

By Mark Newman, Thailand (24th April 2018)

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