The best street food in Bangkok
The sizzle hits my ears at the same time as the aroma reaches my nostrils. In the little stall on the side of the road, tonight’s dinner is being cooked.
Bangkok’s street food is famous – and for good reason. But it can be confronting for a foreigner. All along the sidewalks of the busy neighbourhoods, there are dozens of options and not all look appetising to the untrained eye. To get the inside word, I’ve decided to go to an expert on Bangkok’s street food, Chawadee Nualkhair.
Chawadee is a Thai-American writer who lives in Bangkok and writes a fantastic blog about food called Bangkok Glutton. She’s also just written a book about the best street food in the city. I feel in good hands.
“There seems to be a convergence where street food vendors are getting more ‘restaurant-like’ and work as hard on their dishes as any chef (like Jay Fai, the Western food ‘street stall’ Uncle John,” she tells me.
“And restaurants are going more casual and serving dishes that are considered ‘street food’ (like Soul Food Mahanakorn). So in a way they are influencing each other.”
Eating at Sukhumvit Soi 38
To get a good sense of these ‘gourmet’ street meals, Chawadee has recommended I head to Sukhumvit Soi 38, which is well-known for its cheap and casual food after 8pm. Equipped with a few of her suggestions, I arrive hungry and excited.
One of the biggest fears of foreigners is getting sick from a meal off the pavement. Chawadee’s words ring in my ear.
“You can get sick from a food stall, but also from an upscale restaurant,” she explains.
“You have to be on the lookout for places that have high turnover, good quality ingredients that are refrigerated, and something of a name that they want to protect. That is part of the reason why I focus on very well-known food stalls in my book.”
All the vendors here at Sukhumvit Soi 38 seem to fit that description. There isn’t too much traffic but the little road off the main artery is busy with diners. Most are locals.
I wander up and down a couple of times to scope out the area and get a sense of the street. Everywhere seems clean and some of the stalls are attached to small street restaurants in the shops along one side. There’s a huge selection of cuisine on offer and it’s hard to know exactly where to start. Luckily here, because the vendors know tourists like to pop in, they have some menus printed in English. But that’s not always the case.
“What’s your advice for foreigners who want to try street food but don’t know what to order or how the whole thing works?” I ask Chawadee.
“Just copy everyone else,” she says quite simply.
“That’s the first and main rule to follow. If there’s something that looks good on someone else’s table, just point to it. That makes it easy on everyone involved!”
On this occasion, though, Chawadee has recommended I try the bamee with crab and pork. I ask at a couple of stalls until I find someone who is making it.
Another great thing about street food is that it’s quick. I’ve only been sitting down at the plastic table on the footpath for a couple of minutes when my meal arrives. It’s a large bowl of noodles in a light broth with the meat minced and garnished with some vegetables and a cracker. I take a couple of bites… and it’s delicious! I have not been led astray. Oh, and it cost 50 baht, which is less than two dollars.
Another recommendation of Chawadee’s is try the mango sticky rice. Now, this one I know a bit about! I love it and it’s quite exciting to see how it’s done here on the streets of Bangkok. I walk across the road to the stall which is selling it exclusively. You’d hope they do it well if it’s the only thing they make.
This time it costs me 60 baht (two dollars) for the dish but it is worth every bit. The fruit is so juicy and sweet and the rice complements it perfectly. A great way to finish the meal.
I have one final question for Chawadee – something that had been bothering me. I was really curious to know what all the street food vendors thought of the tourists who, although they could afford to eat in nice restaurants down the road, came to the dingy stalls with the locals.
“Oh, they are thrilled!” Chawadee tells me, reassuringly.
“A lot of Thais think that, because it’s Thai, other people just won’t ‘get it’. So they are pleasantly surprised when foreign tourists like and want to try something that Thais themselves love. I think Thais are just beginning to realize that foreign tourists love Thai street food… something I find incredibly amazing.”
Oh well, I think they’ll work it out soon enough…