By Nick Malgieri
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, May 10, 2009
Though I've toured markets in Mexico and roamed the streets of Hong Kong's Central district, both of which are crowded with prepared-food vendors, I've never seen the sheer quantity and variety of what Bangkok offers.
Already-narrow sidewalks in business districts are lined with hawkers selling sweets, ready-to-eat fruits, savory snacks and cold drinks. Veer off a main street into its winding soi, or lanes, and you'll find full-scale food courts with curry stalls that feature all manner of cooked dishes, shop-house restaurants (typically a narrow ground-floor room with half a dozen tables open to the street, with kitchen behind and living quarters above) and specialists who might make a single dish such as phat Thai (stir-fried dry rice noodles), won-ton soup, green papaya salad, braised pork shank (served dry or in soup) or bananas fried in a shatteringly crisp rice-flour batter.
Even residential lanes are dotted with fruit or other produce vendors and the occasional seller who makes a single dish over a charcoal brazier right outside his or her house.
Thais are inveterate snackers, though many also buy food to take home, and I'm not sure whether it's the availability of street food that fuels their hunger for it or whether hawkers are motivated by the knowledge that everyone likes to try a flavorful dish as they're passing by.
And unlike many other places, Bangkok offers a very sanitary street-food experience. Most vendors use disposable plates; many dishes are cooked to order, so they're not sitting in the heat; and prepared foods are kept at a high (or low) enough temperature to prevent food poisoning.
According to David Thompson, the Australian-born chef of the Michelin one-star London restaurant Nahm and author of "Thai Food" (Ten Speed, 2002), considered the authoritative work on the subject, Bangkok street food began with sweets and foreign dishes, most notably Chinese.
Longing for a taste of street food and a visit to Bangkok's famed Chinatown street-food paradise, I recently met up with American expat Austin Bush (see his combined food and photography blogs about Bangkok at http://www.austinbushphotography.com). But before Chinatown, we began with an exploration of the Nang Loeng Market (Nakhorn Sawan Road, open Monday-Friday 10 a.m.-2 p.m.) and lunch at the market's Ratana curry stall. We sat down to a meal of an aromatic green curry of pork; massaman (Muslim) curry of chicken, enriched with dried spices; stir-fried sataw beans and plump, perfectly cooked shrimp; and nam prik kapi, a pungent and fiery relish made from dried chilies, garlic and dried shrimp paste with tiny, slightly bitter pea eggplants, slightly crushed, floating in it. The nam prik was served with rice, fried fish, an omelet of cha-om (a kind of acacia) leaves and an assortment of boiled vegetables.
Before we knew it, it was time for the long-awaited jaunt to Chinatown, with its lively mix of street food and shop-house restaurants with tables in the street. Although many of the places below offer multiple dishes, Bush selected the best of the best with a dish at each stop, so we would be able to manage tasting them all (about $3 each, some even less). Many Chinatown street-food destinations do not open before 5 or even 7 p.m.
Choy Tii (59 Thanon Plaeng Naam) features Chinese egg noodles, the best of which are served dry (not in broth) with Thai sweet pork, Chinese black vinegar, garlic oil and a sprinkling of scallions and herbs. Ask for mee haeng muu warn. Choy Tii, like many other Chinatown shop-house restaurants, has a homey feel: The smiling cooks -- women dressed in brightly colored prints and frilly aprons -- look as though they're cooking in a home kitchen.
Krua Pornlamai (Thanon Plang Naam, in the street) is a showman chef who prepares drunkard's noodles on several charcoal fires, sending a rain of cinders into the air. A mix of fresh rice noodles with chilies, ground pork and pungent holy basil, the dish is so named because it's a popular snack for people on their way home from an evening of drinking.
Mangkorn Khao (corner of Thanon Yaowarat and Thanon Yaowphanit, in the street) serves exquisite won-ton soup in which the won tons are filled with a whole small shrimp surrounded by a pork forcemeat. The food at Mangkorn Khao is prepared on a single rolling cart and dispensed to tables on the sidewalk in front of a bank. Go early, as they frequently sell out by 10 p.m.
Naay Mong (539 Thanon Phlapplaachai) prepares addictively good batter-fried oysters with a twist: The sweet, tender, barely cooked, 3/4 -inch-long oysters are served atop the crisp and succulent sheet of egg-enriched batter. Watch the usually smiling cook's face cloud with intense concentration as she turns an electric fan toward the charcoal fire to heat things up when she strews the oysters across the sheet of batter. Next time, I'm ordering two to begin with.
Phat Thai OK (Thanon Yaowarat Soi 11, in the street) is a popular destination well known for its namesake classic dish. Particularly good, with only a hint of the frequently overdone sweetness, this version is aromatic with garlic chives and flavored only with dried shrimp as opposed to large cooked shrimp. Phat Thai OK is so popular that the cook's assistant frequently seats customers at empty tables that belong to other hawkers.
No matter where you find it -- in a market, at a shop-house restaurant or on a street corner -- Bangkok food never ceases to fascinate, nourish and satisfy. I can't wait to go back for more.
Nick Malgieri is a pastry chef and teacher whose most recent book is "The Modern Baker" (DK Publishing, 2008).