Food dominates life in Bangkok in a way I have not witnessed in any other city. The residents of this vast urban sprawl appear to be engaged in a near perpetual hunt for the next meal. A while back I was discussing the nature of being a ‘foodie’ with my girlfriend. The conclusion we reached was that a ‘foodie’ is one who is thinking about their next meal even before they have finished the one they are eating. If this is the case then Bangkok is a city of six million bona fide foodies.
Couple this desire for eating with an almost natural entrepreneurial bent and you have a city where it is possible to sample a new taste or textural sensation every five metres, or so, whatever the time of day.
Restaurants and cafés per se don’t really exist. This is a city that ebbs and flows like a vast ocean and the food carts and nomadic street vendors are the living embodiment of this philosophy. Even the markets, which appear stationary, evolve and shift, tide like. It is, in short, a paradise for any gastronome.
We headed straight for Chinatown. A heaving, sweaty, tightly packed part of the city next to the river. There is no centre, as such, to Bangkok and it is easy to get hopelessly and wonderfully lost in this alien world. So that is exactly what we did. The market here swallows you hungrily, quickly enveloping you in a seemingly endless collection of stalls. The streets are narrow and covered making it even more difficult to navigate your way through the labyrinthine warren.
Rain had leaked through the canopy during the night making the ground underfoot dirty and treacherously slippy, especially for any idiot wearing flip-flops with little grip. Unfortunately that idiot was me. Thankfully, the sheer busyness of the place made it impossible to fall over. I was also a good foot taller than the vast majority of people around me allowing me to be able to see when an impossibly laden cart was heading directly for us, seemingly bending the known laws of physics with its ability to slip lithely through the throng.
The market appeared to be loosely organised into sections although at each junction, and at many places throughout, the system deviated and a wandering hawker would be proffering some tasty treat or other: sliced fruit on ice pepped up with chilli and sugar, skewers of non-descript meats grilling over hot coals, chicken frying in vast woks of spitting oil, steaming bowls of noodles complete with various bits of duck or pig – the choice was so vast as to be almost paralysing, as long as one wasn’t too concerned about the apparent lack of health and safety and basic hygiene precautions.
I take a philosophical view when it comes to such matters. Here in the UK, as in much of the western world, we live in a disinfected cotton wool shroud that appears to be doing us more harm than good. The human body is much more resilient than we give it credit for and if being seared in boiling fat doesn’t kill whatever bugs might be residing in my plate of rice or noodles, then maybe it deserves to have its fun inside my gut.
Suffice to say I am not squeamish about street food. Far from it. I simply adore it and think it gives a better indication and insight into a nation’s culinary culture than any three star restaurant or sanitised hotel kitchen. The streets are where people eat. Together. There is something wonderfully democratic about individuals from all walks of life heading to the same cart to get their Khao Phad or noodles. Street food is the soul of a city and I have never, not once, fallen victim to any malevolent bug caught from a roadside eatery.
In Thailand, street food is an institution. It isn’t a whim dreamt up to please the hoards of tourists that descend upon the country, many of whom refuse to eat anywhere other than their hotels – it is a 500-year-old tradition that exists because the Thais love to eat and they love to share this base pleasure with as many people as possible, as often as possible. The notion of three square meals a day is as alien to the Thais as the idea of near constant grazing is to us. Well, most of us at least.
For our first taste of this gloriously simple food we went by smell alone. It was nearing lunchtime so the fried eggs that appear at carts all over the city first thing in the morning had made way for more savoury and filling wares. It was too early for Phad Thai - more of an evening dish cooked when the sun has set – and we didn’t quite feel confident enough to test the noodles yet. Amid the heaving market was a tiny woman knelt by a large flat pan in which she was frying cubes of what looked like green jelly. We had no idea what it was but the smell alone was enough to convince us to part with thirty baht and sample the strange foodstuff.
Ten of these cubes, each one a large mouthful, were piled into a small plastic tray and sprinkled liberally with dark soy sauce, flecked throughout with the deep red of dried chillies before a wooden skewer was thrust into the steaming pile and we were sent on our way.
I have no idea what we ate (the first of many times during our holiday) but it was delicious: a crispy outside and a savoury dark green jelly inside with an intense saltiness thanks to the soy sauce. But they were filling and we struggled to finish the tray. I closed the clear plastic bag around the remains and we carried on through the market, pondering what we just ate in a happy and content fashion.
That was until heavy traffic forced us to stop outside a stall. A young Thai man, presumably the proprietor of the shop, looked at the bag in my hand, pointed at it then glanced up at my face before breaking into uncontrollable laughter. Still, it tasted good.