Essential Eating: Bangkok Street Food

My name is Allan Wilson. Below is me at my happiest chowing down on spicy som tam with sticky rice, grilled chicken and a big bottle of Singha beer. For a good while now I have pursued my obsession for Thai food and living in Bangkok it is street food which has become integral to my daily routine. Bangkok street food is special, it is hard to find anywhere else in the world, so if you plan on visiting be sure to make the most of it. Below is my quick guide to Bangkok Street Food and Cheap Eats.

First off, I should really point out that street food is not a cuisine but a locale. As pretty much every food found at street food can be found all over and everywhere in Thailand. As it’s just Thai food that, instead of being sold at food courts, or night markets, or in shophouse eateries, on this occasion, it is being sold conveniently on the street. At the same time, I will be sharing more about street eating, as in eating food on or next to the street, rather than just grabbing a back of bites on the go (although there will always be the takeaway options). As I find much of the best Bangkok Street Food is found at the seated food courts, the shophouse eateries, and the kerbside seating, where you can take a seat on the pavements and eat alongside hungry locals.



Papaya Salad

Som Tam (ส้มตำ): Probably the most common of Bangkok Street Food vendors and easily recognised by its large mortar and pestle and bright red tomatoes. Strips of green (unripe) papaya are crunched in a mortar and pestle with a handful of ingredients including palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, and chillies which combine to create the sweet, sour, salty and hot signature of many Thai dishes. Som Tam varieties[1] are complex with different customers choosing their own preference. My standard order is “Som Tam Korat” using a northeastern style fish sauce (Pla Ra). Add “phet phet” for extra chilli and “mai sai poo” to skip on the raw crabs.  The lady pictured below served my Som Tam for my first year in Bangkok before moving 2 stalls down to sell noodles. Eat this extreme salad with sticky rice (khao niao) and pay around 35baht. A must for any Bangkok Street Food exploration.


Grilled Fish

Pla Pao (ปลาเผา): In the early evenings, roadside barbecues pop up across Bangkok’s busy streets. Locals congregate at seated Bangkok Street Food areas while vendors work their grills. Fish are gutted, stuffed with pandanus leaves, lemongrass and coated with flour and rock salt before grilling over charcoal. Grilled fish often come served with a variety of vegetables for wrapping, chilli sauce for heat and on occasions with rice noodles (khanom jeen). Note eat the meat and not the skin. There are three common freshwater fish sold at Bangkok Street Food barbecues; tilapia (Pla Nin), catfish (Pla Duk Dam), snakehead fish (Pla Duk Yan). One of the better places to find them is near the front of Central World Mall (pictured below left) on the walk towards Pratunam (Here for full blog on Bangkok Street Food Barbecues[2]).


Grilled Chicken

Kai Yang (ไก่ย่าง): Kai Yang is one of the most common street food staples in Thailand and its simplicity and availability make it an easy option for street food and eating on the go. While grilled chicken is no doubt delicious alone, it does come better with sides of chilli dips (nam jim), spicy salads and sticky rice (khao niao). Expect regional variations at Bangkok Street Food, Isaan style being famous for marinated Kai Yang lollies[3] served on bamboo sticks or the southern influences with spiced marinades such as Kai Yang Kamin (Grilled Chicken with turmeric). A popular spot to find Kai Yang is cooking over charcoals next to Pla Pao (grilled fish) at Bangkok Street Food barbecues. Expect to pay around 30 Baht for chicken legs and 40 Baht for the breast.


Spicy Pork Neck Salad

Nam Tok Moo (น้ำตกหมู): This is a bit like a fusion of two amazing street favourites. The first is Kor Moo Yang, a chewy barbecued cut of pork neck, which is often sold on its own with a side of sweet and sticky chilli sauce (Nam Jim Jaew). The second is laab, often known as the national dish of neighbouring Laos, which fuses a spicy pork salad with chillies, shallots, coriander and mint leaves. And a seasoning of salty fish sauce, and the sour of lime juice. Fun fact, the name Nam Tok translates as ‘Waterfall’ and it is said to be named this due to the running pork juice that fuse together the dish. Expect to pay around 60-70 Baht at Isaan barbecues.



Stir Fried Holy Basil

Pad Kaprao (กระเพราหมูกรอบ): A personal favourite bringing together 2 unique ingredients; Thai holy basil and crispy pork belly is Kaprao Moo Grob. Thai holy basil (kaprao) is unique to Thailand and due to its short-lived shelf-life, it is hard to find outside the Kingdom. It brings a fiery kick and holds few similarities to the better known Thai sweet basil (horapa). Crispy pork (moo grob) makes use of the pork belly and skin. It is first boiled in water then deep fried on a high heat (don’t try this at home). The result is layers of crispy, fatty and delicious meat. Stir fry with garlic, chilli, oyster sauce and soy sauce. This fiery dish can be found at most roadside restaurants in Bangkok and occasionally at stir fries at Bangkok Street Food. Comes served on rice and often topped with a fried egg (kai dao). Costs around 40 baht.


Tom Yum Soup

Hot and Sour Soup (ต้มยำ): While more familiar with restaurant menus, Tom Yum can be easily found at shophouse restaurants and even at Bangkok Street Food. We buy it almost daily. Tom Yum blends a number of unique Thai ingredients to create the perfect combination of sweet, sour, salty and hot. Sweet of palm sugar (and sometimes condensed milk for ‘tom yum creamy’). Sour of lime, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Salty of fish sauce. Hot of bird’s eye chillies and chilli paste. For me, Tom Yum makes the perfect introduction to Thai cuisine. Tom Yum is fairly well replicated in the west, in Thailand however it is guaranteed to be better. Tom Yum is found on every menu in Thailand, from Bangkok Street Vendors to fine dining. Prices start around 50 baht.


Kuey Teow (ก๋วยเตี๋ยว): Noodle soups typically comprise of three components; the meat, the noodles and the broth. And changing all three can bring seemingly endless variations to this popular Bangkok street food staple. But it will mostly be the noodles to choose from; where there is a handful of popular options which include white rice noodles such as Sen-Mee (Rice Vermicelli), Sen-Lek (Medium Rice Noodles), and Sen-Yai (Flat Rice Noodles). Although I almost always go with Ba-Mee (yellow egg wheat noodles) with my noodle soups, as they are more likely to be freshly prepared and give a bit more bite to the dish. Otherwise most vendors will specialize in just one or two soup broths with likely a matching number of toppings. Anyway, noodle stalls are easily found all day at Bangkok Street Food, and at shophouses, and food courts. Where prices generally range from 30-50 Baht.


Tom Yum Noodles

These would be my go-to noodles these days, although the name can be confusing at time, where I have ordered Tom Yum Noodles to literally receive noodles in a Tom Yum Soup. Otherwise Tom Yum Noodles is normally more of the standard pork bone broth soup at food courts, only it has been laced with some hot and sour chilli jam (prik pao), and other flavours, to bring a bit of excitement to the bowl. And, having two very capable cooks in the house, these would also be our go-to noodles at home. And the recipe takes roughly 2 hours to prepare; first by boiling a pork broth (pork bone, soy sauce, salt, black pepper, garlic, pickled garlic, coriander root) along with roughly 30 minutes of prep; like cooking minced pork, boiling pork balls, toasting and smashing peanuts, and frying garlic. Lastly, the greens and noodles are cooked in the broth, the pork broth is then mixed with Prik Pao (Thai Chilli Jam) and the ground peanuts, before being added to the bowl of noodles (Bah Mi Please) and other ingredients. Flavour to taste with fish sauce, vinegar, sugar, lime and chilli.


Boat Noodles

Kway Tiao Rua (ก๋วยเดี๋ยวเรือ): Originally sold between floating boats on river canals (khlongs) Boat noodles are now better found on dry land and at Bangkok Street Food. This unique noodle dish consists of rice noodles in a thick brown soup made from a mix of stock and pigs blood. Add beansprouts, morning glory, stewed pork or beef and serve it up. Boat noodles often come served with crispy pork rinds (kap moo) and followed by sticky rice cakes as dessert (khanom thuay). While this noodly treat is still found on the boats of Bangkok’s floating markets most are now sold from vendors surrounding canals. The best boat noodles are said to be found at “boat noodles alley” an area of eateries lining the canals of the Victory Monument area (pictured below right). These restaurants have almost taken on an atmosphere of competitive eating as each table builds towers of empty noodle bowls. Pay around 9 baht per small bowl.


Khao Soi Curry

Khao Soi (ข้าวซอย): This iconic northern Thai curry is my favourite cheap eat dish and while tricky to track down in Bangkok street food it is common to many food courts. Khao Soi is a Burmese influenced coconut curry served over soft egg noodles and topped with crispy egg noodles and choice of meat (chicken drumsticks please). To perfect this dish is a choice of flavourings such as sugar, lime, beansprouts, onion and pickled cabbage. For me is the most underrated of curry dishes and it is milder than most of the rest. Expect to pay around 45baht at Bangkok street food, and food courts. Be careful it’s addictive (our guide to Lanna food[4]).


Khao Ped Yang, เป็ดย่าง: This delicious Thai roast duck can be easily identified by the roasty red ducks strung behind glass-fronted vendors. While better suited to Chinatown this Chinese inspired dish can be found in many of Bangkok’s food courts, street side eateries and on occasions at Bangkok street food. The duck’s glazed red skin comes from a rich red marinade which is added before cooking in a large oven or kiln. The duck is chopped, cleavered and served on plates of rice with drizzles of dark soy sauce (Khao Na Ped) or in bowls of noodle soups occasionally with wontons (Kuey Teow Ped). Here for full post on making roast duck[5].

Chicken on Rice

Khao Man Kai (ข้าวมันไก่): Thailand’s interpretation to the famous Hainanese chicken rice (a comparison here[6]). This well-known dish is prepared through the boiling of an entire chicken in bone stock which creates a tender, juicy and delicious chicken meat. This popular breakfast dish is quick and easy to hand out with chicken quickly chopped, cleavered, topped on rice, and served garnished with coriander and a choice of sweet, salty or hot chilli dips. Khao man kai often comes served with the bones in a soup, and the chicken blood cubed on the side (below right). Just one example of Thailand’s traditional and ethical use of  ‘nose to tail’ cooking. While occasionally found as Bangkok Street Food it maybe better found at cheap eat food courts or small roadside eateries. Pay 30 – 40 baht per serving.


Thai Biryani

Khao Mok Kai (ข้าวหมกไก่): Thai chicken and Yellow Rice, commonly known as the “Thai Biryani” or “rice with curry chicken”, is a more southern/Muslim interpretation of the common Khao Man Gai chicken rice street food in Bangkok. And while this dish does share some unique Indian influences with the fusing of spices, such as curry powder and turmeric, it is unmistakably Thai, where it comes served with a fiery Thai green chilli dip on the side. As a curry and spice lover this flavoursome dish is generally one of my routine dishes at Bangkok’s cheap eat food courts, as it can be hard to find outside of the predominantly Muslim areas of Bangkok and Thailand. Expect to pay around 40 baht.


The Curry Buffet

Khao Rad Gaeng (ข้าวราดแกง): The curry buffet makes popular eating during rushed lunch hours with a mix of pre-prepared dishes set out and ready to feed traffic from nearby businesses and offices (not so different to familiar school and work canteens of the west). Curry buffets are found in food courts, shop houses and of course as Bangkok street food and dishes range from curries to stir fries with a diverse mix of cheap eat Thai cuisine on offer. For visitors, they also make an ideal introduction to local Thai cuisine with so many dishes to chose from and all at tiny prices. The best times to eat would be between 11am-12pm, just after the food has been prepared, yet before the hungry hoards take the best bits. Expect to pay 30-4o baht for 2 a choice of two dishes with rice. You will often find the popular curries at these stalls (Here for our Top 5 Thai Curries[7]).


Stewed Pork Leg

(Khao Kha Moo, ขาหมู): I bring personal sentiment with Stewed Pork Leg as this dish is famous (and arguably found at its best) in Fanfan’s hometown of Nang Rong. Here it is pride of the table at monk ceremonies and other special ceremony and occasions (pictured below left). As with many ‘on-rice’ dishes the Stewed Pork Leg is Chinese influenced, the pig leg braised in Chinese five spice (Pa Lo) broth until soft, fatty and perfect. As with most slow cooked dishes it is found best at Bangkok’s food courts, pre-prepared and served over rice. Served alongside are additions of pickled cabbage, and if lucky a boiled egg. Occasionally Stewed Pork Leg is found at Bangkok street food. Expect to pay around 40Baht.


Brightening up Bangkok’s busy streets is Thailand’s colourful arrays of exotic fruits[8] (Polamai, ผลไม้). At almost every street corner, cooling in ice-filled Bangkok street food carts, you will find ripe yellow pineapples, cool red watermelons and juicy orange papayas. The other less familiar fruits are sour green (unripe) mango and guava (farang fruit). The Bangkok Street Food vendors will slice your fruit of choice and serve in plastic bags with a skewer to stick them with. Each comes with a choice of added sugars, salts and of course chilli (prik gluea). Price per bag will be around 10-15 baht but this will depend on size and fruit. The fruit stall pictured below left is my local (Asoke Rd) which sells 3 bags for 40 baht and includes more exotic additions of white dragon fruit, purple dragon fruit and sweet mango.


Durian

(Turian ทุเรียน): There is an impressive variety of fresh fruits at Bangkok Street Food some familiar (watermelon, pineapple…) and some not so familiar[9] (rambutan, dragon fruit…). However Bangkok throws an added curveball, a big, spiky, green curveball, better known as the durian. Often referred to as “the King of Fruit” the Durian is better known for its pungent smell than its taste (tastes like heaven, smells like hell). The yellow fruit inside has a creamy texture and sweet taste and rumours have it, if you like the smell you will love the taste. No doubt it is a fascinating fruit and it is obsessed over by many. Durian is hard to find outside Southeast Asia due to shelf life and short-lived ripeness but they can easily be found at Bangkok Street Food during ‘Durian Season’ as well as in malls and markets. Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road (pictured below) is a busy hub for the durian trade. Priced around 400 baht/kilo for this stinky fruit.


Mango Sticky Rice

(Khao Niao Mamuang, ข้าวเหนียวมะม่วง): The best known of Thai desserts and one to make up for the Kingdom’s lack of choice (Here for Top 10 Thai Sweet Treats[10]). While fresh mango alone is delicious enough; when matched with coconut sticky rice, drizzles of coconut syrup and sprinkles of toasted mung beans, the Mango Sticky Rice is unstoppable. Sweet, slightly salty and all-around delicious. What perfects Mango Sticky Rice is the balance of salty where the sticky rice base has first been soaked in coconut milk, sugar and salt before steaming in pandan leaves. The freshly cut sweet mango, then placed on top before additions of coconut syrup and mung beans (or occasional sesame seeds). Mango Sticky Rice is best found in food courts and occasionally at Bangkok street food stalls. Expect to pay 40 Baht up.

Banana Roti

(ไทยเครป): An Indian roti-like pancake wrapped over banana and egg with the optional topping of sugar and condensed milk. While Banana Roti is my own guilty pleasure this tasty Thai Dessert does come with other fillings and more than not, with egg. Banana roti is somewhat iconic with the southern Thai islands, but in Bangkok is where I find it at its best. The Bangkok street food carts are generally manned by southern Thai Muslims who have moved up to the big city. Banana roti is popular in the evening hours and will often pop up at street corners unannounced. One banana roti (as below) costs roughly 25 baht per. Probably not suitable for diabetics.


Deep Fried Bananas

Kuay Tod or Kuay Kaek (กล้วยทอด). After deep frying, these Thai desserts arrive warm, tough and chewy. The Thai banana fritter makes use of local plantains which, for those who don’t know, are short fat bananas often used by tourists to feed elephants. The batter is flavoured using the flesh of brown coconut, palm sugar and sesame seeds and as a popular Bangkok street food are occasionally sold through car windows by masked men weaving city traffic[11]. Banana fritters are often easier found in Northern Thailand where plantains are found in abundance. A small bag at Bangkok street food costs around 2o Baht.


Iced Coffee

Kah-Feh Yen (กาแฟเย็น): One of first vendors to meet Bangkok’s streets is the iced drinks stand which set up to meet the cities early risers and rush hour traffic. No different than elsewhere in the world Thai’s turn to coffee and tea (cha nom yen) for their early morning pick-me-up and the Bangkok street food carts can easily be identified by sweet coffee aromas and hovering bees attracted by the sweet sugars and milks. For iced coffee the vendors mix a strong blend of black coffee with powdered milk and sugar. This is then poured over ice and served in a plastic cup. For an added boost the unhealthy offering of condensed milk is a must. Note, don’t venture too far from the bathroom.


Street Liquor

Yaa Dong (ยาดอง): Yaa dong is a herb infused liquor made from local Lao Khao (white spirit) and a number of health-enhancing herbs. The liquor ‘Lao Khao’ is favoured by the folk of rural Thailand and accounts for 2/3 Thailand’s alcohol consumption. When mixed to Yaa Dong this potent concoction was in fact used as a medicine and blood tonic and is rumoured to enhance libido and boost strength. You can find these roadside vendors in the evening hours setting up shop for local after work labourers. Take a seat and throw back a shot or two or take some to go in a reused liquor or energy drink bottle. Yaa Dong comes served with a salt, chilli and sugar dip (prik glua) and sour, unripe mango (mamuang priew) and I like to think of it as Thailand’s answer to the tequila shooter. The pictured Ya Dong stall sits opposite my condo and is run by a local lady-boy. Yaa Dong is found at stand-alone Bangkok Street Food stalls and costs 30 baht for a small red bull bottle (150ml) filled with Ya Dong. Here for full post on Yaa Dong[12].


Isaan Sausage

(Sai Krok Isaan, ไส้กรอกอีสาน): Found in puffs of smoke along Bangkok’s roadsides the barbecue grills are another of the city’s most common street vendors. A variety of meats are often sold at these Bangkok Street Food grills, however few are overly exciting, a lot of rubbery wieners and meats only made better by a hot chilli dipping sauce. There are exceptions however and one is the Isaan sausage which is named after the Northeastern region of Thailand[13] in which it originated. The fermenting of this pork and sticky rice sausage gives it a unique sour taste. Accompanied by galam (cabbage), sliced ginger, and whole chillies for added heat (sometimes lime and peanuts). Roll them together and pop in your mouth for a unique Thai taste. Costs 10 baht per stick (as above) and sometimes comes shaped as rounded balls at Bangkok Street Food. (here for a list of various Isaan Sausages[14]).


Fish Cakes

Tod Mun Pla Krai (ทอดมันปลากราย): For a quick and delicious Bangkok Street Food treat why not grab a quick bag of fish cakes to go. Unlike the chunky ‘Thai style’ fish cakes I find in the west, the authentic Thai fish cakes are thin and fiery snacks found deep fried at Bangkok Street Food by vendors working giant woks. The fish cakes are made from a mix of fish paste and red curry paste with added speckles of green bean (not green chilli) and kaffir lime leaves. Easy to grab a bag on the go. Fish cakes come with cucumber, sweet chilli and a wooden skewer stick to pick at them, and eat them. Expect to pay 20bt per bag plus.


Grilled Pork Skewers

Moo Ping (หมูปิ้ง): A popular Thai breakfast and a personal favourite for early morning snacking at Bangkok Street Food. These tasty treats can be found at smokey roadside grills which occupy Bangkok’s streets in the morning hours. Delicious bite-sized cuts of pork meat are marinated, skewered then barbecued on the Bangkok Street Food grills. The marinade consists of oyster sauce, dark soy, coconut milk, garlic and palm sugar. The early morning vendors grill and sizzle these sticks over fiery charcoals until the meat starts to caramelise. Moo ping is so delicious we even named our cat after it. At Bangkok Street Food expect to pay up to 10 baht per stick and 5 baht for a small bag of sticky rice.


Pad Thai Noodles

(Pad Thai, ผัดไทย): Bangkok’s famous Pad Thai noodle stalls are often the starting point for visitors to Bangkok street food (please go further). The basic Pad Thai comes as stir fried egg noodles with beansprouts, egg and other Thai flavourings such as dry shrimp. The dish is simple, flavorsome but a little bit boring… for added sour and hot of Thai signature flavours squeeze over lime or sprinkle some chili flakes. Ground peanuts also give it some added crunch. A popular place to find Pad Thai is Khaosan Road (backpacker area) where vendors offer mixed varieties of noodles and toppings. Pad Thai is also sold side-by-side with oyster pancakes (Hoi Tod) at many Bangkok street food stalls.


Mussel Omelette

(Hoy Tod, หอยทอด): Offering an alternative to Pad Thai. Hoi Tod is often found alongside at Pad Thai stalls where both dishes come stir-fried side-by-side with similar ingredients of egg mix, beansprouts, and sides of chilli. And Hoi Tod is a mix between a pancake and an omelette this delicious seafood dish is better found in seaside towns than Thailand’s capital and Bangkok street food. While the most common sold would be the mussel omelettes (40 baht) you do occasionally find the fancier option of oyster pancakes (60 baht). If you fail to find at Bangkok street food try the local food court.


Steamed Dumplings

(Khanom Jeeb, ขนมจีบ): These minced prawns and pork wrapped dumplings are often found steam cooking at Bangkok Street food vendors. With obvious Chinese influences, the Kanom Jeeb was inspired by the popular Chinese Siu Mai dumplings (Dim Sum). The Thai version however comes served with a dark soy and vinegar sauce (Nam Jim Kanom Jeeb) and sprinkles of toasted garlic. Often served in bags with a wooden skewer stick to pick at them. Khanom Jeeb costly roughly 5 baht per dumpling at Bangkok street food. The perfect snack to eat on the go.


Spring Rolls

(Poh Pia Tod,  ปอเปี๊ยะทอด): Thailand’s interpretation of the iconic Asian spring roll. While ingredients can vary in Thai spring rolls the basic recipe the basic ingredients of glass (mung bean) noodles, bean sprouts, wood ear mushrooms and shredded carrot. Ingredients are mixed together then tightly wrapped in thin pastry skins before deep frying. Thai spring rolls come as vegetarian, or non-veg, chicken being the popular meat of choice. They are best found at Bangkok street food, deep fried at roadsides in giants woks. They are then chopped to bits and served in plastic bags with a drizzle of sweet chilli sauce and a skewer stick to pick at them. Expect to pay 30 Baht a bag.


There’s no way I would ever recommend taxiing to some obscure street food favourite on the opposite side of the city. Because Bangkok is massive, and there are likely hundreds of comparable street food options within a stone’s throw from everywhere. And really just what is fun, and rewarding, about street food is the adventure, the exploration, and ultimately navigating the experience yourself.

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References

  1. ^ Som Tam varieties (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  2. ^ Here for full blog on Bangkok Street Food Barbecues (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  3. ^ Isaan style being famous for marinated Kai Yang lollies (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  4. ^ our guide to Lanna food (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  5. ^ Here for full post on making roast duck (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  6. ^ a comparison here (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  7. ^ Here for our Top 5 Thai Curries (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  8. ^ Thailand’s colourful arrays of exotic fruits (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  9. ^ some not so familiar (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  10. ^ Here for Top 10 Thai Sweet Treats (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  11. ^ masked men weaving city traffic (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  12. ^ Here for full post on Yaa Dong (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  13. ^ Northeastern region of Thailand (www.live-less-ordinary.com)
  14. ^ here for a list of various Isaan Sausages (www.live-less-ordinary.com)

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