Friday, May 26, 2017

Thailand's Street Food Travel Guide

A Guide to the Wonderful World of Thai Street Food

There's no denying that Thailand is home to the most epic street food scene around, and it's no wonder that CNN voted Bangkok as the city with the world's best street food. If you love food and love being surrounded by delicious smells and flaming woks with meals made to order for not much more than a dollar, then go there. Go to Thailand!

Let's take a peak at what there is on offer.

Tom Yum Goong is a spicy seafood soup laced with fresh sour lime juice. The shrimp-based broth (Goong means "shrimp") is intensely flavoured with red chili, cilantro and galangal as well as all the wonderful citrus flavours of Thailand like lemongrass and kaffir lime.

There are two versions of Tom Yum - one being clear and the other creamy. This particular version in the picture above is creamy from the addition of evaporated milk. The signature look of creamy Tom Yum is the firey red chili oil slick that floats to the top. It comes from a flavourful roasted Thai chili paste called nam prik pao.

If you are on an island you must have a whole grilled fish. This version was my favourite by far, piled high with fried shallots, sliced lemongrass, ginger, spring onions, red chili and cilantro and smothered with a sweet and sour tamarind sauce. Really, wow.

Thai Green Chicken Curry (Gaeng Kiew Wan Gai) shows off the fresh South East Asian flavours and tropical feel. It is based on green chilis, lemongrass, kaffir lime peel, coconut milk and lots of fresh Thai basil. It is one of my favourite Thai dishes for its clean and vibrant flavours. Grab a bowl with steamed jasmine rice for just 40-50 THB ($1.65 - $2.00).

You'll see mounds of fresh curry paste in colours of red, orange, yellow and green piled high in markets throughout Bangkok. They are so fragrant! Gotta give props to how smooth that red paste is - I'm estimating that would be about 35 minutes of pounding and sweating.

Above is one of my favourite curries - Massaman Curry. It is a southern dish with flavours influenced by the Muslim-Malaysian culture. Rich with coconut milk, cardamom, cinnamon and star anise, this curry is so satisfying and tickles every single taste bud. Check out my recipe for Massaman Curry so you can make it at home!

Pad Thai is everywhere and it is so good. Now, this is one dish that isn't the same everywhere you go. Don't be tempted by the pile of pre-cooked noodles on a flat top griddle sold for super cheap (even for Thai standards) on the tourist roads of Khao San. Those fall flat and I would hate for your impression of pad thai to be based on this. Anywhere else - from a street food vendor that provides seating on playful tiny coloured plastic chairs and tables - will be delicious.

You will find that every vendor makes it slightly different from different types of noodles to a slightly different flavour balance in their sauce. Look for condiments - someone who sells Pad Thai without the usual offerings of fish sauce, extra lime, sugar, ground chilis and peanuts is not the truth! It sell for anywhere from 30-50 THB ($1.10 - $2.00) depending on if you order prawns or not.

This Pad Thai is made with thin vermicelli noodles, although I prefer the wider noodles called "sen ley", which are more traditional.

Green Papaya Salad called "Som Tum" is traditionally an Isaan dish coming from the North Eastern provinces but due to its popularity you can find it everywhere in Thailand. This is one of my favourites with intense chili, sour lime balanced with palm sugar and plenty of garlic. It is a perfect play on savoury and sweet where the two elements need each other for this dish to make sense. 

You can identify Som Tum vendors by the wooden mortar and pestle they use to make it in. They will lightly pound red chili, garlic, dried shrimp, long green beans, peanuts and tomatoes with strips of green papaya before seasoning with palm sugar, plenty of lime juice and fish sauce. Just 30-35 THB!

Bags of dried shrimp of various sizes are sold in street markets. They're used to make popular dishes like Pad Thai and Green Papaya Salad, just to name a few.

Noodle Soups are enjoyed all throughout Thailand in different forms and flavours. I've never met one that I don't like. Despite the sweltering hot climate, piping hot soup is extremely popular and it's quite an experience eating a boiling bowl of soup sitting outside in the humidity under the blistering sun. They often come with various types of meat and veg. The noodles could be thin rice noodles "guay tiew sen mee" or slightly wider noodles "sen lek", or it can be egg noodles "ba mee".

The meat varies from boiled beef to chicken drumsticks or sliced seasoned pork. It's also not uncommon to have fish balls or pork balls that have a spongy texture similar to hot dogs. The broth is always the star of the dish and seasoned well with soy sauce and fish sauce, sometimes aromatics like cinnamon and star anise are added and you can smell these from a mile away. Pick up a bowl for a dollar and call it lunch!

Pad Kee Mao (translated as "Drunken Noodles") certainly tops my list. It is a stir-fry noodle dish most commonly made with big fat wide rice noodles called "sen yai". These fresh noodles have a silky melt-in-your-mouth texture and take on some char from the wok as they are stir-fried. The "drunken" name comes from the fact that this is often quite a spicy dish with lots of red chili. Depending on who makes it, there can be an assortment of vegetables but certainly look for baby corn and fresh peppercorn berries!

Grilled Bananas called "Kluay Ping" can be found on almost every main street. They are so not what you will expect. If you are thinking bananas from South America, the ones we get sent up here to North America, then scratch those thoughts! These Thai bananas called "Kluay Nam Wa" surpass everything we think a banana can be. They are short and thick, very moist, almost creamy (never starchy) and slightly sour. They are extremely aromatic with flavours of coconut and pineapple.

A popular street snack is having them charred over a grill sometimes in their skins. In their skins they have a custardy texture and out of their skins they have a smokey dry exterior and silky insides. If you order the ones without the skins, be sure to ask for the syrup! What the vendor will do is take the banana off of the skewer, chop it into pieces and put it in a bag with the most dreamy coconut caramel sauce! I drink this stuff - no kidding. It's made from coconut milk, palm sugar and salt and I tell you it is gold. A going rate of 3 for 20 THB (less than a dollar). Can't beat it.

Northern Thai Sausage, called "Sai Oua" and often referred to as Chiang Mai Sausage is one of the most flavourful things you can eat. It is difficult to find in Bangkok, but ubiquitous in Northern provinces. Pork meat is mixed with so many beautiful fresh herbs and spices including lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, turmeric, ginger, galangal, garlic and cilantro and then grilled over charcoal. 

It is easily identified by how it is presented in a coil shape and you can buy it by the kilo. Don't miss a chance to try it if you spot it in the markets!

Grilled meat skewers are everywhere, and hurry because your favourite pick will sell out fast! My choice is the pork shoulder skewer ("Moo Ping") and I can't tell you how many times I've come to a street cart and they were sold out. Bummer. All that was left was chicken ass (seriously, she called it chicken "ass") and chicken neck. I'm sure they are great, but I want pork and pork sells quick!

This isn't your typical shishkabob OK.
#1 - these skewers are always cooked over coal which makes them already 100x better than my backyard BBQ.
#2 - they are marinated in this sweet, salty, garlicky, coconut milk sauce.
#3 - one skewer = 10 THB. Incredible.

Mango Sticky Rice (Khao Neow Ma Muang) is one of Thailand's most well known desserts for a reason - it is utterly delicious. No where in north america will you see rice and fruit served for dessert, but in Thailand they know what they're doing. Sticky rice is first steamed to perfection so that it is translucent and chewy. Then it gets a soak in a mixture of coconut milk, sugar and salt until it soaks up all the syrup. It is served up with slices of fresh ripe mango and extra coconut cream on top. You will want to eat this all day and you can make it home with my recipe too.

If you have a sweet tooth then you will stop in your tracks when you spot this colourful display! An array of candied fruits and jellies are on show to cool you down on a hot humid stroll through the streets of Bangkok. Here you pick 3-4 choices and they are served to you in a bowl of shaved ice and coconut milk poured generously over top. 

As the ice melts it creates a sweet cold coconut milk soup with colourful goodies of all different textures floating throughout. There's candied pumpkin, sweetened dried bananas, ginko nuts, red beans, taro, barley, papaya, jackfruit, coconut jellies, herbal jellies, mango and more. It can be hard to choose sometimes...

Another way to cool off, especially if you are eating spicy food (and let's face it, you're in Thailand) is fresh juice. Here she's serving up fresh coconut water with young coconut jelly. You can also try lychee juice or have some mandarins squeezed right before your eyes. If you have never had coconut jelly, I would certainly recommend it. The coconut you might be used to is hard and dry - like the shredded or desiccated coconut we buy at the supermarket and often use for baking. This comes from old or mature coconuts and the meat is very thick and hard. Mature coconuts have very little water inside. 

Young or premature coconuts have a lot of water and you can hear it swishing around if you shake it up. Depending on their age, some of these coconuts have a soft jelly inside that is (for me) the best part. It is full of coconut flavour and has a slippery texture. Think JELL-O.

Similar to Mango Sticky Rice mentioned above, you can also find Young Coconut Sticky Rice. This one is less common on the streets and mostly found served in restaurants. If you love coconut, then whoa... you will flip over this. The coconut-infused sticky rice is smothered in more coconut cream and young coconut jelly!

Another one for the coconut lovers - Coconut Ice Cream! The best comes from the vendors that look the least legitimate. For real! If you see someone walking down the street rolling a buggie with a large metal cylinder and possibly ringing a bell, run for it and stop that guy! Open the lid of the cylinder and you will find home-made, hand churned coconut milk ice cream. 

The vendor usually has a variety of toppings including candied pumpkin, roasted peanuts, sticky rice, red beans, taro and sometimes more traditional toppings like sprinkles (but that's boring). I always choose sticky rice, roasted peanuts, and that purplish glob on the side? That's sweet taro paste. Oh, and don't leave without a drizzle of evaporated milk. All this for 10 THB! ($0.35)

Other icy cold desserts are these creamy ice blocks sold by mobile vendors rolling around a cart with a rectangular cooler. That's the problem with these guys - they are mobile so you never know when you might find them! I've been known to run after them on several (SEVERAL) occasions.

It's so hard for me to choose every time, but I'm partial to Durian, Black Bean, Taro, Coconut and Pandanus.... Ok I know that's more than half the list but I like them all! And again, just 10 THB! ($0.35).

Speaking of Durian, you can get it all year round now in Bangkok, but when it is in season it is everywhere and even more delicious.

Durian is known as the "king of fruits" for its unique taste, odour and appearance. It's hard spiky exterior makes it a challenge to get into, but luckily the vendors do all the hard work for you. Once you peel back the thick hard husk, you reveal pungent creamy soft flesh that surrounds quite large pits similar to an avocado pit. The flavour is so unique that is often hard to describe, but I would say it tastes like sweet egg vanilla custard with hints of banana and bitter notes of garlic and perhaps blue cheese. You either love it or you hate it. I love it.

The smell is so powerful that Durian is banned in some hotels and restaurants, and not allowed on airplanes. 

Mangosteen is another unique fruit that must be tasted if spotted. It is super sweet and exotic. To me it actually tastes most like a pimento pepper without the spiciness. Cut away the thick burgundy skin and indulge in the silky sweet white flesh.

You will know when they are in season because there will be mountains of them like this!

Tropical Fresh Fruit is inexpensive and everywhere to be found! It's the tastiest way to stay hydrated while you're market strolling and site seeing. Don't miss a chance to try southern "Phuket" pineapple which is super sweet and crisp.

Lychee fruit is familiar to most people now that has become a popular flavour for beverages. It has a distinct floral, rose flavour and is very pleasant.

Longkong (not to be mistaken for Longan) is a specialty of SE Asia and I have not tried it anywhere else! This fruit is tricky - sometimes they are sweet and juicy and sometimes they are a bit bitter. I always pay a bit more to get the best ones and when they are good they burst in your mouth with sweetness! They taste like a sweet grapefruit and are so refreshing. If you see these - buy a big bag. You need to peel back the skin and spit out the small pit that is in the center of each lobe (the pits tend to be bitter).

Cool sweet beverages are a major trend in South East Asia and this Nickelodeon-looking alien drink is one of my favourite - sweetened coconut milk with pandan-flavoured jellies. When you slurp it up through the straw, the jellies provide a fun texture similar to bubble tea.

Pandan is a tropical plant that is used to flavour all sorts of Thai desserts and even savoury dishes. It is often termed the "vanilla" of Asian desserts. The leaves are often tied in a knot and simmered or steeped in liquid to infuse their flavour or they are pureed in liquid to extract the colour. It has a pleasant sweet, caramel-like aroma with very slight floral and grassy notes.

Another one of my favourite snacks that you won't know is food until I tell you right now is black and white coconut sticky rice with red bean steamed in bamboo!

Since it can be often sold in the bamboo, you would not know to buy it if you walked right passed! Once you peel back the bamboo, you will reveal a sweet sticky carb-lover's snack. The rice is cooked with coconut milk and the bamboo lends a lovely fragrance.

I've only scratched the surface of what you can find for less than a dollar on the streets of Thailand. I hope you are inspired to go there and EAT!

Big big love,

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