How to enjoy Thailand's street cuisine - safely
Korakot Punlopruksa was savouring her favourite green papaya salad and summer sausages at Bangkok's Chatuchak weekend market when her bliss was shattered. "Suddenly a rat ran underneath my leg," says Punlopruksa, a seasoned local food writer who eats on the street every day. "I freaked out."
Thailand has one of the world's most inspiring cuisines and much of it can be found at the tens of thousands of stalls vying for business down the bustling sois (side streets). Even the most unadventurous of diners can be tempted by noodles or crêpes being freshly made on makeshift burners.
Street food is the lifeblood of Thailand, particularly Bangkok, where the volume of foot traffic means a hardworking stall holder can turn enough profit to send their kids to university. While the odds are high that a one-man venture next to an exhaust-choked car park will serve you the most memorable chicken rice dish of your life, it's just as likely that the neighbouring stall is heavy handed with the MSG or harbouring nests of vermin.
Eating a bad meal usually results in a grumbly stomach or, in extreme cases, a trip to the hospital with a case of food poisoning. It even happened to the country's prime minister in 2011 (although that was likely the result of shellfish eaten at a Bangkok restaurant). Very rarely, it results in death, like that of the New Zealand tourist who ate toxic seaweed from a food market in 2011.
Dylan Jones, who owns Bo.lan restaurant in Bangkok with his wife and fellow chef, Duangporn Songvisava, used to eat at street stalls much more frequently. "I'm a bit dismayed by the street food these days," says Jones, whose own cooking emphasises traditional techniques and local produce.
"Because it's so price sensitive, so price competitive, when everyone is selling a bowl of noodles with pork and fish or whatever for 35 baht [HK$8.40] I can only imagine what they're using. It's a bit scary to eat on the street these days."
Jones recounts a few horror stories he's heard over the years. Stall holders squeezed by competition might buy cheap seasoning in bulk from unscrupulous dealers, who find a use for dried mouldy chillies. "They pound them up and sell that to people as white pepper," says Jones.
Another obvious cost-cutting tactic is buying bulk bags of peanuts, which are often sprinkled on noodles or soups. "Generally, they come crushed because they're already rancid," says Jones. "So they've crushed them up first to hide that."
While rancid peanuts might have a telltale smell, competing scents on the street often make it impossible to detect.
Jones will only eat at busy stalls, with the assumption that they're shifting produce quickly, only selling what they can make that day. Even if produce is sitting out unrefrigerated before being cooked, Jones argues that it's similar to having a barbecue at home. "You get to a point where you just close your eyes, it still tastes fine," he says. "I haven't died yet."
Chawadee Nualkhair, the author of the Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls guide, agrees that a busy stall is a reliable barometer. "I think all Asians vote with their feet and you'll see clearly if someone is popular," she says. "If you don't see anybody there, there's probably a good reason for it."
Nualkhair suggests that prospective diners should also look for stalls where the owner takes obvious pride in their business. That means clean surfaces, of course, and clean produce. If the oil in the stall holder's wok looks murky or dark there might be a chance that it has been reused too many times or might have even been bought second-hand. "Times are tough and people will try to cut corners any way they can, so they might reuse oil or buy old oil," says Nualkhair.
The author has eaten her way across the city's stalls and is still recovering from researching her latest book on street food in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Phuket and other regional spots ( Thailand's Best Street Food is slated for release in November). She identifies five major dishes found on the street that she calls "the Big Five, like a safari". There's soup noodles (guay thiew), fried noodles (pad thai), Issan food (barbecued chicken and green papaya salad), fried wide noodles in gravy (rad na) and egg noodles (bamee). Rice dishes are also popular and fast to prepare, as are oyster omelettes. If cooked on the spot, they're usually safe choices.
Nualkhair suggests looking for the "Clean Food Good Taste" certification, issued by the Ministry of Public Health. The blue and green sign is prominently displayed by businesses that have passed hygiene inspections.
Intrepid eater Punlopruksa hasn't let the memory of that friendly market rat get in the way of her dining adventures. While in Chinatown earlier this year, she followed her nose to the source of the scent of roasted garlic and steaming soup stock. It turned out to be an elusive stall that pops up at night, serving up some of the best handmade fish ball noodle soup in the city. Lim Lao Sa, open from 6pm to 9pm on a small lane off Songwad Road, was packed with local families. "It looked so simple, so plain," says Punlopruksa. When she asked the stall holder why the soup tasted so good, she got a simple reply - the owner made almost everything herself. She was using a traditional recipe that was decades old.
"It [goes] beyond the noodle bowl to me, it tells me about the culture, it tells me about life," she says. Punlopruksa, who recounts her food experiences in a monthly column "Eat Like Nym" in Bangkok 101 magazine, is worried that street food culture is slowly dying. While the older generation "earn their dignity" executing a few dishes beautifully day after day, their better-educated children don't want to take over their stalls.
"It seems to me that we're eating the last dish of this generation," she says. "I consume the history, it's in my belly."