Thailand has always seemed fascinating and yet a bit intimidating to me, because it feels at once familiar (with many similarities in climate and culinary offerings as Vietnam) and yet still so foreign. It’s one of those countries I’ve long been intrigued by, and it was one of the first places we visited after we moved to Asia. (We flew there after spending a few days with family in Hong Kong last year.)
Thailand is so much more diverse than I realized. Most of the Thai food common in the US is mainly characteristic of central Thailand, particularly Bangkok. But the regional foods in other parts of the country bear the flavors of Burma, Yunnan (the southern Chinese province), Malaysia, Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. In addition, the Muslim community in Thailand also brings its own dishes. And I was surprised to find that there are a lot of Chinese people, and therefore a lot of recognizable Chinese food here. Thailand stood at a crossroad between Indian, Arab, and European traders from the west, and the rest of Asia to the east. And, impressively, it is the only country in SE Asia to have never been under European colonization.
During our five days in Bangkok, it was fun to experience both things completely new to me as well as things that, for one reason or another, seemed kind of familiar. Rather than breaking this up into various smaller posts and risk never getting around to finishing, I’m just going to do it all in one fell swoop. So please bear with me! (I will get to Chiang Mai in my next post.) Here we go…
We arrived in Bangkok in the late afternoon, so one of the first things we did was look for dinner. Before our trip, I’d asked my friend Talida (of the lovely blog, Talida Bakes), whose family is from Bangkok, for some suggestions, and she kindly sent me a list of tips and recommendations. One of the things she mentioned was to check out mall food courts as a way to sample a lot of different Thai dishes at once. Even though she had warned me, we got a bit lost and confused by just how upscale and Western the Siam Paragon mall was that she highly recommended. It was our first few hours in Thailand, so we didn’t quite know what we were doing. Unfortunately we missed that food court she’d referred me to but did end up trying the nearby MBK food court, which turned out to be a fine alternative.
The first thing I ordered was a som tam (green papaya salad) with a pungent little salted crab pounded in (my favorite part! you definitely don’t get that at your average Thai restaurant in the US).
At the same food stall, I also noticed that instant noodle salad was on the menu and was very excited to try it. That may or may not sound disgusting to you, but I just have to love a culture that makes/sells dishes out of instant noodles, and this was actually pretty good. (My favorite instant noodle brand is Thai MAMA, so this was right up my alley.) These noodles were tossed in a sort of dressing along with some veggies, squid, and hot dog slices.
Siam Paragon Food Court [map]
Siam Paragon, 1/F, 991/1 Rama I Road, +66 (0) 2690 1000
Skytrain: BTS Siam
- Go past all the Western-type places and find the food stall area with Thai street-food-style dishes.
Noodles, Noodles, Noodles!
This was probably my favorite food in Thailand, though I need much more practice at the Thai art of customizing your noodle bowl. I just could not get over how fresh all the noodles were, and how they were everywhere! My favorite noodles are the thin flat rice noodles (otherwise known as banh pho :), which are incredibly fresh and available in abundance in a way that I have not even found in Vietnam. As Talida suggested, I tried to eat as many noodle soups as I could find.
Like yen ta fo. My first bowl was at the MBK food court, and it tasted a lot like some kind of instant noodle I’m sure I’d had at some point in my life but couldn’t quite put my finger on. My second bowl was on the street, and this time I could distinctly taste the flavor of fermented red bean curd that contributes to the soup’s pink color.
Many of the noodle soups I ate I never even knew the name of. We just tried different things and whatever looked good. Sometimes it was round rice noodles in a curry broth. A lot of times it was thin flat rice noodles in some kind of pork or chicken broth. Sadly, I never came across the famous Thai boat noodles (with pork blood mixed into the soup). Some day I’ll have to find a way to sample that (perhaps attempt this recipe from Pok Pok?).
On the weekend, we made the trek out to Or Tor Kor market, which is conveniently located across from the huge, sprawling Chatuchak Weekend Market (which sells clothing, furniture, and just about everything — it’s known as the world’s largest weekend market!), so we were able to visit both in one go. Leela of the Thai food blog She Simmers has a great tribute to her memories visiting Or Tor Kor as a child, and she touts it as a clean and organized covered market where you can sample a wide variety of authentic dishes, as well as buy local produce and ingredients. David Thompson says, “Even though it’s sanitised, its soul has not been expunged from it.”
We ended up trying khao soi here (actually a northern Thai curry dish, which I’ll talk more about in my Chiang Mai post) and rice with various curries. We also got some fresh fruit juices — there were so many to choose from!
Or Tor Kor Market [map], across from the Chatuchak Weekend Market [map]
intersection of Pahonyothin and Kamphaeng Phet Roads
8am- 6pm (Or Tor Kor); 9am – 6pm, Sat. & Sun. (Chatuchak)
Subway: MRT to Kamphaengphet, Exit 3
- I recommend arriving early and getting a meal at the Or Tor Kor food court before heading to Chatuchak, if only because once you get into Chatuchak, it is so overwhelming you may not feel up to going anywhere else afterward. There are also a lot of food stalls within Chatuchak, so there’s plenty to fuel up on while shopping. *Note that Chatuchak is open only on the weekends, though.
We also wanted to see a floating market during our time in Bangkok. Many of the original floating markets — that is, historical ones that actually evolved over time from vendors selling foods on boats as they navigated the old canals of the the city — are a bit farther out and require a daytrip. Some of them are also known to be quite touristy. The one we ended up visiting was Taling Chan, which is conveniently located within Bangkok, on the Thonburi side of the river. While this market is newer (it was created in 1987) and didn’t naturally evolve from a way of life like some of the others, it is nevertheless very popular among locals, and it is easy to get to. You won’t see traveling boats criss-crossing canals like at some of the other floating markets, but I thought it was still quite atmospheric and lively. There were a lot of local families out there for the weekend, and it didn’t feel that touristy to me at all. Taling Chan consists of a land market selling produce and street food leading up the pier, where there’s table seating, and long boats are moored at the docks for cooking and selling prepared dishes. My husband and I found this floating market to be one of our favorite experiences in Bangkok.
Seafood seems to be the thing to eat here, and whole grilled fish was very popular, but being just the two of us and carrying a squirming toddler with us, we opted just to get some quick snacks and small dishes.
After the floating market, we rode one of the long boats through the canals back out to the Chao Phraya river. It was fun getting to see some of local life along the canals.
Taling Chan Floating Market [map]
324 Chakphra Road
7am – 4pm, Sat. & Sun.
- This floating market is also only open on the weekend. While you can take the local bus 79 here (we made a valiant effort to do so, but could not find the stop, even when we saw several buses go by!), it is far easier to just take a taxi. The ride is not that long, and the cab fare is quite affordable. You can also hire a boat to take you here, but this is usually offered as part of a tour. If you arrive by boat, make sure you venture beyond the pier to the fresh food market and food stalls in the surrounding area. Many of the boats that go back out to central Bangkok are roundtrip boats bringing tourists, so you’ll have to convince them to let you do a single fare, but it is doable. You could also look for the bus that goes back, as I’m not sure cabs are readily available from the market.
If I was wondering beforehand where would be the best places to go for street food in Bangkok, well, my worries were quickly dispelled as soon as we arrived. Because street food is absolutely everywhere! We frequently came upon a good dozen or more street food carts all congregated in certain areas, often at subway entrances, ferry stops, and under bridges, not to mention huge open areas around markets. It was almost like there were constant street food fairs all over the city.
We tried a lot of things, but there was so much we just couldn’t get to. One of my very favorites, though, was this fried chicken with pandan leaves and lemongrass. My husband picked it up from a cart near 7/11 when he went out one morning. I couldn’t get enough of it!
My other favorite street snack was khanom krok, which is kind of like a little coconut pancake. It reminds me of banh beo, except it’s much fluffier, with a bit of a soft custard center. I only got to try these once during my whole time in Thailand, and I’m completely addicted. I must learn how to make them!
Another delightful treat was trying roti sai mai for the first time. I would never have known about this were it not for Talida. She’d mentioned that this street snack was one of her favorite things but almost only seen Ayutthaya, the ancient capital. So I felt lucky to stumble upon a stand selling it at the Taling Chan market. It is almost like a rough-spun cotton candy or strands of sugar that you roll up in a roti and eat.
Speaking of roti, look at this snack below that I had for the first time in Bangkok. I think roti + banana + condensed milk already explains it all.
At the immense Chatuchak Weekend Market, there were these vendors selling what we thought was such a resourceful and smart, not to mention, tasty treat. They’d take fresh coconuts and empty the juice into a drink dispenser, scrape out the flesh, and use the shells as a bowl to serve coconut ice cream. This was topped with the fresh coconut flesh and various topping options, and you’d get a cup of the coconut juice alongside. Simple but brilliant, right? :) A refreshing break on a hot day shopping. (You could eat it while getting a foot massage at the market if you really want!)
And we made sure to have plenty of fresh tropical fruits everywhere we went. Just like in Malaysia and Vietnam, we loved the convenience of ready-peeled and -cut fruits you could buy, along with some chili salt for dipping.
Chinese Food in Yaowarat
I was shocked to read in my guidebook that as many as half of the people in Bangkok can claim Chinese ancestry of some sort. Southern Chinese migrated to Thailand very early on and over time became wealthy merchants here, establishing an elite class of its own.
The influence spreads to the cuisine as well. A lot of the noodle dishes in Thailand are Chinese in origin, with roots in Hokkien, Teochew, and Hakka traditions. Even the Thai word kuaytiaw (“noodles”) is almost identical to the Teochew kway teow (“rice noodles”). But many of the Thai versions of these dishes have the excellent addition of such Thai flavors as fish sauce and herbal notes. :)
Sometimes I’d find that I’d get introduced to a food by its Thai name, and when I tasted it, realized it was Chinese food I’d either had at home or in other parts of SE Asia. This was the case with oyster omelette at Nay Mong. Even though this particular place was widely recommended for its oyster omelettes, maybe we got here on an off day, but we found that both the ones we tasted here turned out to be far too greasy for our liking. But I do recommend oyster omelet in general if you happen to come across one that looks well done.
Even though there was a lot of enticing street food to be had in Yaowarat, we ended up being so intrigued by the neighborhood that we just wandered around. Yaowarat is one of the oldest and best-preserved Chinatowns in the world. The area is filled with alleys that are so tight and so dense that many of them are dark because not much light gets through there. In some ways, the Chinese culture you see here is even more historical than some parts of China, which has been razed and industrialized. In fact, we even found scenes here that were replicated at the Hong Kong Museum of History we visited a few days earlier!
Don’t the colors here remind you of the decor at Sen Yai in Portland? :)
We only had two main restaurants that we wanted to make a point to visit in Bangkok. One was Australian David Thompson’s legendary Nahm, which sadly I was not able to get a reservation at. Thompson has done a lot of research on Thai food, including poring over ancient texts and learning historical techniques. It’s definitely reason to return to Bangkok in the future (or visit London, where the original Nahm is located — the first Thai restaurant to receive a Michelin star).
The other restaurant was Krua Apsorn, which appears repeatedly as one of the best places to eat in Bangkok. This is a very low-key and affordable restaurant that puts out solid food. Unfortunately, many of their most famous dishes had sold out by mid-afternoon when we arrived, like the stir-fried crabmeat. Nevertheless, we had an enjoyable meal here that included an excellent green curry, some crab fried rice that our toddler loved, and their popular crab omelet.
Krua Apsorn [map]
Samsen Rd, between Wat Rachathiwat and the National Library
10:30am – 8pm, closed Sundays
- There are four locations, and I’ve listed the one we went to. (See here for other locations.) Go early in the day so the dishes don’t run out. I’ve also heard you can call and reserve a table and order your dishes in advance. I’m not sure if that works, but it’s definitely worth a try.
Even though people complain about Bangkok being loud and polluted, I just really loved it. Whenever friends visit Thailand, Bangkok always sounds like the lowlight compared to the beaches in the south and the natural scenery in Chiang Mai. Someone even asked us what there is to do in Bangkok. But I really think that this city has a lot to offer, whether in terms of food, shopping, culture, or history. And there’s so much more to explore if we get another chance to go back.
I usually like to give myself a self-made 101 course in the local cuisine when we visit a new country, but I didn’t get a chance to do a lot of research for Thailand beforehand. Other than the blogs, many of these I came across either while I was in Thailand or after I came back.
Thai Hawker Food – I bought this booklet at a bookstore in Thailand, and while the organization doesn’t make the most sense, it is a good, quick introduction to street food, with cute illustrations too.
Nancy Chandler’s map of Bangkok – I didn’t find Nancy Chandler’s maps until I got to Chiang Mai, but I bought the Bangkok version anyway. (It’s much cheaper locally, but not that easy to find.) This is like having a local guide give you all of her personal recommendations in illustrated map form. It’s similar to the Mapeasy Guidemaps, but with far greater detail and personality!
Thai Food and Thai Street Food by David Thompson – These are the great, sacred texts of Thai cuisine. Thai Food is a massive, intimidating tome that starts with an overarching history of Thailand, and if you’re willing to make the effort, it is incredibly comprehensive. Thai Street Food is much more visually friendly, with tons of photos alternating with recipes, but while it is not as thick as Thai Food, it makes up for that in sheer size and weight! I actually found these somewhat easier to read after I returned from Thailand, because I had a better idea of the ingredients and flavors referred to.
Pok Pok by Andy Ricker – While nowhere near as thorough and comprehensive as Thompson’s two books, this one is far more reader-friendly. But there really is no comparison, because Pok Pok, which released just last fall, is an excellent cookbook in its own right, a great introduction to Thai cuisine and making it at home. You won’t find every dish in here, but there’s a wide selection of Thailand’s best offerings, many of which can be sampled at Ricker’s restaurants in Portland and New York City.
She Simmers - Thai food blog with lots of thoroughly documented, authentic recipes that really capture the spirit of the food (her 5-part series on pad thai instantly made me a loyal follower). She also has a few travel posts worth perusing for recommendations.
Tiny Urban Kitchen – Always great food recommendations around the world. My trip to Thailand actually took place before her Thailand posts went up, so I’ll have to bookmark these for next time.