Apr 15 2013

Talaad Mai: a feast for the senses in Bangkok’s Chinatown

Published by at 8:06 am under Food


Dim sum, fish heads, gingko, shark fins, oolong, incense, Vespas, smoked duck, egg noodle, sala bao, tea cake, goji berry, fish maw, stinky fruit, salty people, pickled cabbage, pig intestines, pumpkin seeds, dried squid, Teochew great grandmums sipping lo-han-guo and the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand — mix it all together and what do you get? It’s Bangkok‘s Talaad Mai.

It's usually a lot more crowded than this.

Come early on a weekday for the biggest piles of food and thinnest crowds.

Soi Itsuranaphap, aka Yaowarat 6 / Charoen Krung 21, has hosted Talaad Mai market for well over a century in Bangkok’s Chinatown, and it still feels like it was plucked out of 1940s Shanghai. Teochew Chinese is spoken (or screamed) by the vendors, many of whom continue to run modest family businesses launched by their elders when Talaad Mai’s name still made sense (it means “new market” in Thai).

Given the ramshackle state of the hole-in-the-wall shops and the mind-boggling amount of stuff squeezed in to them, it’s hard to imagine a time before the market existed. We’ve always had the impression that the narrow alley is fully roofed, but in reality, it was the countless bags of fried fish maw (a fish organ used in Chinese abalone soup and other dishes) hung from the awnings of so many shops that made it feel like an enclosed space. Like the rest of Chinatown, the cramped quarters don’t stop Vespas piled high with fresh stock from driving inside.

A bed of shiitake under a ceiling of fish maw.

A bed of shiitake under a ceiling of fish maw.

It’s not uncommon for visitors to sneeze repeatedly thanks to the heady mix of scents. Several stalls sell fresh seafood by the kilo, including giant fish heads that drip from iron hooks inches from where shoppers walk past. Other shopkeepers have mastered the anatomy of swine, selling every last bit of the pig that will be put to some or other use in neighbourhood Chinese-Thai kitchens.

The market has enough raw and wriggling stuff to send the weak-stomached rushing for the nearest exit, but the majority of shops sell dried foods, tea and other products that — while exotic to Westerners — are everyday staples for Bangkok’s Chinese. Talaad Mai is a go-to spot for a popular pickled cabbage known as kiam-chai, often sold alongside baskets piled high with gingko nuts, dried beans, shiitake mushrooms, spices, and at least a dozen varieties of flavoured pumpkin seeds.

A shrine is never far in Chinatown.

And in the middle of it all …

As is often the case in Chinatown, an old, hidden-away shrine at the end of an alley that diverges from the centre of the market provides a chance to come up for air. According to a Chinese inscription that dates it to 1658, the Leng Buai Ia shrine happens to be the oldest Chinese shrine in Thailand. Teochew businessmen would have come here centuries ago to kneel before altars dedicated to the legendary second century Han Dynasty warlord, Guan Yu, and the southern Chinese goddess of the sea and heaven, Tianhou (aka Mazu), both of which still stand unruffled amid burning sticks of incense.

Tea!

Tea!

Asian tea-lovers who’ve had their fill of Thai-style milky iced tea (chaa yen) will be pleased to discover several shops devoted to loose leaf tea in Talaad Mai. Everything from low grade Chinese production green to fragrant jasmine pearls and upmarket Taiwanese ginseng oolongs in shiny vacuum-sealed bags is available. We’re big fans of the nameless tea shop situated just south of Charoen Krung Road. The friendly folks who run it can speak a little English, and their passion for tea is evident both in the fridges used to ensure freshness and their eagerness to let prospective customers sit down and sample.

Although you may not feel too hungry after a glimpse (and whiff) of those drippy fish heads, a handful of hole-in-the-wall eateries are sporadically placed amid the chaos. Two Chinatown mainstays run scaled-down shops in Talaad Mai: Hong Kong Noodle is noted for its dim sum, Chinese sweet egg cakes and ba-mee-muu (egg noodles with roast pork), while Hua Seng Hong also churns out dim sum along with delectable sala bao — try the barbecue pork (muu daeng) variety. Also don’t miss the traditional Chinese tea cakes and dark brown lo-han-guo (aka ‘momordica’ or ‘monk fruit’) herbal tea drink. It tastes terrible but supposedly affords all sorts of health benefits.

Nibbles to go from Hua Hen Song.

Nibbles to go from Hua Hen Song.

To reach Talaad Mai from Ratchawong Express Boat pier, walk straight away from the river on Ratchawong Road, then take a right on to Yaowarat Road, crossing the street when possible. The market covers the length of Soi Itsarunaphap, which is clearly marked at its southern entrance by a blue street sign that also says ‘Yaowarat 6′ (see map). The spectacle continues on the north side of Charoen Krung Road, where you’ll find everything needed for a proper Chinese funeral mixed in among the foodstuff. Alternately, Talaad Mai is a 15-minute walk west of Hualamphong MRT station.

If you’re not drained from the dizzying energy of Talaad Mai, you will be after getting lost in the electronics stalls of Khlong Thom and the rest of Chinatown’s crazy shopping alleys. Just be sure to save enough strength to dabble in the street food of Yaowarat

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