Eating on the edge

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First published 24th January, 2006

It is early evening and I've just avoided a collision with an orange vendor's cart by leaping nimbly onto the footpath's edge in a side street off one of Bangkok's main roads. Already the traffic noise has notched up a few decibels as this is a business area and soon there will be throngs of workers and shoppers ready to indulge in one of Thailand's favourite pastimes -- eating.

For eating on the go makes sense as most of the population live in studio apartments or rooms with little or nothing in the way of cooking facilities. And Thais love to eat all the time -- they're perpetual grazers.

Street food in Bangkok can equal restaurant food in quality and taste and you have the added buzz of seeing it prepared -- and it is incredibly cheap.

And what a choice awaits -- vegetables and spices come into the city in all kinds of ways -- by road and rail, by barge and long-tail. The riverside Pak Khlong market (pak khlong talaat) is a hive of activity as items are sorted and then distributed to the over 30,000 restaurants and countless street food stalls in Bangkok.

So the world is your oyster -- or shrimp or whatever you choose. As most small street stalls in Bangkok feature one or two main dishes, there is the opportunity to drift from stall to stall, designing a menu at leisure. A quick check is recommended for clean stalls, clear cooking oil, and the meat or seafood kept chilled on ice.

The area for my dining experience is one of those recommended -- a giant "U" formed by Surawong Road from the notorious Patpong up around Rama IV, and down the same distance on the far side of Silom Road -- where a quick check of vendors shows clean stalls, clear cooking oil, and fresh vegetables, with meat or seafood kept chilled on ice.

People living or working near a khlong can have their restaurant come to them. Vendors ply their little craft around the khlongs on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River, whipping up tasty noodle dishes like the renowned pad Thai, in which the slightly sour tang comes from the tamarind fruit. This really is the essential fast food, created in a flash to be eaten by people on the go.

But if you are street-bound, sample some cut fruit which comes with a packet containing a mix of salt, sugar and chilli powder for a taste tweak.

If it's only appetizer time, try som tam, the famous green papaya salad which can pack a very chilli punch and there's always the universal favourite of khanom krok, tiny coconut, tapioca and rice crepes cooked on a special indented griddle.

My choice tonight- pork kebabs- is unadventurous, but exotic dishes tempt the passer-by. There is always the basic selection of curries, stir-fry dishes and noodles of course, but how about pork hock with greens? It always looks enticing, with the hock caramelised and aromatic. Some grilled corn? Whatever takes your fancy is available.

One trap for the unwary is that all these goodies are nigh on irresistible and there is the temptation to munch on and on... and on, until with regret it dawns that there is no room for dessert.

I haven't quite reached this stage, and roam around seeking a personal favourite to finish off the evening -- banana leaves filled with sweet sticky rice. To heck with the carbs -- I'm on the town tonight.

Of course, for the faint-hearted, there are always the food courts and you can sniff these out -- literally -- either in the basements or on upper floors in large shopping centres.

The atmosphere is not as vibrant as eating in the streets, but for a few coupons -- Thai baht are swapped for food chits -- you can take your pick and the results are delicious. The open food stalls in Suan Lum Night Bazaar off Lumphini Park are worth a try.

And then for those who insist on comfort and a smart dining ambience all those restaurants beckon but if you want to live on the culinary edge, street food in Bangkok is the way to go.

John Rowell is an Australian freelance travel writer who has had a love affair with Asian culture for many years. Particular interests include the history, culture and cuisine of the countries he visits. You can read more of his travel writing here.

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