Chawadee Nualkhair has just released a new book, Bangkok's Top 50 Street Food Stalls, profiling the top 50 street food stalls (plus a few stragglers) in Bangkok. The Thai-born, American raised food lover reveals to Travelfish.org some of her favoured spots, advises what adventurous eaters to the capital should try, and tells us the most far-out thing she ate in the name of research that saw meals devoured across 150-plus stalls.
How did you come to write your book?
My friend and I were talking about how we would eat at street food stalls more often if we knew which ones were good, and if they weren't so intimidating. All the street food stands here are different. Some require written orders, some are verbal. Some go out of their way to help you, some are the opposite. Some have quite substantial menus, some only offer one or two things. We thought it would be great if someone could tell us what to order and how to do it. Then we realised that we could be that someone.
How long did it take to research and write?
It took a little over a year -- throughout my pregnancy, through to the birth, to the newborn-sleepless night phase, on through to weaning. We ate at at least 150 food stalls, tried some two or three more times to be sure, and finally whittled it down to 50. That was the hardest part. There really is a wealth of great food out there on the street.
How long do you think it would be before it needs to be updated? Do the best places tend to be the ones that have been around for years?
Absolutely, the best places are the oldest. Thai people are extraordinarily nice, but when it comes to their food, they don't hesitate to vote with their feet. The stands that have been around the longest must have something special. That was definitely a factor in selection. Some of those places were disappointing and weren't included, but most definitely deserved their reputations. We're thinking of updating in two years. By that time, we hope to include stalls from the North, Northeast and South. It's a constant work in progress and I always look to improve in any way I can.
How many places do you think you ate at in order to get the top 50 places?
At least 150. And that isn't including the aharn tham sung (cook to order) and khao gub gaeng (pre-cooked curries on rice) stalls out there. There are so many of those, and so many that are good, we just didn't have the time or manpower to include them. Maybe someday.
Would you mind sharing a few of your favourite stalls with us? Where would your favourite spot be for a streetside breakfast, lunch, dinner and late-night snack?
For breakfast, I love the gow low pik gai, which is chicken wings in a chicken broth without the noodles, at Guaythiew Pik Gai Sai Nampung on Sukhumvit Soi 20. They add cowslip blossoms, which run out early, so I always think of it as a breakfast dish.
A good weekday lunch is the khao mok gai (chicken biryani) on Convent, simply because it's good and isn't available at any other time. I always order it with the spicy chicken soup on the side.
For dinner, I like Jay Fai on Mahachai Road. It's absolutely my favourite food stand in the city. Although it's known as a lard na (gravy noodle) place, they have a great menu including a delicious "dry" thom yum, a "dry" sukiyaki and an amazingly puffy crabmeat omelette. I like the pork bamee with egg on Ekamai 19 as a late-night snack. It's open until 3 in the morning and their egg noodles are really tasty. I always go when it opens at 8pm, since after midnight it gets packed with people post-clubbing.
What top three dishes would you advise someone who really wants eat unusual Thai street food tries?
If you'd like to move beyond the usual pad thai, som tum or soup noodle offering, I think the Thai-Muslim dish chicken biryani is a great bet -- full of flavour and quite filling. We also found a great duck rice porridge that is quite unusual -- a lot of Thais haven't even tried it -- but really delicious. Finally, oyster omelettes, especially the thin, crispy kind. The combination of the crunchy "omelette" with the fresh, tart oysters is out of this world.
And what about unusual Thai street food beverages?
Thais make so many great beverages out of the different fruits available. My favourites are nam grajieb, or roselle juice, which is tart and sweet, and nam dok anjan, or butterfly pea juice, simply because of the dramatic purple colour. Some of the Chinese herbal drinks that are supposed to be "good" for you, like rohaguay, take some getting used to.
Where should a traveller to Bangkok who really loves food base themselves in town? That is, where is Bangkok street foodie heaven?
I'm not sure about other people -- I'm sure many would say Chinatown -- but in terms of beauty and sheer variety, I would definitely say Banglamphu, particularly the loop from Tanao Road onto Mahachai Road. Some of the best food in Bangkok is in that area and it's cool and leafy, Bangkok at its most relaxed.
When you were growing up, how did eating street food fit into your family life? That is, would your parents get takeaway a few times a week? Would you go out to eat at your family's favourite places? Or were they horrified about the thought of eating at street stalls?
I grew up in the States, but my parents always placed great importance on good Asian food -- particularly Northern Thai food, which my dad cooked frequently despite the fact he worked 14-hour days, and Cantonese food. I remember them dragging us along on 2-4 hour drives to some Chinese restaurant in Cleveland or Toronto, just for dinner, and me silently cursing my parents the whole way. Now I drag my lasagna-loving daughter along with me to food stalls all over the place, and I know she's cursing me inside as well. Call it karma.
Do you have any advice for travellers who can't speak any Thai but want to eat at street stalls?
Choose a stall that is popular, but doesn't look overwhelmed by the number of orders it's contending with. Go at an "off" moment if you have to. If the place doesn't require a written order, feel free to point. Most of the stalls, if they're not in the weeds, are happy to help you place your order. For the written order ones (they have slips of paper and pens in front of the cook), just copy what is on the slip in front of you. You might get something you'll hate, but more often than not, you'll get something that's really delicious.
What's been the most far-out thing you've eaten during your research?
In Banglamphu, there is a "pig's brain soup" vendor that is really famous. It's a Thai-Chinese dish that is supposed to give you energy in the morning. It's good, but I wasn't sure about how the dish would be received. Maybe next time...
Do you think it's worth splurging to eat in Thai restaurants given the street food is so good?
It depends on the ambiance you're going for. Some streetside stalls are quite pleasant to eat at, particularly those just off of Yaowarat Road and in Banglamphu. But some are sort of hot and miserable depending on the time of year. And a lot of Thai restaurants are really excellent. The scene has improved a lot since 1995, when there was only See Fah and the Thai restaurants at the 5-star hotels and nothing in between.
A lot of cautious travellers are afraid of getting sick from eating on the street. What would you advise them?
Look at the condiment tray (the tray holding the fish sauce, pickled chilli peppers, and sugar). If the condiment tray is clean, the food will be clean.
However, most of the places in the guide are very clean. That was part of the reason for selecting them. I once went to a beef noodle shop on Ekamai where I found a dead cockroach in the chili pepper-and-vinegar container. Needless to say, that shop isn't in the guide.
By Stuart McDonald
Last updated on 7th February, 2011.
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