Everything you need to know about street food in Thailand and what to eat.
It is true what everyone tells you and what you have read on the web – Thai street food is indeed the best. There is absolutely no way around it and you would be gravely missing out if you’d decide to solely eat in restaurants. Sampling your way through Bangkok’s countless street food stalls is a food lovers wet dream. It is a cultural experience you won’t be able to find anywhere else on the world. At least not on this scale.
It can be daunting sometimes. Not only is there delicious food everywhere, but also certain snacks that require a little courage, an open mind, and a strong belly from us farangs. But mostly you will encounter mouthwatering dishes ranging from noodle soups, curries and fried noodles to sausages, skewers, and rotis.
For this post, we decided to start at square one, so that new backpackers have a good introduction into the culinary world of Thailand’s street food culture.
What is street food?
I can guarantee you that you had street food somewhere before in your life. In the United States, you can order a hot dog from a street vendor. In Colombia, you will find arepas and empanada on every street corner. And you can’t visit a Christmas market in Germany without ordering a portion Schupfnudeln with a mug of steaming Glühwein.
This is what street food in Thailand is like, only on a much larger scale.
Whether it’s a food market, Bangkok’s famous Chatuchak Weekend Market or simply a busy road, these are the types of places where you can find the numerous stalls and mobile vendors. Even on the beaches in Southern Thailand, there are people on boats that cook and serve food. This is actually how it all started. Many centuries ago there were floating markets, like the famous one you can still visit in Bangkok, and the food was known as canal’s food. The shift to land-based stalls happened in the early 20th century.
The locals here visit the many street hawkers to grab some food “on-the-go”. So, don’t be surprised, when you see a Thai person with bags of noodle soup and styrofoam containers filled with curry and rice on his way to work or back home.
What separates Thailand’s street food scene from the others around the world is that there is barely a single dish that you won’t find in any of the aforementioned spots. The portions tend to be smaller than in restaurants, but that only serves as an encouragement for us to try out as much as possible. The price certainly won’t be a problem, since most of the dishes cost less than a dollar. The only real limitation is the size of your belly and how far you are willing to stretch it.
How good is the street food in Thailand?
This question sounds redundant at first since we’ve already established that Thailand is synonymous with the best street food. But HOW good is it really? I use this clever transition to tell you about Jay Fai, the Queen of Thai Street Food. This lovely 72-year old lady is the first person to be awarded the sought-after Michelin star for her – you guessed it – phenomenal street food. Particularly her crab omelet is famous, but it comes with the hefty price tag of 28 Dollars.
This should give you an indication of how good this type of food can be. It goes to show that just because something is being cooked in a small space, doesn’t mean it has to be bad or inferior to a restaurant in terms of quality.
Just like Jay Fai, many of the street hawkers have been specializing in only a few selected dishes. After honing their craft for decades, they now manage to create near-perfect meals. It is therefore completely irrelevant whether they cook in the sidecar of their scooter or in a fancy kitchen.
But of course, we have to talk about the flipside of that as well. Where there is great quality, there is also something of not-so-great quality. With the sheer endless amount of street food markets, you are bound to come across a chicken skewer that may force you to spend a couple of hours or even days on the toilet. The standard of hygiene for some of the street vendors is not that high. You should try to avoid them at all cost. Food poisoning is by no means a funny business, especially if you combine it with a bit of alcohol. Trust me, we have all been there.
As a general rule of thumb: “If the locals eat there, then so should you.”
Branch out and delve into the diversity of Thai food
Do you remember when we said that there are certain snacks that require a little more courage? Kool. Let’s talk about grasshoppers, scorpions, ant eggs and termites, because you will see heaps and heaps of them at food markets. Your first instinct may tell you that this is disgusting and how would someone seriously consider eating… THAT!? But from personal experience, it actually doesn’t taste that bad and they have some great nutritional benefits.
For example, they are high in protein, healthy fats, iron and calcium. I mean, there must be a reason how Simba from The Lion King managed to become such a strong lion, am I right? “Slimy, yet satisfying”, remember? And who knows, maybe upon your return home you can call yourself an expert in entomophagy! Not sure, if you can put this on your CV though…
In all seriousness, we recommend you to try out as many different food options as possible. Especially the things you have never tasted or even seen before. We mention this because the Thai cuisine has the unique characteristic of incorporating different styles and tastes from all over the world. China, Portugal, Japan and India among other countries influenced the Thai style of cooking tremendously and helped create the food culture we know and love today. As the Thai food expert David Thompson once said: “The people pass through and the residue is the cuisine they leave behind.”
What are some classic Thai street food dishes?
As we mentioned above, there is scarcely a Thai dish that you won’t be able to locate in a food market, but there are some classics. If you are completely new to Thai food, then view this as a beginner’s guide…within a beginner’s guide.
● Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad): This is probably one of the healthiest dishes you can eat in Thailand and it’s so good! It is made of tomatoes, garlic, shrimp, chili peppers, peanuts and of course, shredded green papaya. It has a sweet, sour and spicy flavor, which is typical for many Thai dishes.
● Pad Thai: The classic among the classics! Stir-fried noodles with tofu, tamarind, roasted peanuts, a lime wedge and either chicken, beef, pork, shrimp or squid. Usually, there is a small serving of beans sprouts included as well.
● Guay Teow (Noodle Soup): There are so many different variations of this dish. Do you prefer chicken, beef or pork stock? And noodles made of rice or egg? Would you like some vegetables as well? With some meat, meatballs or wontons (similar to dumplings)? You can try three noodle soups from three different stalls and get three different taste experiences.
● Spring Rolls: You maybe had some cheap frozen ones for $1,49 before. These here are a lot better (duh). Also, try out the fresh spring rolls for a healthier version.
● Skewers: The perfect takeaway food! You can get them with either chicken, pork or beef. The skewers are marinated and often come with a peanut sauce.
● Kai Jeow (Thai-style omelet): A simple omelet with a small portion of rice. If you find yourself in a food market early in the morning, this serves as a great breakfast option.
Let’s Wrap This Up… Hmm, wraps…
We could go on and on and on, but this guide should introduce you to some of the most commonly found dishes in a street food market. Now, go crazy, experiment, try out new things and let us know what your personal favorites are. Mine are bacon-wrapped enoki mushrooms. I’m not entirely sure if this is Thai, but it has bacon and bacon is life.