Food from a street vendor isn’t always what it seems. One morning years ago chasing through Bangkok’s crazy traffic in a tuktuk when I visited my Thai friend Nung, we came to a halt at a traffic light near a food stall. Spotting plastic bags holding what looked like thick syrupy lollipops, I shouted at Nung who was in the tuktuk behind us: “Is that sweet?”
“Yes!” he shouted back, jumped out of the tuktuk telling the tuktuk guy to wait, and came back with two bags. The moment I opened the plastic bag I knew things had gotten a little lost in translation—not sweet but “skweed”: a fishy smell wafted up and, at 10 in the morning, I had a tough time eating the salty ink-cooked squid ball on a stick.
Nung could eat all day long. And so did his friends – and so did we trailing all over Bangkok with them. That time we stayed at my friend’s family house in a residential area in Bangkok. When we got home later that day we found his family in the kitchen and out on the patio, busy preparing a feast. We’d been eating basically all day already but the aromas said I could handle some more. There was chatting and laughing as spices were pounded, coconuts scraped, shrimp stir-fried. In a far corner of the patio his dad was busy cleaving a large, spiky fruit that we were forewarned to approach with caution: it was durian.
In the morning Nung handed me breakfast in a bowl. It was a savory rice porridge and had taken on a somewhat grayish look from the gizzards that I discovered when I stirred the porridge. I assumed he made it—it was piping hot and fresh.
Not until the second morning, when he came in the door with little plastic bags bobbing with curry and rice did I realized breakfast came from a stall down the street. His point: why bother making breakfast when there’s good cheap food right down the street!
The lollipop squid didn’t put me off street food, and neither did the porridge. How can you walk past past pork skewers roasting over charcoal, brushed with a shredded lemongrass stalk dipped in coconut oil; noodles tossed with crunchy greens and herbs and stirred in a hot wok; vendors folding sticky rice and fruit into banana leaf parcels, secured with a wooden pick — and not be tempted to try! You don’t get a comfy seat and A/C (unless you take it somewhere comfy and cool) but you do get an intriguing variety of food from street vendors. And you don’t have to study a complex menu, either: you just watch what’s going on and decide on what looks good.*
Thai cuisine is varied, intricate and complex. From scraped cilantro roots to ground roasted rice: Thai food may appear easy but it is all in the details! I have only one Thai cookbook but it’s a good one: it’s Thai Food by David Thompson, the chef who’s kept his Bangkok restaurant Nahm steady in the 50 World’s Best Restaurants (#29 in 2017). His big fat book of 642 pages (not counting index) is a bible of Thai food. It includes 114 pages of history of Thai food, followed by comprehensive sections about the fundamentals of Thai cooking, basic preparations and an exhaustive list of ingredients that can be found in Thai cooking. The range of recipes is phenomenal, the recipes themselves detailed enough to follow. Thompson notes that “the Thai eat all day long” explains how to build a Thai meal, and provides several menu suggestions as well.
Adapted from Thai Food (p. 456), this is an easy but exquisite recipe for grilled squid:
Makes about 4 skewers
- 1 pound cleaned squid
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
- 3 tablespoons coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped
- 1 coriander (cilantro) roots, scraped clean
- pinch of salt
- 3 garlic cloves, peeled
- 3 bird’s eye chillies (or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon raw cane sugar
- 2 tablespoons lime juice
- 1 tablespoon fish sauce
Cut the squid into bite-size pieces. Marinate in fish sauce and 2 tablespoons of the coconut cream for at least 30 minutes. Skewer onto soaked bamboo sticks
To make the sauce, pound coriander root with salt in a pestle and mortar until fine. Add garlic and chilies and continue pounding until you have a coarse paste. Season with sugar, lime juice and then fish sauce. The sauce should be hot, sour, salty and sweet.
Grill the squid (we grill over hot charcoal). Brush with remaining coconut cream as it cooks — this caramelizes and enhances the flavor. Serve sprinkled with coriander leaves and a bowl of sauce on the side.
*As with all street food everywhere: be street food savvy — pay attention to how they store and prepare food, how popular the vendor is (turnover), and follow the lead of locals.
What is your favorite Thai dish? Do you cook it yourself? Which cookbook would you suggest for an authentic taste of Thai food?