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Street Food in Thailand...A Smorgasbord For All The Senses by Carolyn Nantais


#255 - 23 - 12 - Street Food in Thailand...A Smorgasbord For All The Senses by Carolyn Nantais
[ 2008-03-22 10:33:36 ] - lizc

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Like other Southeast Asian countries, food stalls are everywhere in the streets, markets and festivals of Thailand, providing an endless smorgasbord of aromas, color and flavors - food in Thailand is a feast for all of the senses.
Picture a barbecue hotdog stand outside a North American sports stadium. Now, instead of hotdogs and buns sizzling on a grill, the food cart is laden with fresh bananas, which are slathered in batter and deep-fried to golden in a giant wok, then scooped into a paper bag like a super size order of extra thick homecut french fries. That was my first breakfast in Thailand while I watched hundreds of beautifully costumed elephants play soccer and tug-of-war in an annual Elephant Round-up in Surin, in the far northeast of the country!

The next 'hotdog stand' does have a grill, placed over a large bin of charcoal, with flattened chicken quarters sizzling on sticks that you eat like a Popsicle; next door to that is yet another steel cart heaped with fresh, ripe pineapple, mango and papaya, and sporting a huge mortar and pestle for transforming the greener papayas into a crunchy, sweet-sour-spicy salad with morsels of shrimp or squid, chiles, garlic and sugar.

What makes Thai food so delicious and distinctive among other Southeast Asian food is this unique blending of fresh herbs, spices and other ingredients that combine for a perfect balance of sweet, sour, salt and heat that leaves your mouth feeling clean and your tastebuds popping in the afterglow.

Fresh fruit, salads and even soups and noodles are ladled into plastic bags with a skewer, fork, spoon or straw for eating on the go or perched on a folding chair at a nearby metal card table in the market.

Thai buses and trains become moving picnic grounds, with everyone chatting, eating and sharing the fare hawked through the vehicles' windows at roadside stops and terminals: Gai Yang, the flattened barbecue chicken on a stick, skewered meat and fish balls and sticky rice wrapped in banana leaves.

Carnivals and markets feature huge woks at knee-height, bubbling with deep-fried critters of all sorts, many unidentifiable. Are they grasshoppers? crickets? spiders? baby birds? small frogs? -- my mouth and eyes were constantly wide open in wonder and amazement!

I spent an inordinate amount of time in the fresh produce and night food markets -- exuberantly fascinated and often visibly discombobulated, to the great amusement of the vendors and shoppers.

After traversing every aisle of food carts and woks on my mission to find the freshest, most interesting and tasty-looking dishes, I was often met with earnestly shaking heads or "No, you don't want that - that's Thai food!" by English speaking cooks or bystanders when I pointed and gestured and tried to ask for a meal I knew I truly wanted. On my first such adventure, I did not know that the custom was for the cook to show the ladle with the amount of the garlic and chili for you to indicate how much you wanted: thinking she was simply asking if I wanted those Thai ingredients, I nodded vigorously at the heaped display, and in it all went! Yes, it was Thai food, and I enjoyed every sizzling touch to my lips under the watchful, laughing eyes of the vendors and bystanders who had gathered.

I spent as much time learning about, admiring and experiencing the food as I did with major tourist attractions, often spending hours strolling through streets and markets taking in the sights and smells and sounds: quiet clucking rising up from a heap of vibrantly coloured roosters or hens tied together at the feet - a Thai rooster's plumage is extraordinarily beautiful; plastic tubs and buckets just full enough of murky grey water to keep the fish, frogs or turtles alive until a sale was clinched; mounds and mounds of green and red, and purple and orange; the pleasant stench of durian and jackfruit - pleasant because I was just so thrilled and in awe of it all!

I tried deep-fried grasshoppers at a carnival in Kanchanaburi during a sound and light show of "The Bridge On The River Kwai" that ended with a fabulous fireworks display recreating the Allied bombing campaign that destroyed the bridges of the Death Railway in 1945. I tried a few tiny roasted wood worms offered by a very thin host in a northern hill-tribe village near the Myanmar border, and feared that I was eating his family out of house and home. I discovered countless traditional dishes I had never tasted and savoured authentic versions of some I had had in Toronto's newly arrived Thai restaurants. As often as I could, I watched their creation so that I could try to replicate them when I got home and got a kitchen again.

Many people are alarmed at how daring I was with my stomach. In six months of traveling through Southeast Asia, I only had one tiny bout of queasiness over a couple of days on Sumatra in Indonesia. I must have found the perfect balance of common sense and adventure, or, some might argue, I was just lucky.

I don't recommend trying everything, and I do recommend a few common sense tips for sampling the full range of the food on offer throughout your travels:
* at street and market stalls, do watch the cooking for awhile to ensure that the ingredients are fresh and the food is being cooked thoroughly; if you have any doubts, move on to the next vendor
* choose vendors that have a good steady flow of customers - not only is the food probably very good, but the turnover means fresher food
* ask your guesthouse host and any other residents you meet for their favourite places to eat, and for recommendations on dishes to order
* follow the other safe eating tips you find in travel guides, like recommendations about water, ice cubes, and peeling fruit and vegetables

Of course, you will find an endless selection of sit-down restaurants where you can savour some of the more familiar Thai dishes now found in restaurants around the world: green curry with chicken, red curry with beef, pad Thai and other noodle dishes, and wonderfully aromatic sweet basil dishes.

Whether you plan to sample the fabulous foods from the street vendors and markets or stick to what you know, learn a few tips on deciphering a menu or asking for a type of dish with a few Thai Food Terms.

Many supermarkets are now carrying a range of prepared sauces, curries and other Asian products, but if you enjoy adventure and creativity in your own kitchen, many Thai recipes are fairly easy to create once you've mastered a few essentials. Gai Yang, after all, is really just barbequed chicken with a Thai twist! A good food reference guide or cookbook with a glossary of Asian ingredients will help you gain that perfect balance of sour, sweet, salt and heat that is unique to Thai cuisine.

2005 recipe-for-travel.com

About the Author

Carolyn Nantais is a freelance writer, website copywriter, world traveler and culinary xenophile who indulges in temporary retirement from time to time to travel and eat around the world. Her new website, The Recipe for Travel, has stories, recipes and practical information gathered through adventures in round-the-world travel and food.
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