If you’ve been following all the noise about the ‘Street Food Bangkok’ app I gave a test run recently, you know the Tourism Authority of Thailand has been promoting the country as a food destination. The TAT is just now realizing the impact food has on people’s travel plans, but there’s a number of people who’ve been pushing to improve the prominence of Thai food as a world cuisine in recent years, one of them being Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls author Chawadee Nualkhair.
Chawadee, fittingly called Chow by friends, let me grill her about the motives behind her latest book, Thailand’s Best Street Food. Since her book was released I’ve been carrying it around on my street food excursions, especially when friends are in town, or when I become bored of my usual haunts. The book is well organized and lends itself well to the quick neighborhood oriented, or craving based recommendation in Bangkok. However, the book also goes beyond Bangkok to highlight street food around the country, including stalls from every region with popular cities such Chiang Mai, Sukhothai, Khon Kaen, and Phuket featured.
After releasing Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls a few years ago, where did you find the inspiration for this latest guide?
I wrote Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls because I was intimidated by all the street food stalls in Bangkok and wanted to be a part of that world, in a way that wouldn’t embarrass me or inconvenience anyone else. I still embarrass myself on a regular basis, but not when it comes to street food, which is something that Thais treat as a kind of connective tissue for society: everyone has an opinion about street food, and their favorite places, and everyone is prepared to fight passionately about it because it’s one of the few things that everyone in Thailand shares, this love of street food.
What’s different in your latest street food guide?
The second book just expands on and updates the work of the first book. It includes places from all over the country, and it improves on some elements, adding some street food recipes inspired by various vendors, as well as clearer, more concise maps. There are the recipes included which were painstakingly put together by my friend Chris Schultz and me. We must have tested quite a few versions of every dish, particularly the tom yum soup, which is a lot harder to make than it looks!
These recipes are scattered throughout the book, and I hope they convey the depth and breadth of street food in Thailand, which I think is one of the most diverse in all the world, thanks to all the culinary influences Thailand has incorporated: China, Portugal, India, Persia, Malaysia, Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Indonesia — not to mention contemporary influences like Italy, the US, Japan and Korea. Thai street food is always evolving, and I find that fascinating. No doubt there will be the need for an update in the coming years!
You traveled all over Thailand in search of the best food, can you share some of the unexpected discoveries you made?
I guess what really stood out to me was the sheer diversity of the street food, and how every region really had its own food identity. For example, Isaan was really distinct — not like the Northeastern Thai you see in Bangkok — but truly, genuinely different, without sugar, a celebration of pure, clean flavors and simple cooking techniques. It was like going to a different country and all the Isaan food found in Bangkok was just a central Thai interpretation of the real thing. Phuket was also like a different country: an amalgam of influences from Malaysia, southern China and Thailand that wouldn’t be found anywhere else in the world. And the use of street food as a tourist draw, as in Chiang Mai and Sukhothai, was also interesting. It’s hard to tell which came first: the tourist industry, or Sukhothai noodles/khao soy? Whatever the answer is, the result is a thriving industry that just happens to produce two of the most delicious dishes in the country.
Is there a part of the country you would recommend food tourists with a short amount of time to visit?
For tourists it depends on what tourists want out of Thailand. Many of them couldn’t imagine coming all the way here and not going to the beach, so I would recommend they check out Phuket, which has a really unique culinary character and dishes you would never find anywhere else in Thailand, like lor bak (โลบะ, deep-fried pork intestines) and o-tao (โอต้าว, a sort of oyster omelet topped with pork rinds).
Which province would you recommend to Thailand’s long term residents explore?
As for long-term expats, I don’t think you could beat Isaan — for food and for its underrated-ness. It’s still relatively undiscovered compared with standard tourist draws like Chiang Mai, has a lot of culture to offer, is rife with natural beauty, and of course, the food is awesome. I’m surprised more Thais don’t travel there, actually. I think it’s still got an “undiscovered gem” quality.
Lastly, what are the most exciting trends you’ve seen among Thailand’s street food stalls?
The fusion of Thailand and influences from Japan, Korea and the West are really interesting to me right now. While street food in Thailand has been a cultural mainstay since the Chinese first came to this country en masse in the 1800s (and plays a big part of the food culture in the rest of Asia and parts of South America), I think the West is just starting to undergo a widespread gourmet street food boom — no longer is street food relegated to simple hot dogs and doner kebabs for clueless tourists.
There is real, thoughtful food — some would even call it “gourmet” — being produced in food trucks all over the States and Oceania, and it will only a little while before you see the same thing happening in some parts of Europe. And new things are being produced all the time, like the Thai streetside take on sushi, or Thai interpretations of ramen, with a tom yum-flavored broth. Whether this is just a fad, or something that is here to stay and could maybe even find its way back to Japan to influence the food there, California roll-style: only time can tell.
If you’ve got questions about Thailand’s Best Street Food? Please leave them below!
You can grab your copy of Thailand’s Best Street Food in local bookstores or in paperback or kindle on Amazon for about $10. Big thanks to Chawadee for this hunger inducing conversation and for always letting me bug her about what’s happening in and around Thailand’s food scene (like her words of wisdom when I was overly excited about visiting Sriracha). In addition to her books, she also publishes hilarious street food essays on her blog Bangkok Glutton. Find and follow her there!