More on Thai food culture…

The food adventures continued as we moved around Thailand, with each area taking particular pride in its local dishes and specialities. And at all times, there was a clear fusion between Thai food and Thai life.

thai style picnic, hot springs

Boiling eggs in baskets at the hot springs

For instance, the owner of the homestay we chose in Suphan Buri took fruit to be blessed at the temple daily, and then put it out for her guests to bring them good luck – a very important element of Thai culture. The spirit houses were always bursting with food and drink for the ancestors, and there were edible holy fish fatted in the pond. We didn’t quite manage to decipher whether they would or would not be eaten.

When we stayed with a family in Chiang Mai, they were so hospitable that they took us to the San Khamphaeng hot springs on their day off, so we could boil eggs in the sulphurous water and make a picnic. We were the only westerners there and it was a real honour to sit with our feet in the springs alongside the locals. There were some rather odd-looking offerings also available and we weren’t even sure whether they were on sale for boiling – but we later found out they were definitely there as food (see beetle photo).

unusual foods Chiang mai

Beetle picnic, anyone? Delicious boiled, apparently.

Afterwards, our Chiang Mai hosts took us to a local restaurant famed for its Isaan-style food. We would never have found this on our own and we got to try new spicy fruit salads, sticky sun-dried meats, and delicious fresh fruit smoothies made with ice we could actually drink. (Most people don’t realise but the biggest cause of upset stomachs is from the ice in drinks made from tap water so just in case, avoid, avoid, avoid!)

One of the clearest examples of how lifestyle and belief influenced food was during our stay at the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng valley, Chiang Mai province. A wonderful conservation centre focused on rescuing and rehabilitating abused elephants – as well as over 400 dogs, a herd of water buffalo and some humpy-looking cattle – the flavoursome food they offered was completely vegetarian, reflecting the animal-centric ethos of the park. (I love tofu but didn’t realise it could be presented in so many ways!)

The park also welcomed us with an intriguing good luck ceremony, led by the local village shaman. The food, flower and candle offerings were placed on a small, decorative float and the ceremony consisted of all our bad luck being drawn out by the shaman’s song. This was deposited on the float, which was then sent away down the river. We were all given white blessed wristbands, just to make sure the luck stayed, with strict instruction on which wrist they were to be worn (left for female, right for male), how long they could be worn (between 3-7 days), as well as how to remove (untie, not cut – and then keep).

elephant conservation volunteering thailand

Not edible – but I had to post a pachyderm.

The Elephant Nature Park also bade us a lucky farewell with a traditional Khantoke dinner. I’d hoped to experience one of these while in the North of the country, but had trouble finding one in Chiang Mai that wasn’t solely catering for tourists. These dinners consist of small, low tables, where you sit with others on the floor and share food. The village presents the food, with traditional entertainment while you eat – such as local music, candle dances, and mask dances. The spirit is one of celebration and the aim is – you guessed it – to guarantee good luck from the spirits when you leave.

It didn’t matter where we travelled in Thailand, the quality of the food was impeccable and food was central to everyday life. Everyone liked to show off and share, and it was clear that you lived for food, rather than ate food to live. Food was ritualistic and an important event, not something to shovel down quickly.

Just try wolfing down the special BBQ served in Khanom without doing yourself an injury: the hot, domed griddle in the centre of the BBQ is kept fizzing with a wedge of meat fat, while the coals inside the dome keep the soup bubbling. You dip your fish, meat and seafood in raw egg and BBQ it while adding vegetables and noodles to the moat of soup around the outside. Move too fast and you find yourself cooking as you try to keep things turning, but too slow and the meat fat starts spitting. It’s all part of the experience and after our fifth (yes, we liked it!) attempt, I think we got the hang of it.

There were many more food adventures we could have engaged in, but we had to leave some for next time. We didn’t try any of the deep fried tarantulas or crickets, but we did have the rich boat noodles (flavoured with pigs blood) and the gloopy chicken rice soup for breakfast, which is definitely an acquired taste.

seafood street food in thailand

Just one of the many delicious street-food seafood BBQs

Our favourite meals in Thailand were barbecued squid with spicy lime sauce (Chiang Mai), sticky deep fried sun-dried beef (Isaan style), sticky rice with mango (Bangkok), spicy papaya and mango salads, Thai BBQ (Khanom), red snapper in Tamarind sauce (Suphan Buri), chargrilled swordfish (Chumpon) chicken laab (Koh Yao Noi), molasses and yellow bean cakes (Koh Yao Noi) and any of the lemongrass-based soups such as Tom Yum Goong.

But I think the best thing about the food in Thailand was the overall experience and seeing the pride people had in their dishes. I’ve cooked many Thai dishes since returning home, but without the buzz of hungry queues, the hum of traffic, the glorious sun and a person peering over the counter from behind a wok, curious to know whether you’re enjoying it, it just doesn’t taste the same.

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Thailand adventures – let’s start with the food in Bangkok!

Thai food, Khao Yai

Soup noodles anyone?

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to structure these blog posts about travelling in Thailand. My diaries are hardly insightful – they’re more like excessive to-do lists with descriptive snapshots – and I don’t really want to create a chronological account of what we did and why. Rather, I want to try and convey a feel for the country, as we encountered it.

So the obvious place for me to start is with the food. The first thing we noticed as we landed in Bangkok and hurtled towards our city apartment was that the pavements overflowed with food stalls. A moment’s wait at any traffic light and you’re either watching someone set up a stall, ogling someone’s tasty takeaway, or cringing as a food seller crosses the intersection on foot, laden with a food cart bulging with wares and apparently oblivious to the flow of traffic.

Step outside the car and the streets smell of a heady mix of food, litter and petrol fumes. We chose an apartment in the Lumphini Park area, and were amazed to see that even our small road turned into an incredible food street throughout day. There seems to be a system as certain stalls are there in the morning, then packed up and removed for the lunchtime sellers, which are likewise dismantled and replaced by the evening sellers. Very few stayed in one spot all day, which seemed like an awful lot of effort – but I guess that’s what’s required to feed millions of people around the clock.

The stalls are put up with ridiculous speed and ease. You can literally walk down a quiet street one minute, admiring the gnarled trees blessed with holy scarves, and walk back down it the next, unable to find the trees at all. Instead, you dodge queues of hungry workers, and buckets of water thrown over the plastic tables for cleaning (if nothing else, it’s a very efficient way of removing the cats).

In some areas of Bangkok, if you’re unlucky, the usual smells are joined by the odour of durian fruit. The stench is as bad as legend decrees, but we couldn’t resist trying it. We bought our durian freshly peeled from a stallholder in a random part of the city we stumbled upon by foot – and we were so excited, decided to keep it until we arrived home. Half an hour later and we’re being removed from the Metro station by security – on account of the smell – and we try our first bite of this foul-smelling fruit, leaning over a bin.

David Attenborough once described durian as ‘pretty good’ like ‘slimy caramel creme’. Well, he is either very taste bud challenged or he lied. It was like eating a fart. The durian was quickly binned and we spent the next ten minutes trying not to breathe too deeply on the other SkyTrain passengers (true story).

It’s easy to spot which stalls to eat at – you choose the busiest, or the ones that look most inviting. You choose the ones that cook the food from scratch (which is most). And you forget very quickly about the surroundings, and soon sit slurping Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) or munching on Tom Sam (papaya salad) by the traffic-clogged roadside, in car parks, under flyovers, next to rubbish tips. The food’s that good, you honestly don’t care. And you’d be surprised also how quickly you adapt to eating everything off a spoon.

Thai food travel adventure

Fresh, unripe papyaya for spicy salads

Breakfast is the one meal in Thailand that we struggled with as there is no specific breakfast food, and we spent a bit of time searching for something we enjoyed at that time of day. In the end, there were lots of roasted eggs and fruit involved, so we managed. And if you’re thinking – why didn’t you just make something at home? – the answer is, most apartments do not have kitchens. The food is so cheap that everyone eats out on the street.

When I say cheap, I mean on average €1 for a plate of Chicken and Prawn Pad Thai or Prawn Fried Rice. Whole barbecued squid and giant prawns came in at around €1.50 a plate, so you can feast on seafood, salads, noodles and rice for around €3-5 euro per night (for two people). But the cost in no way reflects the quality – everywhere we went, the food was incredible; tasty, healthy, and with well-balanced flavours. A pure delight.

I was surprised to see that many stalls used msg in their cooking, as I’d never equated that ingredient with Thai food. But the ones that didn’t use msg were easy to find, thanks to their huge signs. It’s also worth knowing that if you’re vegetarian, fish sauce is a staple ingredient in almost every meal. So you really need to learn how to say ‘no fish sauce’ in Thai – ‘mai sai nam phla’ if you don’t want it in your food. (Here’s a good page on useful Thai vocabulary for vegetarians).

Another useful phrase is ‘mai phet’ which means ‘not too spicy’. Personally, the hotter the better where I’m concerned, but my husband doesn’t quite like it as volcanic. We’d been warned that it would be way too spicy but we didn’t find that the case at all – and the cooks were always willing to tone it down. The most important thing to the vendor was that you enjoyed the food.

thai travel food

One of the spirit houses, complete with food & drink for the ancestors

From the very start, it was obvious that Thai people have a real respect for food that borders on reverence. Indeed, it is an important part of Buddhist worship. In mornings across the city, you see monks heading out with bowls, looking for alms. And in the temples, there are always food parcels left at the altar.

Food and drink is even provided for the ancestors on shrines and spirit houses. On the pavements you have to be careful where you step so you don’t upturn an open bottle of Fanta Orange or Yakult, complete with straw, that has been left out next to the shop shutters for good luck.

Food is also important to family and community life. The food business is definitely a family affair, and you often see several people and their wares bundled onto a single motorbike, or pick-up trucks piled to the last, with the kids and kittens wedged in, ready to set up for the night. The parents cook, the older siblings serve, and the younger children play on their iPhones or tablets in the driving seat, taking a snooze when needed.

Although we did see many sights in Bangkok (some of which will be covered in a later post), we found that the street food and was the real city experience. We spent our days walking and observing, jumping on local transport to see different areas, searching out recommended three-seat stalls and delicacies, and basically eating our way round the city.

It was very easy to see why Bangkok is dubbed the food capital of the world. The buzz, the noise, the smells – and of course, the taste – we loved it all. And it gave a wonderful introduction to Thai culture.

Thai travel street food

Another happy chef…

 

Thai night markets

Waiting for the night to end