Thailand has come forth as a great destination for budget friendly vacations. While I've been there for the beautiful beaches, incessant shopping sprees, soul soothing spas and the pulsating nightlife, this time around I traveled for its food.
Traveling for food is fun. Gourmet dining is one way to do it but the real thrill for your taste buds lies in eating your way around the local, street stalls. The capital city, Bangkok is home to one of the most exciting street food scenes. My nose led my eyes through the insanity of the bustling streets to discover some great tastes. Victory Point, Sukhumvit Soi 38, Chinatown, Patpong Night Market and the Chatuchak Market are places that attract a flock of foodies.
Thai cuisine is a complete celebration for the senses. Fresh and fragrant ingredients like lemongrass, chilies, coconut milk, shallots, fish sauce, kaffir lime and galangal dominate the dishes. It is a unique medley of each of the four basic tastes - sweet, spicy, salty and sour. The four regional variants of Thai cuisine, Northern, Isaan or Northeastern, Central and Southern are heavily influenced by the neighboring countries of Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and the Chinese province of Yunnan and Laos.
As the sun brightens up, you can spot a cluster of street hawkers stocked with local grub. I would wake up to the freshness of ready-to-eat fruits like mangosteen, rambutan, rose apple and the welcoming whiff of hot banana pancakes. I shuffled between the streets savouring every sip of the Thai iced tea called ChaaYen or mostly rejoicing over a freshly squeezed Thai sweet orange juice.
Evenings brimmed with the sizzle of those on-the-move barbeque grills that fire up a variety of meats mopped with some hot chilli sauce. Smokey Isaan sausages made with fermented pork meat,roasted catfish or snakehead fish, delicate fish cakes and the char-grilled squids are worth sinking your teeth into. Crafty cocktail caravans that shake up inventive drinks dazzled the heaving night markets. The street that lines Central World serves some of the best roasts. Another street food junction that one must tuck into is the Pratunam Market, famously known for its wholesale shopping.
With prices that range from 20 to 100 bahts, these street servings definitely offer you, your wallet's worth. Monday's are street cleaning days and you'll find most vendors taking the much needed break, that's one day you could spend lazing in restaurants. The variety that the streets offer is seemingly inexhaustible. But, here are a few of my favourites that no traveler, seeking the true taste of Thailand, should miss.
Som Tam - You'll find many hawkers selling freshly pounded papaya salad with chillies, peanuts, garlic, tomato, fish sauce, tamarind juice and a generous squeeze of lime. The dish is rounded out with a dried shrimp or salted crab. An explosion of flavors, not be to skipped! (Recipe: Raw Papaya Salad by Niru Gupta)
Street vendors use a mortar and pestle to pound the papaya salad
Pad Thai -Thai-style noodles fried in a wok along with veggies, seafood or meat, bean sprouts, fennel and egg. Accompanied with fish sauce, palm sugar, chilli powder and a sprinkle of ground peanuts, this one is a charmer. You must try them at Thip Samai, one of the most famous restaurants in Bangkok for Pad Thai. (Recipe: Pad Thai by Samir Modi)
Pad Kra Pao Kai a.k.a Basil Chicken or Pork - The bright and peppery aroma of basil stands up to the flavours of fish sauce, garlic and chillies. It is usually served with rice and chilli sauce. (Recipe: Basil Chicken by Rocky Singh) Tom Yam Soup - A clear soup that is fierce and flavoursome. With a broth made of fragrant herbs and loads of chillies, this one is not for the faint-hearted. You can add seafood, chicken, meat, veggies or whatever your heart fancies. (Recipe: Tom Yam Mushroom Soup by Niru Gupta)
For the love of all things sweet & sinful -Khao Niew Ma Muan ga.k.a Mango Sticky Rice, you'll find streets dotted with stalls offering this simple yet sublime dessert. Sweet sticky jamine-flavoured rice mingles with juicy mangoes and delicate coconut cream. (Recipe: Sticky Rice with Mango by Veena Arora)
The coconut ice cream stall at Chatuchak Weekend Market is another attraction. You can choose any two of the following toppings - corn, peanuts, glutinous rice, sticky rice etc. It is served in a coconut shell with fresh pulp and complimentary coconut water.
The banana pancakes and hot-off-the-grill bananas will have you coming back for seconds. They are served with a caramelized palm sugar sauce that is sweet and salty in one bite. Also, good to carry back with you are the dried fruits that they sell almost everywhere.
Khanom Bueang - It is a Thai crepe that resembles a taco but is made with rice flour. They are super crisp and stuffed with coconut or flavoured cream and shredded coconut. Their savory versions are as good and criminally addictive.
Thai Iced Tea - A drink that'll make your heart sing. It is made with strongly brewed tea with a touch of star anise. Coconut milk or condensed milk is added to it just before serving which gives it a cloudy, creamy texture. The cheerfully orange hue will have you at the very first glance.
Ho Mak Pla (Steamed Fish Snack) - Baskets made with banana leaves are layered with herbs, fresh fish, red curry paste and egg. It is then baked lovely and topped with coconut cream. Oyster Omelet - Satisfying crisp and crackling omelettes topped with melt-in-the-mouth, glossy oysters. Head to Nai Mong Hoi Thod (539 Thanon Plaeang Nahm) to dig into the best of its kind, the locals call it the 'oyster omelet house'.
All said and done, the easiest way to travel across Thailand is to sniff out the nearest food-devoted street and give yourself up to it. If you have a favourite that I've missed, do share.