Nowhere in the world does food quite like Bangkok. From street corner to street corner, aromatic smells entice visitors on a sensory journey into hodgepodge cafes and bustling street markets. Whether it be a banana seller on a pavement mat, sizzling up gooey goodness on a plant leaf, or a Michelin-star chef sculpting gourmet seafood delights in a famous Bangkok outdoor restaurant, we bring you the ultimate guide to Bangkok’s street food scene.
A Little History
Bangkok has, for centuries, been a major hub for merchants and traders. As far back as the 15th century, the region operated as a small trading post, gradually developing into the urban metropolis we see today. Throughout this period, merchants from all over the globe would pass through, bringing their culture, customs and cuisine with them. Such diversity of people inevitably leads to diversity of cuisine, with many migrants turning to the street food industry to make quick money and introduce others to their native flavours and recipes.
Added to that, Thai culinary culture tends to emphasise the practice of eating little and often, constantly grabbing small dishes throughout the day. For this reason, Thailand is particularly well-suited for street food, with vendors often specialising in small portions of a particular delicacy. Throughout the day, workers and tourists alike will eat-as-they-go, stopping briefly by a street corner on their way to work, for a skewer of grilled chicken satay, or a refreshing bag of juicy, sliced pineapple.
It is the evening time, when the sun has set and the temperature cooled, that Bangkok’s street-life really comes into motion. Food stalls are stretched out onto the road, tables are unfolded, and small plastic stools unstacked. Families come together, crouched around a small trestle table to eat, chat and unwind after a long day. Most street vendors tend to cluster together, offering a diverse selection of treats to share over a large bottle of Chang beer. It is a hectic scene, of children running in and out of tables, motorbikes weaving between diners and the constant glare of LED signs adding to the sensory overload that is night-time Bangkok.
Over the past few decades, Thai food has become a household name in cuisine across the globe, made popular for its spices, speedy cooking time, and healthy balance between carbohydrates and vegetables. The most popular dish internationally remains the Pad Thai, delicately balancing the sweet and tart flavours of peanut and lime. This iconic beansprout and noodle dish may have been recreated and reinterpreted endlessly worldwide, but nowhere comes close to a street corner Bangkok Pad Thai. Stir fried on a fiery hot wok, the complex flavours are expertly thrown together, often by cooks whose recipe has been inherited over generations of Pad Thai chefs. A delicious serving of this yummy meal, served with a sprinkling of peanuts, a lime and some chili flakes, will likely set you back little more than a euro on any street corner.
Other Noodle Dishes to Look Out For:
Pad Thai Gai – the classic Pad Thai with chicken
Pad See Ew – flat wide noodles tossed with meat.
Yom Wun Sen – glass noodle salad, made with shrimp, celery and lime juice
Tom Yum & Phat Kaphrao
Just as popular is Tom Yum, a fishy soup, made with aromatic spices, a variety of vegetables and fresh shrimp. Combining lemongrass, lime juice, fish sauce and galangal (a type of ginger), this soup is a warming bowl of goodness that simply must be drunk to the last drop. For meat-lovers, the Phat kaphrao is another staple. Flash-fried over a hot grill, Phat kaphrao, combines chicken, chili and garlic. Served with rice and often topped with a gooey fried egg, the meal makes a perfect nutritious lunch.
Other Soup Dishes to Look Out For:
Prawn Laksa – coconuty rice noodle soup made with laksa paste
Tom Kha Gai – creamy coconut soup with lemongrass and fish sauce
Thai Green Curry
Another huge international hit is the Thai green curry. Blending spicy curry paste with smooth coconut milk, a good chicken Thai green curry is meant to be poured over a warm bowl of white rice, infusing the rice with the subtle jasmine flavouring of the sauce. Simpler, yet still delicious, is the Khao Pad, a fried rice dish prepared with vegetables and chili. Again, served with a gooey fried egg on top, this is filling comfort food at its best.
Other Curries to Look Out For:
Thai Red Curry – fiery chili-based paste and coconut curry
Thai Massaman Curry – Indian-inspired, sweet, thick red curry
Panang Curry – nutty, peanut curry
Mango Sticky Rice
For those keen for a sweet treat, Thailand is hugely famous for its fruit. Fruit cutting in Thailand is no joke, and visitors are often mesmerised and awed by vendor’s expert cutting techniques. In seconds, a pineapple is spiralised, a mango diced, or a papaya deseeded. A personal favourite dessert dish is mango sticky rice. To make this, sticky rice is infused with sugary, warm coconut milk, before being topped with crispy mung beans, several slices of fresh mango and wrapped in a mango leaf. It’s sweet, refreshing and oh so tasty.
Other Desserts to Look Out For:
Mango sorbet – smooth, cool and delicious sorbet
Fried bananas – hot, gooey goodness, best served with ice cream
Grilled pineapple – often served in a bag to takeaway and share
Michelin Star Dining and Fried Scorpion Skewers
The best thing about Bangkok food is the accessibility to all. Though hotel chains often have 5-star restaurants, everyone knows that the best food is on the street. For that reason, you get the funny phenomenon of seeing street food vendors serving everyone, from the über-rich to the homeless, all gathering under one rickety umbrella. Some stalls are more popular than others, with the top-rated stalls getting queues all the way down the street. Other institutions of Bangkok street food have become so globally renowned, that they have even been awarded their own Michelin star!
Jay Fai, a local restaurant owner, is the best example of this, dubbed the “queen of street food” by international press. Known especially for her crab omelettes, this 70-something-year-old chef has made a huge name for herself, attracting visitors from the world over. Her culinary creations eventually earned her a Michelin star, and today she remains a Bangkok icon.
If Michelin stars aren’t of interest to you, and you prefer your food a little more rough and ready, how about a hot skewer of crunchy scorpion? A staple fixture of the infamous Khao San Road, vendors selling fried scorpions make good money testing the nerve and bravery of tourists with this grisly snack. Though not necessarily a part of your average Thai local’s diet, the fried scorpion skewer has become an emblem of the adventure and thrill so many visitors are seeking when jetting off to explore Thailand.
Threats to Street Food:
There have been several attempts by the Thai government in recent years to control street food. With increasingly more tourists and the opportunity to make money, the government is seeking to regulate (and tax) food vendors. Ostensibly seeking to have better control over sanitation and health and safety, this move could see thousands lose their livelihoods, and the beating heart of Bangkok ripped out. Thanks to major local (and foreign) outcry, some of the most drastic plans to empty certain streets of vendors have been overturned, but it is only a matter of time before the government wins out. Therefore, to see Bangkok’s street food in its most classic form - simple, locally run and assembled from scratch - be sure to visit before it’s too late.
Alternatively, for a beautiful, sensory journey through Thailand’s street food scene (and a closer look at the iconic life of Jay Fai), check out this episode from Netflix’s TV series “Street Food”.
Plus, check out this satisfying (and highly impressive) fruit cutting video: