Welcome to lunchtime in Bangkok’s Chinatown - have some grasshopper if you dare but beware of the moving kitchen carts!
In the midst of the rabbit warren of stall-lined streets you will find what is widely considered the best street food on the planet. The scent of frying shallots, garlic, lemongrass, ginger and boiling rice waft down streets that are so narrow that the scorching Thai sun has been almost completely blotted out even where there is no shade from overhead tarpaulins. After the blinding light of the traffic-choked main thoroughfare it’s a dark and mysterious network of secret tunnels.
The walls of these tunnels are lined with Chinese knick-knack stalls selling mundane goods like flip-flops, fake luxury watches or even plane tickets. You’ll see row upon row of pirated DVDs, cheap bags and the inescapable faded-red signs advertising Coca-Cola. But among the tacky products, there is also the current of exotic smells from the dozens and dozens of street-stalls and hole-in-the-wall shops selling food that is prepared as you watch. There are clusters of people around each store and the streets are so busy that you drift along shoulder to shoulder with the crowd – the only escape is to head down even narrower alleyways where you can barely walk two abreast and the food stalls are calmer but look less savory.
This was our first immersion in the fragrant world of Bangkok’s Chinatown. We were fresh off the plane and drowning in a flood of smells. We turned a corner and came to a better-lit intersection, which resembled a busy market square. There was a beautiful girl, her eyes down as she carefully but swiftly peeled green papayas. Behind her there was a stall with mound after mound of drying shrimp, some bright pink, some amber and some white like cleaned bones. A small stall was selling rows of large round fish. They are as big and heavy looking as clubs and caked in salt like loafs of bread rolled in flour.
We walked past stalls selling insects - fried grasshoppers and crispy locusts. Both are said to be low in fat and high in protein - the food of a carbon-neutral era. We looked for, but didn’t find, the salted scorpions. Is it absurd to eat these creepy-crawlies? They made us giggle like school-children, but then again what is the difference between a grasshopper and a shrimp? The salt water? What is a lobster but a huge watery locust? And unlike many of our protein sources, they are not going to be stuffed with growth hormones or antibiotics.
If only I could persuade my stomach of that logic…
Weaving through the labyrinth and getting more and more hungry, we passed dozens of tempting looking woks, sizzling in crackling oil and various combinations of chicken chunks, prawns, vegetables, noodles, chilies and the deliciously distinctive "holy basil." There were all the standard dishes that every tourist-guide tells you about – the ubiquitous Pad Thai, an eggy noodle dish topped with bean sprouts, tamarind juice and lime, som tam – the spicy papaya salad, but also dozens more that we had never heard of - what on earth is gung pat sadtor? Usually some corpulent-looking matriarch in a wide-brimmed hat could be seen wrestling with the huge pan while yelling out commands to younger and slimmer bare-headed women (are they sisters or daughters?) who were pulling in customers and handing them out plastic plates, then collecting the money from diners who had finished their meals.
It almost always costs less than a euro to have a delicious and filling lunch. Apart from the woks, you can see stands selling kebabs on skewers or white sausages made of fish, or richly scented soups with globular chunks of fish, so fiery that they bring the sweat flowing from your brow.
By the time we had decided which stall we had liked the most and backtracked into the maze of streets to find it, we’d forgotten where it was. So we just settled for the nearest busy one and ordered what everyone else was having. We joined a queue and tried to find someone who might speak English. We found a man in a smart suit and spectacles:
"What are they selling here?" we asked.
"Oh, it’s very good."
That’s all the detail we needed. It turned out to be hot soup and fish dumplings. But what, you might ask, was a man in a suit and spectacles doing buying lunch for less than a euro on a dusty street? It’s nothing unusual. There is something wonderfully egalitarian about Bangkok street food. It’s cheap but not looked down on. High-powered businessmen apparently have their own favorite stands and will queue alongside shop assistants and workers for a helping of coconut crab curry.
Many people just stand and slurp the noodles or their soup down, but we sat on some red small-legged plastic stools, as if made for a children’s garden party. We splashed our meal with preserved chili and fish sauce from little plastic jars, placed on the child’s table in a carry-away rack.
Once done with the main course, you can round off your meal with something sweet. There were bananas swimming in a vat of oil, some deliciously sticky rice was being cooked with sweet beans and a man with a machete was slicing the tops of coconuts and serving them with straws.
While some of the stalls are sedentary, and many have been in the same spot for generations, there are also mobile vendors offering a literal ‘moveable feast.’ And they can be a hazard not just for your waistline.
In the busy streets you have to watch your back for tricycles and motorcycles. Some have in-build braziers, others have small trailers attached and they are all crawling along the alleyways, squeezing through the throngs by honking small horns, ringing bicycle bells or just shouting above the immense din.
Quieter than the bikes are the mini-kitchens on wooden carts – but all the more dangerous for that matter. We didn’t hear one coming and oblivious to the warning shouts in Thai, were almost crushed by a man selling squares of coconut-flavored desserts. Luckily, we were saved at the last moment by a Thai woman who pulled us to the side with a laugh and a few words that must have meant "crazy foreigners." So relieved were we to escape an accident, that we bought several of the vendor’s donuts. They had a crunchy crust and a gooey inside that took minutes to chew and much longer to digest.
For a Westerner not every experiment is a hit in this food jungle, but the delights outweigh the disappointments, and I have the feeling that you could keep experimenting for years without ever getting bored. It’s fast food without the air-conditioned torpor. It’s dipping into the East with all your senses alive.