“Thailand is one big open-air kitchen!” exclaimed a friend and cooking student as he summed up his impression of a country so overflowing with an abundance of street and market foods. Indeed, for the curious and the adventurous food-loving traveler, the festive ambience and irresistible sights and scents of foods of all description, cooking to perfection along the sidewalks and in bustling open-air bazaars – and even on wooden boats paddling around canals – stand out among the most lasting memories.Feasting one’s way around Thailand is a very easy thing to do, even for someone on a shoestring budget. The only requirements are an adventurous spirit, courage to disregard health authorities back home and a good sense of judgment to make wise selections from among an overwhelming number of vendors and hawkers.
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Foods hot off the grill, frying pan or steamer, wrapped and roasted in leaves, cooked to order in boiling hot broths, or tossed in woks surrounded by leaping flames, are surely safe to eat. Plenty of garlic and chilies serve as natural antiseptics and, when you do get the occasional run and tummy ache, drink plenty of refreshing coconut juice and munch on the creamy flesh of fresh coconuts, which work wonders in returning your GI tract to normal.Your rewards are heavenly delicious morsels enough to make you sweat with pleasure and a dose of soulful appreciation when the exchange is consummated with a smile of content. For nothing can endear you more to the people of this land than your willingness to try and your ability to partake of the same foods they do.
Besides, sitting on rickety stools at worn-out tables, shaded by brightly colored tarps or oversized parasols, immerses you in the very heart of everyday Thai culture. It’s a great setting to people-watch, to mingle and rub shoulders with natives from all walks of life and, perhaps, to strike up a friendship of a lifetime. At the same time, you are entertained by dramatic cooks and may even gain a precious cooking lesson at no extra charge. The invigorating atmosphere, the piping hot food exuberant with flavors, the mouth-watering aromas and much more, add up to an exotic experience you won’t likely forget for a long time to come.Indeed, on one of the travel groups I led through my homeland, seventy-five meals and countless snacks later, one woman insisted that the most memorable dining experience in her life would have to be the extended breakfast we had at one of the rural floating markets.
That meal started off while we were being paddled around in a small wooden boat, gliding from one boat vendor to another, sampling sweet and savory coconut rice hotcakes, fried bananas, grilled pork on skewers, grilled coconut pancakes, pan-fried mussel cake and leaf-wrapped and taro-stuffed sticky rice roasted over charcoal. Those were just the appetizers for this early morning nibbling affair.Later, we sat on low wooden stools on the steps of the boat landing, slurping on hand-held bowls of hot-and-sour noodles, while watching the noodle maker in the wooden row boat churn out effortlessly one bowl after another of delicious noodles. In the background, colorful boats hawking fresh seasonal fruits and vegetables and a tempting array of other snacks paddled by endlessly to complete the picture.
Just as if all that wasn’t enough, later the same morning, we stopped by another town with a wonderful open-air marketplace. Stalls upon stalls offered up, among other things, sensational sticky rice roasted in bamboo, lusciously sweet jackfruit, crispy grilled pork chips, spicy fried fish cakes with cucumber relish, exceptional pork-stuffed dumplings, superb duck soup noodles, tasty grilled turmeric chicken, perfect golden ears of charcoal-roasted corn and marvelously nutty fried grasshoppers. She only wished she had a stomach large enough to sample them all!Though the numerous meals we had at many fine restaurants were exquisite and beyond comparison, it was the delightful experience of eating our way along the streets, canals and marketplaces of Thailand that stood out the most and was preserved in more than its share of colorful photographs – of both the extraordinary food and the smiling faces of the Thai people. So, on your next trip to Thailand, don’t just curiously walk by the countless street and market stalls without succumbing to sweet temptation. After all, Thailand does have cleanliness standards higher than many other developing countries. Use your discretion, be a true gastronomic soldier always ready to eat and have an experience of a lifetime!
Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2009.