Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Street food: The holy grail for expats

In Thailand we have two kinds of censorship: The one that is written as law by the government, and the unwritten laws in the expat community. One of these laws is to never ever criticise street food. This holy grail is untouchable. There is no opinion about it. It is the essence of Bangkok, the USP. Its everything.

Street food

Ok, let me brake the law. Coconuts Bangkok wrote an article "Why Bangkok streetfood sucks" and it fulfilled its purpose: a lot of comments, tweets, shares and retweets. (Some call it linkbait, what still triggers kind of a public debate. Although I agree it is an easy way to start a debate, like dogs in public parks. And all of them complaining about the bait of course taking it).

Lets start with a selection of comments from there:

You've had 2 1/2 years of going to the wrong street vendors, now you think you know everything and have been all around. I don't like MSG either but the rest of your blog is blissful ignorance

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Seriously dude, are you having a bad day or something.. while I agree with a lot of what you're saying, it's the seething tone with which you say it that makes you sound like an ass.

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Have lived on thai street food for the last 15 years when in Bangkok, I can safely attest to the sheer stupidity of the article/op ed piece. Yes, you should go to the mall and farang restaurants and be a tourist like the rest of the chumps.

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What an absolute pile of shit. I've lived in SE Asia for 10 years and have never got sick from eating street food. Ice-T? WTF??? This writer is an idiot.


First of all, the tone is amazing. I thoughts that happens only at Thai visa.

Now, lets take a deeper look. What did the author say?

It’s almost never organic, and it certainly doesn’t deserve to be called “artisanal".
Of course its not organic, and nobody expect to be. Not a good idea to expect the best food for 30 Baht.

If it contains meat, it will be the cheapest meat money can buy, meat made from animals that have endured a lifetime of sheer hell before being slaughtered, chopped into little pieces and deep-fried in two-month-old palm oil for your dubious “pleasure.”
The cheap meat part is true as it is for most western processed food. So not much difference what you get for 2 USD in the US or on a Thai street. But: Deep fried food is indeed not healthy at all, and palm oil isn't it as well (beside the environmental issues. Yet, its is yummy.


And it’s dangerous. Where there is street food, there are rats and even worse vermin. The product has often been sitting out in the searing Bangkok heat all day before it reaches your tender insides.

It is, and it isn't. Street food vendors are smart: They know when its time to cook and to sell. So most of the food sells quite fast. And at least deep frying or BBQing it kills a lot of bacterias. So it depends on the vendor, how popular he is, how long the raw food is exposed to the heat (its just a scientific fact that bacteria growth is related to temperature). It doesn't really matter if you never got sick from it (you just may not remember it, in particular when you are a believer..)


Sometimes, to cut costs, vendors wash plates and silverware in khlong water. We all know what goes in the khlongs – and it ain’t dish soap.
Shit happens, even in five star hotels. I dont think that is a common practise. So this isn't really a valuable argument against street food.


But street food tastes so good,” I hear you whimper. “Don’t trash street food, it tastes so good.” To that, I give you three letters: ‘M’, ‘S’ and ‘G’.

Again, yes and no. All kind of soups are indeed made more tasty with some MSG (as they are with salt or Maggi). Grilled stuff gets most of the taste form spices, and that makes it so special. Stir fried dishes have a lot of different sauces, and they may contain MSG, but are strong enough to give it a certain taste on their own.


And what’s so great about sitting on shitty plastic furniture, inhaling fumes and listening to engine noise while you eat, anyway? Most annoying of all, street food stalls make it a nightmare to navigate the Bangkok sidewalks...

Like it or not. I am not a fan of some Hi-Class chinese restaurant decorations either.


The poor only eat street food because they have to. They would love to be able to eat good, honest cooking that shows respect to its ingredients.

So now we come to the core of street food. It is not a cooking competition, and it is not a contestant line up for the Top-Chef. It is fast food. Cheap fast food. Not just for the poor. Average street food is 40-60 baht. If you work in a shopping mall, your salary is about 9000-12000 Baht. Two meals a day is about 100 baht at least, makes it 2500-3000 baht for food. What people do is saving money on food. Thats how they can afford a ice-coffee-shake after. Or the new iPhone.
They are actually able to eat better, but not everyday (not talking about the construction workers and other way poorer people. They cant even afford some of the street food).

But: It wouldn't sell if it is not tasty. It is NOT made for expats. It is made for average Thai people, and needs to fit their taste. And while the sellers are always proud of their food, they don't really care if a falang like it or not.

The majority of office workers and sales people in Bangkok indeed like to eat in a clean, air-conditioned environment. That's why most street food is sold in a bag. And that's why food courts are getting more and more successful (I am talking about the street-food-like courts). So over time we will see a decrease of food stalls.

Street food isn't nothing Bangkok has invented, although it may have a certain variety in it, and it is quite visible. All Asian countries have it, and the food is sometimes good and sometimes bad, like in any other restaurant. To say street food sucks is a wrong as to praise it as the only real source of food.

Side note: I know what I am talking about, because I set up and ran a street food stall in Laos. The biggest problem was to get the ingredients in a certain quality for a good price. I sold sandwiches with Lao sausage and papaya salad for 2 USD, and had a very small profit margin.