A Crucial Thai Culinary Tradition is Threatened
by Ben McCarthy
It’s early evening on an unusually cool night in Thailand’s capital and the streets of the leafy, laid back suburb of Ari are alive with activity. All along the neighborhood’s unofficial Main Street, Phaholyothin 7 (nicknamed Soi Ari), vendors are setting up shop for dinner. On both sides of the street, pickup trucks pull up to the curb and unload weathered woks, colorful aluminum folding tables, baskets of prepped vegetables, cases of meat, and pots of rice. Every day of the week except for Mondays (official street cleaning days in Bangkok) these vendors come to the same stretch of sidewalk to sell their wares. Prepared curries and soups, roast meats and seafood, fresh som tam (papaya salad) and stir fried noodles are sold from early evening until supplies run out.
People queue up early for this food, most working class Thais either lack the proper space in their apartments to cook or simply do not have the time to do so. A meal from one of the many street stalls is faster, cheaper and usually as delicious as anything that could be cooked at home.
And while street food stalls are convenient for those in a hurry, they also serve as a common meeting place for locals on a night out. Friends gather round a table, order a variety of dishes and bottles of Thai beer or whisky and talk, drink and eat late into the night.
In Thailand, more so than in many other countries, food forms the fabric of daily life. From the morning ritual of buying food as alms for Buddhist monks to the communal aspect of eating and drinking with coworkers and friends and family, a typical day in Thailand revolves around food. Step out into the streets of Bangkok and the importance of food becomes glaringly apparent: it is everywhere. Without street food, Bangkok would not be Bangkok; Thailand would not be Thailand.
Ironically, after Bangkok was voted best in the world for street food for the second year in a row, The Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) announced that it would be taking steps to clear all street food from the city by the end of 2017.
After the announcement made international headlines and generated mountains of bad press–not to mention complaints from locals and tourists alike–the BMA backtracked on its plan and promised that certain areas, such as the popular tourist haunts of Khao San and Yaowarat road, would be allowed to stay as long as they met certain standards of hygiene and organization.
While proponents cite congestion of footpaths and declining quality as a primary reasons for the ban–and, of course, food of poor quality does exist–the impact that clearing street food from the city would have on lower-class Thais is seldom mentioned.
Many Thais cannot afford to eat at the markedly more expensive restaurants in areas where street food has already been cleared, like Ekkamai or Thong Lo, and instead have turned to buying food from 7-11. As chef, author and owner of Nahm in Bangkok (recently ranked 27th on the worlds 50 best list) David Thompson writes, “street food is essential for the poorer part of Thailand – people who are paid a subsistence wage can’t afford food in restaurants and marketplaces. And it’s not only food for the poorly paid, but employment and income for others.”
Walk down Soi Ari or any other local area of Bangkok during anytime of day and you notice the tremendous amount of work and care that goes into cooking and selling food on the street. Vendors who sell at night go to the market early and spend the day prepping; then they cart their wares to a spot of pavement and work late into the night–only to do it all again the next day. Travel to Bangkok and eat on the streets and at the very least you will leave with a tremendous amount of admiration and respect for the people who cook and work, often six days a week, exposed to the elements and for a nominal amount of money.
Thompson describes the ban as “taking the soul out of Bangkok,” a move that intends to organize a “beautifully chaotic city.” And he is right: clearing street food stalls and allowing more fast food chains like Starbucks and McDonald’s to move in is not only detrimental to much of Bangkok’s population but also to the rich culinary tradition that defines so much of Thai society and life. It’s what makes Bangkok one of the most unique culinary destinations in the world.
Nyack’s Ben McCarthy is the lead guitarist in the alternative rock band Regret the Hour and the chief Thai culinary correspondent for Nyack News and Views.
- Eating Thailand: Big Food, Small City (June 4, 2017)
- From Nyack to Bangkok: Ben McCarthy Travels (March 23, 2016)
- Eating Thailand: Taste of the North (March 16, 2017)
- From Nyack to Bangkok: A Day Eating in Ari, Bangkok (March 30, 2016)
- From Nyack to Bangkok: To Market, To Market (April 6, 2016)
- From Nyack to Bangkok: The History of Phat Thai (August 18, 2016)