Thai street food safety is not mysterious. Apply this rule of thumb to eating Thai street food and save yourself embarrassment and discomfort: freshly cooked and freshly peeled food only. You’ll notice that Thais always choose their meat from the griddle – not from meat that’s already cooked and removed from the flame – because bacteria haven’t had time to multiply significantly. Do likewise, even if it means waiting a few minutes for your choice to be fully cooked. Likewise, don’t point to anything that’s not thoroughly cooked: the vendor will assume that you’ll finish cooking it at home. Ditto raw fruit and vegetables: smoothies are hugely popular in Thailand and deservedly so: Thailand’s fruits and veggies are spectacularly good. Just make sure yours haven’t been peeled earlier and left sitting, uncovered and unrefrigerated, on the counter for hours. Both of these precautions are simple and most vendors are careful to sell only freshly prepared food, so it’s not hard to be safe. The only street foods to avoid are home-made, hand-made snacks like wrapped sweets and anything whose preparation requires lots of handling and lots of time sitting in the sun and street dust. And that’s really all there is to it.
Aimie is an expert on edible insects. She used to catch them as a child and sell them to stall holders to make pocket money. She used to collect crickets and sell the live insects she collected from the ripe crops. Farmers were so happy to be rid of the little critters that they would bring her lunch. Edible crickets, jing reed in Thai, are a favorite snack that are, she says, delicious as well as high in protein (though her two boys refuse to eat them). The biggest crickets bring 2 Baht (6¢) each, and are usually sold live to food vendors. The vendors sell the cooked crickets to customers–tourists and locals–for as THB6 each, so everyone’s happy.
If a child wants to make even more money, Aimie says, she can remove the cricket entrails and sell the ready-to-cook crickets to vendors for as much as 4 Baht apiece. Peak cricket-collecting season is October – November and kids find the crickets in holes in the field’s ground and need to dig them out with their little fingers. She remembers, “I usually dug for crickets from morning to afternoon. My village friends could collect 200 crickets on a good day and earn 300-400 Baht a day in today’s money. We never had any problem selling them. We knew all the vendors in the area and who paid the best for them. After we got paid we’d rush off the store, of course and buy sweets!”
A Professional Traveler Talks About Thai Street Food
British travel writer Derek Workman raves about Chiang Mai’s street food (and Derek has eaten the world’s best street food): The sun might set over Chiang Mai Gate in the temporal sense, but as darkness approaches a new wave of business rolls over the market, diffusing its burning red glow with the smoke from grills and charcoal burners.
Other than a brief pause in early afternoon when market traders take a snooze, resting their weary heads on their stalls, Chiang Mai Gate Market on Bumrung Buri Road is all hustle and bustle even before dawn breaks; locals buying breakfast from the dozen or so food spots, ladies selling stings of marigolds and small foodstuffs to passersby to gain merit by putting them in the alms bowls of the monks, their saffron robes adding a splash of colour to the morning light; a shoe repairer unpacks his last, a watchmaker lays out his cloth pack of slender tools. This is the time when the neighbourhood does its business, but it’s at night when the place really comes alive.
As dusk settles the motorbikes lose their parking spaces, replaced by fold-out tables and plastic stools. Wheeled stalls that have been pushed through the streets from nearby storage have twenty-litre aluminium pans set on gas burners, to be used as both steamers for rice and for the boiling water to plunge a wire dipper full of noodles into for high speed cooking.
Most of the daytime food stalls with their enormous woks blackened with years of frying a feastly menu of chicken, sausages, pork ribs, fish and spring rolls have shut up shop and gone home, but two stalwarts stand behind their eye-high mounds of fried food watching the few early evening diners take their seats. The golden brown crispy-coated food cooked earlier in the day looks dry and unappetizing without its sparkly glisten of oil fresh from the pan.
Crab claws with morning glory, a long-stemmed leafy vegetable that appears everywhere in Thai cuisine but is banned for consumption in the US; pork with long bean and onion, as spicy and biting as the devil’s tongue; plump grilled tilapia, Asia’s favourite fish, laid out on trays of banana leaf; coiled rings of local sausages, chicken bits and liver fresh from deep boiling oil. Almost all dishes cost around forty baht, a portion of sticky rice another ten, but over at Fine Ease of Steak, 79 baht will get you an enormous plate of sausage, two chops with pepper sauce, chips and coleslaw, a welcome change from the lip-numbing spiciness of some of the Thai food on sale.
For dessert, baby pineapples are peeled and cut on the curl; watermelon, mango and durian, a fruit with such a disgusting smell that many hotels and all trains ban it although said by some to have a flavor as delicious as it’s aroma is repugnant, are sliced and film-wrapped.
The majority of stalls directly in front of the market are for take-away food or for finger-picking while you walk around and see what you could have enjoyed if only you had somewhere to take-it-away to. On the small plaza built over the water of the moat tables are set up, catered to by carts that take the place of the early morning second-hand clothes rails. While farang try to balance occidental-size buttocks on stools designed for oriental-size bums, food vendors cook, serve and wipe down tables with a speed and dexterity that goes beyond the name ‘fast food’ to ‘fast absolutely everything’. And not all menus are fast-food, the wonderful khaw kaa moo, spicy pork leg, stews languidly for a couple of hours, served with a boiled egg, its sumptuous sauce slathered over rice.
Nip through the tiny alleyway that connects Bumrung Buri Road and Phra Pok Klao Soi 2, the narrow lane that runs parallel with the market, a diversion into the depths of Dickensian squalor. On a street corner just as you leave the gloom behind, where twelve hours earlier a pair of ladies worked by the light of two small electric lamps to cook up a storm of takeaway breakfasts, ladling rich stews and quick-fried vegetables into plastic bags that look like angular balloons because of the heat of the food, at night two tables form a ‘tot shop’, an impromptu bar where measures of cheap whiskey and rum are doled out with tiny aluminium measures, your choice of either water, soda or coke to go with them, ice if the stall holders are well organized. Seen everywhere, usually outside small grocery shops, where you buy your bottle and mark it as the level goes down, topping up your glass with fresh mixers bought from the fridge. All part of customer service.
A word of warning. If you would like to savour the visual and epicurean delights of Chiang Mai Gate Market, don’t go on Saturday because it’s Walking Street day and packed like sardines.
Have Your Heard About Street Eats in Chiang Mai? It’s time you tried it!