The best attitude to have, if you are on a gastronomical adventure in Bangkok, is the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. If you put it inside your mouth, and like what you are chewing, hold on to that happy memory. But of course, that’s not me. I asked “and what’s this?” everywhere. Read on to find the answers.
“And what’s this?”
I was pointing at what looked like a harmless dumpling. A tray of gelatinous blobs sat on the counter, soaking in a brownish jus (I am dressing the appearance up with vocabulary).
“Fibe Baht, waan piss. You waant? Very nice.” The old lady, quite granny-like, in a floral maxi dress, her gut spilling over an apron that needed washing, more-salt-than-pepper hair tied in a bun, asked, and then smiled with whatever teeth she had left. Before I could nod, she had scooped up two of the (I still want to say dumplings?) aforementioned blobs, skewered them, brushed them in a thin, sickly-red sauce, and dropped them on the open grill by the side. She held her hand out for the money, still smiling. As I pulled out the currency, I felt like someone was pranking me.
“What is it? What?” I pointed at the blobs, and did that Indian hand gesture where we stretch out our fingers and twist our wrists to mean “Kya?” Why do we feel that it is a universal sign language? She smiled again.
And then proceeded to grab her crotch, do a chopping action with both her hands as knives, mimicked making-a-ball with cupped hands, and pointed at the blobs.
I — taken aback, thinking that she wanted to Kung Fu my privates — looked at the man next to me, who was laughing along with her by then. A young fellow, he explained that pig and bull testicles were minced and stuffed back into a pig — or bull’s — ball sac, turned into, ideally, a ball-shaped sausage, and then grilled. The old lady held out my plate. I prayed to all the old gods and new, and took a bite.
In all the time I have spent in Bangkok, the city — and Thailand, in general — is definitely the world’s street food capital. The smorgasbord of food options available on the streets of Bangkok, constantly being fried or barbecued to perfection, is nothing like anything I have seen anywhere else in the world. But, it is important to understand that Bangkok is an adventure, and not for the squeamish. If you decide to walk into the alleys, the narrow lanes, off the big roads with the glitzy stores, and actually dig in like a local, there are a few rules to keep in mind (take it from a seasoned street food enthusiast):
Always go for a store or stall that is busy, and has a lit fire. Empty stalls mean that the locals don’t trust the seller’s quality — and you shouldn’t either — and a lit fire or hot grill means the store’s in action.
Don’t be worried about hygiene. I have realised that a lot of our hygiene issues are psychosomatic. Because we are disgusted by the surroundings, we make our brains believe that the food will be unhealthy too. That is not always the case. If you follow the previous point, and the next point, you will be, mostly, safe.
Don’t experiment with raw on the streets. Everything has to be cooked, right in front of you, and best if fried or grilled.
You are not there to be safe. If you are only looking for a chicken Satay, I’d politely like to ask you to fuck off. Allow a full immersion into all the exciting grub the streets have to offer.
If you have a seafood allergy, it is best to stay away. Or, if you are as hardcore as me, you know which pills to pop in before you tuck in.
Lastly, and this one’s for the Advanced Level, if something looks suspicious, but delicious, eat first, and ask what it is later.
This is my Street Food Commandments anywhere in the world, and the very last point helped me experience a lot of South-East Asia’s – and especially Bangkok’s – culinary goodness. Crunchy bat wings (although bats have got a lot of hate this year), a harmless-looking noodle soup that was actually snake meat slivers and not Ramen, grilled rats (if you enjoy bitter flavours, this one is a winner), caramel grasshoppers (or maybe I should call them Candied Grasshoppers), batter-fried roaches and assorted bugs, BBQ frog legs, various renditions of offal and testicles (the latter is seen as a powerful aphrodisiac in the region), beautifully toasted silk worms (a wispy, crunchy skin outside, creamy goodness inside), soups and broths with blood and blood jellies, red ant and bamboo worm eggs tossed with rice, and obviously tons of the usual – octopus, shark, squids, snails, other seafood, various mammals, and poultry. I also feel that I have barely scratched the surface.
Street food in Bangkok is extremely cheap, and makes for a much better eating-out experience than stuffy restaurants. While Indians won’t feel out of place in the roadside chaos, for Americans and Europeans, it is definitely a madness that they might not have experienced before. I have also arrived at my “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in Bangkok because, sometimes, you could ask, but not understand a word in the response.
One of my favourite food memories will definitely be a Bangkok afternoon, standing by a roadside candy stall, slurping on a human baby-sized takeaway of palm juice (8 Baht or 20 Rupees), watching the man dunk a giant lollipop into hot sugar syrup, then into a vat of live, fat earthworms, back into another vat of scalding caramel, and dusting the whole thing with powdered sugar at the end, before he held it out for a little boy who excitedly bit into the candy. The man asked me if I wanted one. “Very craanchy, very nice, you likey”, he said, and I asked for a small skewer. He looked disappointed, and I explained that I was more worried about consuming that criminal amount of sugar.
Candied earthworms. Ice cold palm juice. Afternoon sun. Picture perfect, right?