Bangkok’s street-food culture is world famous, but the city fathers regard it as a blot on the urban landscape. Will food vendors soon vanish from the streets of the Thai capital?
When the sun sets over Bangkok, the office towers clothe themselves in neon light. The glass doors swing open and life pours out into the city’s canyoned streets. The noise of the traffic swells, taxis honk their horns, tuk-tuks rattle along the streets, and buses spit clouds of soot into the evening sky. Rush hour here can be worse and last longer than anywhere else in the world. Small wonder: Metropolitan Bangkok is home to roughly 15 million people, so you need patience to get from A to B, as well as a good meal before setting off for home.
This is not a problem in the acknowledged street-food center of the world. A wok should be part of Bangkok’s coat of arms. Nowhere else will you find as many street-food stalls, nowhere else so much boiling and roasting, frying and baking, grilling and stewing, lip-smacking and smiling taking place on every sidewalk. Even the bestowers of stars from the Michelin Guide have recognized Asian street food vendors multiple times. The freshness, the variety, the omnipresence of food – even France cannot keep up!
Half a million people cook food on the street in Bangkok. Plates of pad Thai (fried noodles), bowls of tom yam (hot-and-sour soup), boxes of khao niao mamuang (mango sticky rice) – all street-food icons in Thailand – have long become a billion-dollar business, although the price per portion is often less than one euro. But this win-win situation for cooks and customers could soon come to an end. Why? Three years ago, a military junta came to power in Thailand and the old generals have become increasingly concerned about the safety and cleanliness of the city’s crowded streets. “Every street vendor will have to move out!,” declared Wanlop Suwandee, chief advisor to the governor, in the English-language broadsheet The Nation last spring. His argument: The sidewalks belong to pedestrians, not street cooks and other vendors. So the city administrators gave the street-food vendors notice to clear out by the end of the year or they would be removed. Shock waves rippled through the metropolis.
For the first time, we’re really afraid of being chased away.
Charoen Krung is the oldest street in Bangkok and like a snake, the stretch that runs through Chinatown is once again shedding its skin – a new subway line is being built there. Outside a crumbling temple across from the construction site, Eng Saijai, 60, is a whirlwind with a wok. Her surly expression is half hidden in a cloud of cooking fumes. “I’ve been standing here for 30 years serving my specialty, Chinese rice noodles with fishcakes and tofu.” Three helpers scurry around, carrying steaming plates of food to four metal tables. “For the first time, we’re really afraid of being chased away,” says Eng. The new subway will raise the value of the neighborhood, which in turn will attract investors, and they like things neat and clean, just like the generals.
A bus rumbles past behind Eng, whose cookshop is right beside the curb. One false move could be her last. “Yes, it’s dangerous and the traffic is terrible. But I have built up something here,” she says chattily from behind her surgical mask. She also runs a second food stall and has 14 people depending on her for wages. The money she makes has enabled her to send her three children to university – social advancement via platefuls of food.
Around the corner, where Charoen Krung intersects with Yaowarat Road, you can already see how the strict new rules are affecting the street cooks. Allowed to set up shop only after 6 p.m. and with drastically reduced stall space, they call attention to their wares all the louder, and the lines in front of the most popular stalls grow even longer. As a clueless tourist, you simply join the line. After all, Thais are picky about their food. They will travel across the city for a good som tam (papaya salad) or – for the more sophisticated – fresh pla kapong neung manao (steamed sea bass with lime) only to stand patiently in line, their eyes glued to their smartphones.
Critics of the food-stall culture argue lack of hygiene, which is nonsense: Women like Eng Saijai get up at five a.m. and drive to the market half an hour later to pick up the day’s ingredients. They sell the freshly prepared food until it’s gone. Garbage is a real problem, on the other hand: Many of the food stalls only serve food to go. Environmentalists estimate that 70 million plastic bags and 60 million polystyrene containers change hands in Thailand every single day. Unfortunately, recycling is not one of Thailand’s specialties.
Classic thai dishes
There are no mountains of trash to be seen in Lumphini Park. Bangkok’s green lung is clean and idyllic. Jorge Carrillo, 65, is sitting on a stone bench next to a lake, when a monitor lizard waddles by, sticking out its tongue. Carrillo is an anthropologist from Venezuela who spent many years working for the UN, studying the causes and consequences of poverty in countries such as Bhutan, Indonesia and Vietnam. Now he wants to save Bangkok’s cookshops and has founded the Beyond Food initiative. “I want to help people understand that this is about more than a tasty pad Thai for tourists,” he says. “Putting an end to the food stalls would create something like a social earthquake!”
Carrillo’s argument goes like this: First, wages are low in Bangkok. If cheap street food were to disappear, more workers would have to eat in expensive restaurants. To do so, they would need to earn higher salaries, which would weaken the city’s ability to attract business. Second, cookshops make the streets safer. “Wherever there’s food, you will have people congregating, and wherever they congregate, they want it to be nice!” So with them, deserted street corners awaken to new life and the crime rate falls. New businesses even open on streets popular for their street food. Third: Food stalls bring people together and grilled satay with peanut sauce act as social glue. “You will see bankers on plastic stools enjoying their food alongside taxi drivers. For Thais, food is the common denominator.”
The city’s administrators are now dreaming of theme parks outside the city limits modeled on the sterile food courts found in the city-state of Singapore. “But what tourist will get on a bus to be carted off to a place like that?” asks Carillo. “Food stalls belong on the street!” Anthropologist and realist, he has seen and experienced many things in his life, but now he’s so angry that his eyes are shooting poison darts right through his glasses. Carillo has an extensive network of contacts. Along with his fellow activists at Beyond Food, he organizes events, panels and discussions, and has even tried to mobilize people through social networks. “But Thailand is a very hierarchical society,” he says, “and true change will have to come from the top.”
The top. Where is that in this city? Down by the river perhaps. The garden of luxurious The Peninsula hotel is both an oasis and a kitchen garden. A green papaya tree throws shadows into the morning heat and 50 meters away, the brown waters of the Chao Phraya roll slowly toward the Gulf of Thailand. Siriporn Bualoung, 37, known to everyone as Ning, is the head chef at the Thiptara, the hotel restaurant. Traipsing through her herb garden, she snips a few mint leaves here and a little Thai basil there. “We have more than 30 different types of herbs, vegetables and fruit growing here, it’s paradise,” says Ning with a laugh. It’s the laugh of someone who has achieved something, a laugh that contains both defiance and pride.
Ning’s path to becoming a haute cuisine chef began in her grandmother’s kitchen. “She was from northern Thailand, where many people are very poor. The food is not as spicy as it is in the south, but it’s heavier.” Little Ning helped her grandmother cook and then sold the food on the street. “Green curry with duck,” she remembers, “people virtually ripped it out of our hands.” As a teenager, Ning took over her grandmother’s market stall and eventually opened a small restaurant serving fried noodles. But Ning wanted more. In 2003, she applied to one of the country’s best hotel management schools and was accepted. After that, she spent seven years working as a cook in the Chinese gamblers’ paradise, Macau. For the last two-and-a-half years, she has been in charge of the kitchen at The Peninsula, one of the best hotels in Asia.
What’s her take on the cookshop debate? “For people in Bangkok, street food is like a compass,” she says, wrinkling her brow: “If you take it away, they will lose their bearings.” Nobody knows yet how tough the authorities will ultimately get on the street-food scene. In the middle of the year, a section of Thonglor district well known for its street food was relentlessly cleared. Other popular areas have remained untouched. This kind of arbitrary behavior is what scares street-food vendors the most.
Chef Bualoung is thankful for everything that she has achieved. “But I will never forget that I came from the world of street-food vendors.” Her favorite dish to this day is tom yam gung, the hot-and-sour soup made with fish sauce and lemongrass, shrimp and tamarind that can be had for just a few bahts on every street corner in Bangkok. For the moment, anyway.
There are hundreds of cookshops and street-food stalls – mostly frequented by locals – at Wang Lang Market outside Siriraj Hospital.
HAVING A FEAST
The busy thoroughfare Yaowarat Road turns into a neon-illuminated food mile when the lights of Chinatown go on at dusk.
The Peninsula ferries guests across the river in its own shuttle junks. The hotel terrace and the food there are highly recommended.
You’ll find cool vintage fashions at Chatuchak Market as well as good street food. Saturday and Sunday are the days to go.