Bangkok streets explode as pop up cafes and bars spill out onto the streets. I’m Angling for a cameo on Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods. I head out to see what delights and surprises will unfold and to enjoy street food.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner, where once they were bare, streets spring to life as pedlars push, pull and tow their wares, setting up eateries under umbrellas around plastic tables and chairs, which when done, are either tied up and left or hauled away, as people disperse eager to replenish and return.
Breakfast starts the rush, gas burners lit, woks and pans sizzling, greeting the morning trade. Rubbing elbows with traffic and nudging pedestrians, alfresco Congo lines are weaving and heaving, as diners grab hold to join in the dance. Those with little time scurry away with take out bags full as the privileged relax around communal tables. The setup invites conversation and I join the locals and the adventurous, exchanging pleasantries as best we can, hand gestures filling the gaps left between a smattering of English and Thai. These makeshift kitchens, set up with head chef, sous chef, kitchen hands … huge buckets of water for washing and cleaning … drying, cooking, serving, washing … offer food moving fast from the stall to the mouth, unable to spoil in the heat. Well … Visions of last night come flooding back or flooding out of me. You get the drift. It’s not expected but now and then it can grab you from unlikely places. I can’t remember the last time. But not from the street.
Feeling like eggs I order a perfectly formed omelette, which is hand crafted in a wok, flipped and fluffy, with meat of some sort, green veggies and spice. Delicious, outshining the usual breakfast buffet offerings. Watermelon, papaya, pineapple … chilling on ice, skinned, sliced, diced and bagged. A little for now and some for the fridge. Aren’t you supposed to eat fruit first to aid in digestion? I am mesmerised by the grilled bananas drizzled with sugar, caramelising on the flames. Donuts of odd shapes and sizes are puffing in hot vats of oil, tied to the back of the bikes used to wheel them around and displayed with precision in shallow, circular baskets. So many choices. Savoury and sweet. Freshly dunked, hot, crunchy and soft. I’m offered a sample and buy two for dessert.
Breakfast spills into brunch and slides into lunch. Cooktops spring to life, charcoal and flames. So many sights – colours and shapes, sounds – sizzling and hawking, smells – smoky and fragrant. Regulars line the streets patiently, meals individually prepared, fresh and to taste, customers, not chefs, dipping in fingers to be sure before buying. Soups boil, swimming with Thai basil, lemongrass, chillies and lime leaves. Sweet, sour, spicy. Skewered on the grills, satays you know and satays you don’t. Bags of sauces sit ready to add flavour to take away meals as workers spill out onto the street.
Smoke fills the air, an enticing blanket of warmth, wrapping its arms around onlookers, drawing them in. Expertly muddled spices cover noodles – chicken, pork, seafood … aromas lingering until falling on tastebuds. Covered in salt to preserve moisture, a technique used by chefs the world over, grilled fish, whole of course, is ready and waiting. The flesh falls off the bone and accompanied with spiced salads makes a heavenly lunch. Wok tosses and char grills compete for your attention. Each stand has a specialty, expertly prepared and carefully displayed. ‘Fast’ food with a personal, local touch.
I find my perfect Bizarre Foods moment, squid pegged, hung up to dry, on the back of a bike. Eaten like crisps or immersed into cooking, enhancing flavour and vitality. On the next, honeycomb displayed, honey packaged in flip top, stoppered bottles, the ones used for olive oil or water in some restaurants. Very boutique. Keen for a sale, sitting on the side enjoying a cigarette, he beckons me over. Language is a challenge however pricing is not. With banter and smiles, negotiation and sold, if more for the pleasure than wanting the prize.
As lunch satisfies and crowds disperse, an elderly couple set up shop on the sidewalk, Singers whizzing and stitching. Power leads snaking into the building behind providing energy and life. Entrepreneurs working hard and with pride, providing an alternative to the glossy tailors on every corner with their hawkers annoying, trying to entrap. On a table outside a coffee shop a toaster is set up, powered from within, offering afternoon snacks, fresh bread and preserves, to fill the mid afternoon void. It’s motivating and enlightening to see how people use their initiative.
With dusk, lights guiding your way, bars appear, set out on the footpath so you trip in for a drink. Immersed in the city avoiding the nearby hotel offerings, cold beer satisfies as does the view. Traffic snarling, motor bikes weaving, people walking by, surrounding and enveloping the senses. I have another for the road. Perfect for a pre dinner cocktail, the hosts are chatty and witty, as the rumblings are heard, maestros tuning their instruments as the dinner service begins.
Strategically clinging on above the curbs or emptying into any space, stands and racks, clothes and accessories, welcome the evening. Immersed in their work. Some quality and some not. Like scouring antique markets for the perfect find, hidden amongst the other ‘stuff’, rummaging half the fun, until it’s not.
Hungry and thirsty, dinner popping up on the streets is a welcome relief.