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Thai on the Run © J West Hardin

Thai on the Run: The Evolution of Food Carts

By J West Hardin

Eating is a Social Affair © J West Hardin
Eating is a Social Affair © J West Hardin

I first came to Thailand by way of India thirty-seven years ago. At that time the quality and variety of available food astounded me such as I had never witnessed in any of the third world countries I had visited up until that time. I had become accustomed to eating the spicy deep-fried street food in alleyways and railway stations of the sub-continental cities, and before that a carbohydrate-centric diet in the mountains of South America. I had a hunger for something other than curried vegetables on rice or beefsteak asado and papas fritas. Mass budget tourism had not been invented; guide books wouldn't be published for a few years. There were very few tourists or business travelers visiting the Kingdom of Thailand, except for the purists and an executive class of NGO workers and embassy staff.

Thai urban infrastructure had not diversified into the kaleidoscope that we observe today. It was a golden age for backpacker travel to Thailand, but at the same time travel was more difficult and rudimentary. It was common for travelers' chance meetings at bus stops, border stations and airports to be used as opportunities to exchange information on accommodation and expectations as as each retraced each other's ground. (Sorry girls but I never once met any women traveling on their own in those early years.) It was a bit like the meeting of Dr. Stanley and Dr. Livingstone at times. In areas of the world that were considered to be “hard travel, ” I remember exchanging food dreams with fellow routards when good food was scarce and rare gastronomic gems that couldn't be missed were plotted out in crude cartographic glyphs into dog-eared diaries. It may sound strange but after several isolated months of nothing but rice and okra, or their dreary equivalents, you dream of fast food favourites whether you like it or not. There are brilliant foods in every country, but without the hard work of a guide-book travel writer or local contact they can be hard to find. A revolution in the cuisine offerings of Thailand has changed that.

This is Love © J West Hardin This is Love © J West Hardin

When I arrived in Bangkok in 1975 I found it a wonderland of street food- cart cuisine. My first experience was with the amazing barbeque chicken that had been thoroughly marinated in sweet chili and crushed tamarind, then grilled to perfection over charcoal fire. The savoury Som Tam papaya salads with fresh lime and sizzling hot bird chilies became an everyday favourite. After that I ate everything that could be slipped onto a stick and eaten standing up. On any given day I would eat anything from water beetles deep fried in garlic oil to sweet fish balls candied with chili sauce. Fried rice and noodle dishes are whipped up on pedestals of blue-bottled gas flame. The roar of that gas jet is like music to my ears. Pad Thai is a traditional fried-rice noodle dish topped with crunchy baked peanuts and alive with the flavors of kaffir lime, palm sugar and lemon grass. A side dish that accompanies this popular favourite includes small green onions, bean sprouts, a square of fresh lime and a sliver of banana heart. It is the custom to share a table at the hawker's stall. The etiquette is to pull up a chair and dig in, no reservations. I noted that the locals rely on these food vendors for at least a couple of meals a day and the bulk of the customers were not transients like myself. The vendors take this responsibility very seriously and treat the art of open food vending with respect and skill.

The Thais didn't appear to be suffering any ill effects as opposed to the general malaise I'd witnessed in India, myself included, so I took my queue and dove right in. Common sense in eating at food stalls in the street still prevails, and it's always best to eat what is cooked fresh in front of youand delivered to your plate steaming hot. In over thirty years eating from the stalls in Asia I have rarely become ill, certainly with no greater frequency than I have after eating at restaurants in Europe or North America. There is one proviso, and it's almost unnoticeable to the untrained eye. The food may be fresh and cooked right, but looking closely you'll notice that there is no fresh running water. The dishes, cups, utensils and glasses are rinsed continually in the same bucket behind the stall front. It is not the food that will make you sick, it is the contaminated dishes and drinking vessels. So choose your food cart drinks and dishes wisely. Many modern vendors have solved this problem by using Styrofoam plates and plastic forks, spoons and straws. Speaking of water, use bottled exclusively, even to brush your teeth.

A government initiative in the 1990s changed the food cart scene in Bangkok forever. We purists decried the move at first but I realize now that it was for the best. Although not ubiquitously acknowledged, the law regarding the offering of cooked food on the street was changed to force a majority of the street vendors into the new food court spaces that were being made available in a new wave of mall construction. In twenty years I couldn't count how many new malls have been built in and around the city. They have sprouted like mushrooms seemingly overnight and continue to develop at a mind-numbing pace. I have to conclude this was both a good business decision to benefit mall developers' revenues and a huge improvement in public health and sanitation. In truth the street carts did leave behind a tremendous amount of garbage to slog through at the end of the day with all the accompanying vermin issues to contend with.

The Modern Street Cart © J West Hardin
The Modern Street Cart © J West Hardin

The food courts of the 21st century are the street carts of the last, only better. The variety of dishes is still incredible, the environment is air-conditioned and clean. Local people love the food courts and use them as an extension of their own kitchens. Food court food is cheap; there is no other word to describe it. A nice meal of noodles or rice will range from thirty-five baht (one US dollar as of writing) to sixty baht (two US dollars) and includes fresh meat, seafood and vegetables, all served on a plate washed in running water with detergent. Yes, it is romantic to eat a Pad Thai in the street at midnight after a wander out, but when you can take your children out to eat for an inexpensive and healthy meal in air-conditioned comfort you would be joining the mindset of the Thai people in foregoing the outside cart and going inside to be served by an apron clad server with cleanly washed hands in a supervised setting. I won't belabour not having to deal with flies and mosquitoes in the outdoor spaces, especially at night; it goes without saying. Remember, 99.9% of the patrons of all food outlets are local Thai. Tourists make up an insignificant percentage of the overall trade.

Indoor food courts can be found in every shopping mall or large commercial application. You will buy a swipe/credit card from the central register and use it at any of the standard price carts. Everyone pays the same, the quality of the food is homogeneous. Management has thoughtfully assured that at least a minimum of English is spoken at most outlets. Thai people themselves have taken to speaking English with great delight and will want to practice their new-found skills on you at every opportunity. This is a profoundly important and underrated benefit for today's visitor to Thailand, considering that twenty years ago there was almost no English spoken anywhere in the country. If you're smart you'll be generous with your hospitality, Thai people are good hearted and will reciprocate kindness without reservation. The term "Land of Smiles" was not an entirely made-up slogan for the tourism industry. Of course the standard restaurant logic applies in Bangkok as anywhere: "Be kind to people who serve your food."

J West Hardin is a prolific West Coast Canadian author whose range of work spans multiple genres from psychological fantasy, human drama, to science fiction, action thrillers and romance. The author's various works wrap fiction in a literary style while examining the human condition.

All images © J West Hardin