By LEANNE WALKER
It is said that in order for a nation to develop a great cuisine, it must have four prerequisites: a rich land from which to draw upon abundant ingredients, a variety of foreign cultural influences, a great civilisation, and lastly, a refined palace with royal kitchens to inspire the cooks.
Thailand has it all and is home to some of the most tantalising foods imaginable.
One of the most interesting and enjoyable ways to explore the delights of Thai cuisine is to take to the streets, many of which resemble a food fair more than a thoroughfare.
The Thai love of food at any time of the day has led to a portable subculture of meals-on-wheels. Their portable kitchens, called rot khen, parked in any advantageous roadside spot, offer almost everything, from chilli-based curries like kaeng phet to thick rice soups like johk muu, from rich aromatic soups like tom yam kai to tangy salads made with shredded green papaya and peanuts, to savoury noodle dishes.
Then they have their sweets, like the sticky roti bread stuffed with condensed milk and sugar and the ubiquitous kluay thawt (batter fried bananas).
It’s never too early to hit the streets for food. Early morning, before Bangkok’s streets turn into sweltering parking lots of traffic jams, is a great time to be out and about. In every street, food vendors have already begun setting up their rot khen carts – gas burners fired up and an array of mouth-watering food already on offer.
You can eat your way from breakfast through to dinner, spending less than US$10 (RM35) for the entire day on the streets. But the price is irrelevant; the food is mostly fantastic.
In Soi Rambutri, my favourite phat thai noodle stall is doing a booming trade. You can always tell a noodle stand by the bags of noodles in three sizes that hang in the glass cabinet of the cart. To tell if it’s a good one, look for a queue. It’s that simple.
The noodle maker is busy frying a serving of kuaytiaw phat thai, tossing the noodles, tofu, egg, and dried shrimp this way and that, sizzling across the hotplate. After what seems like less than thirty seconds, the steaming hot food is slipped onto a plate accompanied by bean sprouts, basil leaves and scallions.
The hungry customer then helps himself to the naam plaa phrik (fish sauce with pounded fresh chillies) that is always on offer, and takes a seat on one of the nearby plastic stools. That’s what I call a breakfast!
One of the major aspects of Thai cooking is the insistence on fresh ingredients. For this reason, vegetable and produce markets are still the most popular venue for household shopping.
The Pak Khlong Market, a cavernous undercover affair sprawling under acres and acres of corrugated iron roofs, is a world unto itself. I enter at one end and find myself utterly lost strolling down aisle-ways, taking in the sights and smells of the heart of the Thai kitchen.
Vegetables of every colour and shape cover kilometres of concrete bench tops. Vendors haggle and banter calling, “Fresh! I picked it from the river just this morning” or the like, while buyers pinch and push, exclaiming in mock horror over prices.
Chillies are everywhere. Red, green, small and fiery, they were first introduced into Thai cuisine in the 1500s after the Portuguese imported them from Latin America.
They are in ample evidence in my lunch of somtam, a fiery salad in which grated green papaya, lime juice, garlic, fish sauce, fresh chillies and a number of other dubious-looking ingredients (was that a live crab I saw?) are mashed with an earthen mortar and pestle, then offered to me in a plastic bag.
The neighbourhood is also home to some of the country’s most honoured and holy sites: the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Pho (Temple of the Reclining Buddha).
In a daze, I tour the temple grounds of the Emerald Buddha, a million-sq-metres of more than 100 buildings covering 200 years of royal history and architectural creativity.
Sky-piercing golden chedi draw the eye over unbelievably decorated walls and pillars where guardian spirit statues stand in every crevice. The Emerald Buddha itself is housed inside, measuring only 600mm and easily overlooked amidst such ornate majesty.
The gold reclining Buddha housed in nearby Wat Pho is, by comparison, huge – a whopping 46m long and 15m high.
Night markets are the cheapest and often the best dining-out experience in Bangkok. Anywhere you spy an island of light, you are likely to find the rot khen and a sea of tables signifying a night market.
My favourite night market is on Th Rambutri in Banglampu. At one stall, I indulge in some chicken satay before moving on to sticky pork ribs, followed by a mouth-blasting pkhao phat bai kaphrao, a fiery stir-fry of chicken, chilli, garlic and basil.
How can anyone resist finishing off a day of such gastronomic over-indulgence without partaking in roti kluay?
Light and fluffy like a croissant, these flat round bread cooked on a hot plate are stuffed with chunks of banana and drizzled over with sugar and condensed milk. Ah, what a way to go out!
I think my next holiday should be a boot camp.