Ask yourself this, how often when you are living in your home country do you really think about what you eat? Now I don’t mean what as in the content of the food or the calorie count or if it’s genetically modified. I mean what goes in your mouth besides what you have paid for…
I mean in the West we don’t really delve too much into the inner workings when we visit a fancy restaurant and most of us don’t even consider it in some of the lower class establishments. We tend to go by reviews from our peers or from hearing something someone said on the bus to work in the morning. Sure we are concerned with hygiene but when was the last time you really studied the cleanliness of the kitchen that you ordered your toasted sandwich from while sipping on a cold beer?
When did you last check the chefs hands to make sure they were clean or that his nails were short to avoid harbouring bacteria? Is his uniform washed in boiling water to kill off all the germs from the day before or has it been washed at all?
I can bet that the answer to that question is never and why would you….
The answer to that question is simple after all, you expect cleanliness, you expect quality and you expect safe standards are being followed. You also expect and pretty much know that the quality of the raw produce is safe for human consumption and come from a reputable supplier. After all, it is right?
Adapt or die
I have eaten all over the world and in my earlier travels I started off being very naïve about food. If it looked good and smelt good then it must be good was my attitude. I would never question what went on during its preparation and to be honest many times even if it wasn’t great I still wouldn’t complain or make a fuss. This is not the way it is in the West for many people or at least for many people I know or have dined with.
Westerners tend to like confrontation and it has always amused and bewildered me as to why many people think that shouting or arguing is the best way to get a message across but that’s for another discussion.
There is one culture I know that is known for being placid and non-confrontational (and I mean no offence by saying this) I mean after all I am part of that culture. I am a proud Thai Woman in all senses of the word but I do find our cultures lack of willing to complain just to save face as being something that needs to change.
I appreciate that many times it will fall on deaf ears but at the very least it should be said so that maybe one day it will sink in but not in a loud aggressive tone just enough to make a point.
Now where is all this going you might ask yourself?
What has confrontation got to do with anything?
What has culture got to do with anything?
Well where food is concerned especially in Thailand it has everything to do with it especially if you plan on living here. Someone once said “In this world you either adapt or you die” I don’t know who it was but I can imagine it was said about eating in Thailand. I am pretty sure it wasn’t but it sure could have been.
Fake Thai food versus real Thai food.
I love Thai food, not that stuff you buy at home from your local fake Thai restaurant where Som Tam has cucumber and onions in it and so little chilli in it you could feed it to your new-born and they wouldn’t even blink. You know the place I mean, the one where noodles taste like they came in a cup that you just add boiling water to and wait five minutes. The place where all the Thai staff are Chinese or English and can’t understand when you greet them with Sawadee Ka.
I mean real 100% proper homemade Thai food like my mother and my grandmother used to make. Food that makes your eyeballs bleed and your face turn purple. Food that sometimes smells like a dead goat dipped in rotting fish.
That’s the food I like in Thailand, Oh and just so you know, that’s the food you will need to get to like if you ever want to live here and be part of the in crowd. No evening would be complete without the loud sounds of laughter and beer bottles. We Thais love our food and unfortunately sometimes we love our beer too. To us food is a way of life and unlike the West it’s never a quick meal or a light snack to tide us over. No, food for us is an event. It’s like the UFC on fight night. There are heaps of undercards that build up to the main event and eating can go on all day.
The only time we leave the floor is to go buy more beer or to go cook more food. I am sure though that many of you will leave the floor for one other reason. At least in the beginning of your stay that is until you acclimatise and build up immunity to certain things. The terms deli belly, Thai trots and som tam thunder will all become clear to you once you eat your first real Thai meal.
What do we really eat in Thailand?
So let’s get down to business, what do Thai people eat? How is it cooked and how is it stored? Is there a regulatory body to protect the consumer? Who do you complain to if you get sick? Let’s look at these questions one at a time.
What do Thai people eat?
Well that’s an easy one. The answer is everything. Now when I say everything I really do mean everything. If you have ever heard of top to tail dining well Thailand takes that concept to the extreme.
Have you ever eaten boiled pigs intestines or deep fried crickets?
We love them. We also love boiled chicken feet in our soup. Most of the time all the toe nails are gone but the odd time you will get that little crunch. One of my personal favourites is Khanom Jeen Nam Ya Gai.
This is a rice noodle stew with various vegetables and spices including of course chillies along with ginger and garlic. The soup itself is made from boiled chicken carcass or pork and its served at its basic level and left for you to add your own flavours and spices to it so every bowl is different. Every table has a standard set that you use to tailor the soup to your own taste. If you prefer sour you add vinegar. If you prefer sweet you add sugar etc. etc.
You also get crushed peanuts, chilli sauce and fish sauce and in some places a plate of herbs. Along with the basic versions you can also get it served with coagulated pig’s blood which is served in cubes and dropped into the soup just before it is served to your table and some nacho like crackers. Now before you decide that you are never going to Thailand just remember that things can always surprise you and believe it or not many of these dishes are very tasty and if nothing else they are definitely not boring.
Next up comes the deep fried pigs intestines served crispy and eaten like people in the west would eat crisps or peanuts with a beer. They don’t really need any more said about them. They are what they are.
Bugs Bugs Bugs
Now I bet you all thought that the stories of food carts selling bugs were just fiction. Well not at all, they are real and in Thailand they are not just eaten by drunk friends out to be heroes or show off how fearless they are. They are eaten by many normal local people and are healthy and full of all the good things you need to survive.
Believe it or not they are also tasty. Some say they taste like chicken but I think they taste slightly like fish although I guess the taste very much depends on what they are fed. So next time you are in Thailand don’t be afraid just dig in and grab a handful and start chewing (or more precisely crunching).
All these tasty morsels are easy to prepare and can be found on every street where there is activity. Every town and village has their own versions but the basics are the same. They are cooked in the home and served to families and obviously the home cooked versions are considered a lot let’s just say fresher than the market alternatives.
Take a trip to the streets of Bangkok and you will be amazed by the selections on offer. The smells are mind blowing and fill the air 18 hours a day. You could spend weeks going from stall to stall and still never taste every variation on offer. It’s just like street food back home right?
Well no not even close. I know from my husband that legislation in his home country is very strict when it comes to food service and hygiene. Restaurants have to pass a huge amount of tests just to be allowed to open and then they are monitored every few months by inspectors that carry out spot checks. On any one of these visits they can close you down without notice if they feel you are not up to standards. It’s not just the restaurants though it’s also the bars and fast food joints too.
Food and the law
Did you know that even a street vendor back in the West must show that they have been cleared by the health authority to sell food and must possess a licence to do so?
Well this is definitely not the same in Thailand. Let’s be clear on this, anyone can open a food stand and sell food. There is no legislation, no governing body and no licencing agency. You will see things that you would never accept back home. Take a walk through any market and be prepared…
The first thing you will notice is everything is set out on old wooden crates or plastic shelves. These are usually dirty looking and always cracked or broken. There are no stainless steel units and hardly any glass units covering the food. There are taps running into old dirty sinks or basins that flow with cold water sometimes from a well and sometimes from the local water supply which is not much cleaner than a well supply.
You will see flies everywhere and usually quite a few dogs lying about waiting to jump in and steal anything that hits the floor and sometimes things that don’t. Moving along you will notice that raw food and cooked food is rarely separated and hands are never washed in between grabbing, cooking and serving. The smell in the markets can sometimes be over powering especially in the meat area where you will see some of that top to tail preparation I mentioned earlier.
Often you will see pig’s heads and entrails hanging from hooks in the ceiling which will be fetched down and cut for you as you request. You will see food cart owners arriving early in the morning usually before 6am to get the “best” that’s available. This is then thrown onto an open side car where the car fumes and dust marinate it before its lovingly prepared and served for someone’s lunch.
Allergies and bacteria.
On another note just while I think of it, how many of you have egg allergies or nut allergies?
I would imagine quite a few. Well be prepared to use your epi pen because eggs and nuts are loved by Thai people. We use eggs as a garnish on some of our favourite foods like Pad Kra Prow which is stir fried pork with holly basil served with boiled jasmine rice and served with, you guessed it a fried egg on top. We also enjoy a chicken soup dish called Kai Pa Lo which is served full of hard boiled eggs.
Then we move on to all the cashew nut dishes or soups served with crushed peanuts that I mentioned earlier. All in all it’s a mine field of dangerous food out there. So after they get the raw produce what can you expect? Is it safely stored in a cool box and prepared under strict healthy surroundings?
Well not exactly. It’s lovingly prepared yes but is it safe? Well that’s the million dollar question or should I say million Baht question? I suppose if you were to have any street food tested you may not like the results but then we Thais have been eating like this for a lifetime and we are alive and healthy and in fact as a race we are one of the healthiest in the world especially when it comes to obesity or heart conditions. In fact we are even low down on the cancer scale so we must be doing something right.
Maybe it’s the excessive chillies that are killing all the bacteria or maybe just maybe people in the west are just too protective and too quick to hide from nature. I mean seriously cavemen never had refrigerators or shiny steel cupboards. They killed their prey, butchered it and ate it raw in many cases. Don’t forget fire wasn’t always around. Did the cavemen die from food poisoning?
I don’t think so.
So as we move on down the market stalls what else can you expect to see? Well my favourite has to be the sweet stands. Delicious smelling mouth-watering goods. Fried sticky rice cakes with coconut or pan fried roti (pancakes) filled with slices of fresh picked bananas smothered in sweet condensed milk. Coconut milk puddings with rice flour dumplings and various fruit served over shaved ice and drizzled with strawberry sauce. The list goes on and on until you get to my personal favourite. Sweet sticky rice with mango. This is the best of the Thai Desserts and far superior to the western versions you get back home. It’s sticky and gooey and just great as a treat after a hard day in the field.
I like to wash it all down with a glass of cool iced milk tea which is again made with another Thai favourite that which is sweet condensed milk. You will see a can of this on every street stand. It’s really a substitute for cream as it doesn’t turn sour so quickly and can be stored out of the fridge. Ok so pretty much everything is stored outside the fridge anyway but at least this ingredient can withstand it without turning into an oozing bubbly chunk of sour mess.
We Love our fish.
So finally let’s talk about one of the biggest ingredients that you will find in Thailand. What I am talking about is the humble fish. We love fish and eat it in every way you can imagine. Fried, deep fried, boiled, baked, grilled, barbecued and of course raw. It’s in soups, stews and used to make fish balls which are the Thai version of chicken nuggets.
The Tilapia which is one of the most popular Thai fishes is a bony flat fish full of omega 3 and delicious. You have to be very careful when you eat it as the bones are usually in every bite but it’s worth it. They are grown in ponds or rivers and like the muddy ones better. They are not regarded as a clean fish but who cares when it tastes so good. The best way of serving it is deep fried under a sweet chilli sauce or with a sour dipping sauce and lots of jasmine rice.
Don’t be too shocked if you see your Thai friends fighting over who gets to suck out the eyeballs. We love anything that has a jelly consistency and will also try to be first to get to the pot of soup to dig out the chunks of pork fat. This is the total opposite to my husband who fights to put them back in and only eats the lean meat.
Should I stay or should I go?
Ok so you’re reading this and thinking you will never come to Thailand or thinking you are going to need to pack some biscuits and other rations so you don’t starve to death. I bet you are calling your doctor as you read this so you can get a prescription ready to combat sickness from both ends of the body.
Well stop thinking that right now and listen to me.
Forget everything you have been taught and just go with the flow. Give it a chance because as I already said earlier. We are still alive and far healthier than most cultures. My husband has never had food poisoning neither have my kids. Our foreign friends love coming over for a meal and we all enjoy a trip to the market to feast on some amazing food with even more amazing prices. Where in your country can you feed a group of four until they are ready to burst for about twenty dollars?
This includes starter, main course and dessert. Add in another few dollars for beer and you would find it hard to spend as much on feeding a group in Thailand as you would feeding one person back home. So what if the rules of culinary standards aren’t followed just eat, enjoy and repeat as needed. As I mentioned earlier I started off as being very naïve when it came to food but now I have replaced my naivety with knowledge and if it was good enough for my parents and their parents then it’s good enough for me. The food in Thailand is some of the best in the world. Just ask Gordon Ramsey.