All fired up over street food
Outside, there is organised chaos. Traffic rumbles by as pedestrians weave a careful path around fiery woks set up on the footpath — their ears assaulted by hissing oil, clashing metal and shouted orders — and negotiate lines of people queuing to get in or to buy takeaway.
Inside, diners tuck into Pad Thai Thip Samai’s eponymous spicy prawns and noodles, the pad thai uniquely cocooned in a gossamer-thin shell of beaten egg, and sip on fresh orange juice shipped in every day from the restaurant’s orchards in the countryside.
Its signature dish is one of Bangkok’s great street food experiences. But for how much longer is an experience such as this going to be possible?
In April it was reported that Bangkok authorities had decided to ban footpath traders and return the streets to pedestrians. The Bangkok governor’s chief adviser was quoted as saying, “Every street vendor will have to move out.” The report caused worldwide consternation and a panicked Tourism Authority of Thailand acted to reassure people there was no intention to ban street food, as did the capital’s authorities, which explained the aim was to ensure hygienic food practices and to better organise traffic around street-food hotspots such as Yaowarat Road and Khao San Road.
There are an estimated 380,000 vendors in Bangkok, but there has already been a reduction in their number in recent years. Sukhumvit Soi 38 was one of the city’s most popular street food destinations, with stalls lining both sides of the narrow road, but when land was gobbled up for condominium development the vendors were pushed out. About a dozen now operate under the eaves of an apartment block, Sutthi Mansion, on the corner of Sukhumvit Road and Soi 38. Among them is Blazing Pad Thai, the owner of which crouches over exploding woks turning out some of Bangkok’s best noodles, and Ning’s mango sticky rice stall, where sweet heaven costs 100 baht ($4) for a plate big enough for two.
Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road remains Bangkok’s street-food epicentre, with hundreds of night-time stalls supplementing scores of permanent restaurants, including the legendary duelling seafood places on Soi Phadung Dao. It’s red shirts (Lek & Rut Seafood) versus green shirts (T & K Seafood), and may the best steamed sea bass win.
Yaowarat Road and its sois are insanely busy. On Soi Khao Tum a cook at a 24-hour restaurant shouts a warning before a wok on the footpath explodes into flame as oil hits searing metal. Mr Tall’s Curry Shoppe dominates the entrance to Yaowarat Soi 11 with pots of beef, pork, chicken and fish curry; further in, a woman who cycles in