Before we moved to Thailand, I had a fairly western view of what eating like a local would constitute in Bangkok. I imagined the Bangkok food scene for a Thai person was a litany of street carts, plastic chairs and hot woks. Pad thai as far as the eye can see, and enough chillis to take down a good-sized yak.
Like most myths, this is largely untrue, but in fairness the reciprocal myth is equally strong here. About once a week I get asked by colleagues whether I pine for fish and chips, and have to explain that we do have other food in the UK.
All this said, there are some definite trends in how people eat here. When you’re in Bangkok, this is what you should know.
Breakfast = Lunch = Dinner
We should have twigged this from a holiday a few years ago. While staying Phuket, we would be greeted every day by the following spread:
- Rice porridge with pork
- American breakfast
- Red curry
- Green curry
- Noodle stir fry
The hotel in question must have had some very hungry guests prior to us – but it does illustrate the lack of distinction between meals. Restaurants and carts selling what we would think of as dinner are as popular at breakfast time as in the evening.
Forget cornflakes and embrace breakfast biryani.
If you see a market, head for it. Bangkokians absolutely love a market for reasons which are still slightly unclear. The fact that many of my colleagues will return from our nearby market with lunch, snacks and then also socks or a house plant may give an inkling.
That said, markets are generally a good place to find great Bangkok food at great prices, as well as some unusual dishes. Our local market sells this ‘salad’ (their words) or pork crackling, raw fermented sausage, and noodles, as well as deep fried seafood pancakes. Healthy it ain’t, delicious it is.
A solid lunch dish (more on which later) will only set you back 40 baht and there is good variety. Also check out the bigger weekend markets like Lat Mayom Floating Market for the best market experience of Bangkok food.
One is the loneliest number
“Mark, are you on a diet? You do not eat enough.” I hear this a lot as I tuck into what I consider a hefty portion of food in the office.
A Thai lunch with only one dish is not a lunch. A haul of between two and five portions is a much more appropriate lunching approach, apparently. Part of this goes hand in hand with the Bangkok approach to eating in general – it’s a communal affair where everyone sits around the table and shares each others’ food. Even in restaurants with just a couple of you, the staff will wait, pen poised, if you finish after two dishes.
Sweet and savoury are also interchangeable, so don’t be surprised to eat a sweet pancake and then a piece of grilled pork.
Given the array of delicious things available to eat here, it’s not exactly a chore to follow this rule!
Having frequented some of Southend-on-Sea’s finest (read: only) Thai restaurants as a youngster, I had pictured Bangkok food as a singular object. The UK isn’t known for having massive variation across regions so I hadn’t considered that Thailand might, but I was wildly wrong.
Food in Bangkok splits down both regional and cultural lines, leading to a huge breadth of flavours, styles and techniques, and a heck of a lot to explore.
From the North East Isaan region come the spicy Som Tam papaya salads, grilled meats and fish, and a litany of tasty fried things with a heavy hand of herbs and spice, accompanied by sticky rice.
Northern Thailand gives us jungle curries (no coconut milk), Central Thailand offers the classic green and red curries we know outside Thailand, while the South produces fish dishes and curries which are next level spicy.
The various migrations into Thailand over centuries also produce distinctive foods. Head into Bang Rak to find roasted ducks and red pork served over rice or noodles, and dim sum, among a host of Thai-Chinese dishes. Head a few streets down the road and Thau Muslim cuisine awaits, with smoky mutton biryanis, dhal and freshly cooked rotis waiting to welcome you into their tasty, tasty arms. Make sure to search out different regional and cultural dishes for the best experience of Bangkok food.
Save room for the sweet stuff
A final pleasant surprise in Bangkok has been discovering Thai desserts. From the Khanom Buang (crispy pancakes with something approaching a coconut marshmallow cream) pictured above to possibly the best fruit I’ve ever tasted, sweet treats are definitely a winner in Bangkok.
Thais love sweet things, and it can go wrong (see coffee for further information), but there are also some amazing snack on the Bangkok food scene.
Desserts and fruit are also a good option to buy from carts – they’re cheap, the fruit is always on ice, and there generally aren’t any ingredients that would get ruined by the heat which can be a risk for savoury foods. You haven’t lived until you’ve eaten a Chiang Mai pineapple or fought your way into a mangosteen – the king of fruit.
It can be bewildering to find great food in Bangkok. With these tips and tricks, you’ll be able to eat well, and for great places to eat I can highly recommend the Eating Thai Food blog for real expertise!