Getting Good Stuff When You Don't Speak the Language

Most street food, to me, is more interesting than most restaurant food.

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By David Hammond

Most street food, to me, is more interesting than most restaurant food.

This maxim was never more true than in Bangkok, a city with more incredible street food than any other place I’d ever visited. Wandering aimlessly through the city, one could be certain of encountering dozens upon dozens of small stands serving fine stuff at very competitive prices.

About 15 minutes after reaching our hotel in downtown Bangkok, Carolyn went down for a nap – and I dashed onto Rama I Road in search of excellent street eating.

Prior to setting out on my scarfing safari, I asked the nice lady at the hotel desk to write down four statements in Thai; here in English is what I asked her to translate into her native language:

* “Hello, how much is your delicious food?”

* “Good. I’ll have one, please.”

* “Please feel free to make it the way you usually would. Spicy hot is just fine.”

* “Thank you.”

Armed with my little sheets of paper, I went out in search of food and enjoyed spectacular chow. Probably the most excellent dish I had on this initial foray into the streets of Bangkok was papaya salad.

I usually avoid raw fruit and vegetables in street food, but the papaya salad, som tam,  is an iconic Thai dish (though it’s also found in Laos and Vietnam). I could not resist its charms.

Of course, I’d had papaya salad at a number of places (Spoon Thai, Yum Thai, etc.), but what made this salad so memorable was that all the flavors came together so perfectly. This perfect marriage of flavors is achieved by vigorously pounding the ingredients until they submit their goodness to one another and create a more perfect union of tastes.

The lady on the street (who like many Southeast Asian woman giggle uncontrollably when dealing with me) read my little messages, then took into whacking the hell out of the ingredients. She held up two little chile peppers as though to ask, “You sure you want these?” I gave her a big smile and a thumbs up as though to respond, “Hell’s yeah!”

Into the mortar and pestle she put green papaya  threads and other ingredients including chile peppers, small limes (so delicate they could be eaten whole), tomatoes, green beans, bean sprouts, some herbs and salt. She proceeded to flog these foods until they bled juice, and the essence of each ran together into an aromatic, crunchy and tastefully cohesive mess.

One thing I learned (again) about street food: you should eat it on the street.

Before bringing my salad back to the room, I had to stop and change money and get some beer. In that relatively short amount of time, the juices leeched out of salad to an alarming degree…but it was still fantastic (and it’s possible the flavors concentrated just a little by losing some juice).

For future street food forays into foreign lands, I’d recommend 1) a sheet of paper (as described above) with your message on it in the native language (could be as simple as “Your food looks great! I’d like some, please.”), 2) waterless soap (good for cleaning up before and after eating street food), 3) paper towels (other countries are not so profligate in their distribution of paper products as we are), 4) a camera (because in the flurry of street grunting, you’re probably going to forget a lot about what you ate), and 5) eating the food immediately.




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