Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Street Food, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Written by Karen 

It was Saturday night and we were headed to the Chiang Mai Gate in the Old City of Chiang Mai.  On our agenda tonight was to walk around a bit and pick up some of the evening ambience.  Also high on my list was to eat some street food. 

I have been slower than usual in my quest to sample random street food on this trip.  I blame the hesitancy on the very graphic medical museum display that we saw in Bangkok a few weeks ago about parasites and the havoc they wreak.  I’m not particularly squeamish, but those pictures of how parasites - from this region of the world, no less - enter and exit a human body have really stuck with me.  Even now, I can conjure up those medical pictures without much effort, and then just as quickly lose my appetite for sampling through street food stalls.  

That really puts a damper on one of my very favorite things to do - eat street food.  

Some of the best food - in my opinion - can be found simply prepared by someone’s relative in tiny little pop-up restaurants, or out of a converted van or on temporary plastic tables somewhere straddling a sidewalk or just on the side of the road.  

But it’s not just the food itself that I love - although of course that is a large part of the experience - it is also addressing and checking against my knee-jerk reactions that could repel me back and away from the street food stall and towards eating somewhere “safer”.  It means overlooking the rusted metal roof and the lack of refrigeration and hot water.   It means eating with your fingers.  It requires a bit of calculated risk-taking: is that orange juice or mango? Or something else entirely?  Is that beef or something else?  How long has that chicken been hanging there?  

It means looking for a jumble of happy, hungry people - preferably locals - around a particular street cart or shop stuffing their faces.  Whenever we see a line anywhere, it will catch our attention.  Vendors are not in the habit of giving their neighbors food poisoning -  they would go out of business fairly quickly.  If there are many people gathered around a stall, we will most likely taste food from that vendor, especially if we are hungry. 

It means that we are usually eating in a loose communal setting - strangers sitting together bumping elbows and knees sharing a basic human experience.  Or it means that we will sit on the edge of a sidewalk curb to eat.  It means that we will have to lean over our food so when it drips, it drips on the street and not on your shirt.  Because much of the food will drip and the napkins are usually very thin - toilet paper thin - and won’t help you much. 

Eating street food goes against almost everything that I was raised to know or understand about the process of preparing food and eating meals, and I still love the whole experience.  The food.  The shared experience of happy strangers smiling and nodding to one another.  Maybe we can’t communicate enough to have a thoughtful chat, but our body language and togetherness definitely crosses any language barriers.  We all know that we are eating something delicious and that we are completely enjoying it.  The proprietor will look over and smile with pride and appreciation that we are visibly enjoying their food.  We grin back with appreciation at the culinary genius of it all.

We have eaten street food all over the world: Berlin, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Argentina, and Seoul gaining our confidence as we sampled unknown bits and bites.  And mostly we do okay.  We’ve chosen some street food that I wouldn’t necessarily try again, but, I can say that for the most part, I unhesitatingly love street food.  

In particular, I am most partial to the Mexican street taco.  I can eat those at any time, all day, every day.  Taco Flaco in Puerto Vallarta for tacos al pastor, Hermosillo for carne asada, and Tacos Floresta in Ensenada for shrimp tacos.  I keep trying to knock those three out of the top slots, but so far those reign as the 1-2-3 all time favorites.  Closely tied.

You can see Adam tucking into the shrimp tacos in the shadows of Tacos Floresta.  We got here early to miss the crowds.  
We came back to Tacos Floresta a couple of days in a row.  The selection of condiments required experimentation.  Adam, on the other hand, liked his tacos the traditional way:  a little cabbage, a little red salsa, a little onion and cilantro, and a squeeze of lime.  
Tacos al Pastor.  Grilled pork with grilled pineapple, onions, salsa and cilantro, with a squeeze of lime.  We can eat mountains of these!  Great memories and high standards.
The street food at Chiang Mai Gate seemed like a perfect opportunity for us to slide back into the street food scene again.  It’s a well-known market, with long-term vendors, with lots of hungry people milling around, both local, tourists and ex-pats.  It’s an easy way for us to get over my recently-acquired parasitic hurdle and to regain my confidence sauntering, seeing, smelling and experiencing the local food.  

The afternoon shadows were starting to lengthen as we started walking down towards the main road towards the walled City.  A shiny red songtaew (like a colectivo in Mexico or in South America or like a collective Uber in the States where the “taxi” takes you and anyone else that they pick up along the way where you want to go) had just made a left hand turn onto our street and was slowing down.  

Adam asked, “Chiang Mai Gate?” and the woman passenger nodded.  I rubbed my thumb and two fingers together to ask the cost.  “20”, the woman said.  Adam and I looked at each other and nodded.  Deal.  20 Thai Baht is about $.60 USD for two, one-way tickets and is the going rate locally for short distance rides like this.

In Thai, the songtaew means two rows of bench seats that have been mounted in the back of a smaller-sized truck with open sides and a roof.  You just jump in and hold on.  There are a lot of these trucks driving throughout Chiang Mai giving a little ‘toot’ on the horn to see if you want a ride.  Sometimes, if they are feeling confident, they will simply pull over to the side of the road and wait until you walk up to them.  

We walked to the back of the truck and climbed inside.  We were the only riders so far.  The songtaew continued its slow troll of the street.  The motor scooters whizzed, darted and wove all around us, impatient to be behind such a slow moving vehicle.  The wafting exhaust fumes emanating from the darting two-stroke engines surrounded us.  We finally made the left onto the main street and towards the Old City.  It wouldn’t be too much longer before we were in a culinary wonderland.

Examples of songtaews.
We got out of the songtaew a few blocks from the Chiang Mai Gate.  This food vendor bicycles to wherever he wants to set up shop.  He had pulled over to turn over his sausages, which were grilling away on red-hot charcoals even as he pedaled to his destination.  He had some uncooked sausages hanging neatly nearby.  The smells coming off his tiny grill were amazing:  smoky, meaty with hints of lemongrass and ginger.  It was a reminder that the very real possibility of very delicious food lay ahead of us.  We picked up our pace.  
A woman on her way to sell her wares.  She has several baskets balanced between the front and the back on a pole.
We pass her when she stops to make a sale.  
It's still early at the Chiang Mai Gate market.  The vendors are starting to set up for the evening rush.  
Love Gyoza.  This is an easy one to start our evening ramble with.  This young couple has set up a small wooden table on the sidewalk with four trays of homemade gyoza.  They fry them up in small batches and charge 60 baht for 10 pieces.
We'll take 10 please.  We're given 2 bamboo spears to stab the gyoza with, dip into the sauce and bring to our mouths.  We're mostly successful.  They are delicious.  We consider making a second stop once we loop around all of the options.  
It was an unusual combination for a crepe: nutella and mango.  I love both separately, so why not try them together?  Gotta be good, right?  
It was. 
As the market kicked into high gear, so did we.  So many things to sample.  A literal smorgasbord of tapas: we tried the sausage, grilled chicken here and a few other things that we weren't exactly sure about, but were good.  A little this, a little that.  We seem to be on a roll again...
A very substantial selection of food: fresh cracked crab, rice, squid, curries...
Fresh fruit smoothies are readily available....you can easily drink your full daily recommended allowance of fruits in minutes.  
Adam ordered a chocolate bubble tea smoothie.  He passed on having crumbled oreo cookies added. This vendor has pre-chunked her fruit for making a quick fruit juice or fruit smoothie.  These drinks are delicious and usually cost less than $1 USD.  
I'm pretty sure they mean crab.
Little hibachi-type concrete grills with red-hot charcoals. You do have to be careful walking through the market and don't bump up or lean against these grills.  The fish is cleaned and stuffed with herbs and spices. The smells of smoke, spice and grilled fish fill the air and keep our stomachs grumbling.  
It's very common to see families swoop by and pick up take-out from the food stalls or pick up some fruit on the way home.  
Three forms of local transportation:  motor scooter, tuk-tuk and the songtaew.  The market is crowded now with people shopping and eating.
After sauntering and sampling through the Chiang Mai Gate market for awhile, we decide to walk back to the apartment.  The night is cool and the flowering trees perfume the air.  

One of the corners of the Old City.  Perhaps the motor scooter is on its way to one of the many street food night markets for a bite to eat?  
After an evening of sampling meat on a stick, sausages, veggies, spring rolls, gyoza, fruit smoothies, and fried rice, what could be the perfect dessert?  A shared hot fudge sundae at Swensens, that's what! 


Jennifer Chase said...

Wow, everything looks so good. Great photos. Love the gyoza and anything with mango gets my attention. Hope you both are doing well. Ever think about writing a book about your adventures?

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Jennifer! Thanks - I appreciate that. We're doing good; hopefully everything is going well for you. You never know about writing a book....if I go in that direction, I will certainly be giving you a call !! :) The mango smoothies are so thick and fresh, it's like an entirely different fruit. It's one of my favorite fruits too. Take care, Karen

Gregor Brandt said...

Wow! Your writing brings it all back to Janice and I from when we through Thailand. Very happy to see you are having a great time and enjoying all that Thailand has to off, sights, sounds, smells and food.

Janice L. said...

Would have loved to explore that market with you two! You captured it so well. And you made me miss Mexican street tacos, too.

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hey Gregor! Thanks. Appreciate the comment. We are loving Thailand: Great food, great people, beautiful scenery. Plus, it really does seem to be the land of a thousand smiles. Very genuine. It's sad to see them all mourn their King. Tough times right now for them. Take care, Karen

This Journey We Call Life said...

Hi Janice! We would love to explore that market with you guys! We would eat ourselves into oblivion! :) And then after that, we can always head back down to sample the Mexican tacos again! Isn't it true that all unpaved roads lead to good street food?? Karen