Wednesday, February 2, 2011

A Rolling Cuisine

I would like to make the perhaps audacious claim that Thailand possesses the most scrumptious street food in South East Asia. Festivals see the greatest variety of stands – glistening mounds of noodles, omelets, quail eggs, soups, satays, ice cream, waffles, sticky rice, somtum, candies, chocolates, sodas, bubble teas – I could continue close to indefinitely. But the excellence of our food stands is not limited to fair grounds. For the sake of building the strongest argument I will limit myself to the stands of the everyday.

Soup stands are most prolific - they are the staples of street food dinning. Hungry at any hour you are guaranteed to find one within a five minute drive in any direction. To fully appreciate the complexities of a seemingly unassuming soup stand you must eat with a local. There is never just one kind of soup sold, but rather infinite deviations. Do you want thick toothy wide rice noodles (sen yai), thin rice noodles (sen lek), floss thin rice noodles (sen mee), or perhaps skip the rice altogether and go for egg noodles (ba mi). Then there are the choices of meatballs – pork, beef, fish, chicken – or strips of meat, or boiled meat. There are bean sprouts, mint, fresh morning glory for garnish. Sometimes there are wontons. These are all relatively self evident, displayed behind glass. But then there are the seasonings and spices that can be added to the soups, the ones that are hidden away in the belly of the cart that you don’t realize are there until you are soup initiated. It took me a month and a half to be initiated and to discover the wonders of tumyum sweet and sour spice. And finally if the number of possible choices were not overwhelming enough there are the self service spices that are basically a requirement along with chairs, forks, spoons, and chopsticks, of every Thai street food table – small glasses filled with ground chili, fish sauce, chili with vinegar, fish sauce with vinegar, and of course…sugar.

Next on my “most frequented” list are the fruit stands. These consist of long plexiglass boxes filled with rainbow layers of sliced and bagged fruits. Cubes of pineapple, ovals of Rose apple, half moons of dragon fruit, serrated papaya, Asian pear and cantaloupe. Often there will also be bags of coconut water, small whole roasted coconuts that can be cracked open with a machete, eight inch bottles of fresh squeezed orange juice.

Coffee stands are also common. I frequent a particularly delicious one at the end of my soi. The man there mixes up bright creamy orange chai yen – Thai Iced Tea, brimming with sugar and condensed milk. His dark wood stand is stacked with empty condensed milk cans and plastic containers of Nestle coffee. Tucked into a shelf between cans is a plastic Chinese cup filled with chai offered up to a miniature plastic Buddha. He also serves, though I have not sampled, a variety of coffee drinks as well as powdered drinks mixed with milk that are available in every color of the pastel rainbow.

For late night desserts one should keep an eye out for milk stands, distinguishable by the case of freshly fried chromosome shaped dough. These stands serve dough with a jelly like green icing, or for those less enticed, green slime. To accompany them, the large vat set into the stand holds steaming soy milk, rice milk, and the strongest ginger tea I’ve tasted (it is the kind of tea perfect for burning away throat layers). There are also the standard roti stands of which I have already written about, where you can get your fried dough with any combination of bananas, eggs, chocolate, strawberry jam and blueberry jam. Sugar and condensed milk are a given.

Possibly the most frequent, but also possibly the least appetizing to some, are the squid stands. Small-wheeled carts with tables displaying vibrantly yellow squids and dried cuttlefish, the texture of faded newspaper. Such stands swarm around bars and clubs starting at midnight. For impatient customers they offer bags of shredded fish, for those who can wait they grill squid in front of you. Night air in Chiang Mai is awash in the pungent smell of squid.

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