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Vegetarian Journal July/Aug 1999

Eating Off the Streets:

Food Cruising in Thailand

by Nancy Berkoff

Check out the recipes!

Thailand is a country of diversity--city versus country, industry versus agriculture, modern versus traditional, etc. One common thread you will find in Thailand is that everybody eats, it seems, all the time. Food stands are found in the center of town, on the outskirts, by the side of the highways, outside Buddhist temples and schools, and even in the smallest alleys.

In the cities, there is an amazing assortment of food stands. Market and roadside vendors are an important part of life in these urbanized areas. You can find just about anything you want in the food stalls of Thailand. For about 5 to 15 baht (at the time of this writing, there were 32 baht to the dollar), you can put together a satisfying and nourishing meal. Students take advantage of this moveable feast, as do busy business people, working crews, tourists in-the-know, and just about everybody!

We were able to sample street food in Chiang Mei (northern Thailand), Bangkok (central), and Phuket (southern). We found that a great deal of the food is inherently veggie--you have to pay extra to add fish or meat. Some foods were obviously veggie, such as sticky rice and grilled eggplant, and some obviously contained animal products, such as pork rolls and steamed eggs. Other foods, however, were veggie in appearance, but the condiments used contained meat (more on how to avoid this later). Fish sauce and dried shrimp are popular seasoning agents; for the most part, it is simple to request your food not be prepared with these.

Veggie street survival takes just a bit of studying. Let's talk about cooking utensils first because you could often surmise what types of foods are being served by the way they are cooked. Electric rice cookers are used for--you guessed it--steaming rice. Just be sure to peek into the cookers, because they may be used to keep mixed foods such as meat and rice warm. A brass pan or basin is almost always used to simmer meat for soup, so steer clear. Frying pans and woks, heated over charcoal or propane stoves, can be used to prepare both meat and veggie items; the veggie items include fried bananas, flour cakes, roti (yes, the Indian flatbread), and vegetable puddings. Aluminum pots are used to store already-prepared foods or prepared desserts served over crushed ice. Once again, just peek in. Enamel pots, sometimes balanced on both ends of bamboo poles, can contain fish balls with steamed rice noodles (in separate containers, the noodles are veggie). Glass showcases are plentiful on the street, so you can look and select. If you see uncut vegetables, whole cucumbers, eggs, and uncooked meat in a case, this usually means that you can order fried rice-- you select the ingredients you would like and pay accordingly. You may also see bowls of joak, or rice porridge, next to small pots used to heat it. Meat is an additional ingredient--added after cooking--so just order without.

Another popular showcase meal is noodle-based. Avoid the bahmee, or egg noodles, and order the senyai or woonsen (rice noodle or bean vermicelli, respectively). Move on to the steamboat cooker, which is a water bath with a central compartment resembling the funnel of a ship. The steamboats are used to prepare soups and hot noodles. Claypots are used to prepare all types of slowly cooked items; claypot rice or noodles with vegetables are good entrees. Finally, when you see glass bowls and drink containers, you know that you will find dessert. Glass bowls can contain steamed or boiled red beans, sliced sweet potatoes, corn, water chestnuts, palm seeds, or pineapple cubes. These items may be served plain or have coconut milk or brown sugar added. Be careful because evaporated cow's milk can be used to top nut and bean mixtures.

Condiments are ubiquitous with Thai meals. Offered on the side, they include chili flakes, soy sauce, pickled chilies, vinegar, and peanut granules. Non-veggie condiments include dried shrimp, fish paste, and fish sauce. Every type of dish has its condiments, but you can select and try them; they are rarely added in for you.

You can purchase a full meal at one booth or just have fun wandering and choosing. Main dishes are usually rice (fried or steamed), served with small plates grouped around the rice. Noodles come in every width and can be used as an entree or a snack. Desserts can range from cut fresh fruit to intricate concoctions; you will see the Chinese, Japanese, Burmese, Malaysian, Indian, and even French influence in Thai desserts. Beverages can be refreshing, cooling and even medicinal (there are many herbal combinations available). Don t be surprised if the fruit juice or the lemonade you order is a bit salty--it's thought that the salt helps to quench thirst.

We asked Thaworn Nuklib-Andersen and Robert Andersen of Star of Siam Restaurant in Long Beach, California, to give some suggestions about eating Thai veggie street food.

"Vegetarian eating is a way of life in Thailand," said Thaworn.  "Availability of meat was limited and seafood was available only if you lived near the coast. Lack of refrigeration was another factor. Dried fish was available, but it was expensive. A large segment of the population is currently totally vegetarian, or may abstain from animal products for months at a time for religious reasons. A pretty big segment of our population believes that a vegetarian lifestyle is healthy. For many reasons, meat, fish, and dairy have not become a big part of Thai cuisine."

How about cooking oil, since many Thai dishes are sauteed or fried?

"Salad oil or peanut oil is what you'll find for the most part," explained Thaworn. "Lard or animal fat would have to be rendered; this is time consuming and uses up a lot of fuel. Vegetable oils are inexpensive and easy to obtain. And, of course, for religious reasons, animal fat would not be acceptable to many people. Butter and other dairy products are not very popular; if you find them at all, they would be in desserts."

Some of Thaworn's veggie street selections included any kind of rice (you can find white, brown, jasmine, and sticky rice, steamed or cooked with coconut and salt); steamed noodles tossed with vegetables or nuts; steamed broccoli (naturally sweet); grilled Asian eggplant (small purple or green eggplants are grilled until the skin can be easily removed; they're moist, tender, and flavorful) seasoned with chili, lime, soy sauce, ginger, and chopped garlic; and puk bun (a type of water plant resembling a morning glory), which is stir-fried with fermented soy bean paste, roasted garlic and fresh loofa. Tofu is made daily for most booths, and you can find steamed, stir-fried with vegetables, and deep-fried versions. Long beans can be found served alone or with tempeh. Tempeh and taro root are deep-fried together for a special entree, as are sweet yams. Cold green papaya salads are very popular. Be sure to order them without shrimp or fish sauce; soy sauce can be used instead.

For dessert, Thaworn reminded me of all the wonderful fresh fruit that is available. Depending on the season, you can find lychees and rambutan (a cousin to lychees), mangosteen, jack fruit, durian (which has a very powerful aroma and is definitely an acquired taste), mango, green and yellow papaya, pomellos (Asian grapefruit which is aromatic and sweet), oranges, many varieties of bananas and pineapple, honeydew and watermelon, guava, and even Asian pears, grapes, apples, and strawberries (grown in the cooler Northern regions). Fruit can be purchased whole or sliced, and condiments offered may be sliced green guava, sugar, dry chili, sliced lime, and salt. Coconut juice and tender coconut meat are almost always available.

If you want to try some cooked desserts, Thaworn suggests fried bananas served with shredded coconut and sesame seeds, taro root steamed with coconut milk and palm sugar (which would not normally be filtered through bone char), sticky rice with mango, or many of the sweet beverages.

Fresh-pressed sugar cane juice is like nothing you have ever had, as is the fresh soymilk. Thai iced tea and coffee are popular, and are served without the milk or cream that is popular in the United States. Herb drinks, such as chrysanthemum or pennyworth tea, can be taken for refreshment or for health. Fresh fruit juice is available everywhere. A word of caution: experienced travelers know that peeled fresh fruit and vegetables, cooked foods, and bottled water are the way to go in Thailand. These are available in large supply.

As you can see, eating is a way of life in Thailand. In most cities, the street vendors are open for business by six in the morning and continue on through the night, until two or three in the morning. Many people will plan their travels to correspond with different foods offered in different towns. On a recent trip, Thaworn and Robert made their way to Thaworn's hometown of Thap Sake, a fishing village in Prachuapkirian province (south of Bangkok near the Burmese Mountains and the Gulf of Siam), stopping in several towns to get their favorite snacks. In Phet Buri, about three hours drive south of Bangkok, they stopped for coconut-based desserts. In Hua Hin, a beach town which is the king's summer residence, they visited an all-night open-air market, known for its fruit. And in Pra Chuap, an agricultural area in the center of the province, they stopped for a dessert which resembles a veggie creme brulee, made with rice, coconut, and tapioca flour cut into squares and baked in a kiln.

Ready to pack up and go? Then we will leave you with a short veggie street food survival guide and a few sample recipes. You may never want to leave! See you at Chatuchak, Bangkok's huge weekend open-air market!

Some Survival Words and Phrases
        1. No egg, please: mai sai  kai
        2. No fish sauce: mai narm pla
        3. No shrimp: mai kung
        4. plain rice: khao plao nueng chaan
        5. Fish sauce: narm pha
        6. vegetables: phak
        7. Soy sauce: siyu
        8. Sugar: narm taan
        9. Chili: phrik
        10. Onion:hua hawm


The Dish on Thai Dishes

  1. Papaya salad (som tam) - Very hot! Order without fish sauce; do order some rice to offset some of the heat.
  2. Fried rice (khao phad) - Egg is added to this unless you ask to leave it off.
  3. Crispy pancakes with sweet fillings (khanom buang) - Looking almost like tacos, these are made with tapioca flour and water. Toppings can be coconut (both sweet and salty) or onions. Order without the strips of egg, which are traditional.
  4. Steamed sticky rice in banana leaves (khao tom mud) - Glutinous rice is steamed (or sometimes roasted) in fresh leaves; flavorings can include mashed taro or coconut.
  5. Roasted potatoes (mun ping) - Roasted in charcoal.

  6. Shredded coconut pudding (khanom paeng jee) - Main ingredients are rice flour, shredded coconut, and palm sugar.
  7. Chinese leaf (bah jang) - Usually stuffed with glutinous rice.
  8. Steamed noodle rolls (kuay-tiao lord) - Topped with bean sprouts, fried garlic, and soy sauce. Order without dried shrimp.
  9. Boiled nuts (tua tom) - A poor man's snack, you will find peanuts, cashews (an indigenous crop), or soy nuts.
  10. Steamed banana cakes in leaves (khanom kluay) - Bananas are boiled, crushed and mixed with tapioca flour, wrapped in leaves, and steamed.
  11. Fried noodles (phad thai) - order veggie ingredients, such as sprouts, garlic, tofu, and salted turnip with your noodles.
  12. Fried bananas (kluay kaek) - Order the type dipped in shredded coconut.
  13. Fried potato balls (khai nok kratha) - Made with mashed potatoes.
  14. Crispy noodles (mee krob) - Rice vermicelli noodles are fried and mixed with garlic and syrup; served with onions and sprouts.
  15. Red noodles in coconut milk (mee kati) - Similar to mee krob, the noodles have been soaked in food coloring and coconut milk.
  16. Tapioca strings with coconut syrup (khanom plakrim kai tao) - Tapioca pasta is mixed with sweet and salty coconut syrup
  17. Sugar cane juice (narm oy) - Fresh pressed.
  18. Bean milk (narm tao hoo) - Yellow mung bean milk; good for lieakfast as you snack on tapioca balls, lotus seed, and tofu.
  19. Noodles on the boat (kuay tiao rua) - Dispensed from a boat on the water or placed by the roadside (it's a long story); order these noodles without pork or beef.
  20. Bean-filled cakes (khanom tua paeb) - The pastry is made with glutinous rice flour and is rolled around boiled green beans, shredded coconut, and palm sugar.


Phad Thai

(Serves 6)

This most popular of Thai dishes is found in sit-down restaurants and at the food stalls. We found this dish to be perfect for a hot dinner or served as a cold lunch.

8 ounces rice vermicelli
1 Tablespoon peanut oil (see note below)
1/2 cup diced red or green bell pepper
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup chopped Roma tomatoes
1/4 cup thinly sliced water chestnuts, or fresh jicama
3/4 cup firm tofu, cut into small cubes
2 Tablespoons soy sauce
2 Tablespoons fresh lime or lemon juice
3 Tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup whole snow peas
2 chopped whole scallions
1/4 cup peanut granules
1/4 cup soybean sprouts

Boil 3 quarts of water in a large pot. When water boils, turn heat off, add vermicelli and cool until al dente. Drain and set aside.

In a wok or deep skillet, heat oil. Add pepper and garlic and stir-fry until veggies are soft. Stir in tomatoes, water chestnuts, and tofu, and stir-fry until well-combined, about 3 minutes. Add soy sauce and lime juice and allow to simmer for 2 minutes. Stir in cilantro and snow peas.

Toss vermicelli and veggie combo together. Garnish with scallions, peanuts, and sprouts.

Note: If you are an adept stir-fryer, you can substitute a liberal spray of vegetable oil for the liquid oil. Peanut oil is not essential, but does give an authentic flavor.

Total calories per serving: 300
Fat: 8 grams
Carbohydrates: 52 grams
Protein: 11 grams
Sodium: 423 milligrams
Fiber: 1 gram

Noodles with Spicy Peanut Sauce

(Serves 6)

The sauce for this dish can be made a day ahead. Cashews or almonds can be used instead of peanuts.

3/4 cup peanut oil
1 cup raw nuts
1/2 cup brewed black tea
6 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 Tablespoons minced fresh ginger
2 fresh chilies, chopped (choose your heat)
1 teaspoon orange juice concentrate
1 Tablespoon tamari
1/4 cup fresh lime or lemon juice
1 teaspoon chili flakes
1 cup cucumber slices
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
1 1/2 pounds noodles, cooked and drained (try rice vermicelli or mung bean noodles)

In a wok or deep skillet, heat oil until almost smoking. Add the nuts and stir until lightly toasted. Remove from heat and drain well. Save the oil.

In a food processor, grind the nuts into a coarse paste. Add a small amount of tea and all the garlic, ginger, and chilies. Grind until blended. Add the remaining tea, juice concentrate, tamari, fresh juice, and chili flakes, and blend again until ingredients are incorporated.

Heat a small amount of the reserved oil in a skillet. Add the sauce and mix quickly until combined.

Place sauce in a serving bowl and garnish with cucumbers and cilantro. Allow each diner to toss the desired amount of sauce with the cooked noodles.

Total calories per serving: 774
Fat: 19 grams
Carbohydrates: 148 grams
Protein: 20 grams
Sodium: 178 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams
High in Iron

Tofu Pudding

(Serves 6)

This cool, smooth pudding is a good finish to a spicy meal. Use seasonal fruit to vary the flavors.

1 pound soft tofu
1 cup mashed bananas
2 Tablespoons lemon juice
2 cups sliced seasonal fruit (select berries, strawberries, peaches, or apricots)
3 Tablespoons rice syrup or apple juice concentrate
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon orange zest
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger

In a blender, combine all ingredients and blend until just smooth. Pour into individual cups and chill for at least an hour. For an authentic Thai garnish, use sliced mango or shredded coconut.

Total calories per serving: 143
Fat: 4 grams
Carbohydrates: 23 grams
Protein: 7 grams
Sodium: 113 milligrams
Fiber: 2 grams
High in Iron

Nutritional profile derived using peaches and strawberries in recipe.

Nancy Berkoff is a foodservice advisor to The Vegetarian Resource Group. She lives in California and teaches in a culinary program.

Excerpts from the July/Aug Issue

The Vegetarian Journal published here is not the complete issue, but these are excerpts from the published magazine. Anyone wanting to see everything should subscribe to the magazine.

This article was converted to HTML by Jeanie Freeman

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