Where I’m from street food conjures up images of late night street corners, drunken frat boys, and hot dogs that have taken one turn too many on the merry-grill-round.
Here in Thailand street food is the epitome of everything we’re looking for; fresh, whole food, individually prepared, and some of the tastiest, cheapest noshing available.
Set up in what are parking lots during the day, night markets transform the landscape at dusk. Stalls emerge, tables are set up and full on food courts are born. I love the efficiency.
We visit these markets nightly but tend to stick to what we know. Familiar vendors who create the usual suspects; paad thai, khao soi, pork and rice. We’re intrigued by other dishes we see but lack the language to, #1 know what anything is on the written menus (that often don’t even exist) and, #2 ask.
We’ve evolved a little though. We sometimes point at other patrons and just have what they’re having without ever knowing what it is which, of course, means we can never have it again…because we don’t know how to ask.
And so, after three months of being here, we decided to try a street food tour. A guided walk through the markets and stalls that are familiar to us and yet still so unreachable.
Chiang Mai Street Food Tours got its start just this year. As a former hill trekking guide, Chai saw the need when clients would ask him about all his favourite places to eat after trekking. Realizing that street food seems daunting and inaccessible to visitors he got started showing them around.
We started at the Chiang Puak, or North, gate where the stalls are all lined up on the side of the road, for ease of drive by take-away, and tables are strewn across the former parking lots.
Vendors spend their days prepping and preparing for the busy evening rush. Bowls of mild chilis, roasted pork, onions, garlic and greens await use in various dishes.
Besides learning what each stand offers we are schooled in how to order.
“Ao khao ka moo” stutters Jason. The girl listens ever so patiently and then looks to Chai for confirmation of the order. Pointing and ordering is so much easier!!
Pork, simmered in cinnamon, soy sauce, sugar, and five spice for hours, arrives at our table. We add the gingered, spicy, sauce ourselves. Not all Thai food is hot and often it’s possible to control the spicy-ness ourselves.
Pork sausage strings are served with cabbage, chilis, and vinegar sauce. The sweetness of the pork complemented by the crunchy heat. We hadn’t tried these before but we’ll be having them again!
Pork buns. At least once a week we drive by the North Gate Market and pick these up for a light dinner. I think I’m addicted.
It is the efficiency of these stalls that amazes me. With very little space and often only one burner they churn out some of the best food in the world. How do they stand over those woks for hours on end? To protect themselves from the chili vapor some wear face masks too. Stifling!
At the Chiang Mai gate we found seats away from the crowd while trying Chinese curry noodles. By this time I was so full I could only manage one, tasty, mouthful!
The tour was excellent. We tried many dishes both savoury and sweet; many we hadn’t tried before. Now we can add a few more places into our regular dinner rotation.
If you go I suggest you bring a sense of adventure, and skip lunch.