Food tours are a brilliant idea — there is no better way to get a window into how other people live than to see what’s on their plates. Often we are do-it-yourself food tourists, hanging out in grocery stores and markets, but sometimes it’s a bit more organized than that. On our trip to Israel last November we asked our guide to plan around food and it was one of the top trips of our lives. Food matters.
Because Thailand has such a phenomenal cuisine, food tours abound. I picked Bangkok Food Tours on the basis of its Trip Advisor reviews and it was a smart plan. We did a three and a half hour tour of the Bangrak area — full of tastes and restaurants I would not have tried on my own.
First a word about Bangkok. We have been here once before — for a three day weekend (we were young and had more energy then, what can I say?) We didn’t have time to do much but hit the tourist highlights, but what really stuck with us was the utter sensory bombardment of the city.
Noise, everywhere, bouncing off the buildings and the pavement. Chatter and friendly faces, some anxious to help and some anxious to make a buck off our disorientation. Speed — scooters, motor bikes, buses whizzing by close enough to ruffle the hair on your arms.
And smells! Bangkok is all about smells. Some of them are terrible. The city is on a river and there are damp and fetid places. People live on the river and their plumbing, well, best not to inquire.
But on top of the squalid there is the savory and the mix is disconcerting, at best. People cook EVERYWHERE in Bangkok. There are tables piled high with strange and exotic fruits and every street is dotted with grills and fryers. Running water and refrigeration are rare sights but the scent of grilling food is so tantalizing you almost don’t care. Almost.
Usually the food stands are supplemented by a small city of food carts, but Monday is street cleaning day (really?) and the carts have to stay home.
Our food tour was NOT street food, for which I was grateful. We have a long trip ahead of us and sick is not how I want to start. But there was plenty to focus on. Most came from small bites in sit-down restaurants and cafés. Everywhere we went was mom and pop and almost everything was tiny and sweltering.
So in this kaleidoscope of noise, motion, and smell, what did we eat?
First stop a Chinese Thai place — sample: roast duck. The sauce was truly amazing, full of five spices. I had rice noodles with bamboo shoots, which have quite a distinctive taste when divorced from the can we get them in. Good, not great, but an A for effort in accommodating the veg among them.
Next was a Muslim Thai-Indian place. The carnivores had roti (Indian flatbread) stuffed with chicken and eaten with a cucumber salad. I had curried soy beans on chunks of roti. Not a grain of rice in sight there, and what a delight. The roti absorbed the great sauce and the chewy texture was fabulous. I am totally making curry this way when I get home.
Next stop was across the river to an Isan (northern) Thai restaurant. We sampled tom som, a spicy green papaya salad that is one of my all time favorites. It’s shredded green papaya that has a terrific supple but crunchy texture, carrots, green beans, and tomatoes with herbs, peanuts, chilies, lots of line and fish sauce. Normally it has those tiny dried shrimp on it that the Thais use as a salty condiment/seasoning. This stuff was fire engine hot — blew the top of my head right off. I loved it. There were also fried chicken nuggets (no, not “chicken nuggets” but the bite-sized bits of chicken that the words used to refer to before McD’s got ahold of them) buried in a drizzled nest of fried lemongrass. I am told it was swell.
From there back across the river to an air conditioned shop (cue sounds of angels singing) that served us wonderful, orange colored Thai iced tea that almost tasted like a milkshake. Also buns filled with a green-colored egg custard (if I understood correctly, the green comes from a kind of palm leaves.). Yummy, but, well, green. While we were there we also snacked on fried bananas, bought off the street. I figured the boiling oil would kill off anything I was worried about ingesting. They were super but more like fry than fruit. Crunchy and sweet. Went well with the tea.
Final stop was a huge and popular restaurant where we had a room to ourselves upstairs. Thai green curry, spicy but sweet with coconut milk on rice was wonderful but we were pretty full by then. Not too full for the homemade coconut sorbet, however. The perfect, cool refreshing end to a morning food marathon.
And on that note we hopped a cab back to the hotel. Got to our room about 1:30 and I thought a short nap before a dip in the pool would be lovely. Set my alarm for 3 and woke up at 6, just in time for a bath before dinner.
And that, my friends, is another post.