The first few times I backpacked Southeast Asia, I didn’t eat meat. Not only did this necessitate my miming “vegetarian” (an embarrassing routine resembling the bird-of-paradise mating dance), but it also meant I missed an integral part of the backpacker experience by being unable to sample every local delicacy.
So I was stoked to return to Thailand as an omnivore, able to dine without questioning every anonymous brown chunk floating in my noodles. (Save yourself the mental anguish: never question the chunks.)
On our second day in Bangkok’s Chinatown, we were filming a segment on street food, and I dove in mouth-first.
“Ohmigod, this is delicious,” I raved, digging into a spicy, barbecued tentacle on a stick. “You should try one!”
Our videographer shook his head and patted his belly. “No thanks. It looks great, but… no thanks.”
It’s a common misconception that street food is sketchier than restaurant food. Depending on the stall’s popularity, street food may actually be safer, since there’s a higher turnover rate. (We chatted about this in the first episode of our series.) Your best bet is to find a place that’s popular with locals, since that suggests not only freshness, but also that they’re doing something right. Ignore emptier, touristy restaurants with large menus; the bigger the selection, the more likely the food’s been hanging around for a while—and by catering to travellers they aren’t concerned with repeat customers.
(That said, it’s all parasite roulette anyway, which is why I carry Pepto Bismol, Immodium and tissues in my day-pack.)
In addition to the grilled lobes of Dr. Zoidberg, Lena and I sampled the Thai version of an English muffin (a Thaiglish muffin?); chestnuts roasted on an open fire, which reminded us that Christmas was only six weeks away; and durian with the taste of a jungle flower and the texture of a kitchen cloth. And that was just in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
In Lampang, we ate what approached Timbits prepared al dente and stuffed with sesame paste and, in Chiang Mai, a crepe filled with bananas and condensed milk—an obligatory snack on the banana pancake trail.
The best street food was outside the Black House cooked by a man named Apple: pork lollipops so succulent that even our wary videographer couldn’t resist.
The weirdest, though, was on Khao San Road, where Lena reluctantly gagged down a spoonful of grubs and I chomped the head off a crispy scorpion. As soon as the camera switched off, we hacked like cats chewing grass. But you’ll have to wait for the video to see that one.
And while I can’t honestly recommend the scorpion, which tastes like deep fried hay, I do encourage all travellers to Thailand to eat on the street. It’s cheap and easy, and the options are like… whatever the Thai equivalent of a smorgasbord is. (Despite my affinity for cute names like truk-truk, I’m not even going to try that one.)