Born in Pittsburgh and based in Bangkok, Chawadee “Chow” Nualkhair is an authority on street food in Thailand. Her first book, Bangkok’s Top 50 Street Food Stalls, was an indispensable guide to the how, where, and why of street eating in the Big Mango. Her second book, Thailand’s Best Street Food, explores street-side dining from the cool North to the sultry South and is on shelves now.
What inspired you to write about street food in the first place?
I think street food is to Bangkok what sports teams are to, say, Pittsburgh or Liverpool. To be a real Bangkokian, you need to know enough about street food vendors to be able to argue about them. This book was my attempt to get into the local culture, because I wanted to eat where the locals ate but was really intimidated by the street food scene. It took me a
long time to get into it.
Your new book highlights the best street food in the Kingdom. What are some of the regional differences in street food and culture?
All the regions have different cultural influences, and the street food reflects that. In the North, which was ruled by Burma for 200 years, there is of course a lot of Burmese influence
as well as Chinese influence. There are also few restaurants open at night, because Northerners prefer to eat at home. Eating out is for tourists. In addition, Northerners are cheap. I
feel like I can say that because both my mum and dad are Northerners! In Isaan, there are Lao and Vietnamese influences, and a lot of the popular street foods – som tum, kai kata,
guay jab yuan – come from those places. There people like to go out and enjoy themselves In the South, particularly Phuket, you will find Hokkien Chinese influences, so there
are dishes you won’t see anywhere else in the Kingdom.
Do you think the public opinion of street food has changed in recent years? If so, how?
I think Thais are now more willing to accept that tourists are very interested in trying out street food. It is a legitimate interest for them. When I wrote my first book, a lot of Thais were skeptical about an English-language street food guide and asked me why tourists would eat at these places when there were airconditioned restaurants all over the city. No one asks that anymore.
What’s your single favourite Thai dish, and where do you go to find it in Bangkok?
Right now, it’s absolutely yen ta fo. I don’t understand how people don’t like it. They must be going to the wrong places. I like mine at either Tang Meng Noodle near the entrance to Sukhumvit Soi 49, or at Guaythiew Pik Gai Sai Nampung in the soi between Sukhumvit 18 and 20.
Does eating in any other city in the world compare to eating in Bangkok?
There are lots of places with great street food scenes. I’m thinking of cities such as Taipei, Kuala Lumpur and Fukuoka. However, I believe Bangkok’s street food is the most varied. I encounter a new street food nearly every month. And the range keeps on expanding with adaptations on existing dishes such as ramen, or new creations entirely, like tom yum egg custard.
Where do you take visitors for a quintessential Bangkok experience?
For most people, Bangkok means the riverside, so I usually take visitors to Samsara Cafe & Meal, even though the food probably isn’t what most visitors have in mind when they think of Thai food. I also like to take people to Jay Fai for the drunken noodles and crabmeat omelet, and Raan Pen for the stir-fried crab in curry sauce. Oh, and Raan Porn Lamai in
Chinatown for the guaythiew lard na, which comes on big hot plates that give the noodles a nice smoky char.
What would you like to change about Bangkok?
Nothing. Why do people want Bangkok to be what it’s not, like a Singapore or a Kuala Lumpur? What’s special about it is its spontaneity and unpredictability. We go through periodic bouts of cleaning up the sidewalks and shutting clubs down at midnight and whatever, trying to force Bangkok to be some other, more boring place. I have a high school friend with a tattoo on his arm. It’s of a bowling ball with a lightning bolt through it. He’s been an investment banker for a while now and wants to go through the painful process of erasing the tattoo. The thing is, he spent a large chunk of his life being the funny guy with a bowling ball tattoo. Why deny who you are? Bangkok is not an investment banker, like Singapore. Bangkok should keep its bowling ball tattoo.