Whether you’re visiting or residing in Bangkok, you can’t call yourself a foodie if you haven’t made at least one trip to Or Tor Kor Market. Sure, there are bigger food markets in the capital, such as the famed wholesale spree at Klong Toey, but there are none that can match the overall quality found at the well-organized and tidy array of vendors collected under one roof and administered by the Marketing Organization for Farmers (Or Tor Kor, sometimes spelled Aw Taw Kaw, is an abbreviation of the collective’s Thai name). Forget about yuppie pop-up “farmers markets” seen in Sukhumvit shopping centres. This is the original farmers market, run by real salt-of-the-earth farmers.
In 2013, CNN Go ranked Or Tor Kor the fourth best fresh market in the world behind La Boqueria Market in Barcelona, Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo and Union Square Farmer’s Market in New York City. The market is located across the street from world-famous Chatuchak Weekend Market, and just steps away from the Kamphaeng Phet MRT station.
On my most recent visit to Or Tor Kor, I was fortunate to stroll the market with Chris Ying, editor-in-chief of vaunted foodie journal Lucky Peach, and Prin Polsuk, sous chef at David Thompson’s Nahm. I’d brought Ying there for an overview of the Thai culinary toolbox, and to explore different varieties of Thai sausages as he had told me the day before that he was writing a book on sausage cultures around the world. Like many discerning Bangkok chefs who dip into Or Tor Kor regularly, Polsuk was shopping for his restaurant kitchen.
Prices tend to be a bit higher than at other fresh markets in the city, but most who shop here seem to be quite happy to pay more for higher-quality products and a much higher level of market hygiene. Whether it’s the quality and hygiene or simply the ‘be-seen’ factor, the market draws not only Bangkok’s top hotel and restaurant cooks, but also a steady trickle of Thai celebs and high-society matrons.
Over 200 vendors are spread out across a grid of small and large market stalls. Many vendors specialize in organic fruit and vegetables, and the market is particularly known for hard-to-find produce like som saa (bitter orange, traditionally used in many central and southern Thai recipes but often substituted by lime) and ma-prang (a sweeter, smaller relative of the mango). Mountains of dried fruits are on hand as well. On the day I visited, the market displayed the largest variety of mangoes I’d ever seen in one place.
The high quality of local fresh meats, poultry, freshwater and saltwater fish and shellfish is exceeded only by imported stock carried by private dealers elsewhere. Live fish, crayfish and lobsters swim the murky depths of water tanks for those who demand the freshest.
Ready-made foods such as curries, sausages, satay, barbecued meats, Thai sweets and much more are abundant. At one stall, I counted 16 large pots filled with brightly coloured curry contents, four ports deep and four pots wide. If you’d rather make your own curries at home, you can select fresh-pounded curry paste from pungent mounds at stalls found towards the hall’s west side.
At a stand with barbecued meats, I accepted a sample chunk of muu sam chan (‘three-level pork,’ encompassing meat, fat and hide) and declared it the best I’d had anywhere in Bangkok, including Chinatown. Towards the south end of the market, I found a small table where a vendor was selling bags of heavenly plaa som, salt-fermented snakehead fish delicately seasoned with palm syrup and toasted ground rice, a dish I’ve yet to find elsewhere in Bangkok.
Regional foods are well represented as well. We counted four different stalls selling sai ua (spicy Chiang Mai-style sausage), naam phrik num (green chili dip) and other northern delicacies.
Among the more famous vendors with takeaway dishes is Sut Jai Kai Yang, which has been serving northeastern Thai-style grilled chicken and somtam (spicy green papaya salad) at Or Tor Kor for more than 30 years.
For fiery southern Thai cooking, I head to Jiap, a vendor who cooks up enormous pots of mouth-watering khanom jeen naam yaa (a soupy curry of ground fish, spices and coconut cream served over thin rice noodles) and other delights from her native Phuket province.
If you don’t feel like takeaway, head for the food court in the centre of the hall, where a cluster of tidy kitchens serve spectacular home-cooked Thai meals, from noodle soups to elaborate curries.
Or Tor Kor Market
631 Kamphaeng Phet 1 | Daily 6am to 8pm.