For those of you who have never travelled toThailand, your only experience of Thai food probably comes from the local Thai restaurant. While this food is good, and does represent Thai food in some respects, it’s hardly the type of food you will see Thais eating on a daily basis. In fact, there are many more weird and wonderful dishes to be found once you arrive in the country.
Perhaps some of the strangest foods come from the northeast ofThailand– commonly known as Isaan – where the locals eat everything from raw meat to buffalo skin, humming birds to buzzing insects. I have only ever stayed in Mukdahan province, near to the Thai-Lao border, and so when I talk of Isaan food, I can only vouch for the food that comes from this region.
Most of the food in this region is so different from what the average westerner is used to, that I am sure many people would turn their noses up at it. A typical meal consists of some spicy paste – usually mixed with fermented fish that have been rotting in a plastic jar for 6 months – sticky rice, and anything from geng no mai (bamboo soup), to goi deep (raw minced meat). Although I have tried some of these foods, when I stay in Isaan I can only bare so much of it, and usually head of to the nearest market town to find something a little more “conventional.”
However, I personally think, that on the whole, Isaan food is some of the tastiest and most unique food you’re going to find in Thailand. While staying there over these last few weeks I discovered an altogether new and quite palatable delicacy: horse pooh. Okay, not actual horse pooh. This is the name of an Isaan sweet which resembles little balls of horse pooh. The Thais call it Khee Ma which literally means horse pooh. The sweets are made from rice and coconut, and have stodgy consistency. They make a great after-meal snack, or an alternative to coffee and cake. However, be careful if you ask for this; if you use the wrong tone, the Thais may think you’re asking for dog pooh! Check out my blog post: Five Great Ways to Learn Thai, to avoid mistakes like this.
Another Isaan sweet is Hu Chang, a large crispy pancake-like sweet which resembles an elephant’s ear. Hu Chang is made from rice, and tastes something like rice crispy buns. Most Thai sweets are made from organic ingredients and come fresh from the frying pan, meaning that you don’t have to worry about eating too many of them! If you’re staying in Isaan, and don’t think you can stomach frog soup, or rhino beetles with sticky rice, try out these healthy and natural snacks as an alternative.
Thai people love their food. That’s a fact. It’s one of the few certainties in this “Land of Smiles.” And it’s this love of food which has given rise to the propensity of food vendors found on the streets of Thailand. Eating out is often as cheap, and as convenient, as eating at home, which is why so many Thais opt for this way of eating. Nearly all streets in Thailand are lined with vendors, who brave the stifling heat to bring good, cheap food to the hungry at all hours of the day and night. From sticky rice and papaya salad, steak and fries, noodle soup, and fried chicken that puts KFC to shame, Thailand has it all.
In Western countries, the food industry is almost entirely dominated by big franchises and supermarkets. No matter where you go, you will undoubtedly have to eat in a big, modern-looking cafe or restaurant. Rare is the sight of the humble street vendor, working to feed the locals. It would be almost an impossibility in today’s world to see such small-scale food vendors: their business could never compete with the money-hungry, market-savvy franchises. And so, it seems a sad fact that, with capitalism, comes the denigration of the individual, who once strove to make a living through his or her produce.
Of course, Thailand has its fair share of franchises: from McDonalds, with a wai-ing Ronald, to Tesco Lotus, known simply as “Lotus,” by the locals. But the difference here is that the large franchises and small street vendors still exist side-by-side in relative harmony. People still choose the street vendors for convenience and affordability. With big supermarkets and fast-food joints usually located far away from residential areas, they remain the choice of the weekend getaway, or the meal of the increasingly rich (and increasingly fat) middle-class. But the staple diet comes from food made by cool-headed chefs, who seem capable of remembering multiple orders, without writing a word down, and without even looking at the person who ordered.
The typical street in Thailand is alive with the hustle and bustle of people heading out to buy food, motorcycle taxis weaving in and out of cars, and the erroneous stray dogs, that usually sleep on the threshold of 7-Eleven; no one bothers to move them. The average Thai person dreams of travelling to the West, as though arriving there will instantly bring affluence and a better standard of living. What they often don’t realize is that, in chasing the plastic dreams of the Westerner, they leave behind a little bit of that soul and character exuded by the daily lives of the Thai people. More importantly, when they realise how difficult it is to buy good, cheap food in places like England and America, they may be looking, with starry eyes, towards that mythical eastern world they’ve heard so much about.