Something that we have grown to love after more than eight years of living in Asia is wide variety of street food that is always readily available in this part of the world. Whether strolling the chaotic back alleys of Chinese cities or browsing the numerous markets of Chiang Mai, we have always been able to find an infinite number of inexpensive dishes prepared and served within minutes by friendly street vendors. Each country and city has its own specialties that cater to the locals as well as more adventuresome tourists that are looking for new taste sensations.
Throughout Thailand you will find street food on every corner. Although most of it is obviously Thai cuisine, there are many other countries represented by the local street vendors. Here is a small sampling of some of my favorites in Chiang Mai.
1) Mango with sticky rice
This is about as simple and fresh as street food can get. Great as a breakfast, dessert or midnight snack! For those that haven’t had well-prepared sticky rice before, you are in for a treat. For this dish, a mound of rice is placed on a small plate and topped with fresh mango slices. Sweetened coconut milk is then spooned over the top of it all. It doesn’t get any better!
2) Thai-Style Roti
In Thailand, you will see roti stands wherever there are street vendors. It is similar to India’s flat bread and Malaysia’s roti canai. Watching street vendors toss and stretch the small dough balls to paper thin sheets is worth the price alone! It is a skill that is not easy to master. The sheets of roti are fried in copious amounts of butter or oil, often folded over banana slices, cut into pieces and topped with sugar, chocolate and evaporated milk. Healthy? Probably not! Delicious? Definitely!
3) Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam)
Healthier than roti but a lot spicier! Again, this salad should be freshly prepared as you wait. Shredded papaya, fiery chilies, roasted peanuts and salty fish sauce are mixed and pounded together in a large wooden pestle. Other spices and ingredients vary from vendor to vendor. Not for the weak of heart, this innocent looking salad can leave your lips feeling numb so beware if you are not a lover of super spicy cuisine!
We just call it “meat-on-a-stick” and you find it everywhere! Whether it is chicken or pork, it is hard to beat the flavor of this traditional Thai cuisine. The skewered meat is marinated to melt-in-your-mouth tenderness, covered with copious amounts of secret sauce and barbequed as you wait. Served with a zingy peanut sauce, it is hard to beat the taste of this Thai specialty. Sticky rice is often available as an accompaniment. I think I could survive quite nicely only eating this one dish along with mango and sticky rice!
5) Khao Soi
One of Chiang Mai’s most famous contributions to Thai cuisine is khao soi, (or soy), noodle soup. It is sometimes referred to as Chiang Mai Noodles. The classic version combines two noodle varieties: flat wheat noodles, and deep-fried crispy noodles, in a spicy coconut chicken curry. The soup is served with a slice of lime, roast chili paste and pickled cabbage. Again, there are many variations of this well-known dish. The wheat noodles may be replaced by other types, depending on the vendor. The curry consistency can vary from a watery broth to a creamy soup. For some reason, it always seems to get spicier as you reach the bottom of the bowl!
6) Pad Thai
Is a classic stir-fried rice noodle dish that can be found in any Thai restaurant around the world. It is made with soaked dried rice noodles, which are stir-fried with eggs and chopped firm tofu, and flavored with tamarind pulp, fish sauce, dried shrimp, garlic or shallots, red chili pepper and palm sugar, and served with lime wedges and often chopped roast peanuts. The various street vendors will add their own take to this dish. It may also contain fresh shrimp, crab, or chicken.
7) Fruit Juices
Ok, you say, this is not really street food! Well, fresh juice seems to taste better in Thailand than other places I’ve lived. Here, at the markets, you choose from a variety of different plastic lidded cups filled to the brim with pieces of fresh fruit. You can choose from mixtures of papaya, dragon fruit, apples, mango, pineapple and a host of other possibilities. Once you have picked out your cup it is just blended and handed back to you. This way, you know exactly what you are getting!
8) Thai Sausage
Thai people love sausage in all shapes and sizes. In Chiang Mai, they can be found as one-inch bite sized balls, normal North American lengths or even spirals that may be several feet long. Pork is the most popular filling and ingredients like garlic, chilies, red curry paste, pungent lemon grass and other fresh herbs make these sausages taste much more interesting than many German or European types. In Chiang Mai, sausages like Sai Ua are left to ferment for a few hours or an entire day before they’re cooked, making them taste distinctly sour. Usually grilled over hot charcoal, they are often dipped into rich, spicy sauces and eaten as a snack or part of a meal or salad.
9) Grilled Seafood
You don’t need to walk far in any part of Chiang Mai before you run into a rolling cart over brimming with seafood of all types. Often the fish will still be flopping in water-filled containers nearby. You know it has to be fresh. I have no idea what type of fish I have eaten here but it has all been delicious. Prawns, scallops, squid, and a host of other sea life are on display and ready to be grilled before your eyes.
No, this is not Thai cuisine but it is one of my favorite street foods in the city so it’s going on this list! There are at least a couple of Middle Eastern rolling restaurants that pop up around the city at night and every one I have tried has been delicious. There’s nothing better on a hot Chiang Mai evening than this seasoned meat delicacy rolled up in a flatbread and topped with tahini and humus.
These are all available at the numerous markets and street food areas around the city. Most of them will cost less than $2 per serving.