fb-pixel;

In Bangkok’s fragrant street food, city planners see a mess to clean

A street cart vendor drove down the street in Bangkok last month. City planners prefer a more manicured Bangkok, with air-conditioning, malls, and Instagrammable dessert cafes — and without the mess and noise of street vendors.
A street cart vendor drove down the street in Bangkok last month. City planners prefer a more manicured Bangkok, with air-conditioning, malls, and Instagrammable dessert cafes — and without the mess and noise of street vendors.New York Times

BANGKOK — The coconut wood pestle hits the mortar, and the chili fumes rise in a cough-inducing haze. The lime rind bruises. Salted crab releases its funk, along with bits of claw and carapace. Shreds of green papaya are tossed in, bathed in a blast of fermented fish paste tempered by palm sugar.

The smell is alive and dead, asphyxiating and alluring all at once. More than anything, this green papaya salad, made in a street cart by a woman who has been wielding her pestle for 3-plus decades, provides the perfume of Bangkok.

But street food vendors — with their pungent salads, oodles of noodles, and coconut sweetmeats — have lately become the target of some of the capital’s planners. To them, this metropolis of 10 million residents suffers from an excess of crowds, clutter, and health hazards. The floods, the heat, the stench of clogged canals and rotting fruit, the pok pok pok of that pestle — it’s all too much.

They prefer an air-conditioned Bangkok, with malls, ice-skating rinks, and Instagrammable dessert cafes. They want the street food vendors gone.

Advertisement



And so Somboon Chitmani, who has been making green papaya salad in the streets of Bangkok for 36 years, waits. By the end of this year, she has heard, street cooks could be cleared out of central Bangkok.

“If they want to get rid of us, we can’t do anything to protest because it’s the law,” Somboon said. “But Bangkok to me is about street food. Without it, it wouldn’t feel the same.”

The sheer variety of food on Bangkok’s streets is astonishing — soups fortified with lemon grass and pork blood, glutinous rice dumplings stuffed with chives, roti rich with condensed milk and bananas. There’s pad thai, too, tangles of wok-charred noodles laced with tamarind and palm sugar.

Advertisement



For some Thais, street food is about survival.

Nearly 15 percent of Thailand’s citizens live in Bangkok, and many cling to the fringes of one of the world’s most unequal societies. The capital’s notorious traffic forces long commutes, meaning it’s often impractical to return home to eat lunch — or even dinner until late. Besides, many people rent lodging without kitchens.

A study by the Beyond Food project, which researches the socioeconomic impact of street food in Bangkok, found that if street food consumers were forced to switch to food courts or convenience store fare, they would have to work an extra day at minimum wage to afford the increased prices.

The value of the capital’s street food was underscored in another way when the Michelin guide began recognizing street stalls alongside restaurants offering foie gras emulsions and truffle ice cream.

For three generations, a dim alley in Bangkok’s Chinatown was home to a rice porridge stand opened by an immigrant from southern China. Then, in 2017, the street stall was included in Michelin’s Bangkok edition.

Jok Prince, as the eatery is known, has since traded its spot in the alley for walls, a roof, and insistent fluorescent lights. The porridge, smoky and studded with meatballs, remains the same.

With the new restaurant, “We’re safe,” said Sarunpraphut Unhawat, the granddaughter of the original porridge vendor. “But I wonder, if street food is cleared out of Bangkok, then what will be the city’s selling point?”