In Thailand, one of the cheapest places to buy and eat food is by the side of the road. These are the mobile stalls which vendors wheel to their locations every day. Sometimes they might leave the cart there and then bring all their working tools in a pickup truck. Tables are set up on the sidewalk with stools for you to sit on. Quite often these street vendors operate in groups which means if you go to the same place every night, you have a different choice of meal. If there is a group of you, it doesn’t really matter if you all order from the same stall or not. Just walk around ordering what you want and then go back to your table to wait. Each vendor will bring you your food. Also, you will sometimes find that one vendor will collect the money on behalf of everyone. The plates are often colour coded so that they know whether you had an ordinary dish (tam-ma-da) or a special dish (pi-set).
If you eat by the side of the road, you will have to know some basic Thai. Not only speaking, but in reading too. Nothing will be in English. There are no menus. Usually on the side of the cart you will see the name of the dish they serve. These are usually noodle based. Sometimes you will sit first (they might say to you “nung gon” which means sit down). Someone will then come up to you and ask what you want (they might say aow a-rai” which literally means “what do you want” or a bit more polite would be “rap a-rai dee” which literally means “what would you like to receive?” ). If you have already ordered yourself, then just say “sung laew”. For myself, I usually go up to the cart to see what she is cooking. Even if you cannot read Thai, you should be able to work out what she can cook by looking at the ingredients. The cook is usually quite busy so she might not pay you much attention. Just call out what you want. Don’t be put off if it looks like she is not listening or didn’t hear. Usually she does and can take quite a few different orders at one time.
The noodles at the bottom of the glass display cabinet are: sen mee, ba mee, sen yai and sen lek. On the top shelf are the look chin, or meat balls. Sometimes these are made of fish. These would then be look chin bplaa.
Today I am just going to concentrate on ordering at a noodle shop. Your first task is deciding which type of noodles you want. There are so many different types. For example:
(1) sen yai (rice river noodles) – this is a wide flat noodle made from white rice flour
(2) sen mee (rice vermicelli) – a small wiry looking rice flour noodle
(3) sen lek (jantaboon noodles) – a medium flat rice flour noodle
(4) ba mee – an egg and wheat flour noodle
(5) wun sen (cellophane noodle) – a very thin, very wiry, translucent soya bean flour noodle
(6) kanom jeen – made from rice flour and mixed with water
The first three are what you will see the most often and are labelled “kuay-tiaw”. This is very hard to write in Roman letters and it is best if you ask a native speak to pronounce it. This is the name which is written on most noodle stalls. The word “sen” means line. Then “yai” means “big” (in this case 2–3 cms wide) and “lek” means “small” (here about 5mm wide). The smallest noodle is “sen mee” which is only 1–2 mm wide. I am not really thrilled about the smallest one. I usually only have “sen yai” when I order “rat naa” which is noodles in a thick gravey. Oh yes, I have “sen lek” when I have the famous stir-fried noodle called “pad thai”. The next kind is “ba mee” which is my favourite. It is easy to spot as it is a shade of yellow.
When you come to order, you need to first tell the cook what kind of noodles you want. Then you have to make a decision whether to have with soup or dry. Like I said before, I like egg noodles best, so I say “ba-mee nam”. I like the soup. This broth is made with either pork or duck bones and vegetables such as radish, cabbage and spring onions. If you don’t want the soup, just say “ba-mee haeng” which literally means “dry”. Now you need to choose what meat you want. This is when you need to take a close look at the glass display cabinet to see what is on offer. Some stalls have chicken, duck, crab or beef. This one above has pork which has been coloured red. For this you say “moo daeng”. So now I would lengthen it to “ba-mee nam moo daeng”. This would cost you 20–25 baht. For a bit extra, you could ask for some wontons. In Thai this is called “kieo” and you can see them in the bottom right hand corner of the display cabinet. This is a triangle of dough that is usually wrapped around pork. So, now my order would be “ba-mee kieo nam moo daeng”. However, sometimes I like crab, so I go to the noodle vendor near the hospital and order “ba-mee kieo nam boo”.
Those are the two noodle dishes I order the most. However, just to make a change, I sometimes order “ba-mee dtom yum” which is a spicey hot soup with the noodles. A popular alternative is “yen ta for” which is just the name for a noodle based soup which has been coloured red! Traditionally, the red comes from salted soy bean paste. But, some stalls will use red colour mixed with water. You can see the colouring to the far left of the picture above. This dish has a lot of seafood like cuttlefish and fishballs. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the fishballs or meat balls you can see in one of the pictures above. In Thai this is called “look chin”. This is another ingredient that you can have added to your noodle soup. You know, by the time you have finished ordering your food, you might as well cook it yourself!
If there are several people working at the noodle stand then you can now go back to your table to wait for your meal. If not, then you should stand and wait. She won’t take long. Just a minute or two. When it is ready, your next task is to add the four flavours. You can see them here in the above picture. It is up to you how much of each you add to the noodles. Quite a few places I have been to eat have the flour flavours on each table. So, you can experiment by keep adding small amounts until you are happy.
To eat noodles, you are given chopsticks and a Chinese style wide spoon. On the table you will find some pink tissues. Use them to wipe your chopsticks and spoon. Don’t be embarrassed as Thai people do the same. If you have been waiting at your table, someone would have come up to you asking what drink you want. Sometimes there is a jug of boiled water on the table already. This is safe to drink. Or you can order bottled water. The ice usually comes crushed which is regarded not to be as hygienic as the ice cubes. If you don’t want ice in your glass then just say “mai dtong sai nam kaeng”. Now it is time to enjoy your noodles! When it comes to the time to pay, you just say “gep dtung krab/kaa”.
The next time you are in Thailand, try eating by the side of the road. If you see a lot of Thai people eating there then you know that the food is both delicious and hygienic. The Thai people are just as fussy as you! Enjoy.
I have updated my food blogs at enjoythaifood.com today with more pictures. On the front page you will also find links to nine food quizzes. Some of them are picture quizzes.