Surviving the Thai Street Food Challenge


pathongko with nam tao hoo

Recently I gave myself the challenge of only eating Thai street food for a period of 30 days. This might seem like heaven and such an easy task to do, but in reality it was difficult and at times I wished I hadn’t started. Right from the beginning I set myself some conditions to make the challenge more difficult but interesting at the same time. As I was going to document in pictures my daily food diary (see here), I decided it would be more interesting for my followers that each day I would eat something different. I think like many other people who live in Thailand, I probably only eat about a dozen different street food dishes at the most and usually just repeat these. For this challenge, I would have to eat more than 90 different dishes within a period of a month. My concern was not only finding enough to eat, but also being able to name them all.


khao mun gai todbr />

Before I started, it was important to clarify the meaning of Thai street food. Straight away I crossed out any restaurants with menus and waiters, and food courts in shopping malls. The obvious source of street food are the mobile vendors who either carry food around in baskets strung over their shoulders or on carts that they push around town. The next kind are the vendors that pushed their cart to a certain place, usually in front of a shop that is about to close for the day or a public place like a hospital or maybe a big school. Others kept their carts at their locations more permanently and probably had a financial agreement with the shop owner or the district council. One vendor told me that he paid a daily rental of 40 baht to the local council. Others said that they paid more than a hundred if it was in front of a shop.


pad si ew

The other kind of place that I was allowing myself to eat at were the night markets and wet markets where stalls are a bit more permanent. These often had tables and chairs set up all the time unlike the vendors with carts that had to bring along their own tables and stalls each time. The final place on my list were the food shops that some people said don’t really sell street food. I disagree. Many of these people started as mobile vendors but had saved enough money to buy a small shophouse. They often still sold the same food as they did before. Many still set up their cart in front or had a counter with food on it. As long as it was an open fronted food shop and didn’t have a proper menu, other than on the wall, then I allowed myself to eat at these places.


johk

This Street Food Challenge started because I was just wandering why my electricity bill was still so expensive even though summer was now over. I like cooking meals myself so I guessed it might have something to do with the electric oven that I had recently bought. I knew also that the electric cooker was expensive to use compared to say gas. That is when I came up with the idea of not cooking for one month to see if the electricity bill went down by a significant amount. At first I thought I would just eat out all the time but then decided to take it a step further and make it into a challenge which I would document on my food blog at www.EnjoyThaiFood.com. In the end, it turned into a quest to see if it was really true that in Thailand it is cheaper to eat out every day rather than prepare meals yourself.


pad gra pao moo sup kai dao

I tried to pace myself right from the beginning. The last thing I should do is eat all my favourites the first week leaving dishes like entrails for the last week. I also had to think about where I was going to buy the food. Some dishes were only sold during the early morning and then their shop would be closed for the rest of the day. Also, more of a variety of food would be on offer in the evenings. What most Thai people would do is buy food on their way home from work and then for breakfast they would eat whatever is left over. I couldn’t do that as I wasn’t allowed to repeat meals, plus, to start with, I wasn’t that keen on eating spicy food so early in the morning. But, as the challenge progressed, I soon realized I couldn’t be so fussy about what I ate and when.


rat naa mee grob

There are a number of Thai dishes that were easy for me to eat in the morning for breakfast. These included johk, a thick rice porridge, khao tom, the rice soup often sold with pork, pathongko, deep friend x-shaped pastry sold with soy milk, and bread sold with a sweet Thai style custard. But that was only four dishes for four days out of a total of 30 days! After a while I got used to eating just about anything for breakfast. That included spicy food and noodle dishes. As I couldn’t always find enough to eat in my local area early in the morning, I had to be at school by 7.15 a.m., I started buying food in the markets in the evening and then eating it cold in the morning. Later on I found a food shop near my school that had pre-cooked dishes in trays on the sidewalk. So, I also worked my way through these as quite often they would have different dishes each day.


som tam thai

For noodles I would normally only eat egg noodles. I was never really that keen on the other sizes like sen lek, sen mee and sen yai. But, this food challenge forced me to try something different for the first time. Which, in the end, turned out to be the best thing for me. I now quite like to eat sen lek noodles. I also like some of the beef noodle dishes that I tried but never really cared for before. Of course, I still don’t like eating giblets that much and certainly don’t want to eat any more blood cakes. But, there are some dishes that I will now certainly repeat. I’m also happy that I discovered a Vietnamese noodle dish called guay jub yuan. I’ve already been back to have more of that.


gaeng gari gai

People keep asking me what my favourite dishes are. Very difficult to answer that but I have illustrated this article with some that I enjoyed and will be repeating. Another question that people keep asking is about my health during the challenge. Many people likened this challenge to the “Supersize me” movie where someone ate a diet of McDonald meals. At the beginning people were saying that I would suffer health problems or put on weight with all the rice and curries. In the end, I never really had any serious health worries. To be truthful, there were about three occasions in the first week when I had the runs. But it was nothing to write home about and I was always better in the morning. As far as weight goes, I in fact lost just under four kilos and that was without trying. It was never my intention to lose any weight. But, it backs up my theory that if you only eat Thai food then you won’t put on weight, no matter how many curries or desserts you eat. But, if you mix Thai and Western food and then you will have a problem.


pad thai kung sod

The final question to answer is whether it is really true that in Thailand it is cheaper to eat out every day. Of course, in the West, we wouldn’t go to restaurants that often. If we go out, we would take a packed lunch or buy a sandwich at the corner shop. In the West we cook at home to save money, but here, it is easier and often cheaper to buy on the streets. Families often buy curries and other time-consuming dishes on the street then cook stir-fried vegetables and other simple dishes themselves. For myself, I cook a lot and I’m fussy about the quality of ingredients. Some of which are imported. So, my weekly food bill is at least $50. Sometimes more depending on how many I’m cooking for. For this challenge, I was spending an average of $20 a week on street food. Yes, you heard right, my daily food budget was often less than $3! That includes drinks but not alcohol. My electricity bill has also just come for last month. It is not as low as I thought it would be, but I saved about $20 on the average.


baa mee giao nam moo daeng + pu

So, my challenge is finally over. Secretly I’m glad as it was getting difficult in the mornings, particularly when it was raining and I had to go out to look for food. It is so much easier to cook something or eat some leftovers in the fridge. Sometimes I’m just too lazy to go out looking for food. But, this food challenge has changed me. I’m now being more adventurous and I’m actively looking for new dishes that I haven’t tried before. I’m also visiting some of the local food shops that I had given a miss before. What is happening is that I’m having a variety of street food and doing some home cooking. The risk, of course, is that by having fusion food and Western meals, I will be putting the weight back on. But, in the meantime, I have already started my next food challenge which is ten days of vegan food. That is going well. Once that is over I have about a week’s break and I will start the next challenge which is ten days of temple fair food. Not really looking forward to the grilled chicken butt that I mistakenly ate last year. But, I think that is still preferable to the deep fried baby bird.

100 Pictures of Thai Street Food >>>

8 responses to “Surviving the Thai Street Food Challenge

  1. I really enjoyed reading all of your daily posts on the food that you had written.

    A lot of what you have written above, on the cost, health and variety of street food, rings true and reminds me a lot of my two months in Thailand last year.

  2. Richard, I was not able to keep up with every day of your challenge but I did stop by when I could.

    I was one of those worried about your health.

    The man in my house is very picky about what he eats (no fried food) so I’m aware of what’s on offer for street food. During lunch he only eats local food so it’s been a trial for him. He’s now pared it down to two dishes – noodles and veg with fish or not. And when he comes home, he’s HUNGRY.

    I’ll be back often to see what you ate. And I might even create a similar challenge of my own (if I’m brave enough!)

  3. Very informative and thanks for the details and pictures. I’ve often wondered the name of some of those dishes you ate, and which I had eaten, too.

    I have recently been eating (and blogged) about the simple Thai omelette. The first one I had upon returning to Bangkok was from a farang-owned restaurant. It was 70 bt, plus 15 for rice. Terrible. Outside the place, was a Thai vendor’s version: Delicious! And only 20bt with rice.

    It was a small lesson that made me eat more street food and I’ve been more satisfied, whereas eating at farang resto’s has been largely disappointing, not to mention the price running three to five times for the same thing. (Side note: only time I’ve been ill from food is from farang places.)

    BTW, every one of those dishes you show look absolutely delicious!

  4. thanks for that. i have always loved hawker food and have a number of food stalls to choose from right outside my house in bangkok.

    street food is something i think of when looking at a new place.

    cheers

    thomas

  5. I love street foods! They have this nice taste and very unique flavors. I missed eating some.

  6. food in thai always good

  7. This has been a very informative and interesting challenge Richard. I have enjoyed following the month and the fantastic photos which had my mouth watering (for the most part!)

    Guava

  8. Richard Barrow

    Thanks Richard for visiting my blog. I just took a look at yours and you have a lot of food blogs there that interest me. I also spotted you were doing a food court challenge which is something that I will be doing myself later in the year. I’m looking forward to doing mine. Hopefully a lot of new food.