Saturday, January 02, 2016

Back when I was living in Bangkok, I wrote the following food story about the city in 2012.

If you are planning to travel to Thailand anytime soon, perhaps you will find some helpful tips below.

Bangkok Food Culture 101 by Tae Yoon

For thirty-five years now, Sang Som rum has been fueling nights of drunken debauchery and hazy memories for revelers in Thailand. This precarious rum dominates the market of Thai spirits, and the country’s estimated 67 million residents consume over 70 million liters annually. Made of sugarcane and with an ABV of 40%, Sang Som can inexpensively be purchased almost anymore and is most commonly drunk with soda water, cola, or my favorite, in a Sang Som Bucket. Sang Som Buckets are exactly what you’re imagining—a tub of liquids whose only objective is to get you wasted. These buckets are customarily found at tourist bars and make consuming the powerful rum a bit smoother. And since export sales of Sang Som account for 1% of its total market, what better way is there to get acquainted with it while in Thailand?

When the average American thinks of sriracha sauce, that ubiquitous bottle with its robust red color, distinct green cap and large rooster on the front most likely comes to mind. But in Thailand, it’s a bit of a different story. Sriracha sauce here isn’t eaten with Vietnamese food, found as a staple condiment in places such as Momofuku, nor incorporated into sauces like it is at Applebee’s. Instead, it’s known as a nondescript chili sauce that got its name from the coastal city of Si Racha and is traditionally eaten with seafood. There are numerous available brands of sriracha in Thailand, all of which are mostly unknown to Americans, and vice versa. Most Thais are also unaware of the existence of the Huy Fong Foods brand, which was started by a Chinese-Vietnamese immigrant from California and is what most Americans know as sriracha. And since it’s impossible for me to acquire that here, I sometimes settle for the Thai-made Three Mountains Brand, which is less spicy, slightly sweeter and gives less a kick compared to its American cousin.

While Thailand’s street food needs no introduction, I’m sad to report that Bangkok’s streets are not all lined with stall-after-stall of wonderful deliciousness. Even though I live in a very central part of town, there isn’t a place for me to just quickly pop out to in order to grab a convenient bite. That is, well, unless it’s around lunchtime. Shortly after I moved into my studio, I discovered that the mass of office workers in the many nearby buildings would casually walk into a doorway around lunchtime that is always chained-up at night. My esurient curiosity lead me to investigate, and I subsequently discovered a vast open-air food court that solely exists to feed lunchtime customers. If you’ve come to Bangkok and think your accommodations are in a food-desolate neighborhood, hang around the area from 12-1 to see if there’s some overlooked establishments that are patronized by hungry office workers.

The tipping standards of 15% in America—and 20% in New York City—is unsurprisingly not common in a country where the minimum daily wage hovers around $10. Tipping is not required in Thailand, and this especially makes sense when your street food costs around a dollar or two itself. However, for many modern establishments with more of a full dining experience, there is sometimes a small service charge added to the bill. As someone who has had countless jobs where tips were a part of my livelihood, I can totally empathize with food service employees and don’t mind a service charge at all. And for other places where I’ve had adequate service and there’s no mandatory gratuity charged to the bill, I always feel compelled to not leave without giving something. The smallest bill of money in Thai currency would be ฿20, which equals to less than a dollar, and for most instances it’s sufficient enough to leave. But if you’re feeling extra generous, ฿100 would definitely make someone’s day.

After living in this city for more than a year-and-a-half, I’ve come to realize that Khao San Road in Bangkok is comparable to what Times Square is in New York City: it’s filled with tourists, avoided by the locals, and gets tiresome pretty quickly. The notorious area of Khao San Road seems to be the absolute go-to stop for backpackers in Southeast Asia. On any given night, there will be thousands of people from all over the world mingling with one another while patronizing the countless number of hostels, budget hotels, bars, restaurants, shops and other inexpensive tourists destinations that fill the neighborhood. One of the edible attractions of Khao San Road are its many vendors who sell low-priced and delicious pad thai and spring rolls, which taste absolutely heavenly after a few Sang Som Buckets. On a side note, while I agree that it can be fun there, I have also heard of many people spending their entire Bangkok vacation at Khao San Road—and that seems like a terrible waste to me.

Some Asian countries use chopsticks as one of their main tools of eating, but Thailand would not be one of them. Whether it’s a meal of street food being enjoyed while sitting on a plastic stool, or in a luxurious Thai restaurant with a beautiful nighttime view of the city, the majority of its patrons are most likely eating their meals with a fork and spoon. When it comes to eating, Thais find it to be quite rude and inelegant to stuff food into your mouth with a fork. Instead, they use the fork to push food onto a spoon in order to prepare portions for consumption. The fork-and-spoon combination is quite versatile for Thai cuisine, and most Thai food does not require a knife of any sort for cutting. However if cutting is necessary, using the side of a spoon to do so is usually sufficient in most cases. Surprisingly, in Thai culture, chopsticks are most commonly used just for noodles or ethnically Chinese dishes.

When the Thai weather is being its tropical-self, and I’m dripping sweat from every crevice in my body, walking into a 7-11 to buy some water and bask in the free air-conditioning kills two birds with one stone. I know that the straw that’s always offered when purchasing any beverage is something I should accept, but a part of me in my perspiring state finds it completely unnecessary. In Thai culture, it is looked upon by some people as impolite and unrefined to drink liquids straight from the bottle, even for something as simple as bottled water. While I try to adhere to Thai customs and traditions as much as possible since arriving in Bangkok, I always decline the straw in a well-mannered way—and you should feel free to do the same.

Many international coffee and tea franchises have branches all over Bangkok. Their selections of salads, sandwiches, wraps and pastries are a nice change from the street food I eat on a constant basis, and I often look forward to chilling out in an air-conditioned environment with Wi-Fi. Chicken Caesar wraps are especially my favorite, but I have to make sure that I don’t forget to add this to my order: “Please, don’t toast it!” Without fail, all of the coffee and tea franchises in Bangkok automatically assume that you want every single food that you order toasted in their oven. In Thailand, the norm is to eat everything toasted if an oven is available. I myself do not prefer to have my lettuce warm and wilted, and recommend that you be sure to note this to the cashier when placing your order as well. The same also goes for coffee that is sold in smaller places and not the international franchises. In Thailand, the norm is for coffee to be sweetened. If you only drink black coffee like myself, be sure to instruct them with “NO SUGAR,” or else you’ll end up with something that I liken to coffee candy.

Hot weather. Rainy weather. Humid weather. Unbearable weather. The reasons to patronize Bangkok’s many malls might differ from person-to-person. But what’s absolutely clear is, Bangkok is definitely a mall-culture. Most of the malls are easily accessible and even anchor a good deal of the busiest public transportation stops in town. It’s inevitable that most tourists who are not used to Thailand’s tropical climate might at some point experience displeasure due to the weather, and that’s when you know it’s mall-time. One of the many great characteristics of Bangkok’s more popular malls are that they offer a plethora of activities, from ice-skating and bowling to 3D movies and massages, and spending an entire day there can be easily done. To top it off, Bangkok’s major malls offer a broad amount of different food options, making it pleasurable to recharge all that’s needed to before venturing back out into the elements.

At almost any eating spot where Thai food is sold, both low-brow and high-brow, the ring of spices will be there sitting on the table. With the classic view of the ends of their small serving spoons sticking out, this foursome of staple condiments represent the four characteristics that form the basis of all Thai sauces: salty, sour, spicy and sweet. Called khrueng phuang in Thai and translated into "Ring of Spices" in English, dry chili powder, vinegar with chili pieces, sugar, and vinegar with chili powder make up the quartet of spices.

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