Nowhere else is the Thai reverence for food more evident than in Bangkok. To the outsider, the life of a Bangkokian appears to be a string of meals and snacks punctuated by the odd stab at work, not the other way around. If you can adjust your mental clock to this schedule, your visit will be a delicious one indeed.
The Flavours of Bangkok
The people of central Thailand are fond of sweet, savoury, herbal flavours, and many dishes include freshwater fish, pork, coconut milk and palm sugar – common ingredients in the central Thai plains. Because of the region’s proximity to the Gulf of Thailand, central Thai eateries, particularly those in Bangkok, also serve a wide variety of seafood.
Another significant influence on the city’s kitchens has come from the Bangkok-based royal court, which has been producing sophisticated and refined takes on central Thai dishes for nearly 300 years. Although originally only available within the palace walls, so-called ‘royal’ Thai dishes such as máh hór (a small dish combining mandarin, orange or pineapple and a sweet/savoury/peppery topping that includes pork, chicken, peanuts, sugar, peppercorns and coriander root) can be found in a few restaurants across the city.
Immigrants from southern China have been influencing Thai cuisine for centuries and it was most likely Chinese labourers and vendors who introduced the wok and several varieties of noodle dishes to Thailand. They have also influenced Bangkok's cuisine in other ways; for example, beef is not widely eaten in Bangkok due to a Chinese-Buddhist teaching that forbids eating ‘large’ animals. Perhaps the most common Thai-Chinese dish in Bangkok is bà·mèe, wheat-and-egg noodles typically served with slices of barbecued pork.
Muslims are thought to have first visited Thailand during the late 14th century. Along with the Quran, they brought with them a meat- and dried-spice-based cuisine from their homelands in India and the Middle East. Nearly 700 years later, the impact of this culinary commerce can still be felt in Bangkok. While some Islamic-world-influenced dishes such as roh·đee (a fried bread similar to the Indian paratha) have changed little, if at all, others such as gaang mát·sà·màn (sometimes known as 'Muslim curry') are a unique blend of Thai and Indian/Middle Eastern cooking styles and ingredients.
The End of Street Food?
It was akin to announcing that Rome's coliseum was going to be razed. In mid-2017, media outlets reported that food stalls and vendors were slated to be banned from the streets of Bangkok.
Locals and visitors were shocked and appalled. The Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) rushed into repair mode. Even Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs felt obligated to release a statement. Within days the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA), the organisation which released the statement and the entity responsible for overseeing street vendors, backpedalled, claiming that it was misquoted and that it was simply planning to enforce already existing laws and regulations.
Yet in the months leading up to the debacle (Streetgate?), the BMA had cleared street vendors from some areas of the city, most notably along Soi 55, Th Sukhumvit (the street colloquially known as Thong Lo) and Th Suan Phlu, in efforts to clean up and unclog the city's footpaths and streets.
What does this mean for the rest of Bangkok's estimated 20,000 street vendors? As with many things in Thailand, the answer is unclear. At press time, the BMA had deployed a team of officers to enforce rules and regulations in Banglamphu and Chinatown, but remained vague about its plans to deal with street food in other parts of the city. For now, the situation appears to be at a stalemate, but other factors, including private development, have already done away with some of Bangkok's most famous curbside eats and it seems likely that in the future the city's streets may be cleaner and clearer, if a lot less delicious.
Where To Eat
During the last couple of decades, Thai food has become internationally famous and Bangkok is, not surprisingly, the best place in the world to eat it. From roadside stalls to restaurants with Michelin stars in their eyes, the whole spectrum of Thai food is available here. And more recent immigration to the city has resulted in a contemporary dining scene where options range from Korean to French, touching on just about everything in between.
Markets & Stalls
Open-air markets and food stalls are among the most popular dining spots for Thais, although in recent years the authorities have begun banning them from some parts of town. In the mornings, stalls selling coffee and Chinese-style doughnuts appear along busy commuter corridors. At lunchtime, diners might grab a plastic chair at yet another stall for a simple stir-fry or pick up a foam box of noodles to scoff down at the office. In Bangkok’s suburbs, night markets often spring up in the middle of town with a cluster of food vendors, metal tables and chairs, and some shopping as an after-dinner mint.
One of the most common types of restaurant in Bangkok – and, if you ask us, the most delicious – is the open-fronted hôrng tăa·ou (shophouse) restaurant. The cooks at these places have most likely been serving the same dish, or a limited repertoire of dishes, for several decades and really know what they’re doing. The food may cost slightly more than on the street, but the setting is usually more comfortable and hygienic, not to mention the fact that you’re eating a piece of history. While such restaurants rarely have English-language menus, you can usually point to a picture or dish.
At home, eating in a mall is generally a last resort. In Bangkok, it's a destination. The city's shopping-centre-based food courts bring together famous vendors and restaurants from across town in a setting that's clean, convenient and provides English-language menus.
There are plenty of ráhn ah·hăhn (restaurants) in Bangkok. Lunchtime is the right time to point and eat at the ráhn kôw gaang (rice and curry shops), which sell a selection of pre-made dishes. The more generic ráhn ah·hăhn đahm sàng (made-to-order restaurants) can often be recognised by a display of raw ingredients – Chinese kale, tomatoes, chopped pork, fresh or dried fish, noodles, eggplant, spring onions – and offer a standard repertoire of Thai and Chinese–Thai dishes. As the name implies, the cooks will attempt to prepare any dish you can name – a potentially difficult operation if you can’t speak Thai.
Bangkok is home to dozens of upscale restaurants. For the most part, those serving Thai cuisine have adjusted their recipes to suit foreign palates – for more authentic food you’re much better off eating at the cheaper shophouse-style restaurants. On the other hand, upscale and hotel restaurants are probably the best places in Bangkok for authentic Western-style food. If these are outside your price range, you’ll be happy to know that there’s also a huge spread of midrange foreign restaurants in today’s Bangkok, many of them quite good.
For impromptu drinking and snacking, Bangkok also has an overabundance of modern cafes – including branches of several international chains. Most serve passable takes on Western-style coffee drinks, cakes and sweets.
Need To Know
Restaurants serving Thai food are generally open from 10am to 8pm or 9pm. Foreign-cuisine restaurants tend to keep only lunch and dinner hours (ie 11am to 2pm and 6pm to 10pm).
Bangkok has passed a citywide ordinance banning street vendors from setting up shop on Mondays.
If you have a lot of friends in tow or will be dining at a formal restaurant (including hotel restaurants), reservations are recommended. Bookings are also recommended for Sunday brunches and dinner cruises. Otherwise, you shouldn’t have a problem scoring a table at the vast majority of restaurants in Bangkok.
You shouldn’t be surprised to learn that tipping is not obligatory in Thailand. Some people leave roughly 10% at any sit-down restaurant where someone fills their glass every time they take a sip; others don’t. Most upmarket restaurants will apply a 10% service charge to the bill.
Keep up with the ever-changing food scene in Bangkok by following the Restaurants section of BK (www.bk.asia-city.com) or Bangkok 101 (www.bangkok101.com).
a·ròy – 'delicious'
bà·mèe – wheat-and-egg noodles
þèt – duck
þlah – fish
đôm yam – Thailand's famous sour, spicy soup
gaang – curry
gŏo·ay đĕe·o – the generic term for noodle soup
gài – chicken
kà·nŏm – Thai-style sweet snacks
kôw – rice
kôw nĕe·o – sticky rice
lâhp – a 'salad' of minced meat
mŏo – pork
nám dèum – drinking water
nám prík – chili-based dips
nám þlah – fish sauce
pàk – vegetables
pàt – fried
pàt see·éw – wide rice noodles fried with pork and greens
pàt tai – thin rice noodles fried with egg and seasonings
pèt – spicy
pŏn·lá·mái – fruit
prík – chili
ráhn ah·hăhn – restaurant
tôrt – deep-fried
yam – a Thai-style salad