The ones who were moved

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Saphan Phut Market, off of Rama IV Road

When the latest stab at this street food ban thing started, my husband said everything would return back to normal by year-end. The assumption was that the political will to kick out vendors over and over again would eventually run dry, allowing them (although maybe not the old ones) to come back to the spaces they were once forced to vacate.

This has sort of happened at Asoke Intersection, prime street food real estate that once commanded up to 30,000 baht “rent” a month from the police. I don’t know what (or who) the vendors are paying now, but they are (almost) all back: the chicken bitter melon noodles, the pad Thai, the egg rolls, the strange mayonnaise-forward salads with hard boiled eggs, and most importantly, the fried chicken. The only one I am missing is the Isaan vendor in front of Maduzi, who made wonderful larb when she wasn’t fighting with her husband. I fear — like the curry rice vendor and made-to-order vendors on my own small soi — I will never see her again.

But, as of right now, the move towards progress continues apace. Forward, ever forward, spaces that have been cleared last year — Siam Square, and the Saphan Phut area next to the Flower Market — remain so, saving space for the eagerly anticipated projects set to join the city skyline. And the vendors themselves, trusting in the powers that be, have been moved to spaces set aside for them by various government agencies, with varying results.

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Diners at the new Siam Square Market

Trude, who is actually researching Siam Square, showed me this market the other day, a sweaty 10-minute walk from the BACC (Bangkok Art and Culture Centre) past Jim Thompson’s House. Set under a highway bypass, there was once high hopes for this place, literally illustrated by the lines and numbers marking where each vendor was supposed to set up. Today, five food vendors (two beverage, one congee/chicken rice, one soup noodles with pork, one made-to-order) remain in an area originally meant for around 50; a generously-sized dining area has been placed in the corner.

Despite the promise of a full year rent-free, most of the vendors have moved to other markets like Klong Toey, said one of the beverage vendors, Sumet. “Since we are old, we thought we would just stay for the year and then decide what to do,” he said. Customers trickle in from time to time, and there is none of the urgency that you’d imagine you might feel from vendors who sell far less than they had expected. It’s easy-going, quiet, actually peaceful; worth bringing a book and lingering over a Thai coffee when it isn’t raining. That’s not to say that this market isn’t doomed, because it is.

The prognosis is murkier for the Saphan Phut Market, moved from its riverside location to a former parking lot next to the Boat Pier (Tha Ruea) off of Rama IV Road. That’s because it just might work. Marvel- and Star Wars-themed t-shirts, hair accessories, women’s underwear — you see these things everywhere, sure. Pad Thai, soup noodles, sweet waffles, and, oddly, plenty of yum mamuang (mango spicy salad). Even more optimistically, seafood cooked to order, ready to be folded into omelets or, yes, mixed with lime juice and chilies into yet another salad:

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There are even the standard culinary aberrations one would expect to stumble upon at any Thai night bazaar, like innocent fried chicken, cruelly doused in “tom yum” , pizza or BBQ spices:

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Or my personal nemesis, Thai street sushi, featuring heroic amounts of shrimp roe, imitation crabmeat and mayonnaise:

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Someone ate this

That’s not all: a string of bars, music blaring loudly enough to rival that of any establishment on Khao Sarn Road, shows that market organizers have every intention of making a real go of it here, cleaving to the “Talad Rot Fai” model as best as they can. But attendance is spotty because of the rain. And the vendors are starting to fall away, after only six months of the market’s opening. If the market can hold on until the cold season of Nov-Feb, the vendors might tell a different story. But right now it feels like the backyard barbecue of your least favorite co-worker, the kind of party Ted Cruz might throw, only with booze and no soup.

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Those Who Stayed

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Chicken soup for the tastebuds

One thing that the Great Street Food Cleanup of Thonglor/Ekamai has done (and solely for the people who eat it for fun), is basically curating that area’s vendors for us. No longer do we need to consult guides to figure out which ones inspire a following (and that’s a good thing, because a lot of those guides would be outdated by now lololallthelulz). Instead, the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration has kindly done the job for us. The vendors who enjoy a steady stream of customers find places nearby in front of businesses that will have them; the ones who can’t broker these types of deals move on.

Yet, even with the knowledge that these vendors are there for us, the chance of getting a plate of food from them has somehow diminished. Let me tell you how that could be: after four (FOUR) tries, I have yet to procure a khao mok gai, or Thai-Muslim-style chicken biryani, from the Thonglor vendor since the Wonderful Sidewalk Cleanup for Citizens of Thonglor/Ekamai back in April.

tl;dr. Rainy season + laziness = zero chicken biryani, like this:

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The meal I should be having

Let me tell you the odds: my friend Karen can duck into a shared-ride service in New York City only to encounter a rando she once corresponded with on OKCupid six years ago, but I cannot get a plate of this stuff from this Thonglor vendor. The butt-hurt rando can complain — six years later — about how Karen blew off their date to take photographs of the 10-year anniversary of 9/11, but I cannot get a plate of this stuff from the Thonglor vendor. A movie could come out starring Emma Stone as Karen and Ryan Gosling as this rando guy where they re-encounter each other on a shared ride, only to be joined by a beleaguered government press secretary (Jonah Hill) who is on the run from a dangerous Russian mobster (Russell Crowe) charged by a mysterious entity (Nick Nolte) to recover incriminating documents that the press secretary may have stolen (call me Hollywood/ Uber/ Lyft). But, I cannot get a plate of this stuff from the Thonglor vendor.

The last time I went there was only two days ago. Not a drop of rain yet, not a weekend or a special holiday, all the stars seemed to be aligned for me. I arrived at 10am, only to be greeted by the very bottom of a large stainless steel pot, a few grains of yellow rice clinging forlornly to the side. “Sorry,” said the vendor. She advises me to come at 8 in the morning, a time when I am still mulling my life choices while drinking my second cup of coffee in my pajamas. Trying to salvage something out of my morning, I buy a spicy chicken soup to take home, top-heavy with coriander, deep-fried shallots and plenty of freshly minced chili. I then ask to take a photo of her. “Sure,” she says, resolutely avoiding the camera.

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It would appear that the scarcity of street food in the area has only strengthened business for the ones who remain, which makes sense — it should hardly be a challenge to sell good, cheap food in this kind of environment. With that in mind, head to Amat Rot Dee, aka what used to be my favorite chicken biryani vendor, for your own plate of chicken rice heaven, open on Thonglor Road in front of the barber shop past Grand Tower Hotel on Monday-Friday from 8am-9am. Hurry.

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A good story

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Egg noodles with both BBQ and crispy pork 

We don’t hear enough good stories nowadays. It’s all about stuff like “FBI” and “Russia” and moldy old mangoes in the discount bin that have come to life and become president. It’s about bans masquerading as cleanups, and dye jobs gone bad, and “oh yeah, can you make a 10-minute presentation tomorrow, my bad lolz” and panic attacks about public speaking (alcohol or Xanax? Which would be more effective in this situation?) And of course, there is story after story after story of a vendor who had to move, who went to a new place and no longer makes the money he or she used to, or the good food that they used to. There are so many of those stories. Too many.

So it’s nice to hear a good story, about a vendor who won a loyal and devoted  following on Sukhumvit Soi 38, making buttery egg noodles (bamee) gleaming with pork fat and dreams. Thin-skinned minced pork wontons and barely blanched Chinese kale. Tangy barbecued red pork with a cracked boiled red crab claw. A clear, peppery pork broth and a scattering of deep-fried pork crackling, the best punctuation a bowl of noodles could ever hope for. This is what was lost when developers bought the area the former Sukhumvit 38 market stood on and the vendor was forced to move.

I should say vendors. They are a family of six, though the youngest, Khun Suthep with the ponytail, is the one I remember: taciturn and efficient, like a bamee robot but without the warmth. But the third son, Khun Sumet, tells me that they had all planned on retiring, until the flurry of phone calls from forlorn gourmets became so numerous that Khun Sumet finally relented: Find an appropriate vending space near his house, all the way on Chalerm Phrakiat, and they would start cooking again.

I guess I don’t need to tell you the rest of that story. Because here we are, a good 18 km from their original location, looking up at a sign that reads “The first bamee vendor from Sukhumvit Soi 38” (Sukhumvit Soi 103 in front of Suan Luang Rama 9, Chalerm Phrakiat Soi 30, 095-593-6146).

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I would not be here, a good 30 minutes away on an evening of sparse Sunday traffic, if it was not for my dad, or his resourceful secretary Mine. They tracked down Khun Sumet and family at a time when I was still trying to eat the bamee that is currently on Soi 38, mistakenly believing that this was what my parents loved and attributing its blandness to my parents’ worn-out, enfeebled tastebuds. But a bowl here puts all of that to shame: as silky as remembered, with broth on the side and enough pork crackling bits to please even me. The only change is that there is no more crabmeat; at this new location, the customers cannot afford crabmeat, and don’t trust that it is fresh. Instead, the crabmeat has been replaced by generous garland of crispy deep-fried pork. The noodles, however, remain handmade.

It’s amazing that cooking of this quality is available at 40-50 baht a bowl (depending on size). Although there is little incentive or reason for street food like this to exist, pure pride makes it a possibility. This is what people mean when they say they love street food. It’s all about the discovery.

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What’s Left

First things first: I have been invited by the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to a workshop to better improve my blogging. Wish me luck!

Until then, the latest on what’s up with the streetbanthat’snotastreetbanwhatareyoutalkingaboutstreetfoodisfine. Mostly cleared away are Thonglor, Ekamai and Phra Khanong: this ban-not-ban came into effect April 17. Some areas around Siam, such as Henri Dunant Road, have been cleared for longer. I know this for a fact because it’s nigh-impossible for me to get a taxi nowadays when I leave the gym, since there are no longer streetside places for the drivers to eat. I have heard they have been relocated, but it sure would be nice to know where without having to go all Sherlock Holmes on every motorcycle driver that ever set foot in Siam.

This got me to thinking, and spurred me to finally (actually) read a blurb announcing an upcoming Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Thailand (FCCT) panel on “Bangkok’s Street Food Future”. The gist is this: despite “misreported” city official comments about how street food is toast, it’s actually getting more regulated, and vendors have been moved from some city areas. The word “moved” is interesting: does that mean they are now serving food somewhere else? Or does that mean they have been “moved” to their houses, where they are now free to make noodles for their own faces? So nebulous a word, “moved”, “relocated”, etc. No worries though — since I don’t have a life, I will try to track a few of them down. Still missing the braised pork trotter lady from next to the Sports Club (as are all the taxi drivers I manage to flag down who are looking for her).

Yesterday, while walking down Silom, I did feel that some of the pavement was easier to walk down … has some of it been cleared? The only thing keeping me from saying that my stroll on the sidewalk was a wonderful experience was that there were still a whole lot of other people on the sidewalk, blocking my way. Maybe something can be done about that. In any case, all of that leisurely strolling quickly came to a halt once I got to Convent Road. It was street food up the wazoo: fruit shakes, pig’s trotter on rice, egg noodles with pork, soup noodles, all crowded in front of the 7-11 and various chain restaurants like groupies at a Motley Crue concert. Forced to walk single file down the road, desperately attempting to keep from tripping over a stray bag of groceries, negotiating the many umbrellas shading diners from the relentless midday heat, it felt … like Bangkok again. With nary a clipboard-carrying BMA official to be found.

Of course, if I’m on Convent, the first place I’m heading to is the vendor serving Thai-Muslim chicken biryani.  Named simply “Khao Mok Gai Convent” (on Convent Road outside of Molly Malone’s), this place serves — and has served, for years — a whacking great portion of succulent, toothsome chicken thigh or leg atop a mound of sunshine-colored rice, festooned with deep-fried shallots and a Tinkerbell-sized bowl of sweet chili sauce. It’s wildly simple yet delicious, as is the chicken soup that you should not do without as accompaniment: clear chicken broth flecked with anonymous chicken parts and the same deep-fried shallots, bits of fresh coriander leaf, and a mashed base of fresh bird’s-eye chilies. It is tart and bracing where the biryani is generous and comforting, the yin to that yang. I am willing to bet there is no better lunch on that road, inside or out.

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When I remembered to take a picture

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Tasty cluckers

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Chicken for sale at Klong Toey market

Before I start, I should mention that Bangkok Glutton was selected by Feedspot as one of the top 30 Thai food blogs. Thank you. I did not know there were 30 Thai food blogs. Congratulations everyone!

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Thais love their chicken. As do I. So it makes sense that, last month, when I was attempting to go vegetarian, it would be a bite of chicken that would break my resolve after a mere two days. Chicken is my Achilles heel. Even good-for-you, boring-ass grilled chicken breast, set in front of me on a plate by my scheming, undermining husband, garlanded with a mini-forest of steamed broccoli. Yes I swear, Your Honor, what did me in was that plate of food, the culinary equivalent of Mitt Romney.

Despite all of Chulalongkorn University’s best efforts, there is still wonderful chicken to be had in the Sam Yan market area — at least for the next three years. Gong Thui Gai Yang’s chicken is a standout: garlicky and juicy, wholesome with a smoky edge provided by all that endless fanning as the meat cooks on the grill.

Here I am, in a video shot by Scott Preston, talking about some of my favorite chicken from one of the street food areas set to disappear from Bangkok in the coming years. Go while you can, and indulge in some chicken, papaya salad and maybe even a bit of grilled pork collar with sticky rice. You won’t regret it.

 

 

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Something new

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As you may have already heard, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority (BMA) had plans to bring “order” and “hygiene” to the streets by clearing away many of the vendors on the sidewalk. This is roughly analogous to telling Axl Rose that all he needs to turn back the clock is a nice black t-shirt, but that is neither here nor there.

The real story is, how far is the extent of the planned ban? Is there a plan at all, or a case of a government official being quoted on something, and then after the resulting furore, everybody going “Oh yeah our bad never mind”? Nothing to see here, folks. Move along.

After widespread concern that the “world’s best street food city” ™ would go all Ghostbusters on its own street food, the final answer (so far) is that, no, the places that tourists like are all good, so you can stop writing negative stories about it now, please, thank you for your understanding.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the street food will be untouched. Just the opposite, the BMA assures us! In a bid to preserve “Thainess” of the street food, they have many different plans to regulate quality and order, including mandatory government-run training programs for the vendors. Phew! That doesn’t sound ominous at all! Because the very people I want in charge of my street food are the same sorts of people who came up with the idea of the Thai food tasting robot. I can rest easy now.

Maybe all the BMA really needs is to hear from us street food lovers. You can let the Minister of Tourism know your thoughts on Richard Barrow’s Facebook page here, where the government has already denied its purported plans to ban street food … anywhere? So does this mean my chicken biryani vendor can come back to Thonglor?

One place that is for sure dunzo, government ban or not, might be legendary congee vendor Joke Samyan. Here, in a video directed by Scott Preston and edited by Peter Potts, we ponder the glories of congee and the future of one of Bangkok’s most famous street food places.

 

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Spring Cleaning

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My curry rice place for now

I saw the movie “Get Out” maybe a week ago, and like many people have said themselves, I am still thinking about it. After reading this wonderful Jezebel interview with the actress Betty Gabriel, who played “Georgina” in the movie, it got me thinking even more … about Thai street food.

To me, “Get Out” is a literal illustration of what cultural appropriation is. It also serves as a tidy metaphor for colonization. This is what empires did: taking over foreign lands, cherry-picking the most valuable bits, and co-opting them as their own to their economic benefit. This is frequently seen as an example of the bad old days, when powerful Western countries were less enlightened than the progressive nations they are today, having safely been enriched by those bad old days already.

But some say a hidden type of colonization still exists. Of course, this belief is often derided as coming from arch-conspiracists and the sort of non-American ethnonationalists who rail against the evils of McDonald’s and Hollywood. I would say, however, it’s not that far off (*adjusts tin foil on head*), because that is something like my experience with McDonald’s and Hollywood. Just because we aren’t asking God to save the queen every time we make a toast or saluting a foreign flag doesn’t mean we aren’t in thrall to a foreign way of thinking — a way of thinking that makes us, deep down inside, hate ourselves and see ourselves as the enemy. And just because that isn’t your experience doesn’t make it untrue. We, me, a non-white on the rural Western edge of Pennsylvania: from very early on, we see in magazines like American Vogue or movies like “Ghost in the Shell” (“Oh God,” ScarJo sighs, sipping a margarita poolside in Cabo. “This again.”) that white is prettier. Smarter (if not in a nerdy sense, then at least in a “street smarts” way). More rational. More relatable. More interesting. And, if you are Asian, more manly. More important. The blue-eyed, blond “anak” dude in the Philippines tourism commercials on CNN: the world is there for him to explore, to be given free sweets, to be treated like family, smiled at and coddled even if he makes a mistake. How lovely for that guy. How often I’ve wished that “anak” meant “moron” or “dickhead”.

In “Get Out”, people are just like suits, identities to be discarded when the next “in thing” rolls around (is that a spoiler alert? Aw, sorry, anak). It’s assumed that they’re not as important as the stars in everyone’s show.  And that does something to us, we, me. We start making ourselves the supporting actors in our own head-movies: at best, the funny best friend in “Crazy Stupid Love”, perhaps, or Nicki Minaj in “The Other Woman.” At worst, we are Georgina, the shell hiding an entirely person on the inside, a person who hates and fails to identity with her outside (in Betty Gabriel’s words, “the worst kind of assimilation.”) That begs the question for us-we-me: where do we fall on that spectrum? Am I Georgina? Probably sometimes. How could I not be? Why wouldn’t we want to be a part of the stronger team, and how far would we go to get there?

Let me revert to nerd-speak for a moment. Georgina is like Sansa, before Ned’s sentencing in front of the Great Sept of Baelor. Sansa, who wished to marry Joffrey, and rushed to tell Cersei of her father’s plans to leave King’s Landing. How we all hated Sansa and claimed to identify with Arya, just like all those Harry Potterheads who think they are Gryffyndors (although one could argue that Arya is her own kind of Georgina, rejecting her own “feminine” qualities to take on the “active,” “strong” characteristics of the far more powerful men). Maybe, to paraphrase the movie “The DUFF”: Everyone is someone’s Georgina.

Including Bangkok. See, I finally did get there. Bangkok appears to have internalized the image of Asia as written by people like Rudyard Kipling: a collection of rickety warrens filled with dirt and squalor and bleating live animals, populated by untrustworthy, nattering natives (not to mention the things they get up to when left to their own devices on what to eat — bugs, intestines, yuck!). In other words, we’re a background to whatever Indiana Jones is doing at the moment. Bangkok thinks of itself as a city of extras. It is Georgina-ing itself, of its own volition.

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Streetside food on Ekamai in happier times

Maybe that is why, in the interests of “cleaning up” the streets and imposing some “order”, Bangkok authorities are methodically clearing away the “mess” on the sidewalks that the authorities never walk on, simply telling vendors to move elsewhere … until they have to be moved again. Presumably, the idea is to make Bangkok more like modern-day Singapore, an artificial city built as a commercial port for the British empire. The problem is that, when trying to turn yourself into someone else, you will invariably become a pale imitation of the original. Sure, you can try to become Singapore, but Singapore will still speak better English and, sorry, remain far more efficient than you. Just sayin’, Bangkok.  Don’t get so upset. Why do you always have to take things so hard? You had your own things that make you pretty, too. Isn’t that what we always tell little girls? You were pretty in your own way, Bangkok.

The latest area to be “tidied” is Ekamai, Thonglor and Phra Khanong. Unlike Sukhumvit 38, where both local residents and tourists ate, this latest clearing is really a strike against the regular people who work the many restaurants, shops, banks etc in the area: the regular working Thai. Where are they to eat? I guess Emquartier/porium, where all the Bangkok authorities eat? But where will they really eat? Undoubtedly 7-11. Bangkok is condemning these workers to a diet of instant noodles, cream-filled buns, white bread mayonnaise sandwiches, and sausages of dubious origin. That’s better food, right? It’s “cleaner” and certainly “tidier”. It’s more “progressive”. And if a cursory look at what’s available by the highways nowadays (Starbucks, Burger King, McDonald’s, and of course 7-11), it’s the food of the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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