Barbecue was the glue that held the American South together. Served at political rallies as a way to lobby for votes and at church parties as a way to lure lazy congregants, barbecues became associated with celebrations and a surefire way to deliciously dispose of the hordes of wild pigs that lived in the forests at the time.
The production of pork became a mark of Southern American patriotism, a way of making sure the South was self-sufficient. Attending a barbecue was not considered especially patriotic, because of course you would attend a barbecue, who wouldn’t, unless you were crazy and had no friends. The “whole hog” was used — this was no time for getting queasy about pig parts — so diners could get their choice of cracklings, Boston butts, bacon, ham hocks, fatback, ears, tongue, spleen, feet, tails, smoked intestines stuffed with sausage, and souse (an indiscriminate mix of the hearts, lungs, skins, etc). The lucky pig was cooked slowly through indirect heat from wood or coals that had to be painstakingly replaced every 10 or 15 minutes, in a smoky shack built over the pork situation just for the occasion. The resulting meat, after 10 hours of work, was served with lemonade and whisky, because a party’s a party. These barbecues were considered “class-blind” occasions, a place that served as the glue for Southern society. The story of barbecue — a tradition that became entrenched in the 50 years before the Civil War — turned into the story of America.
It doesn’t take a great leap to say that Thai street food could once have been considered roughly the same thing, the glue that held Thai people together. There were places that were, quite obviously, closed to no one — staffed with plastic stools and steaming hot vats of something edible and, ideally, a grumpy person who would put you in your place — but clamored over by everyone, because the food was that good (and cheap, but mostly good, because you don’t have a cook and you can’t cook, don’t pretend). The knowledge of the best of these places among Thais was like scrapping over baseball cards with a bunch of nerds, something that either solidified or obliterated your personal street card. Plus one if your knowledge extended beyond your personal neighborhood; +5 if it included a different city (usually Chiang Mai); -10 if it involved a different country, because who cares. The idea of this mix, and this glue, was what drew me to Thai street food in the first place: that I could easily insert myself into the “we” of it all, if I could just pick up a pair of chopsticks and march out onto the sidewalk.
And the stories behind street food, I loved those too. How it turned some families into millionaires over the course of one generation; how it enabled record numbers of women to join the workforce, and others to gain financial independence and flexible hours if you were good enough in the kitchen and had good kids to help you, like Ian Kittichai’s mom. The “American dream” could actually exist, in Thailand, if you were good enough or smart enough. You could become just like that moo ping dude on Silom Road, probably the most durable success story in all of Bangkok street food-dom. Who would not want to become Hia Owen?
But when people talk about becoming an adult, a lot of it involves resigning yourself to stuff and accepting “reality”. Like, I accept that I will never see the White Stripes or Prince play live. I accept that my blonde hair makes me look like the crazy albino guy who stalks Whitney Houston in “The Bodyguard”. I accept that George RR Martin will probably never finish “A Song of Ice and Fire”, so I will have to finish it in my head, knowing that everything I choose is the right way for the series to end. Street food will change, because time changes everything, and progress is inevitable, whether it’s artificially induced or not.
So when our friend Matt came to Bangkok to write about street food, it only made sense to check out something that would, in all likelihood, become one of Bangkok street food’s futures: the “thalad” (market), a collection of many street vendors under one roof, sharing tables and resources. Vincent showed us one of his favorites in his ‘hood, Asoke, called “Thalad Ruamsap”, a lunchtime standby for all the office workers in the area.
Inside, you get two interlocked “food courts” featuring a plethora of choices, from the very basic (rice with fried omelet) to the harder-to-find (a chili dip station; Northern Thai food; fermented rice noodles with different curries and fixings). We, naturally, went hog wild, picking everything we could find until our table was a heaving mass of bounty that drew side-eyes from every Thai who passed us by.
Was it good? That seemed beside the point. There were “son-in-law” eggs, steamed savory seafood custard in banana leaf cups, chili dips, charcoal crepes, pretty awesome fried bananas. That the market displayed food that appeared to have some degree of care put into it seemed good enough. That you wouldn’t have to traipse an hour out of the city center seemed good enough. Good enough, and without the threat of some clipboard-wielding policeman coming in to bust everything up. That’s where we are now, in the world of Thai street food. That’s a sign of impending adulthood, right?
You can get to Thalad Ruamsap by crossing Asoke Road from the Mor Sor Wor University and entering the alleyway next to Ochaya.