Bangkok’s Magic 8 Ball

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The future of street food?

You can tell when the popularity of something has crested when companies begin to incorporate parts of it into their own identities. If you ever see a Nike commercial featuring something like “Know Your Enemy” or “Bullet in the Head” by Rage Against the Machine, it is time to call it a day, our corporate overlords have declared themselves.

So when you see a sign like this:

empo

It is time to really ponder, what is street food? Is it the dish itself? Or is it the difficulty of striking out on your own? Is it the promise of discovery? Or is it community aspect of it, the commingling of people at the same table, glued together out of necessity, in a quest for a good plate of noodles or rice. Although I have derided some diners in the past as being the kinds of gourmets who prize atmosphere over the food, it turns out that street food lovers like me are the other end of that spectrum: the ultimate atmosphere seekers.

The so-called “street food cleanup” has been largely quiet since the run-up to the last election, suggesting that the Bangkok government (BMA) has washed their hands of an initiative that academics have charged with “hurting tourism” (Bangkok Post, 27 Nov 2018).

But that doesn’t mean efforts to impose a Singapore-style tidiness haven’t stopped completely. Even in Chinatown, the birthplace of street food, superstar seafood purveyor T&K Seafood (and its less famous rival) have been forced to clear its sidewalk and offer only tables indoors, effectively cutting 75 percent of its appeal to diners. Authorities are still clearing spaces, but are no longer framing it as “we’re Kevin Costner and the vendors are Robert Deniro in ‘The Untouchables'”. They are no longer saying they are “restoring order to the streets”. They are sneaking a bite from your dessert when you’re in the bathroom.

So it’s time to seriously consider what form street food will take on in the next few years. Shophouse vendors — the ones who have made enough money to be able to rent out a space and are established enough not to worry about getting kicked out, like Joke Samyan  — are currently immune from the threat of change, but the mobile vendors will face a dilemma as they decide in what form they should operate. Should they band together and form a Singapore-style outdoor hawker center? Or do they seek the relative safety (and air-conditioning) of the shopping mall? What does your Magic 8 ball say?

Unlike the bucolic canal-side idyll presented by Icon Siam, The Market shopping mall seems geared primarily towards locals, with its “Siam Square under a roof” concept and, yes, “street food”-focused floor, where prices promise to dip as low as you would find them on the streets.

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Shopping mall food courts that include street food usually make sure to include big names; at Emporium, for example, you get Bamee Sawang and the pork knuckle vendor from Soi St. Louis (making a restaurant’s bid to serve similar street food even more inexplicable).

So as you would expect, the street food court boasts its own local stars. There is  Chinatown dessert stalwart Sweettime:

sweettime

And another favorite of the neighborhood, longtime fish ball specialist Lim Lao Ngo. Marketed here as a “bistro”, this outlet offers things you wouldn’t find on the street in Chinatown, such as a salmon and a river prawn noodle version, priced accordingly (165 baht).

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Salmon, original fish ball, and river prawn noodles

As you can maybe see, plastic features prominently here. The chicken rice vendor Rungroj Khao Man Gai even includes plastic models of hanging chickens in their window display, a mimicry of the traditional display favored by the chicken rice vendors outside. It did not encourage me to try the chicken rice here.

Other vendors included Kha Mhu Fukui (pig’s trotter on rice) and Yen Ta Fo Jay Nung (pink seafood noodles). But opportunities still abound for the enterprising vendor. Missing were a guay jab (rolled pork noodle), congee and Thai-style rice porridge stall, so if you make any of these things, you still have a chance. You can then rest easy that, even if the streets are ultimately cleared, or if the world heats up to levels unbearable for noshing, you will at least have made your choice.

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