By: Dante Scarano
The best food comes in plastic baby chairs, the kind your parents make you sit in when your not old enough for the big kids table on Thanksgiving.
Sitting in the waiting room at the travel clinic, scrolling through my phone and checking on whose pregnant or getting married, finally my name is called. During the meeting with my doctor we discuss all the great illnesses that will most certainly kill me, provided I don’t shell out the appropriate large sum of cash. The doctor spoke with a strong Eastern European accent (Ukrainian, Russian, I have no idea) nodding my head accordingly to when he finished each sentence to give the perception that I knew what that he was talking about. After being injected with countless vaccines, and my arms beginning to sore up, we had one final discussion. While quickly listing off all the activities I shouldn’t do in South East Asia, I attempted to piece together each bit of the last sentence. Continuing to nod in cadence to the beat of his sentences, I hear a string of words that almost kills me, “Stay away from street food and you’ll be fine.” I may not have died at that moment, but my inner Anthony Bourdain sure as hell did. This was a main reason for me going to South East Asia; it offered a cuisine un-paralleled to any other place in the entire word. The doctor droned on about activities that I should limit myself to, I thought of a big draw that attracted me to these places crumbling right in front of me. I mean I didn’t expect to “Eat, Pray, Love” my way through Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, but I wanted to sample the local eats extremely cheap. I bet the question that your thinking of is, “Did you listen to him?” to put it bluntly, hell no!
(The following is a quick and awesome experience I had while eating street food and coming away ‘mostly’ unscathed).
The story begins where many have before, in the great city of Bangkok, a group of my traveling companions, Kyle, Jeremy, Mike and myself met up to grab some dinner. After a few days of getting to know the city in and out we decided to strike out on our own to find the more undiscovered locales dotted throughout the vast corners of the city. With a quick Google search of the various and most noted food markets in the area, we began bickering at what one to choose. (One never really realizes how difficult it is to find a place to eat when they begin the endeavor, it must be something in our own subconscious that makes us, always disagree with whatever is suggested or at least exclaim a simple “I don’t know.”) As the hunger slowly crept up between my comrades and I, our ‘hangry’ personalities showed up and picked the spot for us. Scrawling the address on the back of a piece of torn receipt and hailing a cab, we set out with our heads high and our stomachs slowly empting. We were on our way to one of the most desired food spots in all of Thailand, or so we thought. Exiting the Old District of Bangkok felt like a big breach of comfort, gone were the luxuries of a tourist area, English speakers disappeared, and the index finger became the only recognizable form of translation.
My compatriots sat in the car discussing what kind of crazy food that they would indulge in, my mind slipped and I was in my own world for a couple minutes. Transporting myself to the most romanticized food market there never was, foreign languages being hurled across the common place for the cheapest value on a foreign meat with an intoxicating aroma. Ducks hanging from the rafters of food tents of vendors like their own personal duck gallows, and a curious smell of some unknown spice wafting through the air. Wiping the drool from my mouth I came to, only to find that what feels like a millennia had passed by and yet no forward progression was made in the cab. An hour later through the nightmarish rush hour and we had reached our ‘destination.’ Though a quick examination of the surrounding area made clear that there was no food market in sight. As an optimistic group of wanderers, by only following out guts and our noses we navigated through the streets to find the market that was never there. Miles of searching (and looking completely lost) there was no stall in sight to be seen and the looming hunger set in between our group. My perfect idea of a food market seemed to slip in to the abyss and disappear, and the sun began to set on Bangkok. We were cowboys in an unknown desert searching for any sort of oasis (or at least a McDonalds).
However, spotted up to the left hand side, to the right of a 7/11 gas station, an outdoor restaurant. It may not have been a food market or even remotely close, but we would have to settle given our diminishing hunger. Our group scouted around the outskirts of the eating area looking for a opening in the seat, much like middle school boys at their first dance eager to boogie down with their first crush and having no notion of what to do. Eventually we took our seats, a Thai woman appeared out of thin air before us with a smile obviously knowing we didn’t speak language at all. Quivering, questioning how we would order out food she asked, “Coke?” we nodded. That was quickly was followed by another question, “Chicken?” she asked and we nodded once more as if we were put under some kind of spell. Relief washed over us like a rushing tide, as we knew our rumbling stomachs were soon to be satisfied. I took in my surroundings, the sights, and the smells, to my left the local 7/11 with people pouring in and out, filling up their mopeds and grabbing a quick convenience store bite. To my right I saw the entirety of the kitchen pushing out a sort of fried rice for each hungry customer. A slight tinge of gasoline floated through the air as we waited patiently in the classic red plastic chairs. (The ones you’d sit at for kid’s table on the fourth of July). With our knees pressed firmly into our stomachs, I thought to myself how this was the epitome of a place my travel doc had warned me to stay clear of. I had no doubt in my mind that it’d be completely worth it, and I was at the mercy of my own hunger now. The feast made a timely arrival at our table, steam danced quickly behind the plates showing how fast the food had come out of the wok. Quickly digging in, my taste buds were assaulted with a vast array of flavors, savory, sweet, and heat all entered my mouth within one shovel of the fork. “It’s just fried rice,” I thought as a swallowed another huge bite, chasing it with the classic taste of Coca Cola, everything about the dish I was eating was accented and complimented to perfection. We never reached the food market, but what we had on that street corner was not of this world; it was if god himself was cooking on the wok that very night. This hidden gem would disappear into the black night of Bangkok and live on through stories and tales passed down for generations.
What makes great food truly wonderful is the people cooking from their hearts with the purpose to feed, to fill that basic requirement to stay alive. Not to impress their guests with the finest foods in the land or to show off the fancy award. That’s what took me back home while eating, the raw desire of being nourished rather than being impressed with what I was eating. Without a doubt I would take a meal like previously mentioned over a Michelin star rated bullshit any day.