Eating my way through Yaowarat, Bangkok’s Chinatown

Bangkok, Thailand – February 2019

It was the last day of the conference I was attending in Bangkok, and I found myself looking for something to do for a few hours. After scrolling through a few sites online, I zeroed in on a guided tour showcasing the street food of Yaowarat, the city’s Chinatown.

Having already spent three days in Bangkok I had already had ample opportunities to consume all the usual Thai classics (the ones everyone thinks of: pad thai, som tam, tom yum, etc). This tour promised something a little off the culinary beaten track. And the guide was a chef! Done, I thought, clicking the book button.

The more I travel, the more enthusiastic I am about trying local food. I have never been a particularly fussy eater to begin with (with a couple of exceptions), but the fact is that over the years the more local cuisines I’ve tried, the wider my palate has become. So I’m always up for a food adventure, all the more so when I’m in another country (even in the face of possible digestive misadventure).

Good food is often shouted about in travel guides and websites; popular spots are popular for a reason. But there is also terrific authentic fare to be found away from the usual tourist circuits, often well-known to locals but perhaps not so readily known to everyone else. It’s easy to find amazing restaurants in a city like Bangkok (with a national cuisine that is probably one of the most popular around the globe), but I was hoping to try something different this time. The chef’s tour promised a little light education delivered with some entertainment (edutainment?), as well as a decent feed.

For those visiting Thailand, eating in Chinatown might not be the first thing that springs to mind when it comes to planning an itinerary. But hear me out. Over many centuries of immigration, Chinese influence has permeated throughout Thai culture; naturally, this goes for Thai cuisine too. The Chinese community in Bangkok has traded on Yaowarat Road, the main thoroughfare in the Chinatown district, for 200 years. Chinese immigrants and their descendents were resettled in the Yaowarat area to make way for the Grand Palace, Wat Phra Kaew, when Rama I (the first monarch of the currently reigning Chakri dynasty) moved the capital of Siam to Rattanakosin, now called Bangkok. Since then, Yaowarat Road has been famous for food, and after dark it turns into a paradise of street food stalls. Many consider it to be the birthplace of street food in Bangkok.

Bangkok’s street food scene has long been legendary, and a vital part of the city’s culture. And yet it was all in danger of forced extinction several years ago when Bangkok city officials threatened a strict crackdown on street stalls for “order and hygiene reasons”. This was foreseeably met with anguished cries of protest from local citizens and tourists alike facing the bitter loss of cheap deliciousness. Fortunately for all of us the authorities saw the grave error of their ways and within weeks had reversed the ridiculous, draconian decision. Contented sighs of relief were heard all around; today, we remain ever blessed with the tasty delights hawked by these decades-old food carts.

My stomach was already starting to growl as the moderators wrapped up the final session of the conference, and it only got worse as I made my way to the meeting point on Yaowarat Road. The website had advised all to come with any empty stomach. Mine was on the verge of autodigestion.

The tour started punctually on the hour. After some quick introductions, we were on our way. We walked past a makeshift street-side beauty salon, where ladies were having their eyebrows threaded in full view of passing foot traffic. I was tempted to get mine done, but there was food to be eaten.

Our first proper dish was a flat rice noodle affair (like what Malaysians would call kueh teow) topped with pork which had been braised for hours. The sauce was delicious (I feel compelled to just warn you now, I am probably going to run out of synonyms for ‘tasty’ very quickly and you’re just going to have to deal with it).

The lady making the noodles was ancient. She could definitely have been around when Rama I relocated the Chinese to Yaowarat two centuries ago. Long may she continue noodle-making. As a general observation, a lot of the vendors manning the hawker stalls were elderly. Or they appeared quite elderly anyway, which probably meant they were prehistoric. Because Asians don’t age. (Yes, I can say that. Yellow don’t mellow. It’s not racist, it’s an observation. Well, perhaps ‘yellow’ raises a few suspicious connotations, historically speaking, but… never mind.)

At another street-side stall on a particularly busy stretch of road, we stopped to enjoy some pan-fried parcels filled with Chinese green chives and served with a nam jim dipping sauce. I thought they would be very oily but actually they didn’t taste greasy at all. Not particularly strong in flavour, but quite a good snack option, unless of course you don’t like chives.

Waiting for us right next door was a platter of chicken skewers marinated in coconut milk and hot off the grill, served with a beautiful peanut sauce. Yes, I’m talking about satay. Oh, satay. Light of my life, fire of my loins. South East Asia’s fabulous gift to the world. This chicken was so tender and succulent, with that hint of smokiness coming from the chargrill. Definitely a winner, and probably one of my favourite things on the tour. Ok, I know, decidedly not “off-the-beaten-track” as far as Thai food goes but hey, it’s satay. You cannot have too much satay, it’s not possible. Unsurprisingly, these didn’t last long. For those in the know, the stall was playing a video of Mark Wiens of Youtube Food Video fame, eating their satay on infinite loop. I guess that’s how you know you’ve made it.

Sated for the time being (see what I did there), we were then led down a number of lanes and alleyways through the oldest parts of the Chinatown district and our guide told us a little about the area’s history. People were carting sacks of rice and boxes of produce up and down the narrow streets, forcing us to squeeze around them to avoid being squashed or trampled. Everywhere we looked, it was a hive of activity.

One long laneway was lined with stores devoted to selling paper versions of material possessions, intended for burning as offerings to the dead. Joss papercrafts are commonly used in Chinese ancestral worship, but in this day and age, one is no longer simply limited to paper “ghost money” from “Hell’s Bank” (these are the actual translated terms). Think paper iPhones, paper Rolex watches, paper Air Jordans, and you’ll have some idea of what the afterlife might possibly look like – at least for those fortunate enough to leave behind generous living relatives.

Anyone who has been to Bangkok will recall the experience of traffic – endless, dizzying, deafening traffic. The chaos of the roads can be headache-inducing. Cars everywhere. Motorbikes slipping between other vehicles by a hand’s breadth. I suppose this is no different to any number of Asian capitals, but it’s still something that takes getting used to (for an Aussie).

But I guess tuktuks are kind of fun.

We were next taken to a roadside curry stall. This place is really popular and highly regarded, having been featured in several food documentaries and numerous blogs/vlogs (including our previously mentioned friend’s Youtube channel). They’ve been serving their curry on rice (khao gaeng) in this exact same spot for decades. This was one place I actually had heard about, and I was quite excited to try it. I always have time (and space) for curry. Happily for us, our guide skipped the long line of customers waiting to order (no table service here) and we got our chicken green curry on arrival. As I sat perched on a bright red plastic stool situated worryingly close to the traffic, delightedly spooning mouthfuls of curry and rice off the plate balanced in my lap (forget table service, no tables either), it occurred to me that this right here was one of those “real Bangkok experiences” (yes, I know that sounds corny, but it’s my blog and I’ll write what I want).

Anyway, it was really good. Quite spicy too. The right level of spice for me. I’d like to say I savoured it bite by bite like some sort of sophisticated gourmet but no, that’s not what happened. I can’t tell a lie. Real talk, I practically inhaled it straight down my food-hole. I would gladly have had another serve but a pace had to be kept and we were ushered onwards to our next stop.

Down a dark and dodgy alleyway not too far from the curry cart was an egg noodle shop called Ba Mee Jab Kang. We were deep in the backstreets now. There were some seriously questionable structures here (like, two-upright-sheets-of-corrugated-iron-with-a-tarp-draped-over-the-top kind of questionable). Well, no one comes for the ambience, I suppose.

This noodle stall caters to the community of nearby construction workers, and a few were present when we stopped by. I think the guide said these ba mee (yellow egg noodles) were called ‘labourer’s noodles’ (and I think jab kang means labourer – I don’t speak Thai, so if anyone does, please feel free to correct me). The portions were huge. Which would make a lot of sense if they were meant to feed hungry construction workers. The uncle who runs the stall is the fourth generation in his family to do so, and he was churning those puppies out like a machine. The egg noodles were springy and swam in a creamy pork broth reminiscent of tonkotsu ramen broth.

We came to a proper sit-down restaurant (with walls and tables and everything). This one was for the shellfish fans. Giant prawns were flame-grilled before our eyes. The flesh inside was so juicy and everyone made a mess eating them. There were lots of other seafood dishes, like crab, mussels, and fish, all cooked to order. A very, very busy spot, although it could have also been because it was coming up to dinner time. The stir-fried morning glory was extremely popular and very tasty too.

By the time we exited the restaurant it was starting to get dark and the street food atmosphere was coming alive outside. Like any respectable Asian market, there were many delicacies with varying degrees of appeal to the average unaccustomed punter. For example, in left to right order below, we had what appeared to be larvae of some sort, unquestionably frogs, and something perhaps related to cockroaches.

It’s all in the marinade, I’m sure.

It seems to me that all Asian cultures have some form of food on skewers and in many Asian countries these offerings often include the more… let’s say, exotic parts of animals. You know what I’m talking about: chitterlings, sweetbreads, intestines, and so on. This was certainly true in Bangkok. I tried some chicken hearts – not bad really – and the guide ripped off a short piece of intestine for me (I can’t remember which species it belonged to, but something small) which I didn’t particularly enjoy. But I still tried it! And that’s what counts. Maybe the real treasure was the intestines we ate along the way.

And then it was dessert time. Believe it or not, this popular Thai doughnut (donut?) stall has been featured in the Michelin guide. Having said that, street food in Thailand features heavily in the Michelin guide (e.g. the one-starred Jay Fai). We watched as the pa tong go were made fresh for us. The dough was deep-fried to a golden-brown, similar to the Chinese version (you tiao or yow ja gwai) that I’m used to eating, but the rich pandan coconut dipping custard elevated these to new levels of Asian pastry goodness. Crunchy on the outside, fluffy on the inside, and lathered in that delicious green goo. YUM.

I ate more of these than strictly necessary.

Finally, to end our food expedition, we were met by the emperor of Thai desserts. Mango sticky rice has become one of my favourite desserts since this trip, so much so that I have to order it if I see it anywhere on the menu, or else I feel unsatisfied for days. Just looking at this photo makes me hungry (and perhaps a little emotional). I was already predisposed to feel deep and great affection for this dessert as I’ve loved mangoes my whole life. (I think I had this sweet as a snack every single day that I was in Bangkok. Don’t judge me. I don’t judge you.)

On a street corner surrounded by honking tuktuks and bright signboards plastered with bold colourful Chinese characters, our guide announced that we had come to the end of our tour and gave us a few other local recommendations in case any of us were still hungry (none of us were). We parted ways with delicious memories and full bellies, and I personally vowed to come back to Yaowarat Road the next time I visited Bangkok (I mean I vowed silently, to myself, not aloud like a crazy person).

So there you have it: my Yaowarat experience. It was a fun few hours and very filling – I didn’t even describe everything we ate here, just the things I took photos of, since there were upwards of seventeen stops.

I absolutely loved Chinatown. It’s a hectic place, where Bangkok locals live and work and most importantly, eat. If you’re like me and you’d like to sample something a little different to the Thai takeaway staples you’d get back home, I can unreservedly recommend a visit to the Chinatown area if you’re ever in town. (Please note how I didn’t use the word ‘foodie’ even once. Just saying. Does anyone else find the word tacky? No? Just me? Ok.)

Plus, because I’m sure you’re dying to know, I did not get diarrhoea. Could there possibly be a better ending to this story?

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