I’m pretty sure when “normal” people are asked about the best meals of their lives, they’re usually going to talk about fancy restaurants in big cities, celebrity chefs, exceptional, knowledgeable and courteous service, caviar and truffles and expensive wine, maybe even a beautiful view of some gorgeous beach landscape. If you ask me, the first I’ll probably think of will be a dodgy looking, street-side vendor, under a motor-way overpass, on the back streets of Bangkok. If you haven’t worked it out yet, I’m not “normal.”
We were in Thailand in January2014, while the city was in the midst of the “Shutdown Bangkok” political movement. It wasn’t ideal. A lot of the markets and street food vendors I’d remembered so fondly from a previous visit were either not operating, or doing much shorter hours than usual. The protestors were peaceful, and as such, really didn’t hinder our movements around the city. On our last night in Bangkok, we set out for one of the night markets I’d visited last time I was there, and after a few wrong turns, we finally found it. Only to discover that perhaps a scant 10% of the regular vendors were operating. And no street food to be seen.
We decided to keep walking until we found somewhere that looked good for dinner; we’d never forgive ourselves if our last meal in Thailand was a Thai-by-numbers, made-for-tourists event. Inevitably, because our Thai isn’t too crash hot and I did my best navigating a Thai map with Thai street names, wrong turns were taken and we just kept walking in the general direction of our hotel. We ended up on what seemed to be much quieter streets without really realising how we got there, but we just kept walking. Until we found this place. It was PACKED. I vividly remember an older lady sitting in the gutter, washing out dishes by hand, and pouring the dirty water from the buckets down the street before re-filling them from the hose that lay next to her.
We took a seat on the squat plastic stools, and were handed two plastic menus. We ordered a bit of everything; papaya salad, stir fried greens in oyster sauce, pork fried rice and BBQ beef.
There we were: on the side of a dark street in Bangkok, late at night. There were women manning enormous woks over my left shoulder, with bright orange flames licking the sides. A few plastic menus, sticky with various sauces, being passed around and shared. Locals and a few other travellers sharing the space and enjoying their meals. And this little lady, sitting in the gutter, just kept on robotically cleaning the dishes.
The food was good. Amazing, actually. I’ve been to restaurants where I haven’t eaten beef than tender and well cooked. How they managed to get that much flavour into vegetables with oyster sauce is beyond me. The food was delicious. But good food clearly isn’t the only thing to consider when thinking about your best ever meals.