Samui Wining & Dining
Snack Time

The Thai version of fast food is anything but junk!

 

Page-22So many things are different over here. At first, it seems like just one more sunshine holiday. Then you begin to notice the prices – everything’s just so much cheaper. Back home even that little Thai restaurant on your high street will cost you four-times more. Plus the fact that everything’s done out in the open here. The weather is so mild (okay – hot, then!) that houses have open fronts and restaurants have no walls. There are many other things to discover; but let’s stay with the idea of that last one . . .

      The approach to meals and eating is quite different here, too, as is the more-healthy general Thai diet. For a start, Thais usually eat in a group. Well, yes, that’s the same idea as our family sit-down meals. But we don’t usually also do the equivalent of a small meal every few hours or so! Away from their family, a Thai person will get the urge for a top-up – a substantial snack of some kind – several times (often more) during a working day. And this goes hand-in-hand with the way the little restaurants, stalls and food markets operate.

      For a start, very few of these local eateries offer alcohol; the licences needed are an unnecessary extra expense. Thus they don’t rely on an income from this. And this means you’ll discover two excellent ‘norms’ that you won’t find back home. First, it’s completely acceptable to bring-in alcohol from outside . . . as long as your restaurant doesn’t sell it, that is (but if they do, then to do this is the height of rudeness and bad manners). And the second is that every place expects a high percentage of their customers to come in only for a take-away. In Europe this is frowned upon as being somehow ‘down market’, plus the restaurant won’t get any profits from drinks sales, or tips. But then, Thai people don’t often tip anyway (and are constantly puzzled about this ‘free money’ the ‘farangs’ like to give away). Also, in Europe, workers can’t pop out for a takeaway mini-meal whenever they get peckish – yet more cultural differences!

      Over the years, I’ve met more than a few visitors to the island who’ve been wary about eating ‘street food’. It’s the same kind of preoccupation that some people get about being bitten by cobras or getting malaria. Like ‘avoid ice in your drinks’ or ‘tap water is bad for you’. At least the last one is right, but the others are, at best, urban legends, and at worst better left to the gossipers who still mistrust all things foreign. The local Thai population hasn’t evolved a special genetic constitution that somehow renders them immune to botulism or amoebic dysentery! And, believe me; they are at least as fussy as you are when it comes to eating wholesome food that’s been cleanly and carefully prepared.

     In every major area of the island you’ll come across one or more spots where everything so far outlined all comes together in one place. You’re out in the open, there’s a huge choice of different food stalls, it’s constantly busy, the offerings vary from beer and spirits to sweet pancakes and, in the evenings, entire families will all turn up to eat together. These cultural food phenomena are known as ‘food-markets’; the most popular, and best located, of which is in Nathon.

       It’s in the huge car park between the two ferry piers, right on the edge of the sea, and it only happens in the evening, just as the sun begins to sink into the sea, right in front of you. There must be a hundred stalls here (although a number of them are selling similar items) with nests of garden-style tables and chairs grouped in the centre between them. The best thing about this carefree style of eating-out is that, even though you might be sitting at a table which quite obviously belongs to the nearby BBQ chicken stall, the owner will be quite happy for you to trot off and buy other goodies elsewhere, then come back to sit and eat – this being in addition to having some of what he’s offering, naturally. And if you want a beer, he’ll probably send off one of his staff to collect it for you.

         But that’s only part of the story. As you go out and about, keep an eye open for the travelling food vendors with their motorbikes and sidecarts. They ply a steady trade, moving around the houses, shops and business, on the main roads and up the side streets, catering exclusively (with anything from iced cut fruit to steel pots of curries and soups) to those hundreds of hungry folks in dire need of just one more quick bowl of nibbles!

         And then there are the ubiquitous noodle stalls, the story of which would warrant (and, indeed, has already had) an entire article all to themselves. This is yet another delightful cultural quirk: as evening begins to fall and the banks and stores close up for the day, so trailers and trucks appear and pitch their culinary camps on forecourts and in car parks everywhere – but always on a main road, in view of passing traffic. Indeed, this is such a popular genre that many stalls have found permanent locations. Plastic stools and tables appear and gas burners are lit. Not so long ago you just had to point and smile and hope for the best, But nowadays just about every such stall has someone who can speak English. Go for thick or thin noodles - the white or yellow. Ask for chicken, pork, sometimes beef. And insist on the complimentary plate of raw, green vegetables that all the Thais expect. Then sit back and marvel at the speed and expertise with which the cook puts everything together for each new customer.

         Fast food? Well the American chains are growing in popularity but, in terms of nourishment and flavour, there’s nothing to compare with the way it’s always been, here in Thailand – whenever and wherever anyone fancies a snack!

         

Rob De Wet


 


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