Street Food in Thailand: Neat Treats and Sustainability

  • Heather Rath
  • 12 May 2014

Grasshoppers, crickets, assorted insects – down the hatch! Although it’s easy to dismiss Patong, as a tourist haven, you just can’t dismiss the exceptional street food in Thailand. To eat or not eat: that is the question.

Patong night market of Phuket, Thailand

Grilled crabs are snapped up quickly at the Patong night market of Phuket, Thailand. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

It is a tribute to the resourceful people of Thailand, or perhaps to the greed of developers, that there is no trace of the devastation wrought here by the powerful tsunami of 10 years ago. The busy collection of restaurants, shops, markets and malls makes it difficult to imagine that this destination was destroyed and thousands of lives were lost.

So here we are at Malin Plaza, one of the many street night markets on the island of Phuket, searching for our dinner in an area that suffered so much loss. The Thai folks we met are resourceful and hard working. Could I, a soft and spoiled foreigner, toil long backbreaking hours in insufferable heat for low to modest returns like those who work this market each day?

street vendor, Bangla Road, Patong, Phuket, Thailand

Street food in Patong, Phuket, Thailand, is delicious and varied. This is only one stall on the infamous Bangla Road, at the heart of Patong’s entertainment district. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

Each morning at 11 a.m., the hawkers begin their daily stall setup. This is easily the start of the hottest part of the day (more than 35° C), when tourists are wilting, hiding from the brutal afternoon sun. Not these hardy entrepreneurs who then labor until almost midnight. Electric cables, portable tables, protective canvas flies, woks, blenders, kitchen paraphernalia, small stoves, burners, pots of hot bubbling recycled fat, pre-cut and neatly stacked veggies – all are part of the regular ritual.

Lying in straight lines on quickly melting ice, fresh whole fish, crabs, lobster and shrimp are grilled and then carefully laid out alongside skewers of chicken, pork, beef and crocodile… and those divine fried insects.

Fried insect at the night market of Phuket, Thailand

Nothing hits the spot like a crunchy fried insect from one of the most popular stalls of the night market in Phuket, Thailand. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

Culinary Culture Clash and Environmental Concerns

With the enjoyment of exotic culinary delights, however, comes environmental responsibility. When West meets East, when travellers from developed countries meet street hawkers from developing countries, there is a clash of cultures and, along with it, questions about environmental sustainability.

Take shrimp for instance. Here we are looking over the local street stalls at the amazing array of skewered shrimp. (We haven’t yet considered tempting seafood like shark, octopus, crabs or oysters.) As consumers in Canada, we do not purchase shrimp from Thailand. Reports in December 2013 claim the shrimp industry in Thailand (and Mexico) has been suffering from Early Mortality Syndrome (EMS), a bacterial infection that shuts down the crustacean’s digestive system. In Thailand, about 40 percent of the industry’s annual yield is expected to be affected.

Seafood offerings in Patong, Phuket, Thailand

Shrimp, lobster, shark and more are among the seafood offerings in Patong’s night market of Phuket, Thailand. There is concern these favourites are not sustainably harvested. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

Of course, shrimp is succulent, sweet, tasty, healthy and popular. So demand for these delicious little creatures is high. Raising them in large quantities in a sustainably responsible manner, however, means a sizable investment and commitment. So if I care about seafood sustainability, I must ignore those skewers of real grilled shrimp just waiting to be devoured.

Fortunately, what we initially mistook for shrimp were, in fact, faux shrimp – pre-formed pieces of white-fleshed fish coloured pink-orange and shaped in a shrimp mould. No telltale black intestinal cord, no shell, no head… and cheaper than the real counterpart. Most street market customers thought these fakes were the real critter until the first bite. Considering the state of the shrimp industry in Thailand, perhaps it’s just as well. Of course, the Russian tourist beside me is buying four skewers of the genuine shrimp. It makes no difference to the hawker, though; he just wants to make a sale and feed his family, so he is happy.

Crocodile meat in Patong's night markets of Phuket, Thailand

Readily available in Patong’s night markets of Phuket, Thailand, is white crocodile meat, touted to be low in fat and cholesterol, but high in protein. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

We also resisted the temptation to taste crocodile. We do not hear happy stories about the various croc farms in Thailand and have no desire to visit one. Croc white meat is supposedly tasty and higher in protein than chicken or pork. It is regularly available at the night market.

Pop-up Bars

After considering the pros and cons of eating real shrimp – and resisting the urge – we wander over to the bar to slake our thirst.

Experienced “free pour” bartenders concoct strong cocktails (for about US$3) and serve beer (about US$2) on the perimeter of the market at cheap prices. They perform their mixing skills standing inside Volkswagon campers cleverly converted to on-site pop-up bars.

Volkswagen bar at night markets of Phuket, Thailand

Each evening this hollowed-out Volkswagen camper opens its top and converts to a popular bar serving exotic cocktails at one of the many night markets in Phuket, Thailand. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

Discouraging food-only customers, the tee-shirts on the young bar girls read “No drink. No eat”. If you carry food from the nearby hawkers and are willing to buy an accompanying drink, then you are welcomed with the familiar Thai greeting sawadee ka/krab, hand palms pressed together in prayer-like fashion and a slight bow. If not a paying customer, you are politely invited to leave.

Eating Insects – the Food of the Future

The market’s largest crowds can be found gathered around the fried-insect stall. So popular is this stand that there is a sign in English stating photos can only be taken if you purchase a crunchy little morsels. Crickets are caught in the wild, while grasshoppers and silkworms are raised on insect farms in northeast Thailand.

Fried insects at night market of Phuket, Thailand

At the night market of Phuket, Thailand, a gourmet selection of fried insects awaits: crickets, grasshoppers, silkworms, beetles and other unidentifiable varmints, waiting to be crunched. Photo courtesy Heather Rath

However, when considering eating fried insects, we face the question of sustainability. With insects, the outlook is more positive than seafood. Poor families in northern Thailand can raise them, or catch them in the wild, as a means of earning a livelihood. It is mostly folks in the European and western world who shudder at the thought of devouring a bug. But experts declare that this is the food of the future. Insects are nutritious, some more than others, and contain high fat, protein, vitamins, fibre and minerals. And they are sustainable!

During our three-month stay, we found the Thai people highly sustainable. But could we eat there? Despite our moral dilemmas, we found more than enough street food to be sustainably filling and responsibly delicious.

For more about local food around the world, read:
* Articles about Food and Drink on The Travel Word
* Local Food: A Culinary World Tour
* Top Five Picks for Mouthwatering Street Food
* Savour the Taste of Thailand with Bangkok Food Tours
* Epicureans Rejoice! A Celebration of Food and Drink Festivals from Around the World
* World Food Day and Local Food: A Search for Solutions

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Heather Rath

Since winning a writing contest at the age of 11, Heather Rath knew writing would be a major part of her life. When she grew up, she was sequentially a reporter, editor of a weekly newspaper and a monthly business magazine before becoming head of communications for a multi-national company. During this time she edited and contributed to two anthologies of southwestern Ontario writers. Her writing has been published over the years in various publications and some of her work for children has been translated into Braille. She is a member of CANSCAIP (Canadian Society of Children's Authors, Illustrators & Performers). Heather and her husband, Norm, live in Burlington, Ontario, Canada. Their passion is travel.
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Asia, food & drink, markets, opinion, personal experience, South-Eastern Asia, Thailand, whl.travel,

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