To begin to understand the Bangkok food scene, we need to first go over the fundamentals of Thai cuisine and the unique relationship between locals and their food.
First off? It is not about simplicity.
In fact, Thai dishes incorporate a minimum of three out of the five fundamental taste senses: bitter, sour, salty, sweet, and umami.
The delicate balance of successfully mixing such different taste profiles into one dish or meal is what makes Thai cuisine shine.
Another factor that makes the Thai food scene unique?
Sum rap Thai, the term used to describe the way Thais eat.
That is, locals not only pay close attention to the flavors of a dish, but also its appearance, aroma, and the way it complements every other part of the meal.
This complete experience, combining a strong attention to detail, flavor, texture, color, and even medicinal benefits of the ingredients make eating in Thailand unforgettably exciting.
Naturally, there’s no better place to get a glimpse of it than at its capital, Bangkok.
From back alley kitchens to tuk-tuk caravans, below are my first-hand rendezvous recommendations and dishes to try on your first dive into Bangkok’s food scene.
The roots of Thai cuisine in Chinatown
Did you know that several of the most celebrated Thai dishes are spin-offs of Chinese food?
Moreover, well-known cooking techniques such as stir-frying, deep-frying, and wok usage were introduced by Chinese immigrants, mainly Hokkien and Teochew, starting on the 15th century.
I was introduced to the very roots of Thai cuisine in Chinatown by Taste of Thailand at night. Yaowarat Street lights up with life after the sun sets, a drastic contrast from its daylight flow.
In fact, it was nearly unrecognizable to me, as most food vendors don’t open shop until late night!
Some treats you must try:
- Chinese donuts (yau char kuai)
- Fish ball soup (yen ta fo)
- Thai coconut noodle dessert (lod chong)
- Pork belly and offal noodle soup (kuay jab nam sai)
- Chinese dumplings (dim sum, of course)
Cheapest street food showdown at Sukhumvit Soi 38
Arguably, the cheapest street food in Thailand is found at Sukhumvit Soi 38. The food market at this Bangkok district is famous for its variety and convenience.
Most of the action starts around 6:30 p.m., slowly evolving throughout the night–with a few stalls open until sunrise.
Think of stuffing your face for 150 baht (about $4.20) or less. WHAT?
- Burmese-influenced, crispy egg noodle curry soup (khao soi)
- Fresh fruit smoothies
- Barbecued red pork and rice (khao moo daeng)
- Rice stir fried with shrimp paste, with sides such as Chinese sausage and sweet pork (khao kluk kapi)
- Thai coconut ice cream
Foodie crawl by tuk-tuk
Imagine a caravan of tuk-tuks, scouring the most incredible night eats around the city?! By taking a midnight food tour by tuk-tuk–that actually started at 8 p.m., I saw how many of the city’s stalls slowly spring to life.
This was, hands-down, my most memorable experience exploring the Bangkok food scene for the first time.
I discovered mouth-watering bites on back alley kitchens; shopped local night markets; had a few drinks at a secret bar with stunning views of one of Bangkok’s landmarks; and even visited a popular temple, in solitude, at 11 p.m.
It wasn’t just a foodie outing: it was a well-rounded cultural experience. Worthy dishes though?
- Sweeter version of Isaan’s green papaya salad (som tum)
- Sticky rice with mango (khao neeo mamuang)
- Coconut crêpe taco (khanom bueang)
- Egg-wrapped phat thai (phat thai hor khai)
Four types of regional cuisine in historic Bang Rak
While many argue the Bangkok food scene is best enjoyed at night, some hidden gems can be explored in broad daylight.
Bang Rak, meaning “Village of Love” in Thai, is a historic, authentic neighborhood hiding some of the roots of Thailand's Royal cuisine.
Well, in that neighborhood lies an eatery where you can sample dishes cooked by direct descendants of the royal family!
Moreover, this area is a local melting pot where you can have unadulterated dishes from all the main Thai regions:
- Central Plains (around Bangkok's Delta)
- North (around Chiang Mai)
- Northeast (Isaan plateau)
- South (on the Malay Peninsula)
Some must-try dishes in Bang Rak?
- Spicy, fermented fish innards curry (kaeng tai pla)
- Green curry (gaeng kiaw wan)
- Rice soaked in jasmine-scented water (khao chae)
- Gaeng massaman + braised beef + stir-fried crab with curry powder + pan-fried fish + mushroom salad + chili paste with fresh veggies + sago and black beans, a true royal set (sum-rub)
What's your favorite Bangkok food scene spot?
Special thanks to Taste of Thailand and Bangkok Food Tours for introducing me to the vast, exciting Bangkok food scene free of charge. All opinions, dish selections, and rendezvous mentioned on this article are my honest opinion, though. These are, truly, my personal favorites!
Maria Alexandra Laborde is a serial expat, having lived and traveled extensively throughout 6 different countries and territories, including over 18 years in Latin America.
Also, Maria is the author of LatinAbroad, where she shares cultural experiences and advice after living in and traveling to over 30 countries across 5 continents. Follow her on Facebook, Google+, Instagram and Pinterest