DURING (more than) three years in South East Asia I ate considerably more than my own body weight in street food. I’d say it was more like the body weight of a small herd of the region’s favourite animal, the elephant. That is, an awful lot of street food.
Khao pad jai (veggie fried rice) at a rickety table in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where I kept my feet on the stretcher of the chair just in case a rat ran under while I was eating. Iced coffee served in a little plastic bag in Neuk Long, Cambodia, after I had witnessed two small boys tow a block of ice not much smaller than them across a dusty road (it might not have been used in the coffee, but who knows?). Pickled tea (far, far more delicious than it sounds), in Mandalay, Burma/Myanmar, where four decades of being closed off from the outside world had left people so unaware of developments in public health that it was OK to display raw meat, unrefrigerated and uncovered, in direct sun in the market, and use an old tin can, held in an unwashed, bare hand, to scoop it into a bag for a customer.
Those are just some examples of the vast quantities of street food I ate during those years, often in conditions that would give your average public health inspector in England a heart attack. Unlikely though it may sound, however, I was ‘ill’ just once – in Cambodia, and then I reckon it was down more to sunstroke or heat exhaustion than food poisoning.
So, as you can imagine, I was – excuse the pun – gutted to read this weekend, in the UK Daily Telegraph, that the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA) is to ban street food from Bangkok before the end of this year. The BMA (possibly) does have a point – even if the food (in my estimation) is usually safe, the little tables and chairs that clutter the pavements probably are a danger to passing pedestrians, especially drunk and/or stoned falang staggering by slumped over their bar girl/s of choice.
But those lively street food cafes are also part of the joy of a visit to Bangkok, and when they go, a fair amount of that joy will be lost with them. I read today in the Bangkok Post that the BMA has relented a little and will allow street food stalls to remain in the bits of the city most popular with tourists.
Good news, I suppose, if you’re happy staying in touristy areas (and can cope with what will probably become a ‘Disneyfied version’ of street food), but if you venture further afield and feel a bit peckish? Well, I guess Ronald McDonald will find time for you. But don’t expect him to dish up anything like as much fun as a street food vendor would.