Although it was published in the 1990's, this book on Thai street food classics is still a gem. On first glance through I thought it would be too old to be of any use, like a long shelved Lonely Planet from the past that doesn't have any info on web addresses or where to get a SIM card.
I quickly realised that food doesn't change as quickly and so to read through this guide and find out what popular Thai street food dishes are all about (and discover a few new ones to seek out) keeps this book relevant for food hunting both here in Sydney where the Thai food is excellent as well as for overseas adventures.
The book was written via a field survey undertaken by a couple of university students in the early 1990s, in addition to other back-ups, interviews and researchers. It's a gentle reminder of what was needed before we were bombarded with blogs (guilt as charged), review sites and social media, with research done on the ground and prepared by enthusiasts.
We heartily concur with the aims of the writers, it could have been written as part of a B-Kyu manifesto:
'The aim of this book is to help the reader identify a particular hawker food regardless of where it is being sold. It is not to single out and claim that one particular stall is better than another since this is a matter of personal taste. We leave it to the reader to discover and discern.'
The illustrations in the book switch between these elegant watercolour like depictions of life in Thailand and cartoons that take the mickey out of locals and the hawkers, with some of tourists getting into some unfamiliar eating territory. It's fairly tongue in cheek and not intended to pick on those not in the know, instead it aims to encourage the recalcitrant eating adventurer.
Having drawings of every dish described gives it a field guide feel, the equivalent of a bird watching guidebook for the food nerd. It also means you aren't stuck with an absolute example of a dish in a photo, which allows for variation and substitution of ingredients. What is authentic is replaced instead with what to expect, we like it.
The book is comprehensive in its overview of Thai hawker food, with chapters on how to identify the hawker, how to figure out what is being sold, the basic condiments, tell-tale utensils and ingredients, preparation styles, tips to the table, stuck up hawkers and a run down on the take-away packet.
We sometimes get questions on eating on the street, and this paragraph sums it up nicely:
'One (mis)conception to hawkers' food is that most of them are unhygienic. This depends on one's outlook and sophistication but undeniably there is bound to be some litter on the floor, squeaky chairs, terrible display of chicken, heaps of unwashed plates and maybe uncovered condiment bottles.
Still, if millions of locals are happily gobbling down hawker fare daily, surely it would not be that clinically disastrous for a visitor to have a go, just for once, or more times?'
The pages that give you a ready reckoner of key dishes and their name in Thai script are winners. This one list should help you to point and order what you want from the glass cage filled with options. I'm keeping a copy of this page in my wallet next time we are in Thailand.
The food chapters are divided into a few key cooking types or preparation styles, including glass show-cases, over charcoal, steamed, quick fried, deep fried, ready cooked, ice cool and a 'special category' with boiled cockles, khanom jin, fruits and cakes. There's a picture, the name in English, romanised script, in Thai script and a brief description.
The section on condiments outlines how important they are to a meal:
'Condiments are as much part of the meal as is the food itself. Many foreigners miss out on this. Taken without condiments the food feels tasteless to the local tongue. If these toppings - soy sauce, dry chilli flakes, cut chillies in vinegar, sugar and sometimes ground peanuts - are not already on the table, the server will hunt these out for you.'
We recommend the bit by bit approach of adding condiments to a meal, and always do it. Taste first, add a little and taste again, especially chilli. If there are no condiments offered, ask.
The best pieces of advice are by Grandma near the back of the book including 'Durians and brandy don't mix' and 'msg will make you go bald quickly'. Good advice, grandma.
At the end of the book is a section on reflections of hawkers in the past and the future.
'Will the simple, individual hawker last? Or will he pass away like in advanced countries because of affluence, government control and changing attitudes?
In Thailand the hawker will probably last simply because some kinds of food are not found in restaurants or do-it-yourself packets in supermarkets. Or if they are, it is not the same.
What will increasingly happen is the switch to permanent and stationary sites in front of eating shops as sidewalks become atrociously overcrowded.'
Unfortunately, these things have come true and we've seen the decline of street food in Asian capitals as tastes, government controls and attitudes indeed change. This book reflects Thai food at a time that may now have already passed.
Thai Hawker Food (1993), text by Kenny Yee and Catherine Gordon, with illustrations by Sun Win. Published by Pranom Supavimolpun, Bangkok, Thailand.