Since early 2015, Noey and Peter of Instagram’s Vietnomnom have explored the very best of Vietnam’s food, and wandered to neighboring countries for tasty fare further afield. In a series documenting the very best eats in the region, we teamed up with them for Asian Food Adventures to discover the top dishes and treats in our destinations – all with the help of their yummy Instagram food feed!
Growing up in San Francisco, I ate a lot of Chinese food. In fact, prior to my current full-fledged Asian Food Adventures, I’d say more than 75 percent of my “Asian American Food Adventures” fell under the Chinese category. We’d go out for dim sum for Sunday brunches; we’d venture to a white tablecloth spot in Chinatown when we had visitors; and we’d go to our favorite seafood spot in the Outer Sunset (the Western-most area of San Francisco) at least once a month for a Chinese feast of epic lobster-rific (get it?) proportions.
Needless to say, when we set out from our Bangkok hotel in the early morning, I was not expecting our journey to hit so close to home. From Chinese shops and street signs to traditional Chinese dishes and drinks, by the morning’s end I felt as though I’d taken a trip down memory lane. Of course, lest we forget the fact that we were in Bangkok – I assure you that the Chinatown food tour was as eye-opening as it was nostalgic.
Our tour through Bangkok’s Chinatown was a feast for eyes and stomachs alike. For the purpose of my journalistic duties, though, I will focus on the stomach (and, of course, the taste buds). One of the most incredible things about food is its ability to bring people together, whether through shared dining experiences, recipes passed along through generations, or (simply) memories. As I ate my way through Bangkok’s Chinatown, I felt all of the feels. Not only did I feel connected to the food memories of my childhood (as I mentioned before) but I felt immense joy seeing how a group of proud immigrants can uphold their flavor traditions—and in a city bursting with flavour!
On our way to the first stop, we paused so the photographer-on-duty could take a picture, and I took a deep breath. The smoky, sweet aroma of meat sizzling on the grill bombarded my senses, and I followed my nose to a small stand teetering on the edge of the narrow sidewalk. Even though we were about to indulge in a not-so-light breakfast (we’d been warned), I knew I had to have a bite of whatever grilled animal was emanating this smell. Luckily for me, it was pork, and our tour guide bought me a skewer – and since the pork had been marinated in milk before grilling, and it was worth every last calorie.
We trotted along through the sleepy morning streets, following our guide through a maze of alleyways to our next destination. We had to get there quickly, as the place we were headed tends to serve its last bowls of food by 8:30am. Luckily, we arrived to find the couple still at work, ladling a thick, steaming white porridge into large bowls, one ladle-full at a time.
The porridge is called congee, and after one bite I’m certain it’s my new favorite breakfast food. It’s served plain and simple: porridge, pork meatballs submerged beneath the bubbling surface, and a single egg, yolk contained. However, as with anything in Thailand, it’s meant to be consumed dressed up with layers of flavour: fish sauce, soy sauce, and an explosion of fiery red peppers. We adorn our bowls with a proper coat of spice and salt, and stir, stir, stir, bursting the soft yolk open to swirl the fatty flavour into the thick broth. Congee seasoned, it’s time to eat, and we hunch over our bowls, lapping up every last bite of juicy pork meatballs and thick, salty, eggy, spicy, comforting porridge.
Onward we eat, visiting Chinatown landmarks along our sweet and savoury route. A spicy papaya salad before touring Wat Traimit here, an assortment of Chinese pastries outside a hole-in-the-wall pagoda there. The tour is culturally and gastronomically satiating.
We find ourselves on a street with a strong floral smell. A mix of herbs wafting out of shops mingles in the air above the sidewalks, hitting us hard in the noses with a calming, yet dizzying, aroma. We are on the Chinese medicine street, where shop after shop hawks an assortment of ancient and modern eastern remedies. A winding tour through the street’s best shops leaves us with: a bottle of mysterious pills alleged to cure allergies and other sinus-related ailments; bags of loose leaf jasmine and oolong tea; and a potpourri of assorted herbs to treat stomach woes.
As one of the oldest areas of Bangkok, Chinatown is famous for its blend of cultures. From Indian to Chinese to Thai influences, the flavours, colours, and people throughout this neighbourhood are a great representation of Bangkok’s diversity. Fittingly, our tour ended at a little pad thai stand at the corner of a bustling market street and the lively Yaowarat Road. I know what you’re thinking. Pad thai? Doesn’t the very name render that a distinctly Thai dish? In fact, pad thai is believed to have Chinese origins, based on traditional Chinese noodle dishes.
And we just happened to eat some of the best pad Thai in Bangkok.
Our tummies and bags are full and our faces are sore from smiling. Every shop owner, dumpling seller, tuk tuk driver and street food griller that we passed greeted us with a glowing grin, and we couldn’t not smile after every delicious bite savoured over the past few hours. There’s a reason Thailand is known as the Land of Smiles, and there’s a reason people travel to Bangkok’s Chinatown for the food. I know I’ll be back!