I have to admit that when I first began visiting Thailand I steered clear of food from street cart vendors. Those wasted years I blame on the Chinese. My first visit to Asia was a pseudo-business trip to Hong Kong. We stayed in Kowloon where open-air meat markets are a common sight. And a common smell is the putridly rancid aroma of bloody carcases on display. I quickly learned to take a large, deep breath as soon as I saw one and then prayed I could manage to get well past the place before I needed oxygen again. That aroma permeated my consciousness, if not every block of the town, and the idea of eating anything that shared its setting didn’t sit well with me.
That food vendors in Hong Kong also seemed to have an abundance of still living creatures for you to pick from for a meal – especially since few were a species of animal I’d ever think to stick into my mouth – didn’t help matters. Besides, they have McDonalds in Hong Kong for a reason.
Several trips into my love affair with Thailand, we visited the Damnoen Saduak Floating Market and my issues with street cart food ended. My friend Ann, who is bigger on interacting with locals than I am, was captivated by the little old ladies paddling their dingy little dinghies along the river, most of whom were selling food of one sort or another. By now I think I’ve made it clear what my opinion of seafood is. And while a lot of what was on offer at the floating market was not fish, I just figured the safest bet was to label anything that came out of a boat as seafood. They have McDonalds in Thailand too, ya know?
But Ann had a history of giving me things to stick into my mouth (including an ex-boyfriend) and conspired with one of the boat hags, forcing me to try her wares in exchange for a photo op. Had I known then about the crazy old local woman on the bridge we encountered later that day, who’d flash her pussy for your camera lens at 20 baht a shot, I’d probably would have passed. But that’s hindsight for you. In any case, less exhibitionist inclined old woman in a boat managed to convey the idea that her treats were sweet, and being a fan of sugar, at 20 baht for three I gave them a try. Despite their neon color.
The rest is history. I now happily munch away on just about anything street cart food vendors sell (with the obvious exception of insects and the feet of any animal). Around breakfast time, one of my favorites is still those taco-looking treats that I first tried at the floating market. And if you are still trying to work up the balls to eat off the streets in Bangkok, they are the perfect culinary delight for your inaugural meal. They are called khanom buang, have been described by farang touri as looking like pancakes, crepes (and tacos), are available everywhere, and are really, really delicious. Even the version that counts as seafood.
Tooth-numbingly sweet, the gaudiest versions are made with a crispy rice flour dough as their base – cooked on a griddle – with the topping a dollop of coconut cream, or egg whites and sugar, and extruded duck egg yolks cooked in syrup (the neon yellow ones) or dyed, desiccated coconut (the neon orange ones). Eating either is kinda like mainlining sugar. So they are great with a steaming cup of strong black coffee (which is why you don’t find khanom buang at Starbucks).
There’s also a darker orange topping version of khanom buang made from a combination of minced shrimp, coconut meat, coriander, and black pepper, all mashed up with a mortar and pestle. But wait! There’s more! Stalls that specialize in khanom buang offer a variety of toppings, including raisins, sugared ginger strips, cilantro, green onions, sesame seeds, ground peanuts, garlic, and ground dried chilies. And just like at Burger King, you can have it your own way.
With a history that can be traced back over 600 years, khanom buang are meant as a dessert. But then since I usually have mango sticky rice for dessert I tend to consider the neon yellow ones as an appetizer, and the dark orange khanom buang – preferably loaded with onions and garlic with a heaping spoonful of chilies on top – as the main course. If I’m in the mood for Mexican food, I get a sprinkling of cilantro on top and call it a done deal.
Noom’s favorite khanom buang vendor is an old lady whose stall is at the Tha Chang market. She loads her’s up with shrimp to a point where the shrimp flavor overpowers the khanom buang’s traditional sweetness. So I’m not a fan. But she flirts shamelessly with Noom, and spends more time squeezing the muscles in his arms than cooking her food, so I guess that’s more than enough sweetness for him. And his ego. It doesn’t hurt that she always gives him an extra one for free either. Though I suspect that bit of generosity has a lot to do with the farang accompanying him paying for the meal at a ‘special’ price.
So if we are headed to the Grand Palace area, khanom buang are always on our agenda. When I spot a vendor elsewhere at different times of the day, Noom will chide me with, “Not luncht” or “Not dinner.” Which never seems to stop him from ordering a few for himself when I ignore his advice. I found khanom buang on the menu once at some hi-so restaurant we were dining at and ordered them, appropriately, for dessert.
They were bigger on presentation than on taste, though they still went well with my cup of expresso and Noom’s cup of sugar. They ranked pretty low on my “best khanom buang ever eaten” scale, but when Noom saw the two cost over 250 baht, he was quite pleased with them. Dining with Noom is often about feeding his ego too.
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