In Thailand, snacking is a national pastime, and where it concerns food, convenience a virtual birthright. For a Thai person, it’s simply a given that there will be something tasty to eat close at hand. Step outside your door, office or school, morning, day or night, and you’re likely to bump into a cart selling fresh fruit, a vendor grilling skewers of satay, or a hawker selling sticky rice-based sweets—the type of traditional snacks that have made Thai cuisine so famous around the world.
Yet Thai food is, and has always been, adaptable and ever-changing, and Thai people themselves almost militantly anti-nostalgic. In the Thailand of today, snacks such as fruit and satay remain ubiquitous and beloved, but it’s no stretch to say that Thai people are increasingly drawn to the, well, less sophisticated—dishes that are more 7-Eleven than ancient push cart. Inspired by foreign cuisines, heavy on the processed ingredients, slathered in sweet sauces, embarrassingly cheap, and served almost exclusively in plastic bags, there’s an entire repertoire of light meals that have taken over the streets of Thailand in the last few decades. So with this in mind, here’s a crash course in Thai street snacks—the ones you’ll find most Thai people eating.
Forget what the guidebooks and food magazines have told you: hands down the most common street snack in Thailand today is the hot dog. Available on just about every corner in any town or city, in a variety of colors (I’ve seen everything from purple to—no joke—green) and prepared a variety of ways (deep-fried, grilled, microwaved, absentmindedly warmed in the sun), the one constant is nam jim kai, literally “chicken dipping sauce,” the syrupy, sweet, barely spicy chili-based gloop that seems to cross paths with just about every savory street snack in the country. Spear a chunk with your bamboo skewer, swirl it around in that sauce, shove it in your mouth, and you’re taking part in one of the most contemporary Thai culinary experiences possible.
In a confusing linguistic twist, what we in the US would refer to as shish kebab is in Thailand known as “barbeque” (or perhaps more accurately, baabiikhiw). The dish has the same elements as the American summer staple: a skewer with meat (usually pork, but chicken and beef are also common), chili or bell pepper, pineapple, tomato or onion, grilled over coals. But the dish gains a distinctly Thai accent when bathed in sost prik, literally “chili sauce,” a mild, traffic cone-orange often fluorescent orange, chili-based condiment.
Battered and Deep-Fried Chicken Fingers/ไก่ชุบแป้งทอด
Deep-fried items rule Thailand’s streets, but in recent years this snack, strips of chicken breast skewered and deep-fried in a flaky breadcrumb batter, has been claiming more and more roadside real estate. Most likely this is due to its liberal relationship with condiments: vendors provide options of mayonnaise, sweet chili, mild chili, or ketchup, generously blasted directly on the chicken or into the plastic bag, providing the snack with a spectrum of flavors able to challenge both KFC and traditional Thai fried chicken alike.
Thai people have come to embrace the crepe, sagely recognizing its potential as a blank slate on to which virtually any Western-ish processed ingredient can be added. In the sweet category, this typically means sauces, jellies and jams supplemented with multicolored sprinkles, corn flakes, or even kernels of corn. Savory crepes are often slathered with nam prik pao, a type of Thai chili paste, and topped with slices of hot dog, imitation crab, slices of ham, or muu yong, Thailand’s “fluffy pork.” (One vendor I encountered hawks a “pizza crepe,” liberally smeared with ketchup and topped with an egg). After the desired elements have been applied and the crepe is deemed sufficiently crispy, it’s carefully folded into thirds, shoved into a cardboard sleeve and eaten much like a sandwich.
Corn seems like a perfectly healthy snack—until it reaches the streets of Thailand. After they are steamed or boiled and scraped from the cob, the kernels are mixed with salt, a couple heaping tablespoons of white sugar, a shocking amount of sun-yellow margarine and a drizzle of “milk product for cooking and bakery” (evaporated milk). Hugely popular, the mixture is always served in cups, sometimes garnished with a triumphantly golden garnish of margarine, all to be eaten with a tiny plastic spoon.
On the streets of Thailand, wontons are making the transition from the stockpot to the deep fryer. Their filling can be minced pork, meat or fish balls or even quail eggs, but like so many other savory Thai street snacks, they inevitably end up in plastic bags, drenched in sweet chili sauce. Equipped only with a bamboo skewer, it becomes a race against time to spear and eat them before they devolve into a soggy soup.
Fish balls are hugely popular on Thailand’s streets. They take various forms—round, rugby ball-shaped, square, sometimes even resembling your favorite Japanese cartoon character—and come prepared in various forms—: skewered and grilled, skewered and steamed, or deep-fried. Although it’s difficult to say which is most popular, deep-fried fish balls are particularly beloved, probably because of how they swell enormously when in the hot oil, then when removed, almost instantly deflate to a shriveled, rubbery, leathery mass—the ideal vehicle to soak up all that sweet chili sauce.
The old-school version of this Thai snack is a legitimate culinary treasure: a hearty, taco-like shell made from a combination of mung bean and rice flour filled with a mix of shredded coconut meat in palm sugar, and topped with sweetened threads of duck egg yolk and candied fruit. But the farther you get from Bangkok’s older neighborhoods the more likely you are to find the contemporary—and much more popular—version: a pale, paper-thin wafer filled with a viscous, gleaming white meringue (no vendor was willing to tell me what this stuff is made from), crowned with a scant tangle of egg yolk threads.
This snack’s links with the capital of Japan remain obscure, but the idea is simple: a tiny pancake filled with stuff and rolled up into a tidy tube. The sweet version can include coconut custard, sometimes colored green via the addition of pandan (an aromatic leaf common to Southeast Asian cooking), while the savory version can revolve around ingredients ranging from quail eggs to hot dogs. A particularly popular variant is the “mixed” khanom Tokyo, which combines a quail egg, a tiny wiener, a pinch of minced pork, and a few drops of Maggi seasoning sauce.
If you prefer your sushi warm and sweet, the streets of Thailand are your paradise. Japanese food is huge in Thailand, and on avenues both urban and rural—especially outside of schools—you’ll find the Thai approximation of sushi: petite, sweating from the heat, glistening and gleaming with multi-hued fish eggs, and crowned with a generous amount of sugary mayonnaise or other oddities such as slices of processed cheese. The bizarre combinations might compel a Japanese sushi master to commit seppuku, but they exemplify the abandon with which Thai people are willing blend a variety of foreign ingredients and influences.
In Thailand, toast is generally approached as a sweet snack or dessert, rather than just breakfast. At old-school street-side stalls, thick slices of snow-white bread are grilled over coals (or even steamed) before being slathered in margarine and sugar or a variety of flavored, multi-colored coconut jams. Most essential is that the toast is cut into cubes to order and eaten with tiny plastic forks.
The Thai people have taken the already nearly perfect waffle (the Thai name translates as “bees’ nest snack”) and have made it even better, supplementing the batter with ingredients such as shredded coconut meat, kernels of corn, raisins or even, yes, chunks of hot dog. The downside? In Thailand’s relentless humidity, waffles go from crispy to soggy in milliseconds—especially when shoved and left to sweat in plastic bags as is the case with nearly all of Thailand’s street snacks.