Eating Off The Sidewalks? Yes, Please! Making The Case For Street Food
If you’re anything like me, you’re interested in watching your budget when you travel, and one of the biggest factors when planning that budget is figuring out your expense for food. So here’s my advice: COMMIT TO THE STREET FOOD! If you do that, you’ll put your cash directly into the local economy, never run out of cash to grub, and spend your time more wisely while you’re sitting at your table absorbing the local day-today life rather than waiting for your food in a restaurant.
No matter which Asian city you find yourself in, rest assured there will be high quality eats available from vendors on the streets. You’ll find that, while there are a plethora of choices everywhere, each city seems to have an unofficial comfort food specialty. In Bangkok, it’s Kuay Tiew Nahm, the spicy noodle soup featuring steamed veggies & pork. In Hanoi, it’s Pho, Banh Mi & Bun Cha. Hoi An corners the market on Com Ga (chicken & rice), and the list goes on and on.
With so much variety in the food on the corner or down the alley, there’s really no sacrifice made when you enjoy your meals on the street. You can find just about anything, and at a fraction of the cost of a proper restaurant.
The most common question I hear when I suggest this money-saving, deep travel strategy is “Aren’t you worried about getting sick? How do you know how if it’s safe?”. I have to admit that once upon a time, I had the same concerns. Then I learned a few things:
First, you can choose where you eat. If something doesn’t look right to you, you can skip it and try somewhere else. Believe me, you’ll have no shortage of choices.
Second, in some ways it’s safer than a restaurant, because you can actually watch the cook prepare your food. If you want it cooked a little more, you can ask for that rather than depending on a waiter to transmit the request.
Third, the ingredients at street vendor stands tend to be fresher because they buy from the market for the day. There’s no refrigerator to throw things into, and they don’t want to waste money any more than you do. These thoughts are not mine alone. They’re shared by many (if not most) food/travel professionals as well.
In addition to these advantages over restaurants, the cost savings of street food are too great for me to ignore. Most street food meals in any Southeast Asian city are going to be under three dollars (U.S.), and usually closer to one or two. So run the numbers: If you eat 2-3 street meals per day on a ten day trip, a generous cost estimate is about $125 (U.S.). That’s 25 street meals and 5 visits to a proper restaurant (at $10 per). Plan on budgeting about three times this amount if you reverse that. In my case, my savings can be happily applied to shopping or adventure portions of my budget.
The savings, convenience, and cultural exchange that occurs when you commit to experiencing street food in Southeast Asia make it a no-brainer. Hey, I enjoy a fantastic, comfortable sit-down meal as much as anyone. But my favorite food-related memories from the road are always on the street, where you can set yourself firmly down in the middle of another culture and people watch. The sounds, smells, and the conversation are what you’ll take home and keep long after the “I Love Bangkok” t-shirt you bought at Chatuchak market wears out.
This is the first part of a series of stories I’ll be posting about street food in Southeast Asia, and I’ll begin with one of my favorite cities: Bangkok.
PART 1: BANGKOK
Bangkok Noodle Soup
Walking the streets of Bangkok is an adventure for a visitor’s sense of smell – you never know what you’re going to encounter! What I found on this street corner beneath Asok Station in Sukhumvit was a perfect (U.S.) $2.00 meal – Kuay Tiew Nahm – a spicy noodle soup with pork & dumplings and a bottle of Coke. I could have done without the Coke, but at this place, that’s the only choice of beverage. Classic Bangkok!
I love places like this not just because it featured the single most awesome poster of The King I’ve ever seen, but because by just hanging out at a table on the sidewalk and eating your food you become a part of the community, if only for the time it takes to finish your meal. The scenes that play out around you and conversations you end up having are the experiences you bring home and keep forever.