A look at some of the delicious street food you can find on Samui and the rest of Thailand.
You may not know it, but the original Thai greeting was not ‘Sawadee’. That came along after World War Two. The original greeting was, ‘gin khao reu yang?’ which literally translated means ‘eaten rice yet?’ If you have Thai friends, or spend enough time in the country, you’ll realise that it’s a question that still gets asked a lot. It was one of the first phrases I learnt in Thai. And it sums up the Thai culture, one where food is a major part of outdoor life. So it’s no surprise that there are a myriad of street stalls, from those that appear on the sides of the streets with their plastic stools and fold out metal tables to the roving vendors with their carts. Street food is more popular than ever!
Some of the most popular stalls focus on barbecued chicken and somtam (papaya salad). These often start very early in the morning selling the barbecued chicken on a stick with bags of sticky rice to the labourers and school children who are all up at that time. The chicken is cooked there on a large open grill. You may also find fish being grilled alongside the chicken. If you order only chicken on a stick you’ll have a choice of different parts of the chicken from leg to breast to liver and heart. All of them will be served to you in a plastic bag that will also be filled with fresh cabbage leaves and green beans.
Lunch time in Thailand generally starts around 11:00 am so these places can be quite busy for a second time then. If you order papaya salad, make it clear just how spicy you’d like the salad to be. If you want to try an authentic Thai style papaya salad that usually means a generous handful of chillies, so you have been warned.
You can also see vendors selling barbecued chicken and papaya salad from carts that they drive through the streets. They grill the meat on a small grill that they have secured onto the side of the cart, with the meat cuts displayed in a glass case at the side of the bike. On Samui, street food naturally extends to beach food, so if you’re on one of the major beaches, you may spot a person walking along with a portable grill, setting up shop wherever she finds customers.
You can find a lot of places that have prepared food on offer, with large vats of soup with a leg of pork, or steamed chicken hanging in glass cabinets, or large metal pots of curries. All of the prepared food is made fresh that day in the early morning. Just make your choice and you’ll be handed your dish. You can take your plate to one of the tables that have been set out and sit on one of the plastic stools. You’ll be given a plastic glass or perhaps tin mug which will be filled with ice and you help yourself to the water in the pot that’s on your table. This is free. If you’d prefer a bottle of water you’ll be charged. You may also see a plate of green vegetables which are there for everyone to take and enjoy with their meal. You may have to share your table with someone – this is very normal – but you don’t have to start up a conversation, it’s not expected.
Snacking is a mainstay of Thai culture and their term for it is ‘play eating’ or ‘khong kin len’. And that is really how they view it, that it should be fun. You can see this most in the number of stalls that sell nibbles on sticks, everything from pork balls to dried squid. It is all cut up into bite size pieces and served in a bag with a few leaves of cabbage to balance out all the oil used in making them.
On Samui you can see these places most often at temple fairs, where they usually have the food displayed on metal trays. You take the sticks you’d like and place them on a plate that they’ve given you. They will then be deep fried again and you’ll be a choice of sweet or spicy sauce that will come in yet another small plastic bag. Nathon’s evening food market has many such stalls and is very popular with locals and tourists alike. You can also see them at the night markets known as walking streets around the island.
An all-day favourite on the snacking front though has to be fruit, and the fruit vendors in Samui are to be found on the beach as well as the street. There’s no better way to combat the heat of the day than a slice of fruit. The vendors are truly skilled in preparing the fruit. They deftly peel, cut and dice the fruit of your choice, whether that’s pineapple, mango, or watermelon, and hand it to you in a plastic bag with bamboo skewer to eat it with. Small bags of sugar, salt and chilli serve as a dip, great to replenish the body of its nutrients during a day in the heat.
To truly combat the effects of dehydration nothing can compare to the coconut. The fruit vendors also sell these. But you can also find the fresh coconuts at drink stalls dotted around the island. The tops of the coconuts are shaped into points and then when you order one, the top is hacked off and you can enjoy the fresh coconut juice through a straw. You’ll also be given a spoon to eat the flesh of the coconut with.
Drinks on the go are another staple of Thai culture and you can find many places along the sides of the road of the island selling drinks in a bag. Very often these may be premade drinks that are lined up in their containers. Some of these can be very sweet, such as Thai tea. A plastic bag will be filled with shaved ice and the drink poured over the top. And then, just for good measure, it’s topped off with yet another shot of sweetened condensed milk. There are sometimes herbal drinks among the sweet teas and coffees, such as lemongrass or roselle so it’s worth asking what else is on offer.
But if sweet is your thing then you can’t go wrong with Thai desserts. If you’re lucky you may come across a Thai dessert cart, though these seem to be dwindling in numbers as the roti carts and convenience store snacks seem to enjoy more popularity with young people. The vendor will have a wide showcase delicately balanced on the side of a motorbike. Inside the display you can see an array of traditional Thai desserts, from jellies to Thai custards and my favourite, Thai custard and sticky rice, all cut up into squares. Be warned however that these are very filling sweets and while appearing to be quite small they are more than enough to satisfy most people’s craving for something sweet. Or how about the ever popular coconut ice cream sold from a large vat and served in cones or hotdog buns and drenched in condensed milk and a variety of toppings such as nuts, chocolate syrup, sprinkles, and lychees?
Street food is extremely popular throughout Thailand, and the same can be said of Samui. In a culture where people tend not to invite guests to their home but instead gather round stalls that have set up shop at the side of the road, you can be guaranteed some great flavours. Indeed some people have gone as far as to say that street food is the only truly authentic Thai food and that restaurants have become too westernised. If you’re worried about hygiene, one thing to remember is that generally all street food is bought, prepared and eaten on the same day. So if you’re looking for a good night out head out onto the streets and see what’s cooking.