It took a while to get the hang of the street food stalls in Bangkok. Jet lag meant I wasn’t hungry when I was supposed to be, and carts appeared and disappeared depending on the time of day. I would pass a string of bustling stands full of mouthwatering dishes when I didn’t want to eat, then see nothing but stall holders dozing by empty stands when I did.
Everything I ate I liked. I stuck to simple meals like fried rice and pad thai, the backpacker staples; noodle soup and little chicken skewers. It was all incredibly cheap, around 60p-£1 per meal. Because of the language barrier I often had to rely on pointing at things as a method of ordering.
One night I was walking down a road near my hotel when I saw an interesting-looking noodle place. I stopped and someone asked if I wanted to eat, naming a dish I hadn’t heard of and gesturing towards the stand. I said yes, pointed at what looked like a bowl of noodles, then marched off and accidentally chose a seat that belonged to the next stall along. I realised my mistake when everyone started laughing, but when I got up to move they waved me back down with a smile.
The cook came up and repeated the name of the dish, which sounded vaguely familiar, like something I’d had in a Thai restaurant at home, though I still wasn’t sure what it was. He made what looked like an obscene gesture to illustrate his words. I nodded uncertainly and he went away.
My order provoked a bit of discussion. At one point the cook held up a chilli and several people voiced their disagreement. I heard the word falang (foreigner) a few times, and then the cook sorted through his chillis and found another one, which was approved. Then he started work with his pestle and mortar, which threw new light on his mime.
While I waited a girl of about twelve came over and, after encouragement from her mother, asked to sit with me. It was evident that she had been sent to practise her English. We chatted for a few minutes while she quite literally squirmed with embarrassment and her mother beamed at us from a distance. Then she fled.
Soon my dinner was served. I took a bite and nearly choked with surprise.
In my own defence, it was quite dark on the street. The things I thought were noodles were actually strips of shredded unripe papaya, a completely different taste, texture and temperature to that which I was expecting. It was a bowl of som tam, spicy papaya salad.
When I got over the shock I enjoyed it. The papaya was incredibly fresh and crunchy, and the dressing was sharp, sweet and garlicky, though it was still fiery enough to make my lips sting despite the specially chosen falang-strength chilli. I must have had a rather startled expression at my first bite because the cook kept hovering to see if I was enjoying it, looking doubtful; but I left a clean plate, so in the end I think we were both satisfied.
Soon after this my menu ordering problems were solved. I met a Thai graphic designer who was at a bit of a loose end. He had been evicted from his girlfriend’s house because her parents were staying, and he wasn’t supposed to exist. He wrote out a short selection of menu items for me in Thai and English, so I could just point at a phrase to order. It’s effective, although it does rather take the mystery out of things.