To travel is to eat – how street food helped me uncover South East Asia’s soul
Phaibun smiled at me sceptically. Her flowery bib, bucket hat and huge wooden pestle made her look hilariously maternal. I could see the motherly disapproval in her eyes.
‘I’m sure, Phaibun.’ I said, thumbs up, not entirely confident. ‘I’m ready for the real thing.’
She took a glance at my freckled skin and locked eyes with her sister…
I’d driven my moped to Phaibun’s food stall for 5 days in a row – an insanely idyllic route down the cragged bays of Ao Nang, surrounded by dramatic rock formations and inquisitive monkeys, with the postcard perfection of Railay beach in the distance.
Phaibun’s establishment was nestled amongst identical wooden stalls, all releasing their own billowing trails of smoke and smells. But she specialised in something no one else in the area had; something I’d grown addicted to during my time in Thailand – an absolutely otherworldly papaya salad.
Papaya salad was unlike anything I’d ever tasted before I arrived in South East Asia. Unripe papaya – savoury not sweet – is shredded and pounded with sour lime, hot chilli, rich fish sauce and palm sugar, before being topped off with crushed peanuts and tiny, crispy shrimp. It’s a serious combination of flavours, bombarding all of your taste receptors at once.
And it’s supposed to be spicy. Very spicy. But due to my complexion the first papaya salads I’d tried had been nice and mild, served fresh with a sympathetic look.
Considering I’ve always liked hot food, I felt slightly offended by these earlier offerings, so when I first tried Phaibun’s variation I asked her to dial up the heat, and she obliged.
But I noticed that she still prepared my salad separately, whereas the locals were served from a huge pan that sizzled with fresh chilli.
‘I want it like that, Phaibun,’ I insisted, ‘I can handle the real thing.’
As I sat there – five minutes later – sweating stoically, making strange guttural noises and pouring a third can of coke onto my tongue, I noticed that a small crowd had gathered.
They were all laughing, but it’s fair to say Phaibun laughed the loudest.
Almost all of my favourite food experiences have occurred when eating street food in South East Asia. There’s something so pure about sitting on a tiny, plastic red stool, sipping a cold local beer and being served fresh, invigorating food that has set you back roughly £1.50.
Papaya salad was a firm favourite when I was in South Thailand, but in the northern city of Chiang Mai I couldn’t get enough of the Khao Soi – crispy sheet noodles served over a rich broth. In Vietnam I was of course all about the Banh Mi, but in the historic city of Hue I fell head over heels for Bun Bo Hue, a rich variation of Pho formed from beef bones, shank, pig blood and lemongrass and seasoned with fermented shrimp paste.
If you think that sounds slightly adventurous for a Londoner, you’d be correct. But that should be a central part of anyone’s travels – gently pushing against boundaries, trying unappealing things and embracing emerging loves.
I learned that the South East Asian street food experience isn’t all about the food. Eating out isn’t an occasional luxury in South East Asia; it’s a way of life, often cheaper for locals than cooking at home.
On those tiny plastic stalls you’ll discover who the local characters are, scooched up right next to large groups of families and friends, feasting and singing and playing cards into the early morning. It’s a far more communal way to eat and live than I was used to. Every meal felt special.
It was at these ramshackle establishments on the side of the road that I practised my terrible Thai/Vietnamese/Khmer, clinked beers and shouted ‘CHEERS,’ and befriended vendors like Phaibun – women and men who have spent their entire lives perfecting just one dish, serving it proudly day after day. Their devotion to their craft always showed.
This is what we do when we travel; In lieu of flawless multilingualism we find the universal things that bind us. It’s through discovering our differences within these universal spheres that we begin to truly uncover and understand other cultures.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt as free and happy as when I drove my moped to Phaibun’s stall every day – breathing in the tropical waters, towering crags, and a promise of another delicious lunch. That feeling will stay within me forever; and, like with all my favourite travel memories, I only need to smell a certain combination of flavours to be transported straight back…
If you want to experience the best of Asia’s soul-stirring street food, you can’t beat our Munch Asia tour…