When people think of Bangkok, they may think of a hot, steamy city, full of tuktuks, and endless traffic. But above all, they think of street food. The famous street foods in Bangkok was widely known because of the queen Jay Fai.
Street food is one of the most important aspects of life in Bangkok. It is something that people can talk over and discuss.
“This is my favorite place”.
“Oh, you’re crazy. That’s my favorite place.”
Everyone can join in.
Always like a feeling like there’s a party going on.
It’s a kind of unifier.
One of the most democratic parts of Thai life. And then a time when class lines are getting more widened and everyone’s on their phone, and kind of in their own world already.
Street food is like one of the few things left that glues people together. They want noodles on the way home, or, like take away curry. But a couple of years ago, the government decreed that street food would be restricted. They said the vendors were encroaching on taxpayer’s space, and called the vendors “leeches”. But the vendors are there because the people want them there. So, it’s funny that, at the same time, what the government is trying to say is, “Vendors are just these parasites on society.”
Bangkok is, sort of, at the crossroads. It’s poised to become more modern. So, the city is trying to clear the sidewalks. Street food vendors and a lot of neighborhoods are getting told to move elsewhere.
This is, kind of rupturing an ecosystem that has been in place for decades.
There’s somebody like Jay Fai (Raan Jay Fai). Jay Fai is probably the most famous street food chef in the world. And she has long been the Queen of Street Food on the Thai Scene. She takes these common street food dishes, and elevates them into something that they weren’t before.
People line up to try her tom yum, drunken noodles, and, especially, crab omelette.
In fact, she’s known as “The Omelette Lady” among some people.
She’s a 73 year-old woman who manages to grind it out day after day. People are not doing her a favor by allowing her to take up the sidewalk. She is doing people a favor by cooking for them.
Jay Fai said that even when she was a kid, she was always thinking about work. She would do it everyday if she could.
Every day, she wakes up at 10:30 in the morning. Her staff arrived at noon to help. Even if she is old, she would always remind them, “You may be younger, but I am stronger”.
By 2:30 in the afternoon, Jay Fai starts preparing herself. When she walks into her station, she has to be focused. She is meticulous about every dish she serves. Everything must be flawless. No matter how tired she is, no matter what’s going on, she cooks every dish herself. She wanted every dish to be the best because for her she is not just a street cook, she is a CHEF.
Jay Fai grew up in a slum, in a bad neighborhood behind a market. Her mother sold rice porridge and chicken noodles at the market. She had to sell a lot of it. Her father was an opium addict. Sometimes, he ran away. Jay Fai’s family didn’t know where he was. So, she became a seamstress. He cut fabric all day, rolled them up, and sewed dresses all night. She made sure they had food on the table. She spent ten years as a seamstress. Time flew by when she did this sort of work. She was content.
However, one day, she was sewing and cutting, when there was a sudden explosion on the stairway near her. The stairway collapsed and fire erupted. Everything was gone. She has nothing left.
After everything burned down, all she had were the pajamas on her back. Her sewing machine and tools were all gone. She was in her twenties and didn’t know what to do.
After that, she started watching her mother selling noodles across the market. She helped her mother back then. One day, she noticed how slowly her mother cooked with her sister. There were only four of five customers standing there, waiting for their food. She was frustrated.
Jay Fai told her mother that she wanted to cook. Her mother replied that she couldn’t do it. But, she challenged her mother. That night, she grabbed the wok and started stir-frying noodles. She practiced by herself every night, and ate that food every night. At one point, she poured oil into a wok and forgot about it. When she saw the oil burning, she dumped it all out. She was so mad that threw noodles into the pan, and stirred them furiously. The heat alone browned them nicely and she didn’t need any oil. It turned out to have a great taste and aroma.
The next day, she asked her Mom for her wok. Her mom let her use the wok and said it was all up to her.
When she started cooking, the customers saw she had talent. Right then, she began to see her path.
Jay Fai loves every dish she cooks. She has no preference or prejudice. She said that she has to love them to cook them properly, down to every little detail especially, Tom Yum. The stock must be rich and tasty, that is very important. It starts with lots of bones to make the broth, and keeps adding bones, bird’s eye chilies, fish sauce, and lime juice.
Tom Yum is a wonderful mix of fresh herbs and natural acidity. You haven’t really had Thai food until you had Tom Yum because that’s the quintessential Thai dish. It’s spicy, it’s salty, it’s tart.
Jay Fai Tom Yum is one of the best in Thailand. It’s got fist-sized prawns, juicy cuttlefish, and it’s pretty amazing. What makes it quite different is that Jay Fai doesn’t just make great Tom Yum soup, she goes even further. She came out with dry Tom Yum, which is basically the Tom Yum without the broth, but will have all the aromatics infused with the Tom Yum flavor.
She takes food that you find on every street corner and she makes it into something really unique.
Back then, Jay Fai still called herself a street cook. She opened her shop in the evenings. Her customers came from bars an gambling joints. The ones who really loved to eat would gather around to watch her cook. She saw an opportunity. Anyone could stir-fry pad thai, but she wanted to do something great. She would like to cook crab omelets, but with that dish, she wanted to make something different, too.
So, she taught herself how to make Japanese omelettes. She added a lot of crabs, nearly a pound, flattened and rolled them and took the first bite and she was amazed. She can’t believe she did it beautifully and said she had something special to sell.
The people are surprised by how important omelettes are to Thai food, but it is a staple dish. Jay Fai makes it into something that is fantastic and expensive. With technique, the works are volcanically hot. So, if the omelletes are really light, stuffed full to bursting with chunks of crab meat.
People started to talk about Jay Fai’s food. They are coming by. The gambling houses started calling in lots of orders, dozens at once. They were serving so many omelettes, sometimes they ran out of eggs.
From that point on, she started a whole new menu. New dishes came to her. Big shots and politicians started to turn up. They would ask for special things. There are definitely over a hundred dishes. They have a lot on the menu.
Jay Fai is so proud of her boldness and she never regretted it.
At some point, Jay Fai became known as the best street food cook in the city. She created destination food from common dishes.
For 40 years, Jay Fai worked almost every day. And then, one day, she got a call. Somebody was hosting a gala dinner. She didn’t want to close her restaurant for anything. But she took the day off for the party. All of a sudden, her daughter said, “Mom, they called your name.” She won the award, the Michelin Star. At that moment, it seemed like she couldn’t breathe. She was happy, the happiest. The next day, there was a big crowd in front of her restaurant. Everyone wanted to take a picture of her. People started reserving tables. Her daughter quit her job to help her manage it all.
Jay Fai didn’t need the star. She knew herself that her food was the best. The Michelin Star showed the rest of the world what a great, wonderful chef she was.
When chefs started coming to her shop to eat, they called her “Chef”. She couldn’t believe it. She couldn’t describe how proud she was.
Jay Fai represents a possible outcome for some street food vendors. If you are good enough, you can bring people to your place, on your terms. That success surprised the government because they continuously underplay how important street food is. Not just to Thai people, but in Thailand’s image.
Street food is for everyone. Something purely Thai, purely Bangkok, and purely their own.
Jay Fai has been cooking for a long time. Whenever anyone asks, she always says, “I’m not tired.”
She knows her strength.
She has faith in charcoal fires and iron works.
They taught her to be clever.
They taught her to be brave.
So, if she still has the strength, she will continue cooking.
That is JAY FAI.
Along with Jay Fai’s recipes, there are also other street foods that make Bangkok known.
Khun Sumeth’s older brother was the first one to open a noodle stall on Sukhumvit 38 Road. Back then. 30 years ago, the place was surrounded by bars. After the partygoers were finished very late at night, they would come to eat. Mr. Khun would sell until 4 or 5 in the morning.
There was a year where the landlord suddenly shut them down. Most of their fellow vendors quit and moved back to their hometowns. But their customers kept calling.
His brother suggested reopening the stall near his house, so it would be convenient. Their customers missed them so much that they took taxis just to see them.
Noodles cost 60 baht, while a taxi fare costs over 300 baht!
Their customers were happy to come to their stall and eat.
They used to serve egg noodles with crab claws, but the new clientele can’t afford the crab. Now it is deep-fried and barbecued pork. And the egg noodles were silky and buttery, with wontons and greens, and it;s still delicious. They would be considered the lucky ones. Their customers overcame every possible obstacle to get them to cook for them again.
In Bangkok, curry is essential. It is a staple. It’s something that everybody has their own recipe for. Out in the street, everyone is eating and it is like the perfect comfort food.
Jek Pui learned how to make curry when he came from China. After he learned how to cook curry, his relatives told him to bring his family to Thailand and start a new life. His family have been in Thailand for over 70 years. He worked hard developing his recipe. Her daughter said, sometimes he got it right, sometimes wrong. Her daughter started helping him at the age of 13. She said that his father only sold pork and beef curries, and she developed their other recipes. They have added green curry with meatballs or chicken, and pork Panang. If customers loved them, that meant the recipes were right.
Jek Pui makes a really comforting, mild curry. It has garlic, shallots, and chili. Very few people make it from scratch anymore because it is labor intensive.
The cart wherein the curry was sold, is an important part of the community. There is usually a line of people sitting on red stools, with these bowls of rice and curry perched precariously on their lap. For everyone who lives in the neighborhood, Jek Pui makes people think of childhood. Everyone loves that curry on the corner.
Have you ever been to Thailand? Why not try the famous street foods in Bangkok?
Category: Interesting Facts