SARABURI (Thailand), Feb 18 — Where’s the best place to enjoy street food in Thailand? Locals will often suggest hitting the neighbourhood market for the widest variety. What’s more, just like our local pasar pagi and pasar malam, Thailand too has its own versions of morning markets and night markets.
The former, called talad chao, tends to be held inside and around wet markets too where fresh meat, seafood and vegetables are sold alongside breakfast staples. Night markets (or talad klangkhuen in Thai), on the other hand, tend to spill out on the streets rather than inside a building — and these streets aren’t cordoned off so expect traffic while you decide on what to have for dinner!
Unlike famous markets in Bangkok, such as the Chatuchak Weekend Market which attracts swarms of tourists to its 15,000 stalls, smaller markets in the provinces outside of the capital offer a more intimate atmosphere. Fewer shops, friendlier faces and a sense of community where the vendors know all their regulars by name.
Which is why we find ourselves in Saraburi Province, specifically the Kaeng Khoi amphoe (district) in the north-east, for a taste of the best the markets here have to offer. The Kaeng Khoi fresh produce market along Phra Payi Road in the town centre opens early in the morning for folks looking for the catch of the day and vegetables direct from the farms.
This also makes it a great place to have breakfast and grab a few treats for the road if you’re exploring the area. Seasonal local fruits such as mandarin oranges, pomegranates, mangoes and dragon fruit make for a guilt-free travel snack unlike the ubiquitous bag of chips.
Of course, there are plenty of less healthy snacks if you’re easily tempted. Follow the smoke signals and you’ll certainly discover a stall or two offering gai yang (grilled chicken). These are certainly fresh: no sooner are skewers inserted into the various chicken parts before they’re placed upon the charcoal grill. And they are snapped up by hungry market-goers the minute they’re ready!
Other Saraburi delights include curry puffs (also called karipap in Thai, the same way it’s spelled in Malay) and neau dat deaw or sun-dried salted beef. The former differs from its Malaysian cousin in that, besides the usual potato and chicken filling, it can also come filled with taro for a sweet karipap.
For a sit-down breakfast, a classic dish is pad krapao moo or spicy Thai basil stir-fry with minced pork. Served with steaming hot white rice and topped with a perfect fried egg, and we’re looking at the breakfast of champions, Thai-style.
One dish that’s less known to foreigners is khao man gai or the Thai take on Hainanese chicken rice. Basically it’s the same set-up: boiled chicken, rice cooked in the chicken drippings and broth, and a bowl of clear chicken broth on the side. The only difference is the sauce: instead of the bold red chilli-and-garlic dip we’re used to, sliced prik kee noo (bird’s eye chillies) in a sweet soy sauce accompanies our plate of khao man gai.
It’s in these details, be it curry puffs filled with taro rather than potatoes or a sweet sauce to go with a chicken rice, that makes exploring Thai markets a different experience from the pasar we are accustomed to. Different and wonderful.
When the sun sets, the townspeople congregate around Phoksuphot Road, not far from the Kaeng Khoi train station, to hunt for their dinner. This night market is called Talad Torung; torung means “until dawn” which should give you an idea of how late the market stays open.
As with many talad klangkhuen, the street itself isn’t closed off for the night market so we navigate our way among the food stalls avoiding folks on their motorcycles (not to mention one or two cars!). Adds to the lively ambience, certainly.
There are many people already tucking into their food at foldable tables next to the stalls. In lieu of a restaurant menu, we wander around looking at what everyone is having and make mental notes to circle back for what looks the most promising. Some food though are meant to be eaten while walking, such as the aromatic fried chicken (gai tod) and cups of cut fruits.
We sit down at one of the tables and order ratna, a Thai-Chinese noodle dish. First mi krop (thin, curly egg noodles) is deep fried then encased in an omelette. A gravy of cornstarch-thickened stock, sliced pork and kai lan greens is poured over this envelope of egg and noodles — and it’s ready to be served.
In Rome, do as the Romans do, so we add some nam pla (fish sauce), powdered dried chillies, chilli-infused vinegar and even granulated sugar on top of our ratna as we eat. Sweet, spicy, sour, savoury and a hit of umami from the nam pla — all the flavours of Thailand!
Another tasty cook-to-order dish is pad see iw, a stir-fried noodle dish in a blend of see iw khao (light soy sauce) and see iw dam (dark soy sauce). Add some meat or seafood, leafy vegetables and egg, and it looks like a healthier version of our char kway teow sans the bean sprouts. Though flat rice noodles (kuaitiao sen yai) are usually used, other noodles such as vermicelli are popular too.
For dessert, we walk over to the bua loi stall. Bua loi (its name literally means “floating lotus” in Thai) are glutinous rice flour balls in coconut cream. Here the tiny balls are naturally coloured with pandan (green), turmeric (yellow) and palm sugar (brown). To make this a small meal in itself, you can ask for an egg that has been poached in syrup to be spooned into your bowl.
Time to leave the talad klangkhuen but not before grabbing one last snack as takeaway. A middle-aged husband-and-wife team runs a roti stall with folks eagerly waiting their haul. Their hands are an efficient blur though without any over-the-head flipping action we’re accustomed to seeing.
Thai-style roti is similar to our own roti canai, albeit without an accompanying gravy of dhal or curry. Instead Thais enjoy roti as a sweet treat, the crispy griddle-fried pancake cut into squares (for easy consumption while walking) and drizzled with copious amounts of sugar and condensed milk. Other beloved toppings include freshly sliced bananas and Nutella.
Perhaps a tad too sweet for our taste, but it’s a reminder of the sweet souls we’ve met here in Saraburi and the warm welcome they’ve given us.
Kaeng Khoi fresh produce market
394 Phra Payi Road, Kaeng Khoi, Saraburi, Thailand
Open daily 3:30am-11am
Talad Torung night market
Phoksuphot Road, Kaeng Khoi, Saraburi, Thailand
Open daily 6pm till late