In recent years, the “Go Local” movement has become popular in Western countries. Here in Thailand, an emphasis on local foods has been integral to the culture for centuries. Just about every district of every province produces some sort of specialty that the locals are proud of and domestic tourists keen to purchase. Local products are even showcased in shopping malls, right alongside the corporate chains.
A couple weeks ago, we stumbled on a floating market set up right in the middle of the giant modern shopping plaza, The Mall Bang Khae, in suburban West Bangkok. Okay, so it wasn’t actually floating on water, but most of the vendors had set up on wooden rowboats under the usual umbrellas, capturing the effect of a typical weekend country market as best as could be hoped for. Most importantly, the food was exactly the same as you’ll see at the area’s floating markets, like Khlong Lat Mayom and Bang Nam Phueng.
Huge steel pots sat full of fishy khanom jeen and rich massaman curries. The scent of barbecued prawns and whole salted fishes made our mouths water. Colorful mounds of Thai rice flour sweets made us wish we’d brought our cameras. We’re talking delicious, home-cooked, as-authentic-as-it-gets Thai market fare in the shadow of big box stores and tech outlets selling trendy wears and Macbook Pro’s. A Sizzler steakhouse loomed above, within sight of the “boat” vendors.
Back in the US, local food products can be scored in upscale restaurants, farmers’ markets and the occasional general store or co-op market. Perhaps we could learn something from the Thais. Why not put a weekend farmers’ market in the middle of a city’s biggest mall? Why not allow local food vendors to compete with McDonalds and Taco Bell by setting up right next to them? Why is it that, in America, priority is given to corporations rather than regular people?
In Thailand, corporations have no choice but to co-exist and compete with small-time vendors. In front of every 7-eleven convenience store you’ll find a handful of stalls slinging noodle soup and grilled sausages. Not far from every Tesco Lotus superstore, an open-air market offers local produce for a fraction of what you’ll pay in the air-conditioned aisles. This is part of what gives Thailand its irresistibly colorful atmosphere; every street corner is alive with an economy that’s not hidden behind broad walls and regulated by some big government agency.
This out-in-the-open, sparsely regulated and localized economy is what keeps Thailand’s unemployment rate perpetually around 2% while the US and other “first-world” countries struggle to stay below 10%.
Rather than being forced to work a crummy minimum wage job, Thai people with little education and few skills can retain a certain level of freedom and self-respect by selling grilled corn, fresh-squeezed orange juice or papaya salad on the sidewalk. When they sell out, they go home; and no one breathes down their neck when they feel like taking a day off. If they have a knack for making something tasty, they might become a local hit. Hell, they might even become a globally recognized food phenomenon should a certain Mr Bourdain pop in for a bite.
For any foreigner living in or visiting Thailand, the abundance of local food products is a great pleasure. Samut Songkhram has phenomenal mackerel fish; Chiang Mai does a mean chicken curry soup with egg noodles (khao soi); Chiang Rai cultivates increasingly excellent coffee and tea; Chanthaburi churns out fresh durian, rambutan and mangosteen; Trang offers its own specialty cakes; even the tourist hotspot of Phuket has an enduring tradition of stink-bean curry that no self-respecting Thai foodie would miss while on the island.
These are just a handful of examples of the countless local food specialties you’ll find all over Thailand — in the markets, in roadside stands, even in a shopping mall.