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Bangkok's street food scene needs a larger-scale fix  

BANGKOK - My first encounter with Bangkok's street food took place five years ago over a plate of stir-fried pork and Chinese kale on lukewarm rice.

It gave me stomachache but I went back for more, trying to condition myself to the city's curbside delights.

Over the years, I have chowed down a whole gamut of street food - from juicy grilled squid to fiery southern Thai curries to barbequed skewered eggs - and realised that while there were some gastronomic gems, much of it - like in many Asian countries - was simply cheap, quick grub.

The global uproar over recent erroneous news that Thailand was wiping its streets clean of food vendors to reclaim the pavements for pedestrians has been accompanied by overly rosy portrayals of the capital's street food. One common refrain was the fear that this ban would turn Bangkok's streets as sterile as those in Singapore, where food vendors were removed from the streets and housed in purpose-built hawker centres.

Yet those who have lived in Bangkok long enough are well aware of the underside of its street food.

I've learnt to be conscientious about saying "mai chu" - meaning "don't add monosodium glutamate" - when placing orders, after ending up unusually thirsty from papaya salad dinners where vendors were liberal with that white, flavour-enhancing powder.

But I can't do the same for ready-made sauces like nam phrik - the dusky paste served with mackerel - or nam jim jaew - a deep red sauce for barbecued meat. I have to take my chance.

Getting the street vendors to dispose food waste in a cleaner way is also a big challenge.

One day, after interviewing city administrators who admitted that Bangkok's waste water processing facilities could not filter all the run-off flowing from kitchen sinks to canals, I watched with horror as a street vendor poured the remnants of noodle soup from a bowl straight into a nearby drain. These oils, sauces and stray strands of noodles eventually make their way into Bangkok's network of canals, which link up to Chao Phraya River, and then the sea.

Bangkok's authorities deserve credit for trying to tackle the neglected issue of waste management. In the heat of the debate about street food last week, Tourism Minister Kobkarn Wattanavrangkul pointed out in a Facebook post that the authorities were trying to ban dish cleaning on the pavement.

Yet the same cannot be said about their attention to Khao San and Yaowarat roads, two districts frequented by tourists in the older section of the city where existing street stalls would be preserved, cleaned up and expected to "present local identity". Stalls in small side roads and private roads will also be spared the axe.

While tourism contributes to some 11 per cent of Thailand's gross domestic product, tourists have alternative places to eat. For the millions of labourers, motorcycle taxi drivers and other working class Bangkok residents, these 30-baht (S$1.20) meals are a lifeline in neighbourhoods rapidly being gentrified by upscale condominiums and designer cafes.

Locally, the debate about Bangkok's street food has been emotive because it is tightly interwoven with class politics. Those who do not need to eat at these street stalls are the most offended when vendors use up so much space that they force pedestrians off the pavements, and get the most worked up when these stalls slow traffic by hogging half a lane in narrow sois or side roads.

I once asked a particularly annoyed professor: "If these stalls go, where will people go for food?"

"They can go somewhere else!" she replied.

Critics of the ruling military government see the street food clearance as a manifestation of its obsession with order. They cite it as proof that Thailand's ruling generals, installed after a coup that overthrew an elected government in 2014, prioritise the interests of the Kingdom's urban elites.

Yet to completely undo the street clearance plan would be counter-productive. However controversial, it has stirred an important conversation about Bangkok's urbanscape, much like what is happening in the cities of Yangon and Ho Chi Minh City.

Street food can be a showcase of culinary culture. But street food is prized also because it is cheap and accessible. Bangkok's administrators, while broaching hygiene, traffic and environmental issues, have so far not been able to address the question of where the average person can now go to in his immediate neighbourhood for fresh, cheap meals.

Bangkok needs to create a larger-scale solution, not a caricatured version just for tourists.

On days when work hauls me out of bed in the wee hours, I take comfort at the sight of the regular vendor in my soi quietly kneading dough for patongo, or dough fritters, by his cart in the dark.

Perhaps, with a little forethought, innovation and compromise from both city officials and street vendors, he can get to stay.