Island hopping

Navigating a culinary battlefield on a different island.

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It’s a balmy evening around 7 pm, and the sun just set. Lights illuminate a busy street of shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic, and a narrow road is lined with artists and vendors selling paintings, jewelry, clothing, and other crafts. Live music echoes from a distance, while various scents of unfamiliar food occupy the air. Crowds gather around smoky food stands, ready to try it all.

What I’m describing isn’t a busy summer night on Circuit Avenue, or an August evening at the Ag Fair. It could be, but what I’m describing happened just last Saturday on another island, thousands of miles away.

Welcome to Krabi, a province in Southern Thailand. It’s a place known for its limestone cliffs, dense forests, and hundreds of offshore islands. On weekends, Krabi Town is where tourists like myself gather for a grand taste of Thailand’s authentic cuisine.

The Krabi Town Night Market is only open on Saturdays and Sundays, and by sundown, people start flooding in by the hundreds. The market is about 20 percent shopping and 80 percent food. I purposely arrived on an empty stomach.

When you live on Martha’s Vineyard, you’re sort of used to ridiculously overpopulated situations. But the Krabi Town Night Market was madness like I’ve never seen. Brilliant, culinary madness.

Skewered chicken, steak, and pork rested on a charcoal grill, each piece blackened in all the right places. It glistened with a sweet-and-sour seasoning, and smelled like summer barbecue. My friend handled all the meat eating, but I’ll be honest when I say it could tempt even the most seasoned vegetarians. Each skewer was 35 baht, which breaks down to about one U.S. dollar.

We pushed our way over to another nearby stand, finding holes in the chaos where we could sneak through. A local man wearing black rubber gloves pulled from a gray stack of shellfish, shucking away one oyster at a time. He handed the half shell to a woman in an apron to be topped with fresh herbs and greens. She served it in a little plastic bowl with a small spoon resting on top. It tasted salty, fresh, and like home. They cost 35 baht — about a buck a shuck.

Less traditional, although just as appealing, the night market had its share of carnival-like food. Carb enthusiast that I am, I gravitated toward a twisted potato on a stick. A woman pressed what looked like a stick through a whole potato, and started twisting like a corkscrew until the potato uncoiled into a perfect twist. You could season with paprika, barbecue sauce, cheese, tom yum, hot spices, sour cream, chocolate, or nori seaweed. I went with the hot spices, and paid 35 baht.

Next, a whole fish. You see this everywhere in Thailand — people eating entire fish. After grilling thoroughly, they’re simply thrown on a plate and ready to be consumed. We gave this a cautious try, delicately picking at the meat, and sorting through a share of bones. It tastes fishier than I like my fish to taste, and we didn’t nearly finish the whole thing, but at least we can say we tried. On to the next.

Spring rolls and pad thai are like an old friend over here. Reliably delicious and not completely foreign to my stomach. At only 10 baht, I went for two vegetarian spring rolls, which were loaded with grilled vegetables and whatever else is usually in a spring roll. Am I the only one who really doesn’t know? I also picked up a set of salad spring rolls, which consist of carrots, cucumber, and lettuce wrapped in a glass noodle. Sometimes you just need your plain and simple produce.

As we started craving sweeter foods, we sought out the nearest local stand serving mango sticky rice. This is one of my favorite traditional Thai dishes, and I’m surprised it has yet to hit the States. It’s made with white rice, coconut milk, and freshly sliced mango on top, and it’s one of the sweetest, most delicious things you’ll ever taste. It cost 30 baht, and was the perfect segue into the rest of dessert.

Luk Chup is another traditional dessert we decided to give a try. They’re shaped like various fruits and vegetables such as chilies, cherries, bananas, and watermelon, only miniature. They’re made with mung beans, sugar, coconut cream, and clear gelatin with food coloring. They taste sweet and like sugar. I later learned they were once served to the king after meals, and the recipe was only passed on through people working in the palace.

A main ingredient I’m finding in most Thai dishes is coconut, and our last two desserts proved that to be true. I’m still in search of the technical name for this, but the first was a coconut custard poured into cup-shaped halves of a sort of lightly fried dough. It tasted, not surprisingly, like sweet coconut, but had an interesting gelatin-like texture. It’s one of those dishes that grew on us the more we ate it.

Last but not least, a simple dish of coconut ice cream. It cleanses the palate, and eased the stomach after a pretty odd combination of foods.

There’s always a good-news-bad-news situation that follows street food dining in Thailand. The good news — price. This entire experience cost us less than $10. The bad news — waiting. There’s about a 12-hour period that lies between your meal and your body’s reaction to it.

I came out clear, but unfortunately my meat-eating friend didn’t. When it comes to dining in Asia, sometimes being vegetarian pays off.

 

Brittany Bowker, assistant editor at The Times, will write from her off-season getaway in Thailand and Bali.