I used to wonder – is it true that Chinatown existing almost everywhere in the world, except China or Hong Kong ? In Saigon we also have one – huge, in district 5, my family house is located like in between district 5 and district 1, right at the entrance to district 5. But Chinatown in Saigon before 1975 was very different, the political incident in 1975 made it dramatically changed, the town lost their face, their lifestyle but anyway we still have something left from the good old times. I hope I could share about Saigon’s Chinatown sometime in the future.
Back to Chinatown in Bangkok, one of the largest in the world, founded in 18th century. My first time there, maybe, twenty years ago?! I didn’t go back there for long even I go to Bangkok almost every year.
In Bangkok most popular places for tourists are around Silom or Sukhumvit, Chinatown is not near, I have to take MRT (metro) all the way to Hualamphong station and from there, firstly I decided to walk but got lost almost for half an hour, walking around and around, due to my misunderstanding with locals when I ask them for the direction.
Later I was recommended to take a taxi, hearing the word “Yaowarat” taxi driver quickly understand where I want to go! And it takes only 5 minutes ride on taxi from MRT station to Chinatown! Yaowarat is a main artery in Chinatown and very well known for its street foods, especially at night, that draws tourists and locals from all over the city.
Nearly 20 years ago, we went there with friends at night and enjoyed a good dinner at the famous Chinese restaurant “Scala”. Here you can find many things from very typical Chinese foods like Chinese sausage (lap chong in Cantonese or lạp xưởng in Vietnamese), dried stuffs like duck or pork (actually I’m not sure as it looks like roasted ones, but it should be smoked, as I used to see in Saigon’s Chinatown) or the varieties of Chinese ingredients, herbs for Chinese cooking or medecine.
From these typical Chinese specialities to the “royal delicacies” like shark fin soup or bird-nest sweet soup. To my surprise, when those delicacies used to be served in fancy restaurant for the rich at special occasions such as weddings and banquets, but nowadays it goes out to the street, widely popular, as street food in Chinatown.
I did try it before, the shark fins provide a kind of snappy, gelatinous texture, a bit chewy but mostly the taste comes from the other ingredients. Nowadays it has been condemned by the Humane Society International, because, as reported, hundred million sharks are killed each year for their fins.
or another also royal delicacy – the bird’s nest. I have a friend who owns a huge bird’s nest farm on the outskirts of Saigon, he built a dozen of 3-4 story nesting houses for thousands of swiftlets and then he collects the abandoned nests, when the baby swiftlets are big enough to leave the nest (*).
By somehow the Chinese believe the bird’s nest promotes good health, especially for the skin, it has been used in Chinese cooking for over hundreds of years, most often as bird’s nest soup, either sweet or savoury. One bowl of bird’s nest soup could cost from 30 US dollars up to 100 US dollars.
I used to buy it for my mom and to prepare sweet soup with rock-sugar, it requires slow cooking by double-steaming. When dissolved in water, the birds’ nests have a gelatinous texture, so we may probably add some others ingredients like dried longan, lotus seeds or dried Chinese apples to enhance the taste.
Leaving all the Chinese delicacies behind I move on with more popular, more typical for street foods. Easy to find everywhere – traditional Thai dessert – sticky rice cooked with coconut milk and served with mango or many seafood outlets, famous with their grilled big prawn with garlic butter or cheese or deep-fried fishcake…
I didn’t stay late in Chinatown because it will be very busy at night, packed with a lot people…but before going back to my place, I have enough time to discover some exotic delicacies which could horrify someone and some of best street foods voted by Thai people, it will be in the second part of my post.
(*) Click here to learn more about the nesting houses at my friend place.