If you listened to the more cautious advice on eating in Southeast Asia, you would eat only cooked food, only hot food, only food prepared in front of you, only food in proper restaurants, no raw vegetables or non-peeling fruit, and definitely nothing you find down an alley. Food safety is an important thing and I definitely don’t want to catch hepatitis or food poisoning while I’m on holiday, but the problem is that if you followed all of these rules, you would basically eat nothing interesting in Thailand or Vietnam. So, I am breaking these rules one by one and instead following the advice of food bloggers like Eating Asia who know a lot about street food and balance culinary adventure with food sense. I’m eating street food at busy stalls, where I can see from the local clientele that standards are high. I’m choosing stalls with a lot of product and hence a lot of turnover – nothing is sitting for too long when a vendor is popular. I’m trying to go at busy times – kanom jeen or jook at breakfast, somtam at lunch, grilled meats early in the evening market hours. You can tell when food looks forlorn, stale, or, in one horrifying case, covered in bees. Really, it wasn’t a major piece of deductive reasoning to decide that bee-covered fruit is not the healthy way to go.
For lunch yesterday, I went to the wonderful Warorot market in search of Eating Asia’s favourite somtam stall. I’ve long drooled over the pictures of this vendor’s seasonal spicy salads, and my inner Asian chow hound thrills to the idea of having a somtam guy down an alley behind the market. The market itself is enough to distract you for hours. It’s exactly what I came here to see – an overwhelming mixture of stalls selling hair extensions, strawberries, dried fruits, cooked sausage and more. It’s not chaotic, though. No aggressive hawkers, and the vendors are all friendly. There are few tourists compared to the town centre and I passed some happy time tasting sticky rice and buying spices. But soon I was hankering for more substantial eating. I found the alley after a bit of orienting and sure enough, there he was: a guy in protective goggles behind a somtam stand, chatting and joking with customers. 

He looks a bit serious in this picture but he was actually very jovial. He just concentrates rather seriously on his somtam process. When I ordered, he asked if I wanted it spicy. Of course, I said yes and he looked like he didn’t entirely believe me. But somtam is a very personalised dish and there were several other factors. Did I want dried shrimp? Yes. Did I want fermented fish? Yes. Did I want crab? Yes. It was at this point that he laughed and said oh, you dowant it Thai style! The somtam was of course delicious, although the crab was a bit too hard for me to eat. It imparted an amazing flavour of the sea, though, so I was glad it was in there, even if the little crabby body parts were a bit abject.

We followed Eating Asia’s suggestion of buying some gai yang from two stalls down – I’ve been eating gai yang and somtam as a favourite lunch for years and sitting in a little plastic stool in a Chiang Mai alley has to be the Platonic ideal of this combination!

As I sipped my iced coffee (from another nearby stall) and chewed on my chicken leg, I realised that I was breaking all the rules at once: lukewarm meat, uncooked vegetables, coffee made with water and ice. And yet, I am pretty sure I was eating some of the safest and best food the city has to offer.