Eating the way it used to be

A look at how our dining habits have changed over the last few decades

Customers eat at a popular curry vendor near Chinatown in Bangkok.

Bangkok is full of places where you can go to eat. There are food streets where diners can select dishes and varieties to suit their preferences. People can have meals at food centres in supermarkets or at restaurants in department stores or shopping malls. Besides that, they can dine at stand-alone food shops and eateries located on every corner of the city. There are no limitations at all when it comes to food and dining in Bangkok.

But it may sound unbelievable to say that the approach to eating food was rigid and fixed to having three meals a day just about 30-40 years ago.

Lifestyles in the past adhered to tradition and social norms. People enjoyed a slow-paced life. The population was smaller, while food and ingredients were abundant.

In rural areas, people were mostly Buddhists who made their living as farmers. They had a routine of waking early at 4 or 5am to cook rice to offer monks and for their families to eat before leaving to work on the farm. If the rice fields were far from home, they brought their lunch. And when they returned home in the evening, they cooked dinner and ate the third meal of the day. Their staples were regional Thai food.

The lifestyle of people who lived in big cities or Bangkok was different. Those who offered alms to monks would get up at about 5am to prepare offerings and cook breakfast for their kids to eat before going to school. They also prepared lunch boxes, usually containing rice, boiled egg, fried egg or stir-fried vegetable for the children. Notably, every morning the housewives would go to the market to get fresh ingredients for cooking dinner in the evening and for breakfast the following morning. For office workers, they left home early and had a small breakfast, which could be coffee with pa tong ko (two pieces of bread dough stuck together before being deep-fried until golden brown), which they could buy from coffee shops near their offices. Coffee was prepared the old-fashioned way, filtered through a long cloth bag that resembled a windsock. In the old days, the coffee shop was not merely a place for coffee; people also went there to read newspapers and catch up on gossip.

At large coffee shops, customers could have more choices for breakfast. They could have toast coated with margarine sprinkled with sugar or condensed milk or dipped in sangkaya (egg custard). A pushcart selling kanom krok (Thai coconut-rice pancakes) was often seen set up near the coffee shop. And kanom krok with coffee was a perfect match.

A more stomach-filling breakfast was pork porridge or tom luead moo sai khrueang nai moo with rice (congealed pig's blood stewed with pork innards). Preparing this speciality took a few hours. It could start off as early as 3 or 4am, when the shop owner went out to buy fresh pork innards and steamed blood from the slaughterhouse and returned home to prepare the dish. Diners liked it because it was fresh and delicious.

Among the favourites was khao man gai (Hainanese-style chicken and rice). Normally, the Hainanese vendors began cooking the food hours before dawn and started selling at 5am. Some famous khao man gai shops sold out their chicken rice before 9am.

At lunchtime, office workers often had a one-dish meal such as noodles, kui tio rad na (rice noodles with pork in gravy), pad si eew (fried noodles), khao moo daeng (rice with Chinese red pork) or khao na ped (rice with grilled duck topped with sauce). In the past, noodle shops were open during the day only. Noodles were not available in the morning.

Locals eat and wander the Train Night Market Ratchada in Bangkok. (Photo by David Rama Terrazas Morales)

Food which was considered exotic to Bangkokians decades ago was the Isan dish gai yang with som tam (grilled chicken and papaya salad). It was popular among office workers but there were not many shops then. Most were simple shelters in a narrow passage offering grilled chicken, papaya salad, larb nuea (spicy minced-beef salad), nam tok nuea (hot and spicy beef salad), grilled beef and bamboo-shoot soup. Pork was not on the menu then. With only an hour's break, workers made an effort travelling to the places and had lunch there.

When the adults returned home in the evening, most had dinner prepared for them. Those who wished to eat outside might go for raan khao tom (rice soup), operated by Chinese chefs who prepared a range of dishes such as tom chab chai (mixed vegetable soup), snakehead fish soup with pickled Chinese cabbage and galangal, steamed nam dok mai fish, deep-fried bai kanoon fish, stir-fried chicken with ginger, stir-fried shark fillet with ginger, boiled chicken or boiled duck Chinese-style. The raan khao tom is also a place where people working the night shift came to eat before work.

Up to the present, the eating patterns of families living in the countryside has not changed much. On the contrary, the lifestyle of the people in big cities and Bangkok have changed drastically. It is almost impossible for the younger generations to imagine what the livelihood of their parents was like 30-40 years ago.

Nowadays, Bangkok workers still have to get up and leave home very early in the morning, but it is to avoid traffic congestion. Instead of having to prepare food by themselves, those who wish to offer alms can buy food sets at the market and offer it to the monks, who are waiting right there. For parents, they can skip the hectic cooking in the morning and buy barbecue pork, deep-fried chicken wings and sticky rice for the kids to have for breakfast.

While the old-fashioned coffee shops have vanished from the scene, modern types of dining places, restaurants, food shops and food streets are mushrooming and offering all kinds of food and dishes that customers can have for breakfast, lunch and dinner or at any time they want to eat.

How livelihoods will change in another 30-40 years is really beyond our imagination.