BANGKOK – Strolling through Bangkok’s side alleys is like navigating a labyrinth of tiny kitchens.
The city is crowded with boxy, twin-wheeled food carts, each churning out a seemingly endless supply of food. Working through wok steam or char-black smoke, vendors offer all-night duck noodles, spiced sausage-on-a-stick, fried chicken and much more.
This is how Bangkok eats.
Now the noodle slingers and pork grillers of Bangkok are being exalted by the Thailand Creative & Design Center. The government-linked center — designed to build Thailand’s creative class — is analyzing the ingenuity of street vendors and attempting to redesign the iconic noodle cart.
The noodle cart’s influence on urban Thai life is hard to underestimate. According to the center’s research, Bangkok’s street vendors rake in a boggling $1.6 billion each year — all in handfuls of bills and coins worth $1 or $2 per customer.
Vendors are already known for their craftiness. Flies are kept away by dangling water-filled bags, which scatter light and disorient bugs. Cooling fans yanked from rusty Sedans are hooked to generators and used to blow away cooking smoke.
Most remarkably, some vendors patrol streets with racks strung with dried squid. Order one and the squidsmith flattens a cephalopod with a small hand-cranked laundry wringer. The result: a snack that looks like a fruit-roll up but tastes briny and crisp.
The center now hopes to lend fresh ideas to the world of street eating. Researchers have solicited suggestions from all walks of society, from kindergartners to working adults.
“With use of creativity, the hidden potential of street stalls can be unleashed and serve as a catalyst for the nation’s economic recovery,” said Paravi Wongchirachai, the center’s deputy managing director.
Here’s a sampling of the Thai public’s best suggestions to improve street dining:
CHAPSTICK CONDIMENTS: Four canisters rest atop every vendor’s wobbly sidewalk dining table. They contain the street eaters’ version of the four elements: sugar (sweetness), chili flakes (heat), vinegar (sourness) and fish sauce (saltiness). (Peanut crumbs, which add texture, are often added as well.) But what about the active students and cubicle slaves who grab to-go bags to eat at their desks?
Onusa Charuwana, a busy 18-year-old high school student, has a solution. “Picture a set of chapstick containers, only they’re filled with spices instead. Each week, you could refill them with your favorite spices.” The set, she said, would fit neatly inside a purse. “Office workers deserve delicious food too.”
NOODLE CART PUMP BRAKES: Bangkok streets are choked with more than taxis, tuk-tuks and motorbikes. There are also two-wheeled street carts, pushed by vendors, who must hustle their clumsy carts through a blitz of high-speed traffic. Thitiwut Nantibhukhirund, 17, envisions a more agile cart with quick-stop hand brakes. “It would be like those trolleys at the airport,” he said. “You clamp down on the handle and the cart automatically brakes.”
BUILT-IN DISHWASHER: Nearby most carts, there’s tub full of dishes bobbing in soap suds. Customers’ bowls and plates are typically scrubbed clean right on the street among the foot traffic and hungry stray dogs. But Isariay Boonkasemsanti, a 21-year-old college student, imagines a dishrack built right into the cart. “Wouldn’t that be more hygienic?” she said.
SOLAR CELLS: Vendors typically use batteries or small generators to power neon lights that advertise their offerings — or the small fans that blow away smoke. But 9-year-old Warisa Sukumnoed wonders why vendors can’t draw up energy from Thailand’s tropical sky. Solar panels, she said, could soak up rays during the day and recharge vendors’ batteries.
The center, having canvassed Bangkok for ideas, is planning to solicit nationwide. The ultimate goal: to apply the entire kingdom’s ingenuity towards building a more futuristic noodle cart. “Hopefully all that will happen by next year,” said Patcharin Pattanabunpaiboon with the design center. “We’re hoping to bring these prototypes to life.”
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