Nearly every visitor to Bangkok makes the pilgramage to Chatuchak (JJ), the city's justifiably famous weekend treaure spot. But why oh why do so few farang make it across the street to Aw Taw Kaw, one of the city's best spots for chow? Yes -- the food at Aw Taw Kaw, fresh and prepared, to take away or eat in, is more expensive than at other markets like, say Klong Toey off of Rama IV or Sam Yan near Chinatown (Thai friends call it the "movie stars' market" bec. Thai celebrities like to shop there). Yes, it is definately cleaner than many other spots in the city. But the food is wonderfully fresh, impeccably prepared, NOT watered down for any tastes (majority of shoppers by far are Thai, and all Thais, rich or poor, insist on the best when it comes to quality), and so varied and bounteous as to confound the efforts of even the most dedicated chowhound to try one of everything.
Another nice thing about Aw Taw Kaw is that it is open everyday, so you can go on a weekday and avoid the spillover (Thai) crowds from JJ. The takewaway stalls line the front of the market and meander up the right hand side (if you are facing the market from the street). Stock up on goodies and then head into the market's interior, where there are tables encircled by guaytiaow (soup and fried), khao tom (congee), oyster-and-mussel omelet, and rice plate stalls. Order something -- cha jen (iced tea) or a soda at least -- from one of the stalls to justify your occupying a table. Most likely a vendor will offer a spoon, fork, and bowl or plate to facilitate your meal, and the more food you've brought the more thumbs up you'll get (Thais love to see farang eat and relishing Thai food).
Highlights from a lunch on Sat and a repeat visit on Sunday (just couldn't stay away):
-saikrawk (sausage), freshly grilled and purchased near the right-hand entrance. Ping pong ball-sized round saikrawk Issaan, super sour from fermented rice, and fat, glistening, 6-inch links, complex (lemongrass, lime leaves, etc) and very spicy.
-shrimp, shrimp, and more shrimp ... from a stall at the street side, about halfway into the market. Look for the enlarged photograph of the proprietor, with the endorsement of a condiment company, hanging over the stall, suggesting that she is known well outside of Aw Taw Kaw. 4 steamed shrimp, about 3 inches long not incl. the head; 2 equally large grilled shrimp; and a styrofoam container of cool rice noodles mixed with seafood and vegetables came to about 5 dollars. I preferred the steamed ones --- more tender and juicy and tasting of the sea. They come with an extremely rich (and, I think, overpowering) "sauce" of ground pork, chilis, and coconut milk. Ask for the manaw-nam plaa-phrik (lime-fish sauce-chili) concoction for dipping if that's your preference.
The next day, at the same stall, we sampled a haw mawk bpuu (crab custard in banana leaf, topped with coconut cream) -- splendidly subtle, smooth, probably the best of the genre I've had in BKK. Fish (plaa) haw mawk are available as well. And a container of crab balls molded around tiny claws, sold with sweet chili sauce. Not too rubbery, and the crab taste was prominent. Several other crab and shrimp-based items offered at this stall.
-sakoo sold opposite and halfway betw. the shrimp and sausage vendors. The thinnest of small, griddled rice flour "pancakes", stuffed with sweet-savory nugget of peanut, pork and shrimp paste. The green and white ones have the same stuffing ... occasionally white-wrappered but garlic chive-stuffed sakoo are sold here too. Takeaway pack includes lettuce leaves for wrapping, and cilantro and raw phrik kee nuu chilis to stuff in the lettuce along with the sakoo. The burst of heat from the tiny raw chilis is a nice counterpoint to the sweetish stuffing.
-grilled and peeled eggplant, sold with lime-garlic-fish sauce dip. Offered by a few different vendors -- we sampled it at two places and they were equally smoky and tender.
-khanom jeen (fermented rice flour noodles). Look for the vendor with bags of very thin rice noodles, a couple pots of curry, and an array of steamed veggies including okra, cabbage, and sprouts. You'll need to beg a bowl or a plate from a vendor near the tables ... or use one of your empty styrofoam containers to eat these. Green curry rich and satisfying. It's not meant to be super spicy, so grab some whole dried roasted chilis to mix in if you want extra heat.
-translucent rice flour dumplings, less than an inch around, shaped into octoganal nuggets. The green ones contain garlic chives. The dough is thicker and firmer than that surrounding sakoo, with a nice chew. Dark sweet soy included for dipping. Dumplings with purple filling sold here as well (taro?).
-prepared stir-fry and curry rice-plates offered a few booths down from the sausage vendor. This stall has a few tables of its own behind it so you can eat right there --- or takeaway. We sampled a stellar phrik kee nuu (sweet-fiery stirfy of pork, chilis, and chopped long bean); a mild round eggplant curry, the vegetable's bitterness set off by mild, rustic hand-formed fish "balls"; and shrimp stir-fried with mounds of fragrant basil leaves and chilis. I recall about 9 or 10 stir-fried offerings, in addition to curries, at this stall.... enough for a week's worth of happy sampling.
-khanom taan, flattish yellow cakes steamed in small, round porcelain saucers. Very close to the right-hand entrance to the dalat, and sold by only one vendor. The cake batter is coconuty, and not too sweet, the the texture is wonderfully light and fluffy. Eat topped with shreds of fresh coconut.
-fried omelets of chopped cha-om (feathery, green herb with a pronounced garlic flavor). I suspect these are meant to be taken home and plopped into a bowl of gaeng som (sour curry) rather than eaten on their own. Awfully greasy, to be frank, but the first steaming forkfuls were delicious.
Other things on offer that we didn't have room for: glistening spare ribs and muu yang (BBQ pork skewers) with spicy, smoky nam cim (dipping sauce); Chinese-style BBQ pork in slabs; lots and lots of khanom (sweets), esp. coconut cream-topped types; Vietnamese-style rice noodle rolls stuffed and topped with chopped pork and vegetables; grilled fish of many varieties; candied shrimps; grilled rice rolls stuffed with bananas; sticky rice dumplings in banana leaves; and peeled and ready-to-eat fruits like pomelo, pineapple, and mandarin oranges.
Fans of guaytiaow laad naa (or skeptics wondering if something usually translated as "noodles with gravy" can really be all that worth the calories) should head back and inside to the tables and order the dish (chicken or pork) with sen yai (wide rice noodles) at the one stand fronted with 5-inch *blue* tiles. Noodles a wee bit charred, gravy rich and delcious enough to eat on its own, and plentiful Chinese broccoli (lots of leaves, not just stems) stir-fried to that elusive point of truly crisp-tender. Be sure to add plenty of vinegar-with chilis from the condiment trolly.
Aw Taw Kaw is not just a prepared foods market ... there's beautiful fish on offer, fruits, veggies grown organically, condiments and kitchen necessities. A few vendors along the left-hand side of the market sell Thai "caramels" --- chewy palm sugar durian, peanut, or coconut candies (look for bags of bright wax-paper-wrapped candies).
As we found, the only problem with lunch at Aw Taw Kaw is that you may not have room for dinner.