This October, Tasting Table is getting away from it all. Come away with us as we explore the world of travel.
As much as I tried to hit up all the beachside shacks slinging green peppercorn-speckled fried crabs and shrimp paste-lacquered shrimp in Thailand, I always found myself at 7-Eleven.
Partly because it had the best exchange rate at the time, but mostly because there, in the sterile fluorescent glow, I could stock up on seaweed-dusted potato chips, juice boxes of not juice but creamy Milo malted chocolate milk and fish-flavored everything. The stores, which feel like they are on almost every corner in Bangkok, are an unappreciated gem—far superior to the American kind—and a favorite of visiting chefs.
The first store opened in 1989 in Bangkok to mass Slurpee meltdown. Now there are about 7,000 shops across the nation with plans for further expansion. And just as fast-food chains adapted to the reigning culture (see the plum sauce at McDonald's in Hong Kong or the mega chain's brothy saimin in Hawaii), 7-Eleven didn't just bring good ole American Big Gulps and comfort ("It's all about the air conditioning," Andy Ricker, the chef/owner of Pok Pok in New York, Portland and soon-to-open L.A., says). It stocked up with local treats, which chefs and I are longing for now as we scavenge aimlessly in various Chinatowns in the U.S.
Instead of sad hot dogs rolling around under a heat lamp, there's chicken satay and sticky rice, and the instant mac 'n' cheese cups are replaced by instant tom yum-flavored ramen and all the fishy snacks you can't find here in the States.
"7-Eleven in Thailand is better, because of the food available," James Syhabout, the chef/owner of Hawker Fare and Commis in Oakland, shares. "Food is more wholesome and delicious, like dried cuttlefish snacks, which have so much umami and are very addictive."
"I love Shing Shang," Hong Thaimee, the chef/owner of Ngam in New York City and author of newly released True Thai, says. "It's a crispy anchovy. Sometimes you eat it with rice porridge; sometimes you eat it alone. It's like peanuts here."
As for Redding, she ponders, "Where to begin . . ." before answering, "shrimp chips, Thai-flavored Lay's potato chips and Eleven Tigers Brand herbal powder packets, which you can empty into a fifth of liquor to make 'medicine.' And Mama noodles are my personal fave; they're Thai ramen noodles in the packet, but you can eat them raw like chips. They're my favorite childhood snack, even though my mother threatened that they would reconstitute in my stomach and suck the life out of me."
So the next time you're in need of some baht or a cooldown, you know where to go and what to get. But obviously don't expect Muji-level amazingness here.
"It's still 7-Eleven-ish with all its packaged junk food glory," Redding says. "Street food's way better."