The Path to Enlightenment is Paved with Thai Street Food

thai street foodOnce a year the Thai Buddhist Temple of Hawaiʻi turns into a Thai Street Food Sanctuary

Crispy fried chicken with sticky rice, steaming bowls of coconut fish curry poured over vermicelli noodles with fresh herbs and lime and ice-cold cups of bright orange, spiced Thai tea. Getting hungry yet?

Thai fried chicken
Thai fried chicken

A few weeks ago I was out foraging with Nat Bletter, cofounder of Madre Chocolate, and we got to talking about Thailand––where he lived for a while doing his postdoc.

In between identifying native plants and cracking open kukui nuts he gave me a gem of a recommendation. Every year during Buddhist lent––July to October––the Thai Buddhist Temple of Hawaiʻi in Pearl City puts on a Thai Street Food Market on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. It is the closest you will get to authentic Thai and Lao cuisine in Hawaiʻi he promised.

thai street food
Green Fish Curry

On a sweltering hot day in July I grabbed a foodie friend and set out for the Temple. We failed miserably on our first attempt.

“It happens to people all the time,” Bletter said after hearing that we showed up to their old location on 2nd street first by accident.

By the time we found the right address, and made our way over to their new(ish) Temple on Farrington, Bletter was just showing up.

thai street food

The three of us spread 11 dishes onto a picnic table and dove in. Bletter gave us ingredient intel on each dish as we navigated through the flavors of sweet, sour, salty and spicy.

None of the dishes are over $8 and all proceeds go to support the monks––who steadily perform rituals and chants all afternoon while people graze.

Thai Street Food
Red Fish Curry

Spicy fried smelt (tiny fish) are tossed with red curry paste, fresh chilis and julienned lemongrass and Tod Mun, or fish cakes, made with galangal and makrut lime leaves are served with Thai sweet chili sauce.

thai street food
Spicy fried smelt
thai street food
Tod Mun

Papaya salad is made to order––to suit your taste––and is served with a handful of peppery la lot leaves. I opted for only one dried chile and an extra squeeze of lime in mine. The woman preparing it let me try it three times until she saw I was happy with the ratio.

thai street food
Green papaya salad

One of the vendors instructed us to eat the Saku Sai Mu––chewy balls of tapioca stuffed with pork––by wrapping them first in fresh cilantro sprigs and following each bite with a nibble off a Thai chili. It was my favorite dish of the day. “You have to eat it all today,” he urged. “It won’t be good tomorrow.”

thai street food
Saku Sai Mu

Pla Pad Chah gets its name from the sizzling sound the fish makes when it hits the skillet. This version is made with eggplant and includes mouthwatering aromatics like green chilis, pickled green peppercorns and Thai basil.

Thai street food
Pla Pad Chah

Another made-to-order salad I loved comprised bamboo shoots massaged with bai yanang––an herb and natural MSG. The marinated shoots are tossed with toasted, ground sticky rice, dried chilis, palm sugar, fish sauce, red onion, lime and mint.

Thai street food
Marinated bamboo shoots
Thai street food
Bamboo shoot salad

For dessert you must try the Khanom Krok––plump pan fried rice pancakes oozing with coconut cream and scallion––and Khao Tom Mud–– banana leaf wrapped coconut sticky rice stuffed with red beans and banana that turns bright pink once cooked.

Thai street food
Khanom Krok
Thai street food
Khanom Krok
Thai Street Food
Khao Tom Mud

There is also a table set up inside the Temple where the monks place their leftover food after they eat. The food is up for grabs to anyone who would like some blessed bites.

Thai Street Food
Food blessed by the monks

Bletter gave me a few tips. You may want to practice these when you show up to the Temple (or Thailand) out of respect.

1.   Cover your shoulders and don’t wear shorts to the Temple.
2.   At the beginning of a meal, fill up on a few bites of sticky rice first instead of going in for the more expensive ingredients right away.
3.   Pick up the sticky rice with your fingers and use it as a vessel to pick up the other ingredients with. Don’t lick your fingers.

On our way out we spoke with Loonk Pai-Rat, or “Uncle” Pai-Rat, a Buddhists who had been walking around educating guests while we were eating.

“You know why monks shave their heads?” he asked. “To make it easier to wash! That’s it!” He was demonstrating one of the principals of their lifestyle, which is to simplify.

He also warned us about desire––an action the Buddhists believe is the root of all suffering.

I digested his words, along with the feast we had just consumed, on the car ride home. It was a reminder to accept and be grateful for what I already have, to stop clinging to impermanent things and to stay focused on living a virtuous and intentional life––that eternal practice of letting go of the ego.

If you enjoy Thai cuisine you will love this event. Bring friends, sample everything and most importantly…open your mind. The Buddhist’s path is an enlightening one and as it turns out a delicious one too.

96-130 Farrington hwy, Pearl City
July-October, Sundays, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Pro tip: The parking lot gets full so if you see a spot on the street, grab it!