Thai Street Food: What’s that Smell?

I love to eat street food and do so without much fear. Trips to China have made me a bit more cautious as food scandals in the newspapers there seem to be way too frequent. Fry oil recycled from the trash (and the heavy metals that come with it) is allegedly more common there than one might expect. Plus there’s that 2008 case of melamine in baby formula that now has most Chinese citizens who can afford it buying imported varieties for their kids. And other incidents.

So maybe that was in the back of my mind when I bit into a Thai street snack and tasted unmistakable chemicals. I was right about the chemical I.D. but wrong to be concerned, but it sent me on a brief educational and enlightening journey to Google.


White, fluffy, steamed buns with a bit of red barbecue pork in them are sometimes referred to as Sala Pao. It’s a popular item in China and has made its way via Chinese immigrants into parts of Southeast Asia, including Thailand. But in Thailand there is another “sala pao,” which is what I would term the Thai donut. Deep-fried dough, slightly sweet, fried up in a kettle right there on the street. (I think I just made a poem. Total accident there.)

Sala pao of the Thai donut variety are served with sang kaya, an optional dipping sauce, often made with condensed milk and pandan leaf for a green coloring. (Like the term sala pao, “sang kaya” may also refer to something slightly different: coconut custard or coconut jam. One of the sources of frustration for me when trying to learn Thai.)


I was in Chiang Mai standing at the Chiang Mai Gate market (South Gate Market), waiting for my smoothie from the famed “Smoothie Lady,” when I get a pretty strong whiff of ammonia. There isn’t much that can be confused with ammonia, especially as getting your nose into it can really mess with a person’s sinuses. I found that a little odd out there in the middle of the street. This was much stronger than a cleaning solvent, but we were standing in a park of sorts. Where would it come from?

I can’t say “terrorist attack” had ever crossed my mind, but thanks Google: “The widespread use of ammonia on farms and in industrial and commercial locations means that exposure can also occur from an accidental release or from a deliberate terrorist attack” from New York Dept of Health But I have to confess it did seem a bit weird and drove my curiosity. Ammonia at the time wasn’t on my list of desired foods.


I took a look around. But it was just the Smoothie Lady and the Thai Donut Guy. We got our drinks, bought our donuts, and went to take a table. I bit into my first warm sala pao and there it was: ammonia right up my nose. What??? Seriously?

Google to the rescue (unless you are a baker and already know all this). It was baker’s ammonia: used in quick breads, it is an old-school leavener (that which makes the bubbles that make a bread rise). Before baking soda, there was Baker’s ammonia (ammonium carbonate), and before that it was Salt of Hartshorn, the ground up antler of a deer. Who, pray tell, figured THAT one out? “You know what this bread needs? Let’s go hunting!”

Normally, the baking (or deep-frying) process gets rid of the ammonia smell and taste, but perhaps my Thai donuts needed a bit more time in the fry oil.

sala pao and patongo

Tic Tac Dough: the X’s and O’s are patongo and sala pao, respectively. The X-shaped fried dough is not sweet and maybe a tad bit salty. You will often see them together, but the X’s are more popular with congee (rice porridge) at breakfast.

More blog posts about Thai food!

11 thoughts on “Thai Street Food: What’s that Smell?

  • January 5, 2014 at 1:29 am

    VERY interesting! I’ve just been reading STIFF by Mary Roach. If deer antler sounds weird as an ingredient, don’t read the chapter entitled “Eat Me”.

  • January 5, 2014 at 7:42 pm

    Good investigative work here! I had no idea. And glad it all turned out to be harmless, because I ate many of those donuts.

    • January 7, 2014 at 7:03 pm

      Me too, but I had never smelled ammonia before. I would think most people use baking soda now, but maybe he ran out.

  • January 5, 2014 at 9:10 pm

    I love me some fried dough with condensed milk. I do think, however, there is better sala pao just east of chiang mai gate at a flavored soy milk (soi milk?) place on the outside of the moat. You have to wait for it, but it’s goooood.

    • January 7, 2014 at 7:04 pm

      Ah, condensed milk: who knew it was such an awesome condiment/dipping sauce?

      We will check out that soy/i milk place next month!

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  • January 30, 2017 at 5:50 am

    Wow. Just been on google looking for an answer to my doughnuts this morning from koh Lanta Thailand. The smell was so strong it unblocked my nose lol. I ate three and my girlfriend but into hers and spat it out. I must say the taste was not so bad but th smell was so potent even the street dogs turned there noses up at them.

    • January 30, 2017 at 10:04 am

      I found in my case that if you bit into it and let it air out it was OK. But pretty impressive, huh?


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