Her aunt taught her how to cook as a teenager, and now, 51-year-old Malli Chaiya, a nominee in Urban Adventures’ first ever global street food awards, has been running her papaya salad stall on Chiang Mai’s Kampangdin Road for 21 years. Corinne Redfern goes for a chat—and a tasting.
The first time Malli Chaiya prepared a papaya salad, she was 13 years old and trying desperately not to drip tears into the wooden bowl of finely sliced fruit, garlic, fish sauce and tomatoes.
“I’d just moved to Bangkok on my own, to live with my auntie and uncle, and I was terrified,” she remembers. “I’d grown up in a small town in the northeastern provinces of Thailand, and I wasn’t used to all these buildings and all these people. Everything was scary and new. I spent every day standing behind my aunt as she ran her food cart in the city center, watching her cook and trying not to miss my family.”
One day, her aunt noticed her lurking in the shadows, and beckoned her to come forwards. She began to teach Malli the family recipes, like how to mix fish sauce, tamarind juice and palm sugar to make the dressing for papaya salad, and how to crush dried chili peppers with a stone to make flakes. “By the time I was 15, she was the one sitting behind me as I ran her stall on my own,” 51-year-old Malli tells me.
“It took a little bit of time, but people started to realize my food was the most delicious in the city.”
Malli cooks while she speaks; dicing onions and coriander with the blade of her knife without breaking eye contact. It’s only 11am, but a line of locals and tourists has already formed on the street outside her small stall in central Chiang Mai, and she can’t stop serving for a second; packaging up barbecue chicken, stir-fried pork and fresh fruit salads into clear plastic bags for them to take away for lunch.
The humid summer air is thick with the smell of simmering chili and garlic, and when I cough, Malli laughs along with my Urban Adventures guide, Emika Charoenwong. You get used to it over time, she says, passing me a glass of water.
The food cart itself is nondescript—only the dog-eared yellow menus on the tables mark it out from the stalls lined up further down the street. Emika, who comes here every week, doesn’t even need to flick through the pages to know what we should get. The line grows.
A meter or two in front, sandwiched between two rows of chaotically parked scooters and bicycles, Malli’s husband, Narong, spears shiny pieces of chicken onto wooden sticks and holds them over a small barbecue, smiling every so often in the direction of his wife.
It’s been 25 years since Malli moved north from Bangkok, and 21 years since she followed in her aunt’s footsteps and bought her own cart, 100 meters down from Chiang Mai’s revered Imperial Mae Ping hotel.
“It took me a while to realize that this is what I wanted to do,” she explains, re-adjusting the white cap that covers most of her graying hair. “After spending my teenage years cooking, my auntie had said she didn’t want me to do street food—she thought I was better than this, so when I was about 20, she paid for me to study hairdressing instead. We agreed that I’d leave Bangkok because there were more jobs in the north, and I came here.”
But if standing behind a food cart all day is hard, then hairdressing proved even harder. “I was expected to start work at 7am and continue through until 8pm every day of the week,” Malli says. “I was so tired and stressed. I had fallen in love too and married Narong—but I had no time to see him.”
She pauses and lowers her voice, setting down her knife and stepping out from behind her cooking station for the first time so that we can speak privately. “It was after I had three miscarriages that we agreed enough was enough,” she shares. “I was so unhappy. I couldn’t stop crying.”
Desperate, the couple used Narong’s savings from his work as a mechanic to buy a small metal cart and two plastic stools, and they positioned them on the pavement outside the front of their house on Kampangdin Road. “The first thing I did was buy the ingredients to make papaya salad,” she remembers. “I was so nervous, I had to keep tasting the mixture to make sure I’d got the measurements right. These days, I just know.”
As word of her cooking spread, two stools quickly became four, then six, then eight, as customers ordered from her laminated menu of nam tok (spicy meat salad), tom yum soup and sticky rice, the latter served steaming in traditional bamboo baskets. “It took a little bit of time, but people started to realize my food was the most delicious in the city,” Malli laughs.
“You see so many food carts in Chiang Mai become popular, and then their owners decide to hand responsibility over to somebody else, and the quality disappears. I can’t bring myself to do that.”
Looking around, her achievements are tangible. There are now 21 tables lined up behind her cart, and the couple recently converted the living room of their house to make room for more. Narong has quit his job to work the barbecue full-time, and they’ve upgraded their family scooter to a shining four-wheel drive, parked proudly out the front.
Malli insists she hasn’t changed despite her growing reputation. She still wears the same green gingham apron over the same blue t-shirt and she still chops the vegetables with the same steady hands. But she speaks with a quiet confidence that belies her years of success. After all, expanding the business wasn’t her only triumph. “Within a year of buying the cart, I was pregnant with my daughter,” she says, beaming. “Three years later, I had a son too.”
Her children grew up in the background of the family business, accompanying their mother before school to Chiang Mai’s morning markets to buy fresh vegetables and helping to wash the plates when they’d finished their homework at night. Fast forward two decades, and Malli’s daughter is now studying in the Philippines, while her 18-year-old son attends the local sixth-form college.
“On a good day, I can earn 15,000 baht (USD $450) in six hours, and all that money goes towards their education,” Malli says, adding that she can barely fathom earning such an income. As a child, her family was so poor that she felt forced to drop out of school aged 11 because she needed to help support her rice-farmer parents.
When she moved to Bangkok two years later, it was because her family was still struggling—and were relying upon her to send any earnings home. “Now I have more money, I haven’t changed my lifestyle at all. I just want to be able to give my children the opportunity to do whatever they want with their life.”
In their absence, these days she employs two young women to help chop the vegetables and clear the tables. “But I’m still the only person who’s allowed to use the stove,” she explains, drawing an invisible line with her hands behind the cart to prohibit me, or Emika, from stepping out of line and getting in the way.
“You see so many food carts in Chiang Mai grow and become popular, and then their owners decide that they’ve had enough of cooking, so they hand responsibility over to somebody else. But the quality of the food disappears, and I can’t bring myself to do that. What makes my food special is that I put my heart and soul into every meal.”
Even now, Malli refuses to deviate from her aunt’s recipes—resisting the temptation of an electric blender in favor of her much-used pestle and mortar, and insisting on fresh ingredients every single day. As the little restaurant behind her swells with summer customers, I wonder out loud how she copes when the tourists flood in. She grins, and just shakes her head.
The food appears to be flying off the small metal display shelf next to her, but on the off-chance that there is anything left over at the end of the day, Malli says she gives it to the women who work with her to take home to their families. “My auntie taught me the saying ‘clean food, good taste’, and it’s true. You can tell when you’re not eating fresh meat or vegetables, and I won’t take that risk with my customers.”
Her passion is clear, but Malli admits the work isn’t always easy. Over time, she’s developed methods for dealing with the madness. Some days, when she’s feeling particularly tired or stressed, she imagines her aunt watching her cook. Her death six years ago came out of the blue, and still feels like a punch to the stomach. “She was like a mother to me,” Malli says, turning away from the stove for only the second time this morning to speak more softly. “She taught me everything I know—I would be nothing if it wasn’t for her. She was only 65.”
Reaching forward to touch my hand, Malli says she hangs onto the memory of her aunt flying up from Bangkok for a holiday a few years earlier and experiencing the food cart for herself. “She said that she was so proud of me and everything that I’d achieved. Then she tasted the papaya salad, and said it was even better than her own,” Malli laughs. “I know it’s not true, but it was the happiest moment of my life.”