From fine dining to street food: the fiery cuisine of Bangkok
When it comes to Thai cuisine, Bangkok offers a fiery mix of superlative street food and fine-dining discoveries. Just make sure you can handle your chilli
- By Nick Savage -
It looks innocuous enough. A glass tumbler half full of pickled mussels, mint, lemongrass, lemon juice; two lonely red ribbons of chilli, gossamer thin. However, once bitten, an atom splits in my mouth. I'm overwhelmed with nuclear heat, which is igniting sinus and ears, transubstantiating the face from solid to liquid. It's a baptism of fire. And my tears are definitely crying out 'tourist'.
Server Khun Kiki arrives to check on my welfare. "What kind of chilli is this?" I manage to splutter, expecting something from the top shelf of the Scoville scale with an evil name like Naga Viper or Trinidad Moruga Scorpion.
I try to save face, but it's not easy when said face has been blown off. "I didn't know that there was a weaponised version." Apparently chilli is spicier in Bangkok.
Regardless, the mussels are outstanding. Located in Bangkok's trendy Sukhumvit district, Bo.Lan is my first stop, and it fills me with excitement about what's to come in my four days of investigating the dynamic between the street and the table in the Thai capital.
Dylan Jones, co-owner of Bo.Lan and erstwhile Londoner, explains that the restaurant "borrows inspiration from the whole of Thailand, including street food. But normally the food is more focused on a time-honoured form of dining, gleaned from old texts and funerary books." When pressed on the subject of street food in Bangkok he's concerned that "the quality has deteriorated over the last several years, as prices remain stagnant but costs are always increasing." Still, he's very handy at suggesting some stalls and shophouses to visit.
As is Andy Oliver. His restaurant Som Saa, transplanted from transient digs in London Fields to a permanent spot in Spitalfields, is currently one of the hottest tickets in London. Similarly to other creative industries, chefs operate in a tight community, and chasing one thread reveals how closely knit it is. Oliver formerly worked with David Thompson at Nahm when it was located at The Halkin in Belgravia (where Jones also rattled the pans), before EU restrictions made it untenable for the restaurant to import the exotic ingredients it needed for its brand of fine dining.
So my second restaurant visit is at the Metropolitan by COMO Hotel, where, conveniently, my girlfriend and I happen to be staying. Situated on South Sathorn Road, it's a stone's throw away from the city's nightlife, but it's easy to find oneself detained by the hotel's amenities, particularly Nahm. David Thompson, who won Asia's 50 Best Lifetime Achievement Award in 2016, is out of town, so I sit down with head chef Prin Polsuk while enjoying a banquet-style meal.
He's quick to explain there's a contrast between street and palace food, which he draws inspiration from. "Historically, all-female kitchens in the palace would hand down recipes from women who cooked for the king, specifically Plienplang Pasakornwong, who wrote Thai cookbooks from the King Rama V period, during the 19th century."
Though he's enthusiastic about the food sold by hawkers, it's easy to see that his cooking is in another category altogether. At the tail-end of the meal, he presents a southern-style jungle curry (a curry made without coconut milk) with the caveat that it's extremely spicy, even for him. In spite of myself, I take a bite. "It takes a couple of moments," says Chef Prin, smiling. I chew. "Click, click, boom," he adds. And that's it for me for the rest of the night. Luckily, my room is only a short lift-ride away.
With chilli-induced shakes, I wake at 4.30am to beat the heat and head to the Anantara Riverside Hotel, where I've arranged a tour of the city's markets with its Streetwise Guru. The hotel packs in a wide array of foodie options to entertain its guests, including sunset dinners in Thai manohras (traditional wooden sailing vessels) and its own 3,000m2 rooftop hydroponic farm, where much of the hotel's produce is harvested.
My guru is named Waiyawit Thongserm but prefers to go by his sobriquet 'Daimond Geezer', acquired during a long weekend with an English woman on the Khao San Road. We board a manohra and head north along Chao Praya (the River of Kings) towards the city centre, before disembarking at Wat Yannawa, a junk-shaped Buddhist temple constructed by King Rama III, where we make an offering to a shoal of wide-mouthed catfish.
For just a few baht, we're offered five golden chicken wings on a skewer
Daimond directs us around the corner to the Charoean Krung Road, his favourite spot for breakfast. We pitch up on blue plastic seats and bury our chopsticks in fragrant steaming bowls of kuaytiaw – Thai noodle soup. The vendor is Muslim, so her recipe strictly eschews pork, instead using chicken broth, tofu, fishballs and plenty of coriander, spring onion and chilli. Noodles are like the sandwich of Thailand, eminently adaptable.
It's a short tuk tuk ride to the Chinatown district, a warren of narrow twisting alleyways with stalls selling everything from sides of pork to knock-off Gucci. We stop on Sampeng Lane for gaa-fee yen: iced coffee mixed with sweetened condensed milk. Soon after, we find what Daimond declares the best fried chicken in the city. For just a few baht we're offered five golden chicken wings on a wooden skewer, fried to an immaculate crispness without a modicum of fat or gristle.
Where to stay
Double rooms at the Metropolitan by COMO Hotel start from 4,000 THB (approx £76). 27 South Sathorn Road Tungmahamek Sathorn +66 2 625 3333; comohotels.com/metropolitanbangkok
Double rooms at Anantara start from 5,250 THB (approx £100). 257/1-3 Charoennakorn Road Thonburi +66 2 476 0022; bangkok-riverside.anantara.com
One of my favourite Thai dishes in London is Ben Chapman's scallops at the Smoking Goat. He recommended I visit Elvis Sukiyaki. The air is hot in Soi Yotse, and you have to run a gauntlet between the coal fires to find a table in the alfresco shophouse. Big bottles of Chang arrive from the freezer jacketed in ice. We order a serving of scallops, then we order three more. The bivalves are flame-grilled in the shell, with fatty ground pork and garlic butter, on a sheet of cast iron with nine apertures – the result is a surprisingly earthy sweetness. It's the kind of experience that makes a 24-hour flight a matter of small inconvenience.
And it's the kind of experience chefs around the world are attempting to replicate in their respective cities. Though both Dylan Jones and David Thompson are quick to differentiate their restaurants from street food, both have 'drinking food' concepts in the offing.
Dylan explains: "Thai street food is complex and interesting and the most accessible part of the cuisine, especially for foreigners. In most cases it's also possibly the easiest to replicate outside of Thailand, which in my opinion makes it the most popular among cooks as well."
As we pack it in and prepare to head back to London, it's good to know that chefs like Andy Oliver and Ben Chapman are carrying the (very fiery) torch at home.