Man, the Thais have food figured out.
It’s not just good. It’s great. It’s sweet, savory, fruity, sour, bitter, surprising. It’s amazing. We get okay Thai food at home, but it truly doesn’t compare to the fabulous offerings–often street-side–in Thailand.
Thai food is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most sophisticated cuisines. It gets lumped in with fast-food and takeout back home, but it is complex and innovative and just plain fabulous. It’s annoying that the best cuisines of the world–Indian, Thai, Mexican and so on–don’t get the recognition they deserve. Since they come from not-rich countries, they get not-rich food status. I’m so sick of France and its bouilla-bullshit getting all these Michelin stars. Thai food, rise up!
I did my part to support the Thai food industry during my time there. I did both a walking food tour of Bangkok and a cooking class in the northern city of Chiang Mai.
Food Tour of Bangrak (Silom) Neighborhood.
On my last day in Bangkok, I took a food tour around the Bangrak (Silom) neighborhood. My tour mates were a gay couple from DC, a pair of sisters from Sydney, and a French/Finnish-American couple. The guides were two super affable, quirky young Thais. The food tour cost $30, lasted three hours and included five stops.
1. Charoen Wieng Pochana. Traditional Roasted Duck Served on Rice.
Our first stop! We were full of anticipation. We learned that the owner of the restaurant, who was seated nearby, came to Thailand in the 50s from China. He worked as laborer for awhile before opening this restaurant, now 51 years ago. The duck used is free-range and therefore very lean–not the fatty duck I’m used to eating in restaurants. It was served with pickled ginger and cucumber. It was tasty. The sauce was good. But the skin wasn’t crispy and it didn’t leave a lasting impression on me. Still, if I’d ordered it, I’d be very satisfied.
2. Muslim Restaurant (this is its real name! I think). Curry Lava on Egg.
Our second stop on the tour was the oldest one–this place has been around for more than 100 years. An Indian fellow came to Thailand and began selling his curries on the street before moving into this location. He’s long dead, but the place retains a picture of him on the wall, and his granddaughter now owns the place. She was on hand to receive compliments. I’m allergic to eggs, so I just tasted the curry sauce–very tasty indeed. It was a thinnish sauce with whole leaves of cilantro and thinly sliced red onions adding some punch.
3. Yum Rod Sab. Crispy Catfish with Green Mango Salad–and a secret dish!
Our first truly pure Thai stop on the tour. The owner came to Bangkok from northeastern Thailand about 20 years ago. To get there, we had to board a ferry and cross the river (eyeing the luxurious Mandarin Oriental Hotel along the way). Her shop is perched along the docks and was filled with hungry monks, scooping food into their mouths and shyly avoiding eye contact with the women in our group.
This one stop proved to be a full meal–I couldn’t eat nearly what was put in front of me. First was the fried catfish–curious! They first cook the fish, then shredded it, then deep-fry it quickly. The result is light-as-air, and I’d have never guessed it was fish. It was deep fried but didn’t taste oily–though the way it immediately melted in your mouth was a giveaway. It was served alongside a watery mango salad that, despite its innucuous appearance, packed a ton of spice. The combination of the two together was divine.
Then the secret dish–a sliced pork salad with red onion, cilantro, scallions and sliced chilis. We were all stuffed, but aimed our forks at the dish to try a bite–and then an accompanying green papaya salad came out, causing us all to groan aloud. Nonetheless, both were delicious, though the pork salad was vastly elevated by combining it with the acidic papaya salad.
Leaving the dock, we were confronted by a fried banana vendor. The guides asked if anyone wanted to try it. NOOOOO, we all yelled, already stuffed. But they bought us a sample anyway. They were great–sweet but not soggy, and rolled quickly in sesame seeds.
4. The Panlee Bakery. Thai-Style Green Custard Bun and Thai BBQ Pork Bun. Thai Iced Tea.
Oof, please, not more food. And bread? You gotta be kidding. But they weren’t kidding, and we all crowded into the tiny, hip little Panlee Bakery. Its fourth-generation owner is of Chinese descent and carries on a 56-year tradition at the bakery. It doesn’t look historic, though: The bakery is a cafe, too, and serves fancy iced lattes and has free wi-fi, snazzed up by sans-serif fonts and minimalist decor.
The green custard bun, surprisingly, may have been my favorite item on the entire tour. It’s called kanam pung sankaya–sankaya being a common flavor in Asian baked goods. The guide compared it to the West’s use of vanilla. The bread was chewy and a bit flaky, and the green filling was a mixture of sankaya, coconut milk, sugar and other goodness that I can’t identify. It was positively delightful. Some people bought a few extra to take home with them, but I resisted.
The other item, the BBQ pork bun (kanam pung moo dang), was heavier. The filling was sweet, chunky, not drippy, and tasted like my mom’s pork barbeque. I was expecting a Chinese dim sum-style bun–but that wasn’t quite it. The bread was greasier and heavy. It was very, very tasty–but I was so full already that I couldn’t finish it.
The Thai tea served alongside the buns wasn’t the creamy sweet concoction we’re used to seeing in Thai restaurants (though THAT is ubiquitous on the streets everywhere), but a super-sweet lemony tea that balanced the saltiness of the pork bun nicely. It was surprisingly refreshing.
5. Kallaprapruek. Original Thai Green Curry Served on Roti. Thai-Style Coconut Ice Cream.
Before arriving at the last stop on the tour, the guides pulled us off the busy Silom Road and made us huddle reverently by a statue. The male guide explained in a hushed tone that this was a statue of the fifth king of Thailand–much revered even today for his progressive reforms, like opening the first Western hospital and abolishing slavery. We listened patiently, understanding that the Thais take their royalty very seriously and we’d better do our best to look awed.
He finished talking, perked up and announced brightly: “And this king’s grandson owns the next restaurant!” And off we went to a super-swanky, modern outfit filled with Ladies Who Lunch and Men Who Do Business. We walked through the bakery section, teeming with Western pastries and Asian delights.
Roti is not a classically Thai item, but was brought here, like many other influences, from India way back when. The owner of this place takes his own spin on it by deep-frying the bread and sprinkling it with sugar. It was served alongside a small dish of green curry–absolutely divine, fragrant, subtle, well-balanced flavors. The chicken in it was a bit fatty and I found the roti to be totally overwhelming, so I didn’t finish this portion, either. The curry was a winner, but the whole dish didn’t do it for me.
Interestingly, this king’s grandson is very into urban agriculture and has founded an organic vegetable and rural/urban farmers’ alliance. All the veggies served on-site come from the project, known as the Royal Project, and some of the profits go to that cause.
The guides whisked our plates away and we prepared for the final sample–coconut ice cream. It was explained that there are two kinds of coconut ice cream–the kind made with cream, and the kind made just with coconut milk and ice. The latter was the kind we’d try today. Sadly, it’s the only food item I didn’t get a picture of–my camera had died. It was more like a granita than ice cream per se, which was a relief given all of our bursting bellies. It was refreshing and cool and had nice fleshy chunks of coconut.
The food tour–worth it. I recommend it to anyone. Even though it took place from 10a-1p and was technically “lunch,” I didn’t eat again until the next day.
Cooking School in Chiang Mai
Then came Chiang Mai–the north of the country is known for its distinct cuisine. Several days after the food tour in Bangkok, I had mostly digested, so I signed up for a cooking course at the Baan Thai Cookery School–a fun and funny experience. It was an evening course, which included a visit to the market, four courses, and a recipe book. It cost about $23.
The general set-up is several kitchens full of burners, with most things already prepped. We were able to choose from three options what to cook for each course. We’d split up according to dish chosen, chop up some ingredients, take positions at our own stovetop (with individual wok and condiment station), and mix them together doing exactly what the instructor said.
Course 1: Stir-fried Prawn with Curry Powder
Course 2: Coconut soup with chicken
Course 3: Papaya Salad
I love papaya salad. I usually order it at home, but the papaya salad in Thailand just transcends all other papaya salad ever. The end. I was thrilled to learn how to make it–it’s not too hard, though finding a few ingredients may be tricky.
Course 4: Khao Soy
For the last course, some people chose Panang Curry and others chose Khao Soy, a dish Chiang Mai is known for. As it turns out, we all made panang curry paste, and then us Khao Soy-ers used the paste in our noodle dish. Making the curry paste was fun–tons of chopping, mashing, morter-and-pestling and laughing.
On some menus back home, Khao Soy is known as Chiang Mai Noodle. I can get it at Thai Gourmet in Bloomfield. It is, without a doubt, my favorite Thai dish. Again, the home version is a poor imitation, but it’ll do. In fact, even the cooking school version wasn’t as lip-smackingly good as the street version I had in Chiang Mai.