AWritten by David J Constable
It’s a futile attempt to try and conquer the full expanse of the Thai flavour wheel, although that doesn’t stop people from trying.
Bangkok lagged behind many Southeast Asian cities for years, without the affluence and access to the outside world and remained an almost hidden, tucked-away conurbation, overshadowed and unvisited. Now, that has all changed and Bangkok has been thrust into the culinary elite. The city is more than just a burgeoning food scene. It’s a full throttle, in-your-face, slap of technicolour. The food here is a deliriously fearsome bash of fire and sour and salt and smoke; of the high ethereal waft of turmeric and lemongrass. It’s a proper no-hold-barred indulgence at every level; from the street food vendors with their roaming carts to Michelin-rated restaurants.
For a genuine and authentic exploration of what the city has to offer, you need to peek beneath the surface. Go deeper, explore the Sois and khlongs, and discover an expanse of curries and a beguiling array of fruits and vegetables. Try the staples of Pad Thai (Thai Style Fried Noodles) and Som Tam (Spicy Green Papaya Salad) by all means, but then venture deeper.
Explore the khlongs and try the famous Kway Teow Rua (Boat Noodles – cover photo), tiny bowls assembled on small boats by old ladies and consisting of egg noodles, pork and fermented bean curd, all added to a deep-red broth of pig’s blood. Various toppings were added over the years – beef, garlic, crab balls, offal cuts – and it is recommended to try between four and eight for full culinary satisfaction. Also, no visit to Bangkok complete without Moo Ping, the grilled pork skewers of street vendors, nor Lan Larb Bpet (deep-fried duck beaks), but don’t confuse Larb with Laab. The latter is a northeastern-style spicy salad with meat, mushroom and mint, while the other includes Larb Mote Daeng (Red Ant Eggs).
Vendors have become accustomed to the point-and-order farangs, unable to wrap their tongues around the pronunciation of say, Sai Ooah (northern Thai sausage) or Kao Niew Ma Muang (Mango sticky rice). Another simple classic is Pork Fried Rice which, for me, never disappoints.
At Nai Mong Hoy Tod in Chinatown, a restaurant that sells nothing but oyster omelettes, dive into a rolled, crispy, tapioca flour-creation of decadence – and pay no more than THB150 (€4.00) for a Bib Gourmand omelette. Finish with a sprinkle of white pepper and a splash of sriracha chilli sauce. Chinatown is a great place to explore the culinary history of the city. Bangkok was a Chinese city in the 19th century, and up until the 1920s, most Thais lived outside the city. Much of the street food nowadays is a hybrid of Thai, Chinese and Malay – reflecting the waves of immigration.
If you want to up the ante – and the financial spend – then the iconic Jay Fai crab omelette is a football-sized morsel bulging with crab meat. This Michelin-starred street-side restaurant has been in operation for over forty years. On the subject of crab, try local favourite Apsorn’s Kitchen, also known as Krua Apsorn, near the National Library, for Stir-Fried Crab in curry powder. Also, in Silom, there’s the joltingly hot Super Spicy Chicken Wing Soup at Somtum Der.
Venture to Aw Taw Kaw in Chatuchak and enter into the malodorous megalopolis market for fistfuls of durian (“The Stinky Fruit”) and fragrant mango. Some of the makeshift restaurants around the periphery of the market sell sensational sauces and relishes too. Try Sai Grok (fermented sausage) at one of the little outposts, and 100% Arabica Royal Project Thai Coffee from Chaing Mai.
Speaking of markets, Khlong Toei offers visitors one of the most authentic experiences in the city. Bangkok’s biggest fresh market is labyrinthine; winding lanes selling raw meat – both dead and alive – along with seafood and farm produce. If you have a weak stomach, avoid Kob (frogs), which are a popular delicacy in Thailand but are prepared by removing the skin, while alive, and hacking at the limbs with a cleaver; and Goong Ten (Dancing Shrimp), made with live shrimps, however, it’s rather wonderful for those with a more adventurous streak.