Monday, 5 March 2012

Bangkok's Food Culture with David Thompson

There’s a saying, “never come between the Thais and their food”. Having just spent a week on the road with eight Thai journalists, I can certainly vouch for that – they are enthusiast, voracious eaters, with meals the focus of every day and a perpetual snack mentality. Seriously, they never stop, from breakfast to dinner and beyond, it’s eat eat eat ... with such gusto and relish, it makes fascinating viewing.

It’s also been terrible for my waistline – I’ve put on two kilos in a week, and that’s after refusing half the food I was offered. It’s simply not fair that the Thais can consume such quantities and remain so slender and beautiful!

For the Thais, life is a moveable feast. Their culture is not like the western “three meals a day” concept. As David Thompson, the famed Australian chef who helms Nahm restaurant in the stylish Metropolitan Hotel tells me, Bangkok doesn’t have a restaurant culture per se – it’s all about street food and home cooking.

And if anyone knows street food, it’s David Thompson. This is the man who controversially brought traditional Thai cooking back to the Thais, a Michelin-starred chef who is every bit as passionate about original Thai tastes and flavours as the locals. I was privileged enough to wander the streets of Bangkok’s Chinatown with him recently, gaining insight into the food culture and learning about the importance of eating in the Thai way of life.

I was curious why David chose Chinatown for his impromptu tour – it didn’t seem like an obvious place to begin exploring Thai cuisine. But as David points out,  Bangkok’s population was once 50 percent Chinese, a reflection of the city’s importance as a world trading hub; and this influx obviously had a huge impact on local food, contributing to its flavours, textures and ingredients.

                (fresh crab for sale on the streets of Chinatown. Pic: Julie Miller)

Wandering through the alleyways of Chinatown is an intriguing experience. “You can find everything here,  food in every form,” David tells me. “Fresh, dried, alive, cooked – it’s all here. This is the most entrepreneurial part of Bangkok – where anything goes.”

In the dim, narrow passageways, we pass stalls selling dried fish, squid crackers, smoked baby pigs, fruit and herbs. Look up and we see original teak houses, humble dwellings with exquisite architecture dating back over 100 years. Every corner, every wrong turn reveals something new, hidden treasures that reveal so much about Thailand, its history and its culture.

We pause for a half hour at Nai Mong Hoi Thod, a hole-in-the-wall eatery which David claims makes the best oyster omelettes in Bangkok. David has been a regular at this family business for several years; when he first discovered it, the family matriarch cooked up the eggy snacks over hot coals. Now her grandson is behind the wok, whipping up these delicious treats to a queues of hungry patrons.

                   (David Thompson in a back alley in Chinatown. Pic: Julie Miller)

With full stomachs (“im, aroi!), we continue our meandering, discovering an old Arabic graveyard behind a mosque, and crumbling walls devoured by banyan trees.

Wandering these streets, David says, is the key to unlocking Bangkok’s culinary and cultural secrets. For anyone who wants to find the real pulse of the city, David’s advice is to “get lost.”

 “This is a safe city, so the only inconvenience from going off the beaten track is that you might have to jump into a taxi to get home. It’s the best way to discover the real Bangkok.”

Later that day, David introduces me to one of his favourite local restaurants, Krua Apsorn, in the northern district of Dusit. Lauded by the New York Times and the Observer, this is, David claims, one of Bangkok’s superior eateries, and a great influence on his own culinary offerings.

“It’s difficult to find a good restaurant above the level of street food in Bangkok,” David tells me. “This is definitely one of the best.”

“Anywhere there are tourists, you’ll never find food with this clarity of taste or poised seasonings. It will ever be cooked with the same integrity and care.”

Of course, David’s own restaurant, Nahm, goes against this trend, offering superior Thai cuisine in a tourist hotspot. Of course, being located in a five-star hotel, there are overheads which are reflected in the price – 1700 baht for a set course, or mains around 400-600 baht. But it’s worth every penny – each bite offers an explosion of taste, wonderful flavours, purity of palette and divine aural combinations, all served share-style in traditional Thai manner.

Even my Thai companions gave it their seal of approval. And coming from these experts (who would never be afraid of bagging out second-rate food), that’s really saying something.


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