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Monks in saffron robes crowd the railings of packed commuter boats. Tugs, tethered together like balloons, struggle to pull heavy convoys of barges upriver. Long-tailed speedboats, as brightly decorated as they are deafening, bounce over the wakes of teak riverboats that bob along seemingly without direction.
I’m on the Chao Phraya, Bangkok’s River of Kings, motoring north in the Siam Hotel’s elegant golden teak rice barge, past the elegant wats, iridescent temples and gilded palaces that have helped make Thailand’s capital one of the most-visited cities in the world. This is my second journey to Bangkok, the first one having occurred more than two decades earlier. The gap of nearly 25 years between the trips makes it feel like a brand-new city, which in many ways it is.
These days, high-rises are popping up where humble fishermen’s shacks once stood; boutique hotels are crowding out the backpacker hostels. Everywhere, luxury-apartment developments advertise themselves with evergreater levels of hyperbole: Billboards promote buildings promising “a new era of dynamism and prosperity” amid “a retail phenomenon for the world.” Even those offers pale in comparison, however, to one developer’s vow of nothing less than “nirvana beyond all perfectivity.”
That’s a high bar. But if such a thing can be found anywhere, it’s probably here. I came close to achieving it when I arrived late at night after a gruelling series of flights and saw a liveried chauffeur with my name on a sign waiting to take me to the Peninsula Bangkok; I approached it again the next day at that hotel’s plush spa, where I was lulled into a hypnagogic state by the judicious application of oils infused with calendula and ginger. Another night, across the river at the Shangri-La Hotel, it was the sinuous movements of Khon dancers in elaborate costumes and intricately carved masks that nearly got me there.
More than anything, though, it’s the potent, tensile balance of hot, sweet, sour and salty flavours constituting Thai food that brings me closest to bliss. That was also the case 24 years ago. When I first arrived in Bangkok in 1990, I had never heard of, let alone tasted it. Every day brought new dishes and ingredients – rich curries redolent with aromatics, torrid soups that set off fits of hiccuping, relishes of profound, eye-watering funkiness – that expanded my understanding of food and flavour.
Most of my eating was done on the streets, where I would wander from stall to stall and, if something looked good, smelled tempting or just seemed especially popular, I’d try it. This method led to some incredible discoveries, but also the occasional calamitous dud. This time around, I wanted to beat the odds, so I enlisted the services of Daniel Fraser, a Canadian expatriate and the co-founder of Smiling Albino, a leading adventure-tour company. Fraser speaks fluent Thai and is something of a celebrity in his adopted country, where he hosts his own adventure-travel show and is the face of Thai tourism in a series of ads. As a bonus, he loves to eat.
“The food culture really started with the Chinese labourers who came to Bangkok about 100 years ago,” Fraser explains. “They weren’t allowed to own property and the law at the time decreed that anyone who didn’t own their own land couldn’t cook inside, so they put their woks in front of their houses and cooked there. One neighbour would say ‘What are you cooking?’ and the other neighbour would say ‘I’m going to do fish’ or ‘I’m going to do vegetables’ and that became Bangkok street food.”
With this in mind, Fraser directs us toward Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road, where the brightly lit signs are matched in intensity by the barrage of aromas emanating from innumerable vendors. The woody, robust smell of roasted chestnuts blends into the intense porkiness of kuay jap nam sai (a soup based on pork offal), which in turn gives way to the candied-ginger aroma of bua loy nam king, sticky-rice balls stuffed with sesame paste in ginger-tea broth.
We squeeze into a communal table among hundreds of other diners at Lek & Rut, a seafood restaurant seemingly located in the middle of a busy street. More than once the rearview mirrors from cars pulling out of the alley require Fraser to duck to avoid getting bumped. Undaunted, we tear apart giant smoky-sweet prawns and dip them in chili-spiked fish sauce, devour the tender stems of water mimosa and ladle bowl after bowl of sadistically spicy tom yum kung from a Sterno-fuelled hotpot. A downpour begins and the practised staff has tarps pulled over us before the crispy edges of my or lua (oyster omelette) have a chance to go soggy.
This is Thai food as I remember it, eaten on the street, where aesthetic concerns are strictly limited to what goes on the plastic plates. Delicious, but definitely no-frills. To get a taste of how the cuisine is expressed at the highest levels in Bangkok today, I booked a reservation at Nahm, widely considered one of the finest, most progressive Thai restaurants in the world.
It might seem blasphemous to have an Australian cooking Thai food in Bangkok, but David Thompson has silenced his critics by becoming the first chef to win a Michelin star for a Thai restaurant, by repeatedly placing on the World’s 50 Best list and simply by cooking utterly delicious food that respects tradition while continually evolving the cuisine.
Inside the cool, quiet confines of the restaurant, dark, polished-marble floors support stacked columns and spotlights pinpoint delicate flower arrangements. A solicitous waiter in a crisp blue shirt and tie explains each dish in perfect English. “This is blue swimmer crab with peanuts and pickled garlic on rice cakes,” he says, presenting a pair of tiny white pyramids that are equal parts fresh crunch and saline slickness with a bright, herbaceous acidity. Salted thread-fin perch with chili and green mango on betel leaves is ripe with the kind of funky, intense flavours (think blue cheese) almost entirely absent in Western versions of Thai food. A northern-Thai-inspired “jungle curry” plays the dark, meaty flavours of salted beef against the headiness of wild ginger, peppery Thai basil and astringent madan fruit. It’s a meal as complex and beautiful as a mathematical equation.
Have I reached culinary nirvana? I have come pretty damn close. Have I achieved nirvana beyond all perfectivity? Not quite. Removed so completely from the street and served in such a polished, comfortable setting, the food seems almost too perfect, lacking something of the rough energy that propels Bangkok and its cuisine.
On my last night in the city, I meet up with Jason Friedman, general manager of the Siam, the new, ultrastylish riverside boutique hotel that combines elements of classical Thai architecture with a Jazz Age sensibility. Friedman is renowned in hospitality circles, having already opened the phenomenal Four Seasons Tented Camp in Chiang Mai, so I was only too happy to accept his invitation to visit some of his favourite spots.
“Upmarket” is a relative term for an area that, in Friedman’s words, “looks like a Grateful Dead parking lot” on any given night of the week, but it does feel more touristy and less edgy. We make our way through the throngs, duck down a small alley and out onto a side street where a car and driver materialize to take us to dinner.
A short while later, we pull up to a bright streetside restaurant surrounded by European luxury sedans. This is Jae Fai, home to the legendary chef of the same name, a serious, laconic woman who has stood over these same woks, in a wool cap and heavy boots, turning out some of the city’s most renowned street food, for more than 30 years.
No sooner are we seated – at a comfortable albeit plastic table – than a silver ice bucket with a cold bottle of wine sticking out of it is placed beside the table along with a set of tall-stemmed glasses. This is Friedman’s doing and it’s a stroke of brilliance. Drinking expensive sauvignon blanc at a streetside restaurant might seem incongruous – except that this is Jae Fai. “My mother shops every day for her ingredients,” Jae Fai’s daughter, who speaks fluent English, tells us. “The vendors know to give her only the best. If their product isn’t good enough, they won’t even show it to her. If it’s good, they set it aside especially for her.”
Consequently, it is only the fattest prawns and freshest calamari that she tosses, along with wide rice noodles, into her pad kee mao (drunken noodles). This is the dish that Jae Fai is most famous for: sticky, intense and imbued with that haunting, caramelized smokiness, known as wok hey, that happens when a great chef cooks with a well-seasoned wok over high heat. And it was show-stopping, although nothing could have prepared me for what came next. On an oval plate garnished only with a sprig of cilantro rested a golden crab omelette, crispier, rounder and more beautiful than any omelette has a right to be. Friedman encouraged me to crack it open and, when I did, great chunks of steaming crabmeat fell out. Then I took a bite, relishing the sweet, delicate shellfish, barely bound together by a crisp, gossamer coating of impossibly light egg.
I closed my eyes, breathed in deeply. The noise of the city had retreated. For a moment, I was there: nirvana beyond all perfectivity. Then I opened my eyes and went in for another bite.
Where to eat in Bangkok (and what to have)
Chinatown’s YAOWARAT ROAD for high-quality street food (Lek & Rut, at the intersection of Yaowarat and Soi Texas, is especially recommended).
David Thompson’s NAHM in the Metropolitan by COMO hotel (www.comohotels.com) for upscale Thai food including “jungle curry.”
JAE FAI (327 Mahachai Road) for the drunken noodles and golden crab omelette.