Bangkok: Food City

One of the first impressions that strike visitors to Bangkok is that eating is a national obsession. It’s a correct impression: Thais nibble all day long, and in the evenings the city slows down for the daily ritual of long dinners outdoors. Makeshift restaurants and food stalls sprout all over the city’s streets at dusk, usurping many pavements in many neighbourhood, and groups of Thais settle on tables with a bottle of whiskey and a bewildering array of dishes. Indeed, most inhabitants in Bangkok do eat out every day: the latest city survey in 2005 found that eighty-four percent of Bangkok’s inhabitants always eat out. Add to this some delectable facts – Thai cuisine is among the best in the world, Bangkok offers Thai food from all Thai regions, and intense competition coupled with cultural importance attached to food keeps prices extraordinarily low – and it becomes easy to see why Bangkok’s greatest allure is its food. Bangkok is a food city, and here’s a guide to what to eat and where to find it.

 

 

Street Food

The venerable food stalls with tables set out on the pavement are a quintessential Bangkok institution, spreading on pavements all day long and becoming denser at night. The commonest dish you’ll encounter is the noodle soup – good and hearty, it comes with a variety of meats or seafood or wantons, and more creative combinations. Other ubiquitous one-plate dishes found in street stalls include pad thai (noodles fried with dried shrimps, tofu, bean-sprouts, almonds, and some herbs), radna (noodles with either seafood or meat and vegetables in a thick gravy), moo phat kaprao (pork stir-fried with chilli, garlic, basil, and oyster sauce, then served over rice), chicken or duck on rice (the bird boiled or deep-fried, then shredded and served over rice with a creamy sweet-salty sauce and a separate bowl of chicken soup).

 

Aside from these simple stalls, which only serve water in the way of drinks, are larger semi-permanent street eateries where you can have more substantial meals consisting of different sauces and rice. These feature menus, mostly operate after dark, and serve many drinks, including beer and whiskey. The food – Thai popular dishes – is as good as what can be had in indoor restaurants, yet cheaper due to lower overhead costs. These kind of street-side restaurants appear everywhere in Bangkok in the evenings, and it’s hard to recommend any specific ones as all are similar and most are good. Clusters of these eateries, however, can be found in the sois (alleys) off Silom Road, especially in Soi Convent, and there are another good bunch of them in Samsen Road Soi 2 – the latter open all night, and they are perfect choices if you want to find somewhere to eat after the oppressive nightly 2am curfew.

 

A more sophisticated incarnation of these street-side-eateries are the open-garage style eateries which have larger and more complex menus and prices only marginally more expensive that their brethren on the streets. Once again, many of these are similarly good, although one that particularly stands above the rest is Krua Aroy Aroy (Pan Road, Silom Road; Tel: 0816201399; open, unusually, only from 10am–4pm) – a place renowned for its range of hearty, dense Thai curry soups, as well as other rare delicacies such as a paste of pork and shrimp and salted egg.

 

 

Indoor Air-Con Restaurants

Thai traditional dishes alongside some more outlandish concoctions can be found in the Thai-style indoor restaurants. This type of restaurants place value on affordability: simple décor, dishes only a trifle more expensive than open-garage restaurants, and yet offering that something extra in the form of air-con and live bands that roll out loud Thai and Western pop music. The food is consistently good, service is irreverent, and groups of Thais make an evening of dinner. One of the best of these restaurants is The Papaya (Soi Saladaeng 2 off Silom Road; 02-2358657; open 11am–11pm) – some outstanding dishes: chicken fried with roasted chilli, bell pepper and cashew nuts; deep-fried patties of prawns; and the superb deep-fried wantons stuffed with laab-style pork. Another great restaurant is Sky High (Rajdamnoen Klang; 02-2241947; open 8am–2am); its dishes are infused with Chinese influences, such as the chicken stir-fried in Chinese dried mushrooms and shredded crab meat, and the outstanding deep-fried whole squid stuffed with minced pork.

 

 

Royal Thai Cooking

“We have a different style of preparing food here,” says Vichit Mukura, chef of Sala Rim Naam at the Oriental Hotel. “Many dishes we do are full of flavour but not spicy.” It’s a kind of preparation loosely defined as Royal Thai Cuisine, a subgenre of Thai food that is low in pungent ingredients, rather sweet, and packed with flavours that linger on the palate. Less than a dozen places feature this cuisine in Bangkok – and all of them are relatively expensive (expect to pay around 1,000 baht per head including drinks), although you would also be paying for exquisite setting and impeccable service. Sala Rim Naam (Oriental Hotel, Oriental Avenue; 02-2360400; open lunch and dinner) does it in a traditionally faithful manner – expect many Thai curry soups and excellent condiments. Another restaurant, which has become something of an institution, is the Blue Elephant (33 South Sathorn Road; 02-6739353; open lunch and dinner). There’s lots of memorable dishes to choose from, all artistically created; these include the slightly sweet and tender dumplings stuffed with minced pork, or the fillet of sea-bass marinated in chilli, onion, garlic, basil, and red curry paste, and then grilled in a boat of bamboo – deep textures, slightly sweet, a whiff of smoky bamboo flavour.

 

 

Seafood on the River

A dozen restaurants scattered on the banks of the Chao Phraya River specialize in seafood and live entertainment, and eating at these places are protracted social occasions, something that befits the romantic river setting. The most upscale of these, Supatra River House (266 Soi Wat Rakhang, Arunamarin Road; 02-4110305; open lunch and dinner), is a tourist-oriented place complete with Thai traditional dances. Expect to pay 800 baht for a meal including drinks for original dishes such as seafood dumplings in a green curry soup or grilled prawns served with a tamarind sauce. Up the river, Khinlom-Chom-Sa-Phan (Samsen Soi 3; 02-6288382/3; open 11am–1am) is more affordable, featuring live Thai bands and large portions that attract a mostly-Thai clientele. There are all sorts of seafood dishes on the menu – traditional stuff like sea-bass in a steamboat soup of tamarind leaves, chilli, and lemon, or more inventive things like the various dips made from sea-food and served with vegetable crudités, as well as the unforgettable soft-shelled crab in yellow curry sauce.

 

 

Artistic Restaurants

Boutique-style restaurants are increasingly popular among young urbane cultured Thais – these are typically small spaces in restored old-style houses that feature rotating art exhibitions, tasteful music, and small menus of classic dishes, some done with a twist. There is a concentration of them in Phra Athit Road – at least six in this short road alone, all whipping up a roundup of dishes which includes stir-fried dishes, soups, and spicy yam salads. One of the best in Phra Athit Road is Bar Bali (02-6290318; open 6pm–midnight): the Thai curry soups are particularly good, especially the red curry with duck, aubergines, green peppercorns, kaffir lime leaves, basil leaves, and coconut milk. The nearby Comme (no telephone; same hours) is a larger place that features nightly live music – great dishes include the dried-salted fish in a spicy tamarind soup and the catfish salad (the fish is shredded, deep-fried, and then served on a bed of green mango and spicy-sweet sauce made from vinegar, sugar, and chilli). Comme’s popularity has spawned a sister operation called Ta Ling (Soi Wang Lang, Arun Road; 02-4123993; open Tue–Sun 4pm–midnight). Although slightly hard to find, set on the western bank of the river, it has the best décor and setting of all – tables on a riverfront terrace and minimal decor whose highlight is a few well-chosen sculptures and paintings.

 

 

Thai Fusion Cuisine

Of late some restaurants have started experimenting with Thai-based fusion cuisine, in which Thai dishes are fused with techniques or influences from other cuisines. Instant popularity means that many more restaurants of this type will follow, but for the moment it’s hard to find a table at the most famous of these places, called Pla Dib (which means ‘raw fish’), especially on weekends. At Pla Dib (Soi Areesamphan 7; 02-2798185) you’ll find all sorts of inventive food: sashimi-style raw fish served with Thai laab sauce (lemon, fish sauce, mint, and roasted ground rice); pizzas flavoured with dill instead of oregano; Thai-style deep-fried dried strips of pork that are given a twist by marinating the meat in spices and serving it with a chilli sauce made of soy sauce instead of the lime juice.

 

 

Thai Wines for Spicy Food

Over the past ten years half a dozen professional winemakers have sprouted up in Thailand, and now the industry produces about 1 million bottles of wine annually. The wines are distinctly Thai – a character that arises from the local ecological conditions. Generally speaking, the character of Thai wine is fruity, light in body, low in tannins, and slightly sweet – characteristics that make it well suited for spicy food. Unlike traditional Western wines, which can taste bitter and acidic with spicy food, Thai wines – particularly the white wines – are enhanced by the peppery and sweet extraneous vitality of Thai dishes. Even the Shiraz produced by the winemakers, for example, is less peppery than traditional Shiraz, and spicy food enhances its spicy bite.  

 

Such compatibility with spicy food have led the winemakers to adopt the marketing motto of Thai-wines-for-spicy-food. It’s a winner in promotion, and some diners in Thai restaurants, especially outside Thailand, are enticed enough by the concept to opt for a Thai wine. Within Thailand the wines are now available in nine out of ten five-star hotels, as well as many upscale standalone restaurants, particularly in Bangkok (including some of the ones mentioned here: Blue Elephant, Pla Dib, Supatra River House, and Sala Rim Naam). They are also available in supermarkets and some upscale department stores.

 

Experimentation is ongoing, and Thai wines are getting better year after year – the wines are already competent and rather good, but they still have some way to go before they reach the quality of traditional wines grown in Europe and the more recent waves of wines from the New World. Drunk independently, these Thai wines are rather flat, but they work better with spicy food than traditional non-Thai wines – which makes these Thai wines the best choice when drinking wine with Thai food.

 

© Victor Paul Borg. The article above was published in Smile, the inflight magazine of the Philippines’ Cebu Pacific Airline.

 

Victor Borg showing pictures to farmers.

CULTURAL INSIGHT

 Victor has lived in 6 countries in 3 continents; he understands Asian cultures intimately. 

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 Victor has explored dozens of countries; he knows China, Southeast Asia, & the Mediterranean very well.

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FOODIE ZONE EAST

 Victor has written extensively about food; he has studious and practical knowledge of Chinese, Indian, Filipino, Thai & Mediterranean cuisines.

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