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Bangkok’s joyous cuisine

Bangkok’s joyous cuisine

Eat your way around Thailand in a day

Eat your way around Thailand in a day

Jon Fasman | February/March 2017

The waiter at Nahm – a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by David Thompson, an Australian chef and authority on Thai cuisine – laid a simple plate with two meatballs on the table. They were made from prawn, chicken and peanuts, simmered in palm sugar and served on a thin slice of pineapple, with two slivered commas of Thai chilli on top. They looked ordinary, but in the mouth they turned into a quick tour of Thai flavours: first the astringency of the pineapple, then the basso-profundo sweetness of the palm sugar, oceanic savouriness from the prawns and earthiness from the peanuts, ending with a quick sear from the chillies.

It was delicious. More importantly, it was delightful. It was not traditional, but gaily captured the essence of what may be the world’s most playful, joyous cuisine. Western Thai restaurants, with their standard menu of satay, Pad Thai and rainbow curry, obscure the tongue-tickling diversity of the cuisine in Thailand. In the south you find spice-marinated gai tod – perhaps the world’s tastiest fried chicken – and Malay-influenced coconut curries. The jungly north features herbs and vegetables you never see anywhere else; and the food in Isaan, the arid north-east, is austere, fiery and revolves around sticky rice. In Bangkok you can eat your way around Thailand in a day.

There may be some Thai dishes you dislike, but there will never be one that bores you. Some will surprise you. On an early-morning walk to the subway, I bought breakfast from a street vendor, who filled a Styrofoam clamshell with what I took to be braised cabbage tossed with fermented sour sausage, crushed spheres of deep-fried rice, peanuts, chillies and seasonings. I showed a picture of the dish to Mark Wiens, an American transplant to Bangkok who has made a career eating and blogging his way around Asia. He told me that what I ate was in fact sliced, boiled pig skin (very tasty, in case you were wondering).

Some may also intimidate you. At river-taxi stands you can buy snacks by the skewer: not just delicious-smelling pork and chicken, but also lurid red sausages and whole squid with tentacles akimbo. I’ve never been able to bring myself to eat raw laap – chopped fatty pork, offal and blood mixed with a cabinet’s worth of spices – and I steer clear of the grilled worms, crispy crickets and globulous little ant eggs.

But bugs are mostly curiosities in rich, cosmopolitan Bangkok, which had two restaurants on the most recent San Pellegrino list of the world’s best: Nahm and Gaggan. The latter does not serve Thai cuisine – Gaggan Anand, the chef, worked at El Bulli, and brings Ferran Adria’s scientific wizardry to his native Bengali cuisine – but in its inventiveness and elegance, it fits perfectly in Bangkok. At Nahm, the sense of playfulness is more restrained: my main course was a single, perfectly fried butterfish, cut lengthwise and presented in an Escheresque loop, heads eating tails. More impressive is the attention the kitchen pays to texture and temperature, and its ability to draw from all social strata. The stand-out dish for me was a salad of green mango and grilled pork, the cool mango perhaps a half-day riper and sweeter than usual, the warm pork crisp and salty and the dressing redolent of rustic plaa raa, a fermented-fish paste you can find on farmers’ tables throughout the Mekong basin.

The night after eating at Nahm I found myself in Yaowarat, Bangkok’s frenetic Chinatown. Lek & Rut Seafood spilled out onto the streets as usual, with diners on tiny plastic chairs, their knees around their ears. The atmosphere was somewhere between no-frills and penitential, but the fish, grilled or steamed, was peerless, and the restaurant’s heat, grime, chaos and joy could exist nowhere else.

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