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Bangkok’s Curry Crusaders

Bangkok’s street-food scene is revered around the world, but its sit-down places have never rated. Until now, as foreign chefs are setting up new spots that push Thai cuisine forward.

I’m with David Thompson, the Australian-born Thai-food expert and chef, at a venerable Bangkok restaurant that’s a favorite of the royal family. A waiter brings a dish of tiny, delicate flowers called dok anchan with prawns. Thompson tastes it and nods appreciatively. A second dish arrives: yellow curry crab. He frowns. “They didn’t use enough curry powder. When they make this right, it’s amazing. But not today.”

Thompson has gotten into trouble for his critical remarks about Thailand’s restaurants, and for what some Thais perceive as arrogance. In one newspaper interview, he said Thai cuisine was “decaying” and promised to “revive” it through “authenticity.” I can see why his remarks seemed offensive: My first reaction to his comment about the curry powder, even knowing I’m in the presence of one of the greatest Thai-food experts in the world, is to feel what Thais have: Who is this foreigner to criticize a dish served at such a venerable institution? Then I taste the crab. And he’s right, dammit. It’s not bad at all; it just doesn’t have enough curry kick to make it superlative. That taste, and lots of other smart observations, convince me that this farang (Thai for foreigner) chef has earned the right to make judgments: He has been coming to Bangkok for more than 25 years, speaks fluent Thai and is exploring the history of the cuisine with a convert’s fervor.

I am in Bangkok to visit Thompson’s two-year-old restaurant, Nahm, and he has agreed to take me on an eating tour. We start with extraordinary street food, but when I ask him to suggest a sit-down Thai restaurant, he struggles. “There hasn’t been a strong restaurant culture,” he says. The perception among most Thais is that high-end restaurants should serve French, Italian or Chinese food— not Thai.

Acclaimed chef Ian Kittichai, who now heads restaurants in Bangkok and around the world, grew up cooking Thai food at his mother’s modest Bangkok grocery and street stall. “But when I later had a chance to cook professionally, I didn’t make Thai food at first,” he says. “Most young chefs here want to cook Western food.” Kittichai’s first Thai-food restaurant wasn’t in Bangkok; it was in New York City. “The challenge is that Thai people don’t generally want to pay more for Thai food when they can find it on the street at a low price,” says Kittichai.

Over the past few years, however, a crew of unusual suspects— white guys from places like Sydney and Allentown, Pennsylvania— have opened Thai restaurants in Bangkok. To the surprise of many, these restaurants don’t just live up to the reputation of the country’s incredible cuisine, they push it in surprising new, but arguably still authentic, directions. My goal is to eat at these farang-run places and try to understand why foreign chefs have been able to seize this opportunity to cook Thai food in its birthplace.

Soul Food Mahanakorn

Chef: Jarrett Wrisley
Hometown: Allentown, Pennsylvania

Jarrett Wrisley came to Thailand from Pennsylvania via Shanghai, not as a chef but as a food writer. When he moved to Bangkok four years ago and surveyed the local food scene, he came to a quick conclusion: There were plenty of street stalls to hit after a hard night of drinking, but few restaurants where you’d want to take a date and have dinner and a few drinks. He decided to open one, and he went to David Thompson for advice. “It’s a terrible idea,” Thompson told him. “Don’t do it.” Wrisley would not be deterred. He looked to his favorite Thai place in Bangkok, Raan Jay Fai, for inspiration: It is a hole-in-the-wall operation, but it offers some of the finest noodles in the city, cooked over charcoal by an aging wok master using the finest seafood available. Raan Jay Fai charges eight or 10 times what ordinary noodle stalls do, but it has enough devoted customers to succeed.

In pursuit of this ideal, Wrisley searched for the best street-food cooks he could find. Just as Latinos are the unseen workforce behind many New York City restaurants, people from the rural northeastern region of Thailand called Isaan staff most of Bangkok’s professional kitchens. Wrisley found some outstanding Isaan street cooks, including a spectacular wok-man. He worked with them to come up with variations on the food they knew, especially the food of Isaan— most famous for the spicy papaya salad called som tum and char-grilled meats— using local, fresh, sustainable ingredients. As we wander through a market, Wrisley points out the farm-raised tilapia so common here: “It’s very popular and very tasteless,” he says. “I choose mackerel instead. It’s wild. And it’s delicious.”

Wrisley’s Soul Food Mahanakorn (Mahanakorn is Thai for “great big city”) is packed with expats and “hi so” (high society) Thais every night. “Some Thai customers tell me that this is what Thai food used to taste like,” says Wrisley. “Others say this doesn’t taste like Thai food at all.” One of the pleasures of the place is mixing different types of dishes together, something you can’t do at the hyper-specialized street stalls. Eggplant salad, rich with smoky flavor from the grill and dressed with fresh herbs, pairs with a perfectly cooked plate of sliced skirt steak. Grilled meat served on the street is often stringy and fatty, but here, it’s a revelation: Luscious pork jowl gets crisped on the grill, wrapped in lettuce, sprinkled with peanuts and served with homemade tamarind jam. Even Thompson can’t resist coming here now: On my second visit, I found him installed at the bar after he’d finished dinner service at Nahm.

Bo.Lan

Chefs: Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava
Hometown: Canberra, Australia (Jones), Bangkok (Songvisava)

Thompson has passed his fascination with Thai cuisine on to many of his cooks, like Dylan Jones, an Australian who worked as sous-chef under Thompson before opening Bo.Lan in Bangkok with his wife, Bo Songvisava. Bangkok is Songvisava’s hometown, but she’s half-Thai and half-Taiwanese, so she also has somewhat of an outsider’s perspective.

I meet them at Or Tor Kor market, a vast space lined with food stands stacked with bright tropical fruits. We walk the aisles and they chat with vendors, showing me local vegetables they buy from a project sponsored by the king of Thailand, and tasting a pungent, musky chile relish made from inch-long bugs. Before they opened, the couple crisscrossed the countryside for inspiration. “It’s really hard to find good Thai food in big cities,” says Jones. “In rural places, they have to use local ingredients—it’s all they can afford. And they don’t adapt their flavors to the tastes of everyone, like most do in Bangkok.”

My meal in Bo.Lan’s serene space begins with an inside joke for Bangkok denizens: a glass of powerful Thai whiskey, a drink usually consumed by motorbike taxi drivers at streetside liquor stands before they return to the streets and menace pedestrians. Following Thai custom, Bo.Lan serves almost all the dishes at the same time, meaning you are presented with a tabletop covered in relishes and soups, curries and stir fries, and asked to eat a bit of each, in any order you like, with a spoonful of rice. A highlight is the pork yellow curry with green sator beans, which inject a solid crunch and a complex, deep bitterness into the dish. Songvisava and Jones also host a Thai TV show about locally grown food, which has allowed them access to exceptional products, like organic rare-breed pork that they serve in a red curry—the gamey, rich flavor still discernible through the heat.

Nahm

Chef: David Thompson
Hometown: Sydney, Australia

After running a pair of Thai restaurants in Sydney for nearly a decade, David Thompson moved to London in 2001 to open Nahm (this London outpost, which closed earlier this year, was the first Thai restaurant to earn a Michelin star). Still, he wanted more, and so he decided to do something sure to elicit controversy: open a serious, elegant Thai restaurant in the spiritual and cultural capital of the cuisine.

Since he charges what are, in Bangkok, high prices, Thompson is able to buy better ingredients and kitchen gear than almost any other Thai-food chef in the city—or, for that matter, the world. But if you compare the cost of his tasting menu (around $60) to ambitious places in the West, Nahm is a steal.

What really distinguishes Thompson’s take on Thai food is that his dishes are entirely unlike those made by anyone else—or at least anyone else alive in the past century. “I find most of my recipes in old funerary books,” he explains. “I have a huge collection I use for inspiration, information and reference.” No cookbooks were published in Thailand until the early 1900s, but Thompson’s sources date back to the 1800s. The books he collects are memorial volumes published upon the death of wealthy or influential Thais by their families. “Since Thais are such a food-focused people,” Thompson says, “these books often contain favorite recipes of the deceased.” But to call them recipes is a stretch. They never specify how much of a given ingredient, or even, really, how to use them. “The implicit understanding is that an experienced chef will know what to do with just a list of ingredients,” Thompson says.

When I visit Nahm’s kitchen, Thompson prepares a recipe he’s been working on, a southern Thai curry from a Bangkok woman who died at the beginning of the 20th century. “It employs a very unusual ingredient for a curry: this small, very sour fruit called a madan,” he says, as he slices it into thin strips. For this jungle curry (meaning a curry made without coconut milk), he starts by smashing garlic with a mortar and pestle, then he adds a handful of bright red chiles and coarse salt. He spoons some lard into the pan and starts to brown chicken in this garlic-chile paste. “Normally, Thai chefs would simmer a dish like this, but I prefer to brown it first, to get a more complex taste and texture.” He spoons in red curry paste and stirs until it dissolves, then ladles in fish sauce. “Restaurants here often rely on prefab curry pastes,” Thompson says. “But we make all the pastes ourselves.” As the curry thickens, he tastes it constantly, carefully adding more fish sauce, chiles, salt and sugar until he’s satisfied with the balance of this intensely sour and spicy new dish. “This recipe actually called for green curry paste, but my chef misread it and used red,” he says. “It tasted much better, so that’s how we’ll prepare it now.”

On my last night in Bangkok, Wrisley and I eat at Nahm. Chef Andy Ricker of the Pok Pok Thai restaurants in New York City and Portland, Oregon, is at a table with Bangkok-based food photographer Austin Bush. The food Thompson serves that night isn’t comforting or easy. Some dishes are extreme; the fish, prawn and pork relish has a strong, funky smell that reminds me of natto, the famously stinky Japanese fermented soybeans. This is not just Thai food that few Westerners get to experience; almost no Thais know it, either. “There’s this idea that Thailand has great food everywhere,” Ricker says. “But it’s actually hard to find deep, interesting, challenging food like this. Even though he’s Australian, David is now a real Thai chef.”

I think how strange it is that a Portland chef is pronouncing on the authenticity of an Aussie cooking Thai food in Bangkok. Then I sweat through another bite of the fiery, sour curry and realize that no matter who cooked it or who’s commenting on it, this is an utterly original—and completely Thai—taste.

New York City-based writer Tom Downey is a frequent contributor to Afar, WSJ and Smithsonian magazines.

Published June 2013
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