Friday, March 16, 2012

Eating Your Way Through the Streets of Bangkok Thailand

Eating your way through the streets of Bangkok Thailand.

Sweet and spicy flavours - often combined - are the specialty, from pad Thai to suckling pig.

Bangkok is like your favourite e the one you carry a secret torch for, the one that could have been - should have been - the best thing that ever happened to you and was wrong for all the right reasons.

It's a city that you can feel against your skin, taste on your lips. Your clothes still reek of it weeks later when you return home. You'll smell it on your suit coat driving into work or when you open your wallet at the corner store to buy a litre of milk.

The moment I leave Suvarnabhumi Airport, it all comes rushing back to me. Everywhere I look during the drive into the city, people are eating. A girl dangling helmetless off the back of a scooter feasts on fried rice out of a Styrofoam container. A young mother and her son sip cola out of plastic bags with straws. A taxi driver alternates between smoking and gnawing on pineapple chunks.

Four years ago when I first came to the Kingdom of Siam, the food here was a gut-wrenching spicefest. All sweat and tears. Let's just say that I've come back to get my fill. Thais eat up to eight meals a day and I plan to do the same.

Before my flight, chef Angus An of Maenam fame in Vancouver made me promise to visit Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel on my first night in Bangkok. David Thompson is expecting you, he told me. These five simple words will prove to be the blueprint for a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience.

Bangkok rush hour, 30-minute traffic jams at every intersection, forgetting to ask the concierge at the VIE Hotel to write down the restaurant address in Thai - this is exactly what not to do on your first night in Bangkok, but our pilgrimage to Nahm is worth it.

In London, Thompson runs the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star. He has been both praised and skewered as the Westerner who had enough cajones to open a Thai restaurant (also named Nahm) in Bangkok.

"When I first came here in the 1980s, Thai cuisine had become a take-away culture," he tells my business partner Steve and I during a behind-the-scenes tour of his kitchen. "You would never eat it in a fine-dining environment."

Even though he's reluctant to talk about it, halfway through dinner, it's clear that Thompson is an expert at isolating the key flavours of traditional Thai dishes and combining them with surprising new textures.

His spicy pork with mint, peanuts and crunchy rice on betel leaves is the ideal example of this - the crunch of the leaf and rice and the play between mint and spice is sublime.

His blue crab coconut curry juggles sweetness and eye-watering heat perfectly.

Thompson brings us a durian rice pudding to close our meal.

"You'll either love durian or hate it," he says.

I tell Thompson about a poet I know who wrote a series of odes to the fruit - she couldn't get enough - and then tell him that his pudding tastes like someone shat in the middle of a smoking lounge.

"Your friend, she sounds like my kind of poet," he laughs.

After dinner, Thompson joins us for a few bottles of wine on his poolside terrace. He is more comfortable joking about politics and staying out until 9 a.m. than he is talking about food. He loves what he does and lets his cooking speak for itself - in other words, the perfect chef.

He suggests we visit the twisting Yaowarat Road in Chinatown tomorrow night to "eat in the dragon's belly."

The following evening, Bangkok smells like an overripe papaya slowly roasting over a charcoal fire. The city is on edge. This is the day the flood water is supposed to break through the levies and consume downtown Bangkok. Sandbags line the fronts of businesses and the tourist districts are deserted.

Bangkok's Chinatown is located in a low-lying district close to the Chao Phraya River and Hua Lamphong Station, the end of underground MRT subway line.

We are repetitively warned by wellmeaning locals to stay away from this part of the city, but the temptation is too high.

We catch a cab, expecting to find empty streets submerged under waistdeep water.

Instead, we find a three-ringed circus of food carts and curbside diners divided down the middle by an unrelenting cacophony of honking cars and scooters. During the resettlement of the Chinese community to this district in the late 1700s, Yaowarat Road was built in a series of twists and curves - like a dragon's body. The vendors fight to sell here because they believe it will make them rich.

It's a dizzying crush of bodies and smells, the complete antithesis of North American dining culture.

Corner barbecue huts offer traditional Chinese and Thai delicacies - from bird's-nest and shark fin soup to pepper blue crab and chestnuts handcooked in steaming vats of black sand. Space here is at a premium. Long common tables are packed elbow to elbow with friends, strangers and entire families, and it's legal to drink open liquor on the street.

Our final destination is Tang Jai Yoo, a restaurant at the intersection of Yaowarat and Yaowa Phanit. Its signature dish is roast suckling pig, which to me represents the kind of gluttony and gastronomic excess I've dreamed of since I was boy. After all, who in their right mind would settle for a mere pork chop in place of the whole pig?

This dish is served in two courses, beginning with the roasted skin sectioned off into two-inch squares and the fat removed. Served with green onion, cucumber, hoisin sauce and flatbread, you can opt to make crispy pork skin tortillas or try crunching on the cartilage and soft skin from the ears, nose and feet.

When finished, we asked the kitchen to deep fry the moist meat and bones with garlic and black pepper. The end result is similar to pub-style dry ribs - make sure to have this last course with a local beer.

On our final day in the city, we have enlisted a Thai guide, Sam Doungpraton, and a driver under the guise of a city tour, though we really just want them to take us out for lunch. We ask them to take us to the best street pad Thai in Bangkok. It's the one Thai dish that every westerner knows, but Sam tells us that it didn't become popular locally until the 1930s or '40s.

He takes us to Pha Tu Pee, a fourtable open-air restaurant next to Wat Saket in the Pom Prap Sattru Phai district.

After parking the car, our driver asks Sam if it's okay to join us. Sam translates, "He has heard of this restaurant from friends and has always wanted to try it."

The pad Thai is prepared out front over a charcoal fire by a young woman in flip-flops and shorts.

"The charcoal fire is the key," Sam explains. "This is the best in the city because of the way they cook the noodles."

We order the Super Special with Egg and Prawns for a whopping 70 baht - roughly $2 Cdn - and it's served with bean sprouts, green onions, limes and something unexpected: banana flowers. This bitter garnish tastes like Lily of the Valley and helps combat spice and heat. The pad Thai arrives plain and we are expected to customize it individually with chilies, sugar, peanuts, fish sauce and vinegar.

Sam didn't lie.

The noodles are so soft it's like eating a mouthful of butter. Mid-meal, a cat chases something up and down the aisles, but nobody seems to care. There's even an elderly man snoring in the back, shifting every few seconds to follow the cool breeze from a rotating fan. Our driver admits that it's the best he's had in Bangkok before shyly vanishing across the street. I have to agree.

The most rewarding meals in Thailand are usually small and simple. There are chicken/pork noodle soup and iced Thai tea stalls on nearly every block in Bangkok-and it's in these places that you really get to know the city and the people who live here.

On the way back to the airport, I can't help but feel a sense of accomplishment, the same kind you have when you meet an old ex again for the first time in years.

I've grown up and so has Bangkok - the skyline is dotted with construction cranes and new buildings and communities have sprung up everywhere, rendering parts of the city virtually unrecognizable.

Sure, I'll eat anything nowadays, but I still feel like I'm about to return home, hungry for more.


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