Why Bangkok is One of the World's Best Food Cities
In Bangkok, a city with gleaming postmodern kitchens and good ol' greasy spoons alike, one of my favorite food secrets isn't a restaurant at all, but a ramshackle shophouse selling nothing but curry pastes.
It's a family-run affair more than 50 years in the making. But these pastes, coveted by everyone from home cooks to hectic restaurants, are to thank for the most amazing curries I've ever made. Every day at the crack of dawn, herbs and spices are pounded out fresh with a mortar and pestle. At 8 a.m., it's a pungent den, modest but for huge mounds of wet, sticky paste majestically displayed on a table in diversely vibrant textures and hues. By midmorning, the entire lot gets scooped into take-home plastic bags, ready to begin its new life elsewhere.
A shop like this, with its exposed walls and peeling posters, embodies what I love most about eating in Bangkok. The seemingly homogenous texture of the pastes belies their complexity; they're a mash-up of invigorating seasonings and flavor agents that are literally at war with each other (sour, salty, sweet). Once you understand the thinking behind fresh curry paste, you'll never look at Thai cooking the same way again.
"As cliché as it is, it's amazing that dishes can be hot and spicy but at the same time sweet and have all these other flavors," Mark Wiens, founder of the Thai food blog Migrationology, says.
The Thai pantry is incredibly diverse, and although Thai cooking varies dramatically by province, it's in the capital where it all comes together. Regional cuisines take influences from countries like India, China and Malaysia. In the north, cool mountain evenings and a close proximity to Burma are to thank for brothy herbaceous dishes like khao soi, a rich curry soup, and larb meat salad. Isaan, a northeastern rural area that shares some dishes with neighboring Laos, is known for its assertive use of chile and fermentation in dishes like som tum papaya salad and the pungent, delicious pla ra, a freshwater fish. Som tum and pla ra might sound divergent in taste, but they're great when paired together on the same plate alongside an array of other dishes like grilled, marinated meats, hot and sour soup, and sticky rice.
"In every meal, you order at least five dishes to share with everyone, and each dish is unique," Wiens says. "You rarely take two bites of the same thing in a row, but somehow they all go together."
These traditional recipes, and their ingredients, have become a tool kit of sorts for high-end Bangkok chefs to put their ingenuity to the test. At 80/20, named for its commitment to using 80 percent local ingredients, Thai fusion comes in the form of tea-smoked duck breast and chocolate mousses with jasmine tea and chile ice cream. But don't let the newfangledness fool you: By sharing a space with a modest hostel and sourcing only from neighborhood markets and sustainable suppliers, it fully embodies the spirit of Thai cuisine.
Some gourmet restaurants have tried, and failed miserably, to out-cook street shophouses; others have turned away from modernity to seek inspiration in ancient recipes. Paste Bangkok, a contemporary Thai restaurant, has taken influences from the early 19th century, a period when royal Thai cuisine was near its peak and preparations were considered art. Nahm, helmed by successful cookbook author David Thompson, offers an innovative spin on dishes taken from aristocrats' archives and recipe books traditionally given to funeral guests as a memory of the person who passed.
Nahm is currently number 28 on the World's 50 Best Restaurants list, an offshoot of San Pellegrino's coveted global culinary award, but it's far from the only fine dining game in town. Gaggan, a progressive Indian resto that starred on Netflix's second season of Chef's Table, has held the number one spot on Asia's 50 Best Restaurants for three years now; in fact, Bangkok has more winners than any other city on the list.
At the moment, the only Thai restaurants with Michelin stars are located outside Thailand. But that's about change: Bangkok is slated to get its first Michelin Guide this year, joining the ranks of Hong Kong, Japan and Singapore. Riding that energy, a few bigwig chefs have recently immigrated to Bangkok, including Dutch Michelin-star boss Henk Savelberg and Masato Shimizu, the youngest-ever Michelin-star recipient (for 15 East in NYC).
It's a double-edged sword. That tidal wave of high-end dining could also mean a proliferation of more Euro- and male-centric tasting menus with stratospheric price tags that only wealthy travelers can afford. That's a particularly iffy picture given that street food may soon be banned in some of Bangkok's most popular areas by the end of this year.
If Bangkok has proven anything, though, it's that its influx culinary scene is buoyant. From floods to protests, power struggles to curfews under military takeover, the city has proved its toughness—and everyone has just kept on eating.
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