Wednesday, July 24, 2013

My Sojourn in Siam

Apologies for the dreadful attempt at alliteration there in the title, but I couldn't help but choose the historical name of Thailand as it has always given me that feeling of warm and almost epiphanic lustre when thinking of the kingdom. And who could blame me? I absolutely adore Thailand. I am rather lucky to have been there on numerous occasions since I was a kid, so it's safe to say I am more than used to the famous hospitality, cuisine, and culture of the Thais. It is also because of my early exposure to the land of smiles (and sanuk, or fun), I suspect, that I somehow do not see Thailand (or more like Bangkok in particular) as sort of a seedy destination, as so many others do. Instead, beyond the diesel fumes and neon lights of Patpong, it is the country's exciting dining scene, natural beauty and historical riches that keeps me going back for more.

Sukhumvit lights up!

Indeed I once again found myself back in Bangkok last month. Though it was a short trip, I pretty much covered everything, food-wise. I cannot stress enough that the dining scene in Bangkok is one of the most exciting in all of Asia. The thing I missed most about Bangkok was the street food. From Pad Thai, to Pad See Ew; Sai Oua to Som Tam, they make the infamous screaming traffic all worthwhile. In between four meals a day, I also ate my weight in roasted pork belly and fried chicken (with extra fried skin for a mere 10 bahts!-- who could resist?!) from the ubiquitous roadside stalls because, frankly, no one does it better at those prices. The entire in-your-face vibe of the city made it all the more conducive. Hot, sticky, and abashedly bold, the only way to do it in BKK is to do it big.

Khao Neow Ma Muang (Mango & sticky rice) from a true BKK institution: Mae Varee. It's made its name by serving the best Khao neow ma muang and stocking really high quality fruits from all over Thailand for over 20 years. Their secret is in the coconut milk-sugar-salt reduction, which is infused into the sticky rice to create a nutty and slightly chewy texture. My absolute fave.

I can never get enough of these sausages. Called Sai oua, it's a specialty hailing from northern Thailand. Not pictured, but also another northern Thai delicacy, is Sai Krok Isan-- fermented sausages that somewhat remind me of Chinese preserved sausages (laap cheung) and chorizo.

I love my crustaceans: the Thais have Pu dong-- salted & pickled crabs!
Cute bricks!

This is not to say I have completely shunned the fine dining temples of Bangkok; I still love Bo.lan, Banyan Tree Bangkok's famous Vertigo & Moon Bar, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin at the incomparable Siam Kempinski Hotel, and would love to try David Thompson's venerable Nahm, and the newly opened Issaya Siamese Club-- the hip and gorgeous flagship restaurant by internationally renown chef, Ian Kittichai. Other somewhat fancy restaurants that deliver the goods time after time include Lan Na Thai (part of the now global empire that is Face Bar & Restaurants), Hyde & Seek Gastrobar, and American food writer Jarrett Wrisley's wildly popular brainchild: Soul Food Mahanakorn.

A must-visit when in Thong Lo: Soul Food MahanakornJarrett Wrisley and his team serves up really good dishes along with strong, proper cocktails. A real gastronomic gem.

What's Thailand without Nam Dok Mai mangoes?

"A Cork & A Bottle": One of many amazing cocktails I've had at what I consider one of South east Asia's best bars, Hyde & Seek Gastrobar. Other faves: "Horse's Neck", and "French 75". Located at the gorgeous PlazAthénée Bangkok, it was a mere five-minute stroll from my hotel.

Another perennial fave from the streets: Khanom bueng, crispy pancakes!

The aforementioned pork bellies. Never seen so many in my life! And the crackling was mental. It was worth every single calorie.

The aforementioned fried chicken. Again, it's the only reason needed to not become vegan.

The obligatory shot of a tuk-tuk ride.

Bangkok's Chinatown is lively, bustling, and filled with great Noms...
... like these gorgeous preserved ducks; and...

... Birds' nest with gingko nuts dessert.

The splendid pool at my gorgeous hotel: Tenface Bangkok. Thanks for the hospitality!

Signature dish at Lan Na ThaiFace Bangkok Restaurant & BarGaeng phed ped yang (Red duck curry).

You know you're in Thailand when you see rows & rows of chilli sauces. 

This trip also saw me learning a lot more about regional cuisines, mostly by wandering around markets, talking to chefs and above all, just tasting as I go. I shelved initial plans of enrolling into one of many cooking schools as I felt that I could learn more by 'roughing it out' on the ground than getting spoon-fed by a chef next to a clueless honeymooning couple asking, "Is there a substitute for lemongrass/tamarind/galangal?" Remember, I was there for a holiday, not to strangle annoying tourists. Okay, I digress. The more I delved into the regional variations of the cuisine, the more I was able to distinguish the various herbs and spices that form the cornerstones of Thai cooking. I was amazed by the produce that Thailand has when I frequented Khlong Toey Market and Or Tor Kor Market (near the famous Chatuchak Weekend Market).

A few core ingredients that you'll definitely need to know: Lemon basil (Bai maeng-lak)-- not to be confused with Holy basil (Bai ka prao); Fresh green peppercorns (Prik thai on); Banana flowers (Hua pli); Tamarind paste (no, there isn't a substitute!); Palm sugar; Bird's eye chillies (among other variations with differing levels of oral torture); Lemongrass (Dakrai); and Galangal (Kha, or Kha yai, or blue ginger); garlic; Turmeric (Kha-min); Kaffir lime leaves (Bai magrood); and Chinese chives (Ku-chai).

Now that I've gotten my head around the essentials, I'm certain that I'll be whipping up more Thai dishes! And so should everyone, because it's clear that Thailand, with all her gastronomic and cultural splendour, is about harmony and love that's truly worth embracing. There's no better time to visit Bangkok and experience her magical, chaotic, orderly, yet a little enigmatic sides all at once.