A culinary tour of Bangkok
Julie Miller takes a culinary tour of Bangkok's colourful Chinatown with chef David Thompson, exploring the traditional street fare that has influenced his acclaimed menu at Nahm.
It's been said: "Never come between the Thais and their food." For such mild-mannered people, they truly are enthusiastic, even voracious, eaters, with meals the focus of every day and a perpetual snack mentality. From breakfast to dinner, it's eat, eat, eat, consuming with remarkable gusto and relish.
How they manage to stay so slender is no less than a miracle, and terribly unfair from a bulging Western waistline perspective.
For the Thais, life is a moveable feast. But as David Thompson, the famed Australian chef who helms Nahm restaurant in Bangkok's stylish Metropolitan hotel tells me, Thailand doesn't have a restaurant culture per se - it's all about street food and home cooking.
And if anyone knows Thai street food, it's Thompson, the owner of London's Nahm (the first Thai restaurant to be awarded a Michelin star) and formerly of Sydney's acclaimed Darley Street Thai and Sailors Thai.
This is the "farang chef" who controversially brought traditional Thai cooking back to its motherland; a Westerner who is every bit as passionate about original Thai tastes and flavours as the locals. He is also the author of cookbook Thai Street Food, an exploration of the history, colour and recipes of Thailand's street vendors.
According to Thompson, it's on the overcrowded, pulsating footpaths of the "City of Angels" that the most authentic Thai culinary experiences are to be had.
And anyone who has visited Bangkok will know that as evening falls, the streets and gutters transform into pop-up dining rooms as families congregate over plastic tables and chairs, takeaway Singha beers and toilet-roll napkins alongside carts and grills pungent with fresh herbs, sizzling meat, steaming spicy noodles and bubbling curries. But in a city with an estimated 500,000 street-food vendors, where do casual visitors to Bangkok start with their own gastronomic explorations? Is there a district more typical or more authentic than others?
According to Thompson, the best place to start is in Bangkok's Chinatown, in the Samphanthawong district on the eastern banks of the Chao Phraya River. This, he says, is where Thai street food had its origins, dating back more than 200 years to when Bangkok was the major trading hub of south-east Asia. Back then, Bangkok's population was nearly 50 per cent Chinese, with this influx impacting on local eating habits and contributing to the flavours, textures and ingredients of modern Thai cooking.
I meet Thompson at a frenetic intersection of Chinatown's main drag, Yaowarat Road, resplendent with gold merchants, pawn shops, herbal practitioners and restaurants advertising bird's-nest soup and shark-fin soup.
He pauses to point out market stalls selling fresh seafood and endless varieties of tropical fruit, before heading off into claustrophobic covered alleyways - secret portals to another world, another era.
In the dim, narrow confines of Soi Sampheng - once the main artery of Chinatown - we pass stalls selling dried fish, squid crackers, smoked baby pigs, durians and herbs.
Glancing up, we see original teak houses, humble dwellings with exquisite architecture dating back more than 100 years.
Every corner, every wrong turn reveals something new, hidden treasures that reveal so much about Thailand, its history and culture.
"You can find everything here, food in every form," Thompson says as we meander along, pointing, poking and tasting en route in true Thai tradition.
"Fresh, dried, alive, cooked - it's all here.
"This is the most entrepreneurial part of Bangkok - anything goes."
We pause for a half-hour at Nai Mong Hoi Thod, a hole-in-the-wall eatery that Thompson says makes the best oyster omelets in the city. He has been a regular at this family business for several years; when he discovered it, the family matriarch cooked up the crisp egg-and-mussel snacks over hot coals. Now her grandson is behind the sizzling wok, whipping up delicious 70-baht ($2) treats for queues of hungry patrons.
With full stomachs, we continue our impromptu walking tour, past temples and ceremonial gates, and alongside heritage houses backed by crumbling warehouses, stonework devoured by majestic banyan trees.
We even discover a tranquil old graveyard behind a mosque, ancient Persian and Armenian headstones once again reflecting the ethnic diversity of this ever-surprising city.
Wandering these streets, Thompson says, is the key to unlocking Bangkok's culinary and cultural secrets. For anyone who wants to find the real pulse of the city, his advice is to simply "get lost".
"This is a safe place, so the only inconvenience from going off the beaten track is that you might have to jump into a taxi to get home," he says.
"It's the best way to discover the real Bangkok."
Later that day, Thompson introduces me to one of his favourite local restaurants, Krua Apsorn, in the northern district of Dusit.
Lauded by The New York Times and The Observer, this is, he says, one of Bangkok's superior eateries and a great influence on his own culinary offerings. In fluent Thai, he orders us several dishes to share, including his own personal favourites, a yellow prawn curry with lotus shoots, and crab stir-fried with curry powder.
Both are to die for - the freshest ingredients, incredible flavour and a mouth-and-nose-watering zing.
"It's difficult to find a good restaurant above the level of street food in Bangkok," Thompson says as we joyfully tuck in. "This is definitely one of the best.
"Anywhere there are tourists, you'll never find food with this clarity of taste or poised seasonings. It will never be cooked with the same integrity and care." Of course, Thompson's own restaurant, Nahm, goes against this trend, offering superior Thai cuisine in a tourist hot spot. Being in a five-star hotel, there are overheads that are reflected in the price - 1700 baht for a set course, or mains 400-600 baht.
But this is certainly not expensive by international or even Bangkok standards; and it's worth every penny, each bite offering an explosion of taste, wonderful flavours, purity of palate and divine combinations, all served share-style in traditional Thai manner.
Our banquet includes such offerings as coconut cupcakes with red curry of crab; a salad of deep-fried soft-shell crab with pomelo, chillies and coriander; a coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab with calamansi limes; and deep-fried grouper with fish sauce - each dish more delectable than the last. Even my Thai companions give it their seal of approval. And coming from these harsh critics who really know their Thai food, that's saying something.