The Real Chinatown
Master Australian chef David Thompson takes T+L on a quick tour of some of his favorite, down-home discoveries in Bangkok
Published on Sep 13, 2010
By JENNIFER CHEN
Yaowarat Road in Bangkok's Chinatown
There’s an adage among Bangkokians that says there are no good Thai restaurants in Bangkok. That is, the fancier the surroundings, the more likely the food will turn out to be bland. But if you forage with the locals among the city’s legions of mobile street stalls, you’ll be rewarded with Thai food at its full glory.
Surprisingly, street food—which is such an integral part of Bangkok life today—only became widespread in the 1960’s and 70’s, and even then, many Thais shunned it. Women who fed their families street food were jeeringly called “plastic bag housewives.” That’s what David Thompson, the acclaimed Australian chef behind London’s Nahm restaurant and one of the world’s leading authorities on Thai food, tells me over smoked duck in Bangkok’s Chinatown.
Or lua, crispy oyster omelet
The follow-up to his 2002 award-winning cookbook, Thai Food, is devoted to Thailand’s street eats. I’ve asked if I can tag along with him on a trawl of some of his favorite streetside spots in Chinatown. Chinese immigrants, after all, popularized street dining in Thailand. “I don’t usually make recommendations for street food because the owners are so fickle sometimes,” Thompson says, noting that many vendors like the itinerant life, which includes impromptu holidays.
A self-described history buff, Thompson is fearsomely erudite. While we’re sitting in an interminable Bangkok traffic jam, he holds forth on his theory of the origins of kanom jeen (rice noodles served in curry), citing everything from its etymology to the spread of Theravada Buddhism. Our first stop, he assures us, is a real treat: or lua, or oyster omelet. Hoi tod, a squishier version, is a commonly found dish, but at Naay Mong (539 Plubplachai Rd.; +66 2 623 1890; omelets Bt65), the omelets are cooked to a crisp in rendered pork fat over a charcoal fire and then topped with oysters; with hoi tod, the bivalves are folded into the batter.
Thompson’s right—it’s a revelation of contrasting textures. The trick lies in the ratio between rice and tapioca flours as well as the well-seasoned iron pan used to make the omelets, says Thompson. He also points out the secret to dining well in Bangkok: many vendors specialize in one dish, which means they have complete mastery of that one dish. It’s the theory of achieving genius through 10,000 hours of practice on display at a bare-bones storefront in Bangkok.
Thompson shepherds us next door to Khao Tom Jay Suay (547 Plubplachai; +66 2 223 9592; three dishes Bt200), where he orders smoked duck, tiny, stir-fried clams and minced fatty pork fried with olive paste, namliab pad moo sab. The atmosphere, as with most of these places, is negligible: fluorescent lighting, a rusty fan, a few battered aluminum tables on the sidewalk. This sort of establishment, Thompson explains, is called raan ahaan taam sang, which means diners order what they want on the spot.
Khao Tom Jay Suay, an open-air eatery that serves smoked duck
He recalls his first, unfortunate encounter with Thai food, which featured a couple of rubbery fish cakes. “I used to think of Thai food as Sunday night takeaway,” Thompson says. “My Damascene moment, when I finally fell off of my high horse, came when I moved here.” While he’s now based in London, Thompson, a fluent Thai speaker, travels to Thailand frequently
On the corner of Chinatown’s main drag, we stop for a simple broth laden with pork offal, including jelly-like cubes of pork blood, and sagebrush. There’s room yet for dessert, so we weave through a warren of tiny sois for bua loi nam khing, black sesame balls in sweet ginger soup. At a stand on the northeastern corner of Yaowarat and Phadung Dao Road, a woman drops the plump dumplings into a pot of boiling water before slipping them into the ginger soup, already laden with gingko nuts. The dough is slightly resistant, but gives way easily to the filling, which isn’t tooth-achingly sweet.
All throughout our tour, we’ve been talking about the fate of these food stands. It’s the story of immigrants the world over: the grandparents toil, the children build the business, and the grandchildren become doctors or lawyers. I wonder who will tend to these curbside culinary traditions once the older generations are gone. Thompson notes that the country’s cuisine has already been affected by the Thais’ conversion to eating out: “Fewer Thais cook, and when you don’t cook, you lose your ability to judge food properly.”
As we wrap up the evening, I ask for the bill, and a young Thai-Chinese man takes my money. He’s tall and sturdy— clearly the beneficiary of better nutrition. His apron is splattered, and his hair is slicked down with sweat, but as he hands over my change, he beams. Perhaps he chose to continue down this path, perhaps he prefers this hard, sweaty work to sitting in a badly ventilated office. Perhaps in a few years’ time, Thais will realize what they’re in danger of losing, and there will be the sort of artisan movement we’ve seen in Europe and the U.S. I might be romanticizing, but there’s hope yet.