The bold flavors of Thai food are beloved the world over. But one of the great joys of living in Bangkok is having a front-row seat to watch the way this intoxicating cuisine is evolving…
by Thomas Sturrock.
There are certain dishes that are staples of Thai menus wherever you go: a pad thai, a green curry, and certain stir-fries, like a pad krapow. But Thai cuisine is rapidly developing beyond that, with modern Thai menus increasingly prominent.
Broadly, this entails taking essentially Thai flavors and retaining that authenticity while reimagining certain dishes, incorporating contemporary technique and high-quality produce. Of course, that leaves plenty of room for interpretation and, within Bangkok, there is a spectrum of different approaches.
Since opening Paste – www.pastebangkok.com in Thong Lor last year, Australian chef Jason Bailey has been serving up some of the city’s most considered, innovative Thai food.
“Good Thai cooking produces a series of paradoxical tastes, not just several tastes smashed into an unidentifiable whole,” Bailey says, whose approach emphasizes freshness and complexity. “When you’ve finished a mouthful, you want a symphony still pinging off on your palate. The order in which the cook scales these flavors is very important—that’s known as ‘rot chart’, meaning correct or harmonized taste.”
Some of Bailey’s amuse-bouche offerings are particularly delicious examples. He serves crispy prawns with roasted coconut and cashew nuts served on rose apple, known as “ma haw”, but traditionally served on pineapple.
There’s also a betel leaf wrap, known as a miang, combining watermelon and ground salmon with crispy shallots and roasted coconut. Next, rice crackers topped with roasted duck, nutmeg, curry paste, and sawtooth coriander.
The original recipes for these dishes can be heavy on dry spices, like nutmeg, cinnamon and star anise, which were all the rage during the Ayutthaya period. Bailey’s approach is to offset these earthy, fermented flavors with an herbal lift.
“That’s how we’re modernizing it,” he says. “A modern palate responds to freshness.”
“You need to be able to taste the lemongrass, the coriander root, the garlic, the galangal. They should be pinging off inside your mouth. You want to get all those receptors going, the front of tongue, the back of tongue, inside the cheeks.”
Anyone who has spent much time exploring Bangkok’s endless street food options will be familiar with a som tam, the relatively simple Thai salad using shredded papaya, fresh lime, chili, fish sauce and a dash of palm sugar. It’s a common staple among Bangkok’s street stalls, but Bailey’s version of the dish is another example of the way modern Thai cuisine reworks and elevates traditional dishes. The reimagined som tam is served here with crispy flash-fried soft shell crab, green apple and mango alongside chili-lime foams thickened to the consistency of purees. The flavors of the street food som tam are still detectable but are more refined, complemented by textural adjustments and top-drawer produce.
“Thai food embraces a ‘sum rap’ philosophy, all the dishes should interact with each other— it’s shared dining,” Bailey says. “But restaurants move past that—we tried to have those offsets on the one plate. A restaurant is not a cultural museum, although it’s an expression of culture in a particular respect. You’re at a restaurant; you’re not in someone’s home. My job is to cook something that you could not do at home.”
Earlier this year, the Dusit Thani Bangkok re-launched its renowned Benjarong restaurant (Dusit Thani Bangkok, 946 Rama IV Rd; 02 236 9999; www.dusit.com/dusitthani/bangkok), shifting the emphasis from traditional Thai food to a more contemporary style and presentation. To do this, they enlisted chef Morten Bojstrup Nielsen, who previously worked at Nahm in London and Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, in Bangkok.
“We are now in a stage where it’s OK to do something modern with Thai food as long as we don’t say that it’s traditional Thai food,” Nielsen explains. “We have to be open about it—it’s my way of doing it. It’s based and inspired by Thai food. It’s not traditional but we’re using Thai flavors, I call it modern Thai. I think people are ready, as long as we’re open about it.”
For example, Nielsen’s new menu at Benjarong includes a deconstructed tom yung koong, where the broth and seasoning are served separately before being combined at the table. The emphasis here is on presentation, on leading diners to think differently about the most familiar Thai dishes.
Benjarong also serves a prawn satay with a side marinated cauliflower and cucumber. These flavors have also been reduced to an emulsion that can be used as a dipping sauce for the prawn.
“I want to keep the flavor of the prawns without marinating them,” Nielsen explains. “And a little bit of the cucumber as well.”
Certainly, Nielsen’s technique for separating flavors and style of presentation are several steps removed from anything in traditional Thai restaurants. But he insists he still adheres rigorously to the elements that, in his view, make Thai food distinct.
“For me, Thai food is all about sauces, dressings, the curries, the relishes,” he says. “Sometimes there are ingredients used that are not classically Thai but that’s OK as long as you keep these condiments, these flavors.
“I don’t have the Thai background—there’s a lot of tradition that they follow. Coming in as a foreigner, you might not mix mango and ginger as a Thai combination, but as a foreigner you might think that works. Modern cuisine is all about breaking out of that way of how things used to be.”
Metropolitan Hotel, 27 South Sathorn Rd; 02 625 3388
David Thompson has done as much as any chef to put Thai food on the map and his restaurant in Bangkok, although more traditional in its approach, has some of the most considered Thai food anywhere in the world. Earlier this year, it was rated No. 1 in the San Pellegrino list of Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants.
66 Sukhumvit Soi 31; 02 260 7811
One of the more recent additions to Bangkok’s roll call of fine dining Thai restaurants, Siam Wisdom occupies a spectacularly refurbished Thai house in the backstreets of Asoke. The menu straddles traditional and modern Thai, with plenty of twists thrown in. The pomelo salad is outstanding.
Issaya Siamese Club
4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Rd; 02 672 9040
Ian Kittichai was Thailand’s first celebrity chef and, more recently, has become perhaps the country’s busiest, building an international empire of bars, restaurants, cafes, and cooking schools. His calling card in Bangkok is Issaya, where his dishes are characterized by innovative combinations and bold flavors.