“There’s no more fear,” says Chalee Kader, chef and owner of 100 Mahaseth, who has compiled a nose-to-tail menu that highlights rustic northeastern Thai cooking. Isaan cuisine, as it’s generally called, is known for its fire-alarm levels of spice and generous use of dried shrimp, herbs and tangy fresh salads. The description “fearless” neatly sums up Bangkok’s current food scene, which is teeming with wildly experimental chefs — local and foreign — challenging traditional notions of Thai and fusion cooking. The fact that it has its own Michelin guide, the second edition of which was launched in December last year, is belated confirmation of what the city has been experiencing for some time.
“Bangkok’s always been known as a street-food city,” says Garima Arora, the executive chef and founder behind newly Michelin-starred eatery Gaa. “But in the last five years, the city’s fine-dining scene has exploded.” Gaa is the first Indian woman to receive a Michelin star, and has been named Asia’s Best Female Chef of 2019.
Go on an adventure with Garima Arora, Elit Vodka Asia's Best Female Chef 2019, as the Mumbai-born chef travels back to her native country to explore its diverse cuisine.
Posted by Asia's 50 Best Restaurants on Thursday, February 28, 2019
She’s right: Until recently, Bangkok’s fine-dining scene was ruled by A-list celebrity chefs and Western imports. Aside from Gaggan — Indian chef Gaggan Anand’s flagship, which nabbed the top spot in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list for four consecutive years — there was Le Normandie (Mandarin Oriental’s haute French kitchen), two-Michelin-star Mezzaluna and L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon. Now it’s quite a different playing field, and the headliner is Thai food itself, which has steadily migrated from street-food staple to fine-dining sensation.
First, a backstory: rarefied Thai spots like Nahm and Bo.lan tiptoed into the fine-dining realm nearly two decades ago by extolling royal recipes distinguished by artistic presentation and locally sourced ingredients. But, elsewhere, the subtler nuances of modern Thai cooking fell by the wayside, chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn of restaurant Saawaan explains, as cooks prioritized convenience and speed of preparation. The central principle of Thai cooking lies in the fine balance of salty, spicy, sour, sweet and bitter elements, but its overwhelming global popularity gradually eroded that core essence. To appease tourists, for instance, street-food vendors added more sugar and held back on the other elements; traditionally, says Aom, “the sweet elements may have come from well-made bone broth, and there was no need to add extra sugar.” Thai food was everywhere, but real Thai food became harder to come by.
That’s all changing now, thanks to young local chefs who are championing ingredient-driven regional cooking, and making it clear that Thai food is much more than pad thai, som tum (green papaya salad) or kaeng kheow waan kai (green chicken curry). Chefs such as Aom and TAAN’s Monthep Kamolsilp aren’t afraid to throw in modern techniques and ingredients, dispatching tasting menus that are rooted in home recipes yet are still profoundly progressive. Then there are the renegades like Chalee Kader and 80/20’s chef-owners Napol Jantraget and Saki Hoshino who are mining old traditions, such as foraging and fermentation, and reinventing dishes based on the fundamentals of Thai flavors.
Old standards housed in vintage surroundings still pack a punch. Thai celebrity chef Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club, for example, brandishes a hip garden-party vibe and serves up classics in jaw-dropping presentations. Supanniga Eating Room in Tha Tien pairs riverside views with down-to-earth dishes like moo cha muang (pork curry with tangy leaves), a standard northeastern recipe that rarely shows up on Bangkok menus. Stylish colonial mansion The House on Sathorn flaunts a tasting menu influenced by chef Fatih Tutak’s Turkish upbringing, while the à la carte menu regales diners with global and Thai flavors, bringing classic dishes like southern Thai beef carpaccio, Massaman lamb and Isaan wagyu short ribs up to speed with the culinary jet set.
Such tried-and-tested fare isn’t for everyone. “Staying completely authentic hasn’t helped Thai cuisine to evolve,” says Napol “Joe” Jantraget, the 33-year-old chef at 80/20, where the menu reflects his inclination for deconstructing old recipes and issuing updated versions. The restaurant lies smack in the middle of Bangrak, the old-world Thai-Chinese neighborhood along the Chao Phraya waterfront that’s lined with vintage shophouses and duck noodle stalls. 80/20 received the “Michelin Plate”, a new designation to indicate quality food, for dishes such as charcoal-grilled pork jowl with a terrine of fermented kale, barley koji oil and black garlic sauce, and Napol’s take on the classic street fare phak khanaa moo, or stir-fried kale and pork.
Here, small-batch nam pla or fish sauce, and freshly mortared, miso-based curry paste stoke the palate with authentic Thai flavors, while a smattering of Western ingredients push the boundaries of modern Thai cuisine. “In the past, Thai dishes drew inspiration from India and China,” says Napol. “Today, Japanese, Italian and French cuisine are more influential.”
Chef Monthep Kamolsilp, for example, deploys French techniques to give classic Thai fare a special twist, plating what he calls “hyperlocal and innovative Thai cooking” at TAAN, a restaurant that works with local, independent farmers. Monthep’s nine-course tasting menu reads like a road map to Thai cooking: fermented organic pork from the northern Nan province, charcoal-grilled brackish-water prawns from Rayong, south of Bangkok, and the aromatic “forgotten husband rice” (so good that a wife might have it all to herself, leaving nothing for her spouse), a black, glutinous rice varietal from the Hmong communities in Tak, along the Thai-Myanmar border.
The rise of the regions
Thai chef Supaksorn Jongsiri sparked a southern-Thai food frenzy when he opened SORN Fine Southern Cuisine, where fiery flavors hark back to seaside charcoal grilling under the stars. The food is meant for sharing, and meals begin with a series of small plates before culminating in a five-course tasting menu.
SORN also threw a spotlight on regional Thai food and cooking methods that were adding much-needed depth, variety and texture to Bangkok’s dining scene. 100 Mahaseth’s Chalee Kader tests local tastes with revamped dishes from northern Thailand. Chalee’s kang kalek — traditionally a grilled pork, coconut milk and cassia leaf curry — ditches coconut milk and is reconstructed with buffalo hide stock, braised oxtail and a seasoning of salted mackerel instead of the standard nam pla. A nose-to-tail diehard, Chalee plates bone marrow muddled with perilla seeds, blood, lime and lemongrass for an outstanding dish that both caters to and challenges traditional Thai palates.
Elsewhere in the sprawling metropolis, at the atmospheric Saawaan (“the night heaven”) Chef Aom is at the top of her game. The establishment opened last year and promptly received a Michelin star. Aom’s humble but confident menu utilizes traditional Thai techniques — fermentation, steaming and charcoal — grilling while throwing in molecular and sous-vide flourishes that floor her diners. The 10-course tasting menu features Songkla Squid — a succulent heap of squid noodles infused with squid ink and basil, then garnished with cured egg yolk — an ode to the hard-to-come-by southern-style stir-fry too pa soo tong. The pickled beef, cucumber and forest herb preparation is topped with mossy fried ginger, a nod to foraging traditions.
Aom is also a professed tea lover and pairs her menu with forest teas plucked from northern Thailand’s misty hills, whose woodsy and bright tannins work double duty by balancing sharp flavors and cleansing the palate between courses.
A dash of foreign flavor
It’s not only local chefs who are delving into their national heritage. Expat chefs are also tinkering with the country’s trove of fresh, indigenous ingredients and creating startlingly new menus. The dishes coming out of the kitchens at Bunker and Canvas, for example, leap into experimental territory, often with spectacular results. Others, like German twins Thomas and Mathias Sühring, have found Bangkok primed for innovation, and taken advantage of the momentum to launch Sühring’s modern German menu. And, by the looks of it, these chefs are on to something: the Michelin Guide, which premiered its Bangkok edition in 2017, singled out their eponymous restaurant for approval.
An international and perennially friendly city, Bangkok absorbs and assimilates readily — often at breakneck speed. “The dining scene is always evolving, and there’s incredible quality and diversity here,” says Thomas Sühring. “When we wanted to open our own restaurant, we knew it could only be Bangkok.”
The city seemed primed for what the brothers wanted to do in the kitchen. “Since we became chefs we somehow never had the chance to cook the food we grew up with,” says Thomas Sühring. At their restaurant, Thomas and Mathias dig deep into their heritage and prepare pastoral German fare with impeccable sensibility and precision; let’s just say you will never look at a bratwurst the same way again. “Once we worked on the concept of Sühring, we looked into old German cookbooks and our Oma’s [grandma’s] recipe book for inspiration. Together with our memories, we continuously evolve and love to re-create Germany’s regional favorites.”
Other envelope-pushing kitchens include the one run by chef Riley Sanders at Canvas. Here the
young Texan’s menu defies genres with its selection of pan-global fare infused with Thai ingredients and aromatics. For instance, red rice from the northeastern Surin province emerges as leavened bread with a heady emulsion of butter and indigenous herbs.
Elsewhere in the city, Filipino-American chef Arnie Marcella also evades easy culinary pigeonholing by pairing American comfort food with rustic Southeast Asian flavors at Bunker, his stylish industrial eatery — think hearty proteins with wild Thai herbs, adobo or kimchi potatoes.
Meanwhile at Gaa, Garima Arora, who honed her skills at two exalted eateries — Noma in Copenhagen and Bangkok’s own Gaggan — parses the relationship between Indian and Thai cuisines. Garima starts off the meal with earthy, bitter betel leaves crisped in duck stock and dusted with herbal salt, and ends with betel leaf dipped in dark chocolate and topped with fennel powder, rose chutney and cardamom silver leaf. Bookending the meal with an ingredient common in both cuisines can be challenging and poetic, she says.
While the fine-dining boom gathers pace, Bangkok is still a street-food paradise. This is despite the government’s ongoing campaign to sweep the city clean of street food, which is unfolding at a snail’s pace; one barely feels its effects except along Sukhumvit Road, which has been cleared of food stalls. Meander the old city streets, or boulevards flanked by skyscrapers, and you’ll still hear the scrape of spatulas on sizzling metal woks and inhale the head-spinning aroma of creamy coconut and pandan khanom (desserts).
Stall-hopping along Yaowarat, Chinatown’s main drag, remains a major diversion, although the Michelin Guide’s judges and locals have put a few more food stops on the map. At Jay Fai a 70-year-old, goggle-wearing grandma plates up Thai staple khai jee pu (crab omelette), radna talay (flat rice noodles with seafood) and pad krapao (chicken with Thai basil) at breakneck speed. Michelin Bib Gourmand recipient and definitive hole-in-the-wall Guay Jub Mr Joe’s tender pork with crispy skin comes with rice or stewed in broth. Off-the-beaten-track Choy boasts a fabulous tom yum soup with roast duck and egg noodles.
In spite of the lofty recognition, Bangkok chefs remain relaxed and unfussy. Eating here is as much about indulging in exotic flavors as it’s about enjoying the city’s light-hearted spirit. “Even with fine dining, we still encourage sum rup, which is the Thai spirit of sharing at the table,” says Monthep Kamolsilp. Any way you look at it, Bangkok is the place to tuck into a fabulous meal.
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Where Bangkok’s top chefs dine out and find inspiration
- “Muslim Restaurant at Chroen Krung and Silom Roads — it’s a blue shophouse with great goat brain curry.” — Napol “Joe” Jantraget of 80/20
- “Ubon Chaew Horn (51 Satsana Alley, Samsen Phaya Thai) for their Isaan-style hot pot and bold beef tartare. Saew 49 (Sukhumvit Soi 49) for classic Thai kuey teow, or noodle soup.” — Chalee Kader of 100 Mahaseth
- “Kenji’s Lab (Soi Thararom 2, Thonglor) for no-fuss and excellent Japanese. Issaya Siamese Club is my favorite go-to spot for Thai. Sürhing because everything they do is perfection.” — Riley Sander of Canvas
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Street beat: Where Chef Aom of Saawaan loves to eat
- “I’ve been going to eat at this shop on Chareon Krueng, Soi 83 since I was a kid — it has no name, but locals call it Ba Mee Trok Moh Ma, which literally means ‘egg noodles on the lane next to the traditional doctor’. That’s exactly where you’ll find it, next to a moh ma or traditional medicine shop. They make the stock and barbecue pork the traditional way — on charcoal. I recommend ba mee hang or dry egg noodles with pork or prawn wonton.”
- “Krua Khun Pa on Ratchapruek Road is where I go to get my spicy southern Thai fix. Try the gaeng leuang (yellow curry), ka nom jeen nam ya poo (fermented curry noodles with crab) and bai leang pad khai (egg stir-fry with bai laeng herb).”
- “Don’t miss kuay jub kum lung paai nai, a five-spice soup with freshly made rice noodles, crispy pork belly, pork liver and soft-boiled egg, on Prannok Road.”
Read more: Where to eat by district in Bangkok
This article first appeared in the February 2019 issue of Smile magazine.