I moved to Bangkok some four months ago to begin my training at the world renowned Le Cordon Blue in the hopes of learning a thing or two to hold me in good stead when embarking on some form of cuisine based career once I graduate. Classes are intensive, especially when let loose in the professional kitchens to architect and produce your own plates of food. I’ve witnessed sliced fingers, burns hands and small scale kitchen fires, I’ve even heard tales of a student over exerting his strength with a melon baller and loosing a melon ball shaped section of his palm… Thankfully I’ve got away relatively unscathed with a few minor cuts and a slightly scalded hand on one occasion. The number of languages being thrown around the kitchen adds another level of complexity, of course I communicate in the Queen’s finest English and the Thai student’s in their own native tongue, although with all cooking techniques, equipment and methods taught in French, by French native chefs, at times the brain hits critical mass and gives up on one self. This all adds to the challenge and enjoyment of the task at hand and I must confess undertaking this rigorous training has been by far one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life.
Kitchen practical sessions, as they are known, are marked over the following four (or five) criteria; Organisation, Hygiene, Technique, Taste & Presentation. If you’re late presenting your dish, marks are docked. If you don’t clean up as you cook, marks are deducted. If you fillet a whole salmon so badly it’s hardly recognisable as fish, you guessed it, marks are deducted. Simple as that. The marks from every kitchen practical session (35 in total) are then accumulated and contribute towards a final grade. The additional marks come from a written exam (mostly in French) and a final examination practical session. The format of the examination practical is similar, although on this occasion a dish that you have cooked at some point over the three month term is picked at random, you’re given the ingredients and asked to present six identical plates of food for each Head Chef to critique. No method, just an ingredients list with some basic measurements. The final half hour of this examination practical was frantic to say the least. All in all I did relatively well in my first term, in fact I did better than well, I finished top of the entire year. Are we looking at the next Gordon Ramsay?
There are many beautiful dishes that I have cooked during my first stage of training, added to my everyday repertoire and opening my eyes to the gastronomy of French cuisine. Some of these classic, Escoffier inspired recipes include;
- Magret de Canard à l’orange, Pommes Waffle (Duck Breast with Orange Sauce, “Waffle Chips”)
- Filet de Daurade, Poêlés au Fenouil Confits (Pan Fried Sea Bream Fillet with Confit Fennel)
- Soufflé Chaud au Cointreau (Warm Soufflé with Cointreau)
- Blanquette de Veau à L’ancienne au Riz Pilaf (Traditional Veal Stew with Pilaf Rice)
- Parfait Glacé au Café, Sauce Caramel au Cognac (Coffee Parfait, Caramel and Cognac Sauce)
- Saumon à L’unilateral au Beurre Fondu à la Ciboulette, Pommes Byron (“Unilateral” Salmon with Chive Butter Sauce, Byron Potatoes)
- Estouffade de Boeuf Bourguignonne (Beef Bourguignonne)
- Crème Bavaroise à la Vanille, Sauce Café (Vanilla Bavarian Cream, Coffee Sauce)
But it’s not all cookery school and classical French cuisine that I’ve been surrounded by since touching down in Bangkok. There has of course been a huge variety of Asian cuisine at my fingertips, Thai, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Korean, Malaysian etc. Restaurants of varying price range are numerous and offer all manner of delicious foods, but for me it’s hard to beat the food you encounter as soon as you step out your front door. Thailand is a country that makes full use of its warm weather and busting pavements by utilising the “people’s restaurant space”… the street. Street food is an essential part of everyday like in Thailand and for me that has been no exception. When you can dine on a full-blown meal and still come away with change from a 100 baht note (around £2) it’s hard not to be seduced by this kind of eating lifestyle. Many vendors congregate together on side streets or under sheltered food court areas and will dedicate themselves to cooking a handful of recipes (if not a just a single recipe) that their family has fine tuned over many generations, using the same wok that their ancestors once used on that very same street corner. As I’m living in Bangkok I thought it preferable to speak in detail about some of the Thai dishes that I eat on a regular basis, maybe to aid any of you who should find yourself stuck for eating options if, and when you visit Thailand.
Som Tam (Green Papaya Salad)
The quintessential Thai street food, found on numerous street corners all over Thailand. Descending from the Northeastern ‘Issan Provence’ of Thailand, Som Tham can now be found anywhere in the country. A vibrant dish of finely shredded unripe green papaya, smashed and muddled in a giant wooden pestle and mortar with long green beans, cherry tomatoes, dried shrimps and peanuts. These ingredients are combined with fish sauce (salty), chillies (spicy), fresh lime juice (sour) and palm sugar (sweet) to provide the ultimate balancing of flavours so typical of Thai cuisine. This salad is an intense combination of savoury flavours and textures, and is one that I crave regularly. As customary in the Issan Provence, Som Tam is eaten with Sticky Rice and Gai Yang (chicken grilled over hot coals), although I’ll happily eat a bowl on its own. Look for the vendors with the giant wooden pestle and mortar, a dead giveaway that they specialise in the art of making Som Tam.
Khao Man Gai (Chicken Rice)
Strictly speaking this dish originates from China but the Thai people have now adopted it as their own. On first sight this dish compromising of just two ingredients looks fairly unappetising and bland. Sure it doesn’t pack the same flavour profile as other Thai staples like Som Tam, but it’s for that very reason why I like this dish so much. The chickens used for Khao Man Gai are of the lazy variety, ensuring a wonderfully plump and juicy bird. Simmered in a simple broth composed of salt, sugar, garlic and ginger the chicken becomes beautifully moist and tender. This chicken stock is then used alongside rendered chicken fat to cook the accompanying rice, the result is glistening, slightly oily rice with deep chicken flavour. The chicken is served sliced (usually skinless) over rice with cucumber and maybe fresh coriander to garnish. Khao Man Gai stalls will always have a deep red sauce, usually of the soy, chilli and ginger variety to add to your dish as you see fit. Thai’s will almost always default drinking water, instead opting for a small cup of the simmer chicken broth to cleanse the palate. It’s easy to spot Khao Man Gari venders as they will have the boiled white chickens hanging in a glass cabinet by their chopping block.
Yen Ta Fo (Fermented Soybean Noodles)
Bright pink in appearance and delightfully light yet savoury. Yen Ta Fo starts life by flashing noodles of you choice, I prefer woon sen (glass noodles) or sen yai (wide rice noodles), in a hot broth made from pork bones, before being adorned with anything from sliced barbecue pork, beef chunks, fish balls, fried tofu, sliced squid, fish cake, pork crackling, morning glory (popular Thai vegetable), the list is fairly endless. All this is topped with a generous spoon of the famous pink fermented soybean paste which gives the dish its distinct flavour of sweet, sour and salty. Yen Ta Fo can be eaten as a soup based noodle dish or as a ‘dry’ noodle dish for a more intense flavour. The photo below shows the ‘dry’ version before mixing with the soybean paste. Yen Ta Fo is traditionally a variety of Kuay Teow Ruea (Boat Noodle) that get their name from vendors selling noodles directly from boats travelling on the network of canals that still run through old Bangkok.
Khao Moo Daeng (Red Barbecue Pork Rice)
The first dish I ate when I landed in Bangkok and maybe the reason I defaulted back to it on so many occasions early on my travels (it was literally the only dish I knew the name of for the first week). This hearty yet humble meal of boiled white rice with slices of barbecue red pork and lap cheong (Cantonese sausage) is topped with a dense, sweet and tangy red sauce (composed of oyster and soy sauce). If you’re lucky your Khao Moo Daeng may also be garnished with a handful of Moo Krop (crispy pork), and will always be accompanied with sliced cucumber and a halved boiled egg. The rich sauce coupled with the slightly smokey flavour from the barbecue pork and sweetness of the lap cheong make this a harmonious marriage of porky flavours. Look for loins of barbecue red pork hanging from vendors stalls as this is a good indication that some form of Moo Daeng (red barbecue pork) dish is being served.
Gaeng Mussaman (Muslim Curry)
We’re all familiar with the ever popular Gaeng Kaw Wan Gai (Green Chicken Curry) but I find that Gaeng Mussaman has a deeper complexity of flavour and taste. Another reason why I maybe adore this curry so much is because it is made using many of the same spices I’m familiar with from Indian cookery; bay leaves, cinnamon and cardamom pods. Although the addition of fish sauce, tamarind paste, palm sugar, roasted peanuts and coconut milk give Gaeng Mussaman its distinctive Thai flavours. I prefer my Gaeng Mussaman to be prepared with mutton as the flavour of the mutton holds up well against the spices, and the sometimes tough meat becomes deliciously yielding and tender from long, slow simmering. Potatoes are used in this dish to add body and thickness to the final sauce. Nothing more than a bowl of steamed jasmine rice is needed as accompaniment to this luxuriously rich dish.
Hoi Tod (Oyster Omelette Pancake)
I stumble upon this street dish not often enough but when I do I almost always place an order regardless to whether I am hungry or not. This simple dish comprises of egg being flash cooked, almost scrambled in pork fat, before a thin batter of rice flour (and I believe tapioca) is mixed through and finished with a fistful of locally collected oysters. I like to order mine extra crispy so that the exterior oysters and egg batter pick up a slightly charred, almost caramelised characteristic that balances the sweetness and saltines of the oysters, while the inside remains soft and sticky. All vendors will have a sweet chilli sauce to adorn on your Hoi Tod and I highly recommend adding this for added subtle chilli heat. From my experience Hoi Tod vendors are mostly in the Chinatown area of the city, and often it’s Pad Thai vendors that serve this dish in addition to their main staple wok fried noodles.
Khao Neow Mamuang (Mango Sticky Rice)
It’s not only savoury fare that you find on the streets of Bangkok and this sweet dish becomes a staple for any Thai cuisine enthusiast during the thriving mango season. Only the very best and perfectly ripe yellow mangoes are selected to ensure juicy flesh with natural sweetness. The accompanying sticky rice is cooked in coconut milk until rich and creamy. Few other sweet combinations give me such joy as when these two are paired together. The dish is finished with yet more reduced, sweet coconut milk ladled over the mango and rice to form a mountain of sweet, sticky deliciousness. I have a favourite vendor for Khao Neow Mamuang a few stalls on the left as you enter Sukhumvit Soi 38, which incidentally is a great starting point for exploring Bangkok’s street food as many vendors congregate on this short stretch during the twilight after work hours.
On the opposite end of the scale I have also had the fortune of contributing my thoughts and critique on a number of high-end restaurants around the city, curtsy of Thailand Tatler Magazine. As guest contributor I have sampled some very fine international and Thai cuisine. New York City style speakeasy, Little Beast (44/9-10, Soi Thonglor 13, Sukhumvitt 55) impressed with its French-American dishes and hand crafted cocktails. I dinned on superb wagyu steak crafted by CIA (Culinary Institute of America) trained Chef Nan. Eat Me (Soi Pipat 2, Silom) ranked #19 on the San Pellegrino Top 50 Asian Restaurants, serves food described as “Pacific Rim with South-East Asian and Middle Eastern twists”. Grilled Iberico pork loin and roasted bone marrow dishes were a reminder just how good well executed meat cooking can be. Chef David Thompson’s Nahm (Metropolitan Hotel, 27 South Sathorn Road) is widely regarded as the authority on authentic Thai cuisine. With recipes being scoured from ancient Thai manuscripts and cookbooks, revealing dishes that have not been seen on dinner tables, yet alone restaurant tables for centuries. This is reflected in Nahm’s ranking of #31 on the San Pellegrino World Top 50 Restaurants. Southern-style grilled mussels smoked with coconut husks then cooked with curry-infused coconut cream was a revelation of flavours. My written reviews will be included in the forthcoming “Thailand’s Best Restaurants 2014” publication, released later this year by Thailand Tatler, and will also be available to read online via the official website.
So in a nutshell that sums up most aspects of my culinary adventures since arriving in Bangkok last October. It’s been good to recap on these past months and I will endeavour to write more often so that y’all can hear about the new dishes I discover on the streets of Bangkok.