Bangkok works up an appetite for contemporary Thai food

Proudly contributed by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

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Crabmeat spring rolls at Baan Suriyasai, which serves textbook renditions of Thai classics.
Photo by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

The traditional Thai kitchen takes a seemingly nonchalant approach to composing a meal. Shared items are usually served together in samrab (home) style, arriving on the table more or less at the same time, or as the cook sees fit.

But appearances are deceiving. Stir-fries complement boiled soups and curries, fried and grilled foods are offset with zesty salads and dips. Sour, sweet, salty, spicy and bitter are not single notes in Thai cooking, but form a harmony — as illustrated by pad thai, the fried noodles that are considered the kingdom’s national dish.

“You orchestrate everything in layers,” said Andy Yangeksakul, chef at Bangkok’s Table 38, who in 2010 became the first Thai chef to earn a Michelin star for his Thai food at Rhong Tiam in New York’s Greenwich Village.

 While Yangeksakul was championing quality ingredients in Thai food in New York, chefs at Bo.lan and Nahm were among the first in Bangkok to reconsider the unstructured serendipity of samrab-style service, breaking the meal into a succession of courses or individually plated dishes.

Other Thai restaurants in Bangkok followed suit. But the phenomenon of amuse-bouches (morsels to whet the appetite), tasting menus, wine pairings and rising price tags reached critical mass in 2018 with the opening of a slew of upscale restaurants that show Thai cuisine in a new, more rarefied light.

Table 38’s deconstructed khao soi, a mix of crispy and soft egg noodles, chicken, a soft-boiled egg and condiments in a curry broth.
Photo by Vincent Vichit-Vadakan

“Fine dining isn’t reserved for an elite anymore,” said Fred Meyer, the restaurateur behind a number of Bangkok establishments, including newly opened Saawaan. Meyer pointed to social media as democratizing the experience. Jutamas “Som” Thaentae, chef at Karmakamet Conveyance concurred. “Now people can see everything on the internet, on Instagram. Everyone wants to have everything that everyone else has,” said Thaentae.

Yangeksakul, who studied for an MBA while learning the culinary ropes in New York, also sees demographics and a maturing market as factors that have contributed to the explosion of upscale offerings. “Millennials are about experience,” he said. “People have traveled more, understand more and are willing to pay more for an experience.”

One of the most sought-after tables in Bangkok today is at Sorn, where chef Yodkwan U-Pumpruk showcases the fiery recipes and rare produce of the south of Thailand. Sorn’s tasting menu of 22 items includes both small individual bites and a samrab main course called “The Thai Way of Sharing” that features eight different dishes. Tables have to be booked two months in advance, but despite the restaurant’s overnight success, owner Supaksorn “Ice” Jongsiri wants to manage expectations. “We don’t dare tell everyone that we are a fine dining restaurant. We have much to learn,” he said modestly. “I’d rather say we are doing our best to give our guests the best southern Thai food experience.”

Read full article at Nikkei Asian Review:

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