Thai people often greet each other with the phrase kin khao rue jang?
It literally translates to ‘have you eaten?’
That is how important food is to them. Not ‘how are you?’, or ‘how’s your family?’, but ‘have you eaten?’
No wonder I like it here so much.
This was explained to me on one of my first days in Bangkok by Nushi (I really hope I’m spelling it right!), my guide for a morning’s eating with Bangkok Food Tours. She said Thai people like to eat all of the time. They don’t hold with this Western nonsense of three meals a day. Pah. What a waste of good eating opportunities! No, they graze throughout the day, and the fact that street food stalls are often busy at 10am, 3pm etc. illustrates her point. AND their breakfast often comes with a dessert course. Why didn’t we think of that? That’s an extra pudding every single day. Genius.
The tour was around an area of Bangkok called Bangrak, known locally as the ‘Village of Love’. Sounds like something our parents went to in the 1970s. It’s not. It’s actually the oldest part of the city, home to the first road and first hotel, and a place where a number of people of different ethnicities and religions all live in peace – hence the name. It’s also a popular place to get married, and a great area for food as we were to discover!
Bangkok is said to be as much a Chinese city as it is a Thai one, and the integration between the two cultures is such that it can be hard to pull them apart. Many Thais celebrate Chinese ceremonies alongside their own. Mr Soong is Chinese but his family have lived in Thailand for over 100 years. He is famous in the area for his roasted duck and rice, and his restaurant is a family affair: his son is now taking over the running of it. He only roasts ‘happy ducks’ as he calls them, and the meat is lean and tasty. The sauce he serves alongside it is top secret but it includes honey, fermented soya beans, and fish and soy sauces. As we ate we drank from a few young coconuts we had bought on the streets. Their skin had been burnt off, giving the milk a slightly sweeter, smokier taste than usual. Delicious!
We then moved on to a Thai Muslim restaurant, owned by a man and wife originally from South India. Food from the sub-continent isn’t actually that popular amount Thais – they find it too rich – so the food served here has been adapted to Thai tastes. First up was curry noodle. It doesn’t sound like much does it? Such an unassuming name for such an incredible dish. To come over all Famous Five, it was scrumptious! It’s similar to a Malaysian laksa – noodles in a spiced coconut broth – but made with lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime. We also tried a roti stuffed with chicken, onion and cumin and served with delicious sweet pickled cucumber.
Already feeling full we boarded a ferry to cross the Mae Nam Chao Phraya to Thonburi. Our destination was a tiny Isan restaurant tucked down an alley, lined with sacred, brightly-wrapped trees. Isan food comes from the North East of Thailand but is sold all over Bangkok. Many of the dishes we think of as being typically Thai – lemongrass fried chicken, papaya salad and sticky rice – are actually from this region. We had two of these signature dishes – a very, very spicy papaya salad (just thinking about it is making my mouth burn all over again), and incredible, juicy chicken on the bone, buried under strands of deep fried lemongrass – and a spicy BBQ chicken and peppermint salad. Hot, fresh, zingy, with just a touch of sweetness, they were everything I love about Thai food.
After all that savoury food it was time for some dessert! We went to Pan Lee Bakery, which is famous for its pandan custard buns and thick, sweet Thai iced tea. I love pandan, and have done since Guan served me madeleines infused with it at his supper-club. The owner of this little coffee shop trained as a pastry chef at the nearby Oriental Hotel. His buns are very soft and sweet, the bright green custard inside thick and vanillary with just a hint of coconut. I’ve already been back a couple of times for seconds and thirds!
Finally we took a seat outside at Kalpapruek, the original branch of the now well-established chain, owned by the Royal Family. Similarly to Prince Charles, the Thai Prince supports organic farming and has a range of products rather like Duchy Original. These are available to buy here, along with some delicious looking cakes and pastries. Outside, under an awning, we tucked into the quintessential Thai dish – green chicken curry – mopped up with some roti. It was probably the best version of the dish I have had. Finally, our palates were cleansed with a coconut sorbet.
Along with all the food just described, we also picked up bits of street food to share between us – I had my first taste of mango sticky rice, a dish I have had pretty much everyday since – and we stopped off at a gorgeous wat, and a couple of other sights along the way.
I always love a food tour, you know that by now, but I REALLY loved this one. Nushi was a fantastic guide – so so lovely – and so knowledgable about the area and local food. She never felt over rehearsed or like she was reading from a script, and offered great insight into Thai culture as well. Quite a few companies do a similar sort of tour, and as I haven’t been on them so I can’t comment, but I definitely recommend Bangkok Food Tours (They also run a couple of other tours, including a China Town night tour that I’ve booked to go on this weekend – I’ll obviously tell you ALL about it afterwards!). It really illustrated to me the breadth of Thai cuisine, and how it is so much more varied than I think we in the West give it credit for. It also gave me the confidence to explore other food stalls and restaurants on my own in the following days, that I might not otherwise have tried. I genuinely can’t recommend it enough!
Half Day Tour: 1150 Bhat.