Friday 30 September 2016

Bangkok: An epic foodie adventure

Food & Travel

Aoife Carrigy

Published 24/05/2015 | 02:30

Foodie paradise: Wat Arun temple on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River.
Foodie paradise: Wat Arun temple on the Thonburi west bank of the Chao Phraya River.
Vendors transport food in boats at a floating market, Bangkok, Thailand
Tuk tuks are an inexpensive and popular form of transport in Bangkok
Bangkok: Food, glorious food
The Mandarin Oriental hotel

Aoife Carrigy packs an appetite for her latest Asian adventure - an epic tasting tour of Thailand's capital.

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Breakfasting by Bangkok's cocoa-coloured Chao Phraya river is a dreamy way to start the day. Sipping Earl Grey tea, I'm watching long-tailed boats dance like dragonflies, cargo barges dragging past like giant sea cucumbers. Even the wooden-arched hotel ferries seem to dart about like pond-skaters.

I've just finished a lazy graze at the epic Mandarin Oriental buffet.

From bacon to pastries and bircher muesli through exotic fruits to dim sum and noodle soup, you could eat your way around the world and back here. But I'm pacing myself. There are many meals ahead, including a morning of cooking just across the river in what was one of the first Thai cookery schools, established in the 1980s by this landmark Bangkok hotel.

As you may gather, I'm in the city on a food adventure. From punchy street fare to nuanced fine dining, there's a vibrancy to Thai food culture that's addictive. Having got my first taste of Bangkok as a backpacker, I'm back for another fix.

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A floating market in Bangkok

When it comes to food in Thailand, it's worth remembering that the average person here eats about eight times a day. When you hear the common greeting phrase 'gin khao yung' (literally 'have you eaten yet?') it's a rhetorical question. You will have already eaten. And you will shortly be eating again.

I remind myself of this as I tuck into my welcome snacks at the cookery school - including jasmine-smoked cassava blushed pink with beetroot. Our tutor, Narain, is an ex-schoolteacher with a palpable passion for his native culinary culture. We learn how to guard the contents of a mortar as we pound curry paste with the pestle. We learn how to make coconut milk from scratch using a traditional 'coconut rabbit' grater. We learn how washing your hands with slices of kaffir lime beats any fancy hand-moisturiser.

We learn that fudge-like coconut palm sugar is actually sap collected from coconut palm blossoms, and how pandanus leaves lend a vanilla fragrance to cooked desserts like Job's tears, corn and taro in coconut cream. My favourite lesson? How to prepare nam prig noom, a punchy northern relish of charred garlic, shallots, green chillies and mild banana peppers, served with pork scratchings or deep-fried, sun-dried fish skin.

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Food, glorious food

For the ultimate masterclass in authentic Thai cooking, however, I head downtown to lunch at Nahm in the sleek Hotel Metropolitan (comohotels.com). David Thompson cooked Thai food in Sydney in the 1990s and London in the noughties, where he snagged the first-ever Michelin star for Thai food. Now Bangkok-based, his restaurant is unmissable.

Sipping on a glass of Grosset Watervale Riesling, snacking on mouthfuls of rice cake topped with blue swimmer crab, pickled garlic, smoked nuts and sour herbs, I want to slow down time to eek out this perfect moment. But true perfection is yet to arrive: a lunch of five dishes that individually offer layer upon layer of texture and flavour, each chew of each mouthful bringing something new. Together, the effect is orchestral.

The star turn, however, belongs to the deep umami flavours of an anise-scented clear soup of shiitake and roast duck, glimmering with slivers of jelly-like young coconut. I leave Nahm reluctuantly, but armed with Thompson's recommendations for some of the best street food Bangkok's Chinatown has to offer.

He doesn't let me down.

To get there, I pass through alleyways lined with pickled yellow cabbage and purple sun-dried petals, dripping shark fins and papery dried fish, splayed frogs and glistening squid perched on hillocks of ice. A leathery woman offers me some chicken crackling to taste. It's delicious.

I stop to drink fresh coconut water straight from the shell, and watch the glowing sky darken behind stalls of rosy apples, pomegranates, strawberries and dragon fruit.

And then I stumble upon my destination, heralded by neon signage for Nai Mong Hoi Thod. Here I eat a 'crispy oyster omelette', cooked street-side in a flurry of sparks, served by a serious eight-year-old girl and inhaled in a minute by me. The pillowy oysters are seasoned with sweet oyster sauce, spicy Sriracha, tangy green onions and fragrant white pepper.

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A tuk-tuk in Thailand

Afterwards, I jump next door, where I sit overlooking a display of the very freshest of ingredients and point, like all the clientele, to whatever I want to eat next. There are mussels smaller than your pinky fingernail, cockles and crispy pork belly, and all manner of leafy vegetables with curling tendrils or purple-tinged tips. I eat unforgettable slices of smoked duck, dusky pink on the inside and caramel hued on the outside, served with a green chilli and coriander root relish.

On the way back to my hotel, I wander up Khao San Road for old time's sake. Even here there are culinary treasures. Prawns the size of bananas lining up to hop on a grill. Dried squid flattened paper-thin in a hand-wound mill and toasted on an open flame. I do a mental check of how many times I've eaten yet today and figure I'm lagging, at least by Thai standards.

Gin khao yung?

I have eaten. And I will be again.

What to pack

Travellers from the EU don't need a visa for stays of less than 30 days in Thailand. Bring a travel-plug adapter set, as sockets can be either two round pins or two flat-blade pins. A personal water cooler is handy for cutting down on plastic water bottles (the tap water is undrinkable).

Getting there

Emirates (emirates.com/ie) flies from Dublin to Bangkok (via Dubai), with return fares from €636pp going to press. Etihad Airways (etihad.com) flies from Dublin to Bangkok (via Abu Dhabi and Dubai respectively) return from €650pp. Check out tourismthailand.org for lots of useful information, such as how to claim VAT back on your shopping.

Where to stay

The Rikka Inn (rikkainn.com) on Khao San Road is a boutique budget hotel with rooftop pool. Rates start from €28 per night B&B. The Mandarin Oriental (mandarinoriental.com; from €378 per night) is an historic hotel renowned for excellent service. A half-day cookery class costs around €70pp.

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