A culinary guide to Bangkok
Known for its street food, the Thai capital is also home to a flourishing fine dining scene.
It wasn’t too long ago that splurging on a Thai meal in Bangkok could only mean dining out on what’s known as Royal Thai cuisine: white-tablecloth affairs serving regal takes on recipes from Central Thailand, with intricately carved vegetables and meticulously balanced flavours, but light on chillies and funky ferments. And while stalwart restaurants such as R-Haan and Saneh Jaan still dish out the classics, the past decade has seen a new crop of chefs study, dissect and reimagine recipes from far beyond the royal kitchens.
Take Sorn, a two-Michelin-starred spot that dives deep into long-lost recipes and indigenous ingredients from the south. The signature Surat Thani crab leg with crab roe and chilli paste alone probably explains why its art deco dining room books out months in advance. Sri Trat, meanwhile honours the seafood-rich cooking of the southeastern Trat province with shrimp paste relishes and herbal salads with vinegar-cured barracuda. As for the nine-course menus at recently opened North, the Chiang Rai-born chefs take inspiration from Northern Thailand’s ancient Lanna Kingdom. Amuse-bouches include bite-sized morsels of kaeng kradang (jellied pork), and mains feature northern ingredients such as fermented rice paddy crab and ma kwaen peppercorns.
Everyday staples have also been given a fine-dining spin: at Wana Yook, chef Chalee Kader zeroes in on khao gaeng — the type of precooked, assorted curries you’ll find served from counters all across the city. Here, however, this comfort-food classic is part of a beautifully plated tasting menu. Dishes at Potong, meanwhile, riff on the flavours of chef Pichaya Utharntharm’s Thai-Chinese heritage, recasting Chinatown specialities such as oyster omelette and roast duck as haute cuisine creations.
Thankfully, there’s also been a push towards sustainability, as more and more of the city’s chefs eschew imported produce in favour of Thailand’s plentiful bounty. At Canvas, chef Riley Sanders scours the countryside for wild and organically grown ingredients — the likes of termite mushrooms and hairy eggplant — and matches them with European cooking techniques, while the kitchen at nose-to-tail restaurant 100 Mahaseth makes sure no part of its Thai-raised meat goes to waste (you can expect to see tripe crisps, roasted marrow bones and dry-aged beef tongue on the menu). Even bars have hopped on the locavore train: Asia Today’s cocktails, for example, centre around Thai fruits and wild honey, while drinks at the sleek Ku Bar incorporate local market finds such as pandan, chrysanthemum and bael fruit.
And then, of course, there’s the street food. Despite tightening regulations for vendors across the city, Bangkok’s first Michelin-starred street food joint, Jay Fai, still does brisk business. Savoury smoke still wafts through the streets from dawn to dinner, and a rainbow of curries, stir-fries and tongue-numbing som tum papaya salads can be had for mere pennies a plate. So whether you’re after the finer side of dining or a pocket-friendly kerbside meal, eating in Bangkok has never been more exciting.
A day in Talad Noi & Charoenkrung
Modernity meets tradition in this up-and-coming riverside district, where Bangkok’s oldest paved road tapers off into a jumble of narrow alleys harbouring modern coffee shops and decades-old street-food institutions.
Start at Sarnies, a perennially packed brunch spot set in a 19th-century former boat repair workshop. The menu ranges from eggs benedict with tom yum hollandaise to fry-ups with hash browns and Northern Thai sai oua sausage, while the house-roasted coffee is widely regarded as among Bangkok’s best.
Continue up Charoen Krung Road to Central: The Original Store, a space hosting art exhibitions, a design library and sun-flooded Siwilai Café. There are more galleries a few blocks away, at the Second World War-era Warehouse 30 complex, where you’ll also find Woot Woot Store, a great place to buy local handicrafts (tote bags, sorghum brooms, etc).
Come lunchtime, try Samlor for reimagined street food classics by young chef-patron Napol Jantraget. His charcoal-roasted pork jowl with miso gravy is a firm favourite, but leave room for a dessert of fish sauce-caramel ice cream.
From here, it’s a short walk to the heart of Talad Noi, Bangkok’s original Chinatown, lined with oil-slicked car repair shops and kaleidoscopic Chinese temples. Down a maze of graffiti-clad alleys, So Heng Tai Mansion is one of the last remaining courtyard houses in the city and now functions as a small cafe and — surprisingly — a diving school.
Just opposite, the pillow-strewn terrace of Baan Rim Naam is a great spot for riverside sundowners and miang kham: traditional betel leaf-wrapped hors d’oeuvres. For dinner, grab a table at Charmgang, a buzzy, neon-lit spot that dishes out contemporary spins on oft-forgotten curries from across Thailand.
Or Tor Kor Market
Chefs flock to this market, just north of the city centre, for its high-quality produce — including papayas, bamboo shoots and rose apples — stacked in pyramids under fluorescent lights. A variety of durians are sold pre-peeled and wrapped in wax paper to avoid fingers picking up the fruit’s pungent odour.
Nang Loeng Market
Wedged between 19th-century townhouses in the Old Town, this market feels like it belongs in the Bangkok of a century ago. It’s a great grazing ground for old-fashioned eats such as steamed coconut custard, and khanom bueang (a crispy pancake with a sweet filling, topped with egg-yolk strands). Note: most stalls close by noon.
Khlong Toei Market
Packed with stalls hawking a bewildering array of fish and meat — much of it still alive — Bangkok’s largest wet market isn’t for the squeamish. Brave the crowds, though, and you’ll see where many of the city’s kitchens source their produce. For a quick bite, follow your nose to the noodle stalls and stir-fry joints around its perimeter.
A day in Tha Thien & Kudi Chin
Home to Bangkok’s top tourist sights, Bangkok’s historical quarter is a feast for the stomach as well as the eyes. Sandwiched between the Chao Phraya River and the Wat Pho temple complex, the pastel-coloured buildings of Tha Thien have been given a new lease of life by artists, chefs and mixologists.
Beat the crowds to the Grand Palace and adjoining Wat Pho. The former, all glittering roofs and golden spires, dates back to 1782 and houses one of Thailand’s most sacred Buddhist icons: the Emerald Buddha. Wat Pho’s drawcard, meanwhile, is a 46-metre-long, gold-plated, reclining Buddha. Cool down with a coconut-water cold brew at Elefin Coffee, a corner cafe that sources its beans from Chiang Rai. Hungry? Tuck into a late breakfast of khao tom, rice soup topped with shrimp and fried garlic.
Hop on a river ferry for another historical highlight: Wat Arun, a mosaic-covered temple looming over the river. From here, head southward to Kudi Chin, a historically Portuguese neighbourhood centred on neoclassical Santa Cruz Church. Sit down for a lunch of Portuguese-influenced dishes, such as a non-spicy take on khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles with curry) at Baan Sakul Thong. Next, visit Baan Kudichin Museum for a lowdown on the local history.
For a snack,stop at Thanu Singha, a bakery using an heirloom recipe for its khanom farang kudi chin — ‘foreigner cake’ — a Thai-Portuguese muffin topped with raisins and dried sweet gourd.
In the evening, cross the river back to Tha Tien for Nusara, where chef Thitid Tassanakajohn gives his grandmother’s Thai recipes a fine-dining spin during a 12-course tasting menu. Seats in the tiny dining room book up fast, so May Rai, Tassanakajohn’s natural wine bar downstairs, is a great back-up — try the prawn-topped pad thai, and khao soi (curry soup with noodles) with Wagyu beef. Finish with a lao khao (rice whisky) cocktail at Rongros, a tiny bar-restaurant with incredible rooftop-terrace views of gold-lit Wat Arun, across the river. And if you’re still peckish, the extensive menu includes spiced soups and shrimp omelette, as well as fried rice sets.
Created by the team behind envelope-pushing Bangkok gin bar Teens of Thailand, this snug bar (above) on the edge of Chinatown uses house-made shrubs (drinking vinegars), created using riesling and stout, as the main ingredient for its cocktails. The unusual flavour profiles are further enhanced with the addition of left-field ingredients such as pepper-infused vermouth.
Mixing New York glam with jewel-toned, Chinatownchic, Opium Bar occupies a former — you guessed it — opium den in a century-old shophouse, just off Chinatown’s main drag. Its 17-page drink menu includes playful riffs on global classics and herb-infused bottled cocktails big enough for three to share.
This 70-year-old jazz institution at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok hotel has raked in countless awards, and for good reason. Backdropped by sepia-toned photographs of famous patrons — Mick Jagger and Audrey Hepburn, among them — the bartenders shake up excellent drinks using imaginative techniques and ingredients. The tom yum-inspired hawker with coconut fat-washed tequila and kaffir lime is a must.
Despite their recent Michelin recognition, Bangkok’s street food stalls are a slowly dying breed. Due to ever-tightening regulations, the glory days of stumbling over noodle carts at every street corner are long gone. Fabled hubs such as Sukhumvit Soi 38 and the On Nut Night Market have made way for sterile shopping malls and gleaming condominiums. Know where to look, though, and you’ll still find pockets of old-school street food stalwarts firmly standing their ground.
Straddling the train tracks on the Thonburi side of the river, the former betel nut market of Talad Phlu is now a street food stomping ground for locals in the know. Order a plate of roasted-to-a-crisp pork with rice and red gravy at Sunee Red Pork Rice and finish off with highlighter-hued coconut sweets from the dessert stall further down the road.
Office workers swarm the streets around Victory Monument for cheap lunches doled out from kerbside kitchens. Head to ‘Boat Noodle Alley’ for meat-topped noodles in a dark, soy sauce-laced soup. The half-a-dozen stalls and restaurants here sell it in tiny bowls for the equivalent of around 25p a go, and you’re encouraged to order a handful to sample every flavour.
After dark, Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road turns into a neon-lit buffet that stretches for almost half a mile. Long queues signal the best stalls, but seek out the one in front of the derelict adult cinema halfway down the road for guay jub, a peppery roll-noodle soup with pork entrails.
On Lok Yun
This breakfast spot in Phra Nakhon feels like it hasn’t changed since it opened in 1933. Take a seat at a time-worn Formica table for char-grilled toast in sangkaya (coconut custard), soft-boiled eggs with soy sauce, and iced cha yen (Thai iced tea). 72 Charoen Krung Road
Kwan Sew Ki
A Talad Noi stalwart, this casual restaurant is one of the few places in town where dim sum is still served from trolleys. Pick from steamed char siu buns, shrimp dumplings and sweet egg tarts — or order from the menu of Cantonese favourites. 894 Charoen Krung Road
The beef broth in the huge pan in front of this legendary spot in Ekkamai has been simmering seemingly nonstop for over 45 years. The chefs scoop out portions for bowls of noodle soup, then simply top it up with fresh meat and herbs. 336-338 Ekkamai Road
Thai Airways flies direct from Heathrow to Bangkok. Emirates, KLM and others fly with one stop from various UK airports.
Where to Stay
Capella Bangkok, on Charoen Krung Road, has doubles from 16,500 THB (£384), B&B.
How to do it
InsideAsia Tours has a 13-night Thailand trip with food tours in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, hotels and guides from £2,847 per person, excluding flights.
Published in Issue 17 (autumn 2022) of Food by National Geographic Traveller (UK)
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