November 08 2010
Which, do you suppose, is the world’s greatest food city? By that I do not mean the best place to find Michelin-starred temples of gastronomy, but the city whose inhabitants are most obsessed with the joy of eating; a place where food is the fulcrum of life.
When I first visited Bangkok, in the late 1980s, I was struck by the pleasure that Thais derive from every aspect of food: shopping and haggling in the many markets, effortlessly flinging noodles around ancient woks, hunching over big bowls of hot and sour soup, devouring mounds of green papaya salad. I loved it, despite making the schoolboy error of mistaking lethal green chillies for innocent inches of beans.
Thanks to the developers, today Bangkok is a very different city. It has a Metro and a Skytrain, skyscrapers and luxury apartment blocks, but the tenacity with which its citizens cling to their cuisine is truly inspiring. David Thompson, creator of the splendid Nahm restaurant in London and the western world’s leading authority on Thai food, told me that when demonstrators were on the streets earlier this year, only the food carts could move freely between opposing factions.
With typical Aussie chutzpah, David has opened another Nahm, in Bangkok’s deeply stylish Metropolitan Hotel. The menu features dishes culled from his travels around Thailand, and it is a joy. How many Thai menus feature mud crab, rich and piquant; sweetly fatty deep-fried pork neck; delicately sauced queen scallops; even a pudding made from the stinky, unctuous, love-it-or-leave-the-room durian with sticky rice? Each dish is so intricate that it would be impossible to do any of them justice in words: suffice to say that, as well as the usual Thai precepts of salty, spicy, sweet and sour, David has created a masterful menu, full of contrasting textures, aromas and flavours that leap from the bowl and arrest both palate and nostrils. His profound understanding of what makes food sing reminds me of a great composer at work.
The restaurant itself is smartly turned out, with terracotta pillars and a pleasantly woody feel to it; the wine list is one of Bangkok’s best, and is particularly strong on spice-friendly Riesling and Gewürztraminer. It is the food, however, that makes Nahm: this was easily the best meal I have eaten this year, by turns astonishing, provocative and deeply satisfying.
The next evening David took me to Chinatown, where some of the best street stalls can be found. We feasted on superb oyster omelettes, strewn with sweet, plump bivalves; duck breast smoked over sugar cane; minced pork spiced and stir-fried with Thai olives; and lovely fresh egg noodles in a limpid, fishball-filled broth. For the citizens of Bangkok, food is not just a part of life: it is life.