The gastronomic glories of Thailand

From sophisticated spice at a riverside five-star to a punchy salad by the beach, Thai cuisine continues to cast a spell

The Mandarin Oriental’s Terrace Rim Naam
The Mandarin Oriental’s Terrace Rim Naam

The first time The Gannet flew to Bangkok, as a cash-strapped young chef nearly 30 years ago, was with Tarom, the Romanian airline. The trip took 30 hours, including two unscheduled stops at military airports in Romania and a lengthy delay in Dubai. On arrival, thoroughly frazzled, I headed for Khao San Road (still the backpacker’s thoroughfare of choice), found a cheap room, a bowl of startlingly hot curry and a return coach and ferry ticket to Koh Samui for the next day. And over the next fortnight, despite the rigours of travel, Thailand cast its spell.

My last visit – with British Airways, and mercifully non-stop – also made much use of low-cost local transport: first south to Phuket, where I took a speedboat to the peaceful island of Koh Yao Yai. The best food I found was at the Thiw Son Beach Resort, where a notably punchy cucumber salad, chicken larb (minced, with toasted rice, chilli and red onion) and a couple of Chang beers set me back less than £10. Then from Phuket to Udon Thani, way up in the northeast, and on to Nong Khai on the banks of the Mekong, with Laos on the other bank, its capital Vientiane a mere 20km away.

Nong Khai is a typically bustling Thai city: the worryingly named Hospital Food Court is actually a terrific place to eat, full of staff from the hospital opposite snatching a quick lunch of local Isaan dishes. Non-Thais should just point, smile and trust to luck.

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Or you might eat in the more farang-friendly Mut Mee Garden Guest House’s tranquil riverside garden: tilapia, a fish farmed in baskets on the Mekong, is a speciality. And Isaan is the home of som tam (green papaya salad), larb (often made with pork and offal) and sticky rice, so order those too.

Earlier in Bangkok I had found the perfect way to deal with jet-lag: dinner at the Mandarin Oriental’s Terrace Rim Naam, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya. The spice here is posh, not scary – start with one of their excellent cocktails, then plunge into the menu as the brightly lit party boats drift past.

A perky beef salad featured tender slices of pink sirloin, black grapes and Thai basil; “snow fish” (black cod, I think) was fresh, flaky and vibrant with herbs and little red shallots; stir-fried water mimosa swam happily in a preserved soybean sauce; grilled pork neck was served with a deeply fragrant blend of lime, galangal, tamarind, chives and chilli, and crackled with toasted rice.

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Service is impeccable, there is (unusually for Bangkok) an excellent wine list and the views of the river are bewitching. As a blissful introduction to the glories of Thai cuisine, Terrace Rim Naam can hardly be bettered. The next day, suitably refreshed, I was ready to tackle the produce at the city’s fantastic markets and street stalls. Travel, they say, broadens the mind: in Thailand it has the same effect on my waistline. Bill Knott

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