Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Back in Bangkok

We went to Bangkok at a weird time. The anti-Government protests were just kicking off, and large parts of the city's roads were closed. Taxis drivers shook their heads and drove off when you asked tentatively if they'd take you somewhere, and any taxi you could get into would then get gridlocked in traffic. Our hotel, The Metropolitan by COMO, was an oasis of calm amidst the chaos, though we were told hotels had suffered, with only 40% full as opposed to the 90% norm at that time of year. It did mean we had the pool largely to ourselves, though. 

The jacuzzi, usually a place of awkward glances, was also deserted, and I was able to bubble away, uninterrupted. Our room had the biggest and most comfortable bed I've stayed in, and the temptation to sit around in those fluffy dressing gowns was intense. But we had things to eat. 

Our first day in Bangkok saw us eating in two swanky restaurants; firstly, Nahm in our hotel. David Thompson cooks there, and it was placed at number 32 at The 50 World's Best Restaurants in 2013. I had dinner there on my last visit to Bangkok in 2011, and standards haven't slipped since. From the lunch menu, a clear and innocent-looking tom yum goong was as fiesty as hell, the heat of the chilli building until I couldn't bear it any more. I sought refuge in the (pictured) fresh water crayfish with Asian pennywort salad. The plump shellfish with young coconut was sweet and mild, herbal and soothing. 

Only available at lunchtime, the khanom jeen noodles (a type of cold noodle made with fermented rice) was served with a bundle of herbs and banana blossom, with our chosen curry of chicken and young ginger. It was a right faff to balance those noodles on a spoon, spoon some curry on top and garnish it with the herbs for the perfect mouthful, but once achieved, it was indeed delicious. The heat of the young ginger prevailed, while the rich red curry coated the noodles smoothly. Service was formal but friendly, and our lunch revived us from the staleness of the 13 hour plane journey.

We headed out to look at some temples and ride around in tuk tuks until we were peckish again and under a bridge, with not much else going on, we found a lone cart selling noodles; a sweet, anise-scented broth with slivers of pork dominated this particular bowl. It was a case of point-and-nod; rice noodles? No. Egg instead? Yes. A few splashes of chilli from the condiments tray made it one of the best bowl of noodles we had on our trip. 

Jet lag kicking in, we dozed off on the ferry, bobbing our way down the Chao Prao river back to our hotel. A short cab ride later, we arrived at Bo.Lan, recommended to me by many when I asked for restaurant recommendations. Decked in wood throughout, we were seated at a disappointingly dark table (though, given what happened later, probably a good thing). To avoid having to do any decision-making, we opted for the Bo.Lan Balance - a tasting menu devised of dishes that encompass the salty, spicy, sweet and mild flavour spectrums. 

We started off with a martini glass of Thai whiskey, washed down with a pandanus water-like drink and some nibbles. A tray then followed, and the waitress pointed at each bite in turn. "This? Not spicy. This? Spicy. This? Not spicy." We munched away happily until we encountered Mr. Spicy. A little cup of tangled vegetables, seemingly harmless enough. My boyfriend spluttered and went bright red. Water that looked suspiciously like tears leaked from his eyes. I raised an eyebrow and ate my portion. A rising flame spread throughout my mouth. It hurt to breathe out, as my breath was warm and it inflamed my tongue. We started sob-giggling hysterically, euphoric from the chilli. The lady on the next table offered us her tissues sympathetically. 

The rest of my meal at Bo.Lan was nice; the flavours were bright and punchy, the dishes plated beautifully. A mackerel-like fish in red curry sauce stood out particularly. I liked that they offered both brown and white rice. But the residing memory was of my mouth suffering, my insides protesting, my forehead lightly sweating. The rest of the meal passed by in a bit of a blur. A £100-odd blur. I wished that chilli-bomb had come last to obliterate.

The next day, we got up early and took to the streets for breakfast. A wander down Soi Convent in Silom revealed a wealth of noodle stalls, and we got to the end of the road before we turned back to make our breakfast decision. There really isn't much better than a 9am bowl of noodles to fortify you for the day. This time, it was fish balls in a clear broth, with slices of char siu (Chinese-style barbecue pork) and fish paste-stuffed tofu puffs. Topped with deep fried shallots, sliced spring onion and a halved boiled egg, this was a wonderful breakfast, and all for 40 baht (£1). Later we discovered that Soi Convent really comes to life at around 5 - 7pm, with stalls selling not only noodles but grilled meats, bowls of fried quails eggs and other such delights, for the large number of hospital workers going home from work nearby.

We headed off to Chatuchak Weekend Market, the largest open air market in Asia at a whopping 27 acres, for a day of haggling. 

We ploughed through the stalls, buying gifts for our families, clothes for ourselves and all-important bowls to fulfil my crockery obsession. Little pots of cendol kept us going and cooled us in the heat, and eventually we sat down at one of the cafes for this grilled pork neck salad, topped with roasted ground rice, while a man next to us shredded papaya deftly for som tam. We touched upon maybe 15% of the stalls in the 4 hours we were there.

Across the road from Chatuchak is Or Tor Kor, an enormous fresh food market. Hundreds of stalls are in the undercover area, selling fresh fish, meat and an incredible array of fruit and vegetables. There are stalls selling curry pastes, and stalls selling things cooked in sauces and curry pastes ready to be scooped into a polythene bag, tied up and taken to be eaten at home. It's incredible what the Thais can do with a plastic bag. Near the centre is a food court, where you can plonk yourselves down and graze from a selection of stalls. We started off with the rice dumplings, above; we were drawn in by a lady pouring a thin rice batter on a hot plate, scooping it round and adding pork to the centre, before topping it with fried shallots. Alongside you get lettuce leaves and herbs to wrap them in to form a big parcel. Check the lettuce for caterpillars... 

We also had some excellent chicken satay, served with a spicy peanut sauce and chopped cucumbers and chillis. Duck over rice had a disappointingly sweet gravy, and much of the rice was abandoned. Despite the dazzling array of food to choose from, nothing else took our fancy and we headed off for Chinatown. 

After a mooch around the markets of Chinatown, we headed back to the hotel, eating everything we came across. Around Sala Daeng BTS station was a hive of protest activity, and where there's lots of people, there is good food. Little crispy pancakes cooked on a hot griddle and smeared with coconut cream were addictive and one of the best things we ate. The one on the left is garnished with sweet candied pumpkin, the right with spring onion, giving it that savoury edge. Later on in the trip we came across these topped with quails eggs, and even wrapped around a tiny cocktail sausage. There's a stall now selling them at Borough Market, Londoners! Though substantially more expensive at 5 for £6. 

Grilled meat on sticks is a huge thing in Bangkok; the meat is cooked on the skewer over a charcoal grill, and when you come to order they are reheated on the grill back to piping hotness. Chunks of chicken were nice, pork even nicer, and soured fermented sausage with garlic was honky goodness. The skewers on the back left there? The squiggly ones? Chicken intestines. Like hollow chickeny tubes. I ate them with trepidation, but I needn't have been as they were well prepared. 

On our last night in Bangkok we opted for a bit of swank at the Moon Bar at the top of the Banyan Tree. Located on the 61st floor, it is open air and is the stuff of vertiginous nightmares for those who suffer. It has an amazing view, and the drinks are priced as one might expect from a rooftop bar. 

We headed off for some sustenance, and somewhere in the recesses of my mind (or my iPhone notes) I recalled that Silom Soi 9 was good for some street eats. We happened upon this place, where large groups were sitting enjoying steaming plates of seafood. A nearby car was blasting out some tunes. We pointed towards our dinner from a tray of seafood on ice and nodded along to the cook's questions - garlic? Spicy? Rice?

A whole bream-like fish came steamed, covered in coriander and lime. Poached perfectly so that the flesh came away easily, I didn't mind so much that it hadn't been scaled - the skin was easy enough to pull away.

These crayfish were covered in a mound of deep fried garlic. They were outrageously delicious, and we got stuck right in with our hands extracting all the meat from them. With some rice, a salad I don't remember, and enough beers to make me forget the salad, the three of us paid a meagre £10 between us. 

Something of a creature of habit, I directed us through a huge site of protest (it was a bit bum-clenching, that), harping on about "hey last time I was here I had the BEST mango sticky rice everrrr" at Sukhumvit Soi 38. Thank god it was still the best mango sticky rice ever. Even the creepy man behind me can't resist having a gawp at my mangoes.

I don't think I could ever get bored of Bangkok. 

We dined as guests of Nahm, but paid for our stay at The Metropolitan. All opinions are (obviously) mine. 


Richard Elliot said...

Ooh, I miss BKK and the mango sticky rice. Pleased to hear you had a good time.

I lived for a short time just north of Chatuchuk market. They have some great fried chicken stalls there, one for next time!

J@Feasttotheworld said...

Both the street noodle dishes looks delicious..my kind of food!

Wai Yee Hong said...

I've never been to Thailand, but now this is all I want to do, having read this. All that seafood looks sublime!

(Also, + 3 Chineser points for visiting Chinatown. x)

Frank said...

What a wonderful blog entry!

You really captured (what I imagine is) the feel of Bangkok - tasty, busy, exciting but slightly dodgy (caterpillars/dodgy man as evidence)

Fantastic read - and I'm hoping to go there in April.

S said...

My Dad is going to Bangkok this Friday - I am going to send him this link. I don't know if he will be as adventurous as you, food-wise, but he will definitely try some of the fish dishes you have written about x s