Thai food is a big mystery to me. I don't know half of what goes into every dish, let alone what is the real 'authentic' taste. Thai food can be awfully intimidating, with its tendency to incorporate seemingly all the various taste elements, even the simplest salads delivers lethal bursts of chilli padi fire. Walking through the wet markets, I get easily overwhelmed by the pungency and bewildering smells of the various pastes and preserves. And what we are used to eating in Singapore and Malaysia does not prepare for the real experience, these places tend to dumb down considerably all the seasonings and spiciness.
This was only my third trip to Bangkok. The first time was at least seven years ago, on a company incentive trip. We ate mostly hotel meals, no surprises there, everything was bland and the only really exciting discovery for me was the banana jam served at breakfast.
The second trip was a short weekend with husband about four years ago. We ate at the highly recommended Baan Khanita restaurant. It is set in a traditional teak house, all resort like with gurgling fountains and dancing statues, but the food was strangely disappointing- the betel leaf appetisers were fun and novel but the rest of the food was too predictable and curiously, sweeter than I had expected. Maybe it was just us, because this time round I see that there are more Baan Khanitas lookalikes in the city. It was also during my second trip that I needled husband into trying some of the soup noodles sold along the streets, but was myself defeated because husband said the colour of the soup reminded him of the water in the monsoon drains and that made me lose my appetite, plus the soup seemed to have an unreasonable amount (to my more subdued Cantonese palate) of fish sauce.
So it was with a bit of trepidation that I set out for this 10 day long trip. Kind friends gave some useful advice, e.g. experiment with the condiment tray to get more balance in seasonings, eat the accompanying vegetables to offset the strong flavours and so on. I made a little resolution to not get upset if I don't get it, and let my palate adjust at its own pace. Seemed to work. This time I was able to enjoy the food more, and most of the eating was good. There are some not so good moments too (Part II) and some trendy places that managed to be good and not so good (Part III) but for now I will recount my favourites.
One of the best meals was at a restaurant that the local colleagues took me to. I didn't get the name, and it was a simple place set along the road near the Lat Krabang Industrial Park that we were at, colleagues said it is is the best restaurant in town. We sat in the shady and breezy wooden deck out back, overlooking the lazy river. The colleagues apologised, saying it was hard to order food for three people as the portions are big. Nevertheless,we managed handsomely. First some kangkong stirfried with salty bean paste, simple and homely, but I didn't eat much of it because ever since a friend told me how worm-ridden this species of vegetables are, especially in their hollow stems, I have never quite regained my liking for it, though of course I was not about to say so to my hosts. Next, a whole coconut baked with seafood curry inside, that dish was simply magnificient- all the seafood plentiful, sweet and succulent, and the smooth rich curry scented with loads of sweet basil and little pea-sized eggplants. In between mouthfuls of kangkong and curry, we also dug into a fiesty salad of fried catfish; a bonus was the little sacs of roe in the fish belly, fried till crispy and smoky. The dishes were more spicy that what my colleagues usually eat at home, they too were sweating and fanning their flaming tongues, hmm it wasn't just me who is not used to the spiciness then.
Another memorable meal for me was at the Chatuchak weekend market. There are many stalls selling cooked food, and we stopped at one because we were tired and wanted a cold drink, not because we were hungry. Everyone around us were eating this very simple dish of green chicken curry on rice with duck eggs on the side, the two skinny young girls at the next table even ate two plates each. We ordered ourselves some, and were bowled over by how delicious it was, nothing in your face, nothing too spicy or sweet, just the right balance of spice and herbs blanketed lightly with coconut cream. A few pieces of chicken, plenty of sweet al dente eggplants-that-looks-like-tomatoes. The stall also serves wonderful spiced fish cakes, similar to otak otak but with extra bounce and crunchy green beans bits, as well as a subtly seasoned beef noodle soup that did not bring to mind any drain water images, thankfully.
Something else I ate quite a lot of when I was in Bangkok was the local pineapple. Very sweet, with just enough tartness,loaded with juice and not too fibrous. Absolutely fabulous. Missing them already.