By Vikram Sohonie.
Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, reigns supreme in my list of countries and metropolises that relentlessly capture the heart. After years of struggling to pinpoint precisely why, the single, totemic reason eventually reveals itself: Thailand is a society devoid of judgment.
Bangkok, the “City of Angels,” is a cosmopolitan, diverse and unbelievably liberal city in every social sense of the word. It is, in fact, the city of no judgment; one of the rare few places where a person of complex emotions, tastes and predilections can bask in being themselves. Few, if any, bat an eyelid here. The very absence of judgment permeates virtually every aspect of society, imbuing an aura of positivity that can be felt as soon as tire touches tarmac. That, however, does not imply that the lingering underbellies of Bangkok should be exploited. On the contrary, the rich overt treasures the city offers should be embraced with an indelible passion.
In 2011, Lonely Planet conducted a poll on Facebook in which users answered the question: “if you could travel to any city in the world for the food, where would you go?” Bangkok won the most votes by a landslide. One year later, the same popular publication ranked Thailand as the “best country for food.” No surprise really, given the plethora of restaurant choices in all price ranges that co-exist with the unparalleled diversity of Thai street food. Pulling the strings is some of the freshest produce on the planet. The quality of mint leaves, kaffir limes, sweet basil, red chilies, meat products, and just about everything, is poetic.
Combine a benevolently gluttonous lust, which will attract absolutely no judgment, with the food capital of the modern world, and you have 24 hours of gastronomic revelry in Bangkok to truly savor.
The charm of a Bangkok morning is a sight to behold. It is the quiet before the storm, a moment of cooling respite before the heat. To watch this breathing city awaken is one of the small moments that make life worth living.
Begin your day with a streetside“cha yen” (iced tea with condensed milk) or “cha dam” (iced black tea). The vendors serving these two staples are ubiquitous and can be spotted by the platoons of bees they attract. Don’t worry, the fiending bees are too busy intoxicating themselves with the scattered remanence of sweet syrups and condensed milk to even think about stinging their life away.
Pay special attention to the meticulously perfect crushed ice that fills the cup. While this might sound like the ramblings of a madman, the ice in Thailand, as many will tell you, constitutes a secret ingredient and tends to dictate the quality of several local beverages.
Both drinks will wake you up, provide ample energy and line any grumpy morning stomach for the onslaught of food that awaits.
Make your way to Asoke, accessible by the BTS, and venture into an alley across from the Ocean Tower building. Tucked away and utterly oblivious to many a passerby, the lane houses the best boat noodles in the city. Split into an air conditioned cafe and a more traditional wooded eatery, take your pick – I prefer the rustic coziness of the latter – and order a bowl or two of the noodle soup and a plate of fried fermented pork. Seductively dark, laced with flavors to titillate every taste bud, including a few you didn’t know existed, and perfectly sized, the pig-blood-thickened broth soup makes for a spectacular late breakfast. The soup is emblematic of, and wholly embodies, the bursting joie de vivre of Thai flavor and cooking.
When that’s said and done, lunch on Sukhumvit Soi 39 beckons. Despite being one of the more convoluted sois in Bangkok – and that’s saying something – 39 is peppered with some of the most delectable Japanese fare in the city. With no English signs to demarcate the restaurant in the courtyard of Japanese restaurants, look for the most authentic exterior decor. Don’t be fooled by the name, there are certainly better ramen houses around town, but Bankara’s prime specialty is its bowl of tantalizingly slow-braised, luscious pork belly with sesame rice and egg, topped off by a bed of seaweed. Mash it together, let the yolk fuse with all the elements of this traditional masterpiece and dig in. Again, no one cares, get as messy as you like.
A side of deep-fried chicken karaage sprinkled with lime satisfies a whole other dimension of craving, and the confluence of flavors from both dishes completes a heavenly lunch.
An artisanal beer scene that evaded the cultivated palette of Bangkok is finally materializing thoroughly thanks to a few good men who have taken it upon themselves to carefully source craft brews from the finest, most innovative and storied breweries across the globe. And for any lover of culinary flora and fauna, a diverse range of beer detached from dominant national lagers is a must.
Located on Thong Lo Soi 13, Beers: Brews & Ciders, boasts over 200 beers. On most days, you can catch Chris Foo, founder and city’s top beerologist, at the bar happy to help you narrow down your selection. Belgian farmhouse ales, Japanese stouts, English porters and, thanks to the curating prowess of Bangkok’s latest artisanal beer importer, Beervana, a range of magnificently concocted brews from the northwest United States, arguably home to the best craft breweries in a country of nearly 2,000, constitute just some of the pioneering establishment’s commendable selection.
While I prefer the darker side of beers, beginning with a stout or a porter would numb your palate to the mesmerizing flavors and after tastes some of its lighter cousins have to offer. Oregon’s Rogue Hazelnut Brown Nectar ale is a masterpiece, with crisp, aromatic hop notes at first sip to nutella-esque finishing. Few beers come close in their utter perfection. A gorgeous amber color dresses the beer nicely and adds to its allure.
Move on to Japan’s acclaimed Kiuchi brewery and sample Hitachino’s red rice ale, a delicately sweet, light beer drawing its inspiration from sekihan (rice boiled with red beans). The subtlety of flavor prominent in Japanese cooking is wholly evident in both the red rice and white ale, which, due to its mixture of orange, coriander and nutmeg flavors, serves as a fantastic complement to most Thai seafood dishes and accompanying sauces.
Finish the drinking session with Fuller’s London Porter, perhaps the finest rendition of its kind. Beautifully bitter with vibrant, but not overwhelming, hints of coffee and cocoa, it’s a porter England can truly be proud of. Or, if you’re feeling adventurous, combine the hazelnut ale with the same brewer’s chocolate stout and, as Chris points out, you have, creatively enough, a “Snicker’s beer.”
If you’ve ever found yourself joking that your love of beer would be best served by bathing in it, Brews & Ciders has you covered for that too. Handmade soap bars infused with the flavor of Belgian beers, Delirium Tremens and Trappist Rochefort, are available and smell better than one might think.
If inclined to something more secluded and quaint, WTF Cafe, a cozy neighborhood bar in the first alley of Sukhumvit Soi 51, should hit the spot. No bigger than a bedroom, the wooden-clad bar also offers a fulfilling choice of beers, including many from the Beervana catalogue, and well-sized sandwiches. The Cuban sandwich is its crown jewel.
Next door, Zudrangma Records is a one-of-a-kind gem in Southeast Asia. As an indie global music movement to excavate the incredible lost sounds of once-vibrant music cultures of the 1970s has emerged, hardcore record collectors and music producers have scoured the globe in search of dusty old vinyls to showcase the depth of musical talent from all corners.
While most of the European-based labels have focused on Africa and Latin America, Zudrangma’s founder, MaftSai, has rediscovered the funky, dance floor-filling rhythms of northeast Thailand, compiling the largely successful “Sound of Siam:Leftfield LukThung, Jazz and Molam from Thailand 1964 -1975” with his partner-in-crime, Chris Menist.
The record store itself is a music lover’s dream, filled with lavishly packaged Afro-Latin and Afro-Funk compilations, and the finest selection of original Thai Molam and LukThung vinyl. There are few better places in Bangkok to immerse yourself in a vital cornerstone of Thai history and culture.
If you do not own a record player, buy one and get to digging. You will be pleasantly surprised, if not entirely blown away, by the treasure troves of psychedelically addictive tunes you did not know even existed.
For nearly all of 2011, I lived life guided by a fervor to eat the most mind-blowing delicacies I could find. From molecular gastronomy in Manhattan to savory street-side stews along the West African coast to age-old pork knuckle bistros in Frankfurt to the sultriest of kebabs in Mumbai’s Islamic district, I left no stone unturned. But despite the extent of this much-welcomed assault of diverse tastes and foodie revelations, the single best dining experience I have had, in the last two years at least, remains the narrow hallway of a restaurant called Escapades in the flourishing Pra Arthit district.
No more than five feet wide, with a small outside seating area, the homely space is run by a single chef and mixologist Karn Liangsrisuk, two of the most gifted yet unheralded artists in the world. Were they running an establishment in New York, London or Barcelona, cities with greater exposure, they would certainly garner their deserved acclaim.
Often described as a “burgers and cocktails bar,” it goes above and beyond the designation. Escapades is the apex of modern gastronomy. Invention and creativity have reached new heights under this duo.
Begin with their honey garlic or red wine chicken wings. Simple enough in design, the flavors basted onto the meat and the degree to which each wing has been fried is immaculate. The spicy wings, however, are reserved for pepper veterans only. If that doesn’t impress you, try the quarter-cow burger. The consistency of bread buns used matches that of the velveteen beef. Truffle mayonnaise coats the patties and provides an aftertaste of ecstasy. Every element of the burger is so carefully constructed, with a precision that teeters on Michelin star quality. There’s no tomato ketchup here for your fries. Squid-ink ketchup, instead, majestically fills the condiment void. You would be hard pressed to find many burgers that rival Escapades’ artistry. And if you’re looking for something a little more eccentric, the lamb burger in a chocolate bun exceeds expectations.
If you’re lucky, they might have something lying around in their fridge that they would gladly cook up for you, such as tuna belly, which was whipped up with a minty lime foam that cleanses and relaxes the palate like a warm bath.
That’s just the food. By the chef’s side, his ally, an award-winning mixologist, uses game-changing techniques to serve improvised cocktails based on the flavors you fancy or your preferred choice of alcohol. Cinnamon, cloves and peppercorn are infused into dark rum, passion fruit lingers in an inviting bottle of golden liquor, apples are soaked in rose water. The deceptively underdressed bar is a laboratory redefining cocktail innovation. As you feast, the cocktails keep coming.
The care and passion takes place before your very eyes as each drink requires 15 to 20 minutes to prepare. The amount of ingredients in each cocktail could fill a grocery list and the magic lies in the creator’s ability to ensure that your palate tastes each evocative flavor virtually in the same order as it is made. Blow torches are used to sear the inside of cinnamon sticks to unleash smoky canela aromas that serenade the high ball glass. Vermouth is sprayed from perfume-like bottles, blanketing crushed ice with a scent that teases the taste buds. One could wax lyrical for days about this quiet corner of Bangkok, but no amount of words can do justice to the creative prowess its proprietors.
For dessert, this culinary duopoly worked in tandem, using what was left over from the day to produce a truffle berry sorbet of sorts. Satisfaction is an understatement.
This is the single best non-Thai food establishment in the country at the moment, and perhaps even the region at large. While the concept itself has its origins in the United States, Escapades’ quality is in a world of its own. The experience, as grand as it sounds, is also the best value for money one could hope to find.
A bit of advice: try to arrive a tad past the usual dinner hour on a weekday to have a fantastic private experience and enjoy the best of their improvisational work.
Late night eating is part and parcel of Southeast Asia’s intrinsic identity. No matter how overwhelmingly satiated you might be, some of the best eats, which only surface at night, will command your digestive attention. To turn down an afterhours snack is to blaspheme. Across from Silom Soi 4 stands a street stall that is an institution in itself. Finish the day with P’Ouan’s moo ping (grilled pork), done in a mercurial way only the master himself could. Accompanied by sticky rice and a spicy sauce so life-changing, its kaleidoscopic flavor amounts to psychedelia. The lines can run long on weekends, so plan accordingly.
After completing a foodie extravaganza so filled with sinful gluttony, you could pass as a bonafide food abuser. Squid ink dripping off your chin and grilled pork fat staining your fingers is not a good look. But there’s no need to go cold turkey or seek rehabilitation because the only judgment passed would have related to the food consumed in the last 12 hours. The city and its people won’t hold any grudges with your decadence. You’re free – and even encouraged – to do it all over again, if physically possible, of course.