Papaya salad? Check. Pad Thai? Sure. But what about the rest? We take a look at five Thai dishes that are loved by Bangkok locals but haven't risen to international stardom.
Renowned the world over for its delectable dishes, Bangkok has long been a foodie's favourite. The bedrock of Thai dishes lie in the tricky balance of five flavours: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and pungent. The former are familiar flavours, pungency refers to the hot and spicy flavour found in chillies. Different dishes fulfil different roles in the combination of these tastes. Meals are generally eaten communally, so knowing what to order to get a harmony of flavour can be… well it’s difficult, the fact that Thai people traditionally let the elder females at the table order goes someway to expressing this sentiment. Or maybe that originates from repercussions of younger, inexperienced fellows ordering wrong and taking the heat for it? Customs - who knows?
International favourites such as pad Thai: steaming braids of noodles and bean sprouts topped with spicy prawns and crunchy peanuts is merely the leading edge of a cooking scene that is as much about appearance and texture as it is about flavour. Traditional Thai cooking has got your physical well being at heart too. Common ingredients such as galangal, a member of the ginger family, are used to treat a host of digestive ailments from stomach ache to infections. Lemongrass, another commonly used ingredient, also relieves the digestive tract and reduces blood pressure, soothes rheumatism and eases fevers.
Thai dishes are typically eaten communally – a spread of dishes sit in the middle of the table for all to eat. You’ll find salads that detonate pacific citrus and tart vinegars that seep up to your eyes making you wince - the borders of you jawbone shuddering and tingling. Handle the spicy elements with caution – sure – but don’t avoid it entirely, it’s a major player in this part of the world even if it’s used less now than it was when the Portuguese first introduced chillies in the 1600s. Sticky sweet meat dishes ask serious questions of America’s barbecue sauce recipes and salted meats keep your tongue pitifully pining for the next fix. Thai food is exotic and so surprising but it becomes homely and comforting at a breakneck speed. It’s what you’ll miss the most.
Those determined to spend time exploring the city and its culinary scene will find everything they need at Salathai Daily Mansion, a humble stopover perfect for weary heads not mid-morning lounging. It's acceptably central too so you are poised to take your time investigating Bangkok’s many food markets and speciality restaurants. Once you’ve had the papaya salad and a pad Thai, you’ve learnt to crawl. But we want to get you walking before you head back home (no one would ever run away from Thai food). Read on to discover five of Thailand’s less famous eats that keep the folk of Bangkok on the move.
1. Jok, Breakfast Porridge
On warm Bangkok mornings the cool streets glisten in the first rays after having received a quick spray down to rinse away yesterday’s footprint. Most foreigners settle down to ice cold curds of natural yoghurt and freshly prepared fruit salads, whilst office workers with no time to stop and smell the roses, snag a Thai sweet coffee and a bag of pa thong ko – a sort of doughnut dusted with sugar or sesame seeds. What might not sound too appealing is jok or breakfast porridge – broken rice cooked to a mealy consistency, served with ground pork balls and an egg that poaches in the piping hot broth flavoured with lemongrass, galangal, garlic, spring onion, fish sauce and chilli. This isn’t exactly a secret of the Thai breakfast menu but it is a meal often overlooked by westerners. It's an especially good start to the day if you have a lot of city walking planned or, assuming the stomach's not too fragile, as a hangover cure.
You’ll have to rise with the sun to get the freshest jok in Bangkok, the stall on Charoen Krung Road by the entrance to Prince Theatre has been serving a traditional recipe for over 50 years. Once you've eaten your fill of jok, you'll be all set for a walking tour of the city.
2. Gai Pad Gratiem Prik Thai
The smell of the caramelised garlic and the musky black pepper of this chicken dish is killer. The fine sliced coins of garlic are kept moving in the wok until they take on a dark brown colour. Sun bathers along Thailand's Gulf will never accomplish such a seductively dark tan but what they might well manage, if they're not careful, is the less desirable crunchy exterior. The tender chicken lies moist in its sugar, soy and oyster sauce marinade. Order it for lunch with a side of sticky rice if it doesn’t come with it already. Refrain from using the fork to put food in your mouth, instead push the chicken pieces onto the spoon with the fork - good Thai table etiquette.
This dish can be found in practically any Thai restaurant and is sometimes served with pork instead of chicken. Try it in the Chatuchak Market at Kamphaeng Phet 2 Road.
3. Yam Wun Sen Kung
Asian salads pack more punch than their western counterparts and as such involve more than leaves and a token dressing. In Indochina, salads are lightweight but compromising nothing in flavour intensity. Even ye unfortunate ones who haven’t been to Thailand have surely tried a papaya salad? Get on it if you haven't. The flavour is refreshingly zingy, the texture - crunchy and the spice is moreish – once your sinuses and palate get up to speed. It’s fair to say that Yam Wun Sen Kung is a salad not as well-known as the celebrity papaya salad, the glass noodles make it a bit more filling and the prawns compliment the chilli well. Order it at any time of the day alongside some other dishes – it complements everything. If you’re into recreating what you try on holiday at home, serve this at a barbecue to impress and inform any sceptics that its considered a diet food.
Yam Wun Sen Kung is a common dish that you'll find in most restaurants, it makes a light lunch in the searing heat and an agreeable sharing dish if you're extra hungry in the evening. Try it on one of the stalls at Ratchawat or Sriyan Markets which are at their best around lunchtime. Learn how to rustle up a glass noddle salad in no time.
4. Kaeng Kari
Thai green curry is widely considered to be the best of the three mainstream traffic-light coloured curries. Thai red curry is a close second and for some reason, the middle amber chicken and potato version doesn’t get a mention. In fact, it’s quite difficult to find, probably because of the use of potatoes which aren’t traditional Thai food, having only been introduced with the arrival of Europeans. Fact is, Kaeng Kari is much creamier than its popular sibling because of the addition of coconut cream as well as coconut milk. Plus, if you are really hankering for a taste of home, the hearty hunks of potato that crest like starchy icebergs from the oily surface of the broth are all you’ll need. This dish is a fool proof example of how Thai cuisine has adapted to incorporate both western and eastern influences.
It's hard to find a place that makes kaeng kari but there's one we know of that's good value - Yusup Pochana, a Thai Muslim restaurant at 531/12 Kaset Nawamin Road. Open from 8.30 a.m. until 3 p.m. closed Monday and Tuesday of the third week of every month. Take a cooking class and learn how to make kaeng kari from scratch.
5. Nam Sod
Salad again. Smart eating in hot countries means big breakfast whilst it's cool and something light at lunch, unless you're banking on a siesta. If you think a salad isn’t a real meal – well Thailand is going to change that. Nam Sod is ground pork rigged with fiery chillies, lime juice, ginger, fish sauce and red onion. There’s roughly chopped herbs thrown in for good measure too like coriander, mint and basil. It’s normally served on a bed of rice but occasionally it’s served with lettuce leaves – if this is the case, take a leaf and spoon a morsel of the salad into the middle of the leaf before folding it up and popping it in your mouth. Easy. This makes for a good appetiser and remember to spoon only a few mouthfuls onto your plate at a time - good Thai etiquette. Try a food trail tour at the beginning of your stay in Bangkok to scout out all the best eating hubs.
Here's a recipe for you to try at home, it's not easy to find in Thailand although versions of it will surely abound. Ideal for lunch or serve with lettuce leaves envelopes with drinks before a dinner.
Tuna Salad Recipe:
- Half a cup of rice
- One can of tuna
- Juice of three limes
- Two tablespoons of fish oil
- One teaspoon of chili flakes
- One teaspoon of palm sugar
- Ten mint leaves
- Ten cherry tomatoes
- A bunch of coriander
- One spring onion
- Three shallots finely sliced
Heat a wok and dry toast the rice grains until browned. Set aside to one side to cool.
Combine the lime juice, fish oil, chilli flakes and palm sugar.
Finely chop the mint, coriander, spring onion and shallots and combine. Mix with the dressing and drained tuna fish.
Crush the cool toasted rice with a pestle and mortar and sprinkle over the top of the salad. Serve.