Globalisation is playing strange tricks with Thai food. Whilst French-born chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten delivers his interpretation of Thai dishes in chic Vong restaurants in New York, Chicago, London and Hong Kong, more basic Thai restaurants are the fashionable additions to a growing number of pubs across London.
And in July Australian chef David Thompson, who used to own the renowned Darley Street Thai in Sydney before being invited back by the Thai Government to consult at their premier cooking institute, Suan Thai in Bangkok, will open his new, as yet unnamed Thai restaurant in The Halkin Hotel just by Hyde Park Corner.
But in Thailand itself, young Thai female chefs, schooled by their mothers in the art of making spring rolls, nam pla, their distinctive fish sauce, or carving papaya seem to be most widely employed today in throwing pizza, rolling pasta, frying chips or serving Burger King and the equally popular, garish iced doughnuts.
A week at the Rayavadee Resort Hotel near Krabi (www.rayavadee.com) spent taking advantage of the succulent shrimps, prawns, crabs and lobsters from the Andaman Sea at every available opportunity, including breakfast, made me only too aware of these changes. And, equally fundamentally but for very different reasons, that Thai food can only be fully enjoyed in Thailand.
I now realise that two basic misunderstandings had hitherto clouded my appreciation. The first is that I had mistakenly thought of Thai food as somehow related to or connected with Chinese or Japanese food. In fact, it is totally separate with its own practices and traditions, such as predominantly using a fork and spoon to eat with rather than chopsticks reserved for noodle dishes, to which the Thais were introduced by the Chinese centuries ago, and an ultra-fashionable but long established reliance on aromatic herbs, spices and fresh fruit.
The second misunderstanding, which had sprung out of this initial ignorance, had been my, and I believe many others’, confusion in the face of Thai menus which tend to be very long, perplexing and consequently often overpowering. This I now realise is not only due to Thai chefs’ remarkable dexterity but to the country’s geography and history as neighbours have sailed up and down its long coastline introducing ingredients and methods of cooking which the Thais have subsequently adapted. Curries, albeit less spicy, from India and Myanmar, peanuts from Malaysia and spices from the East Indies.
Two other influences make Thai cooking distinct. The first, also common to France and Japan but to a lesser extent, is that chefs and cooking in general benefit hugely from the patronage of the royal court – an influence sadly missing in the UK, for example – and have done so for centuries. The second, obvious even on a beach where a shrine to a long-lost sea princess is bedecked with fresh bowls of papaya, mangoes and grapes every day, is the influence of Buddhism and the impact this way of life has on how food is revered and accorded such an important role in daily life. On a practical level, however, what makes eating out in Thailand even better value is the growing number of restaurants now run by Muslim families which for their own particular religious reasons do not sell alcohol but instead operate a friendly bring-your-own wine or beer policy.
Yet what I discovered really distinguished Thai food in Thailand was the heat – the ambient heat rather than the chillis in such dishes as pla goong pao, a salad of grilled white prawns with lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves, chilli and limes which even in London would have had me gasping for a cold beer. Whereas so many other cuisines, including even Indian, emanate from a fluctuating climate, although this may mean only cool nights, Thailand is hot to very hot most of the year. As a result the only way to stay cool, I discovered, is to follow the Thai example and eat hot – which led me to finally and fully appreciate the pleasures of the Thai breakfast.
By the end of my stay I had become addicted to bah mee nam, a breakfast soup with noodles and baked pork loin; khao man gai, steamed chicken with braised rice and cucumber; and khao tom, boiled rice served as a soup and topped with crispy squid, fish or chicken. Sitting outside in a temperature that was already in the high 30s Centigrade by 9.00am, I found these heady bowls seemed to read my internal body temperature and make me more able to cope with the heat of the rest of the day and night – and with the heat provided by the rest of my daily intake of chillis, lemongrass, kaffir limes and garlic.
I have selflessly experimented in Thai restaurants back in the UK and unfortunately my theory seems to be right. Having walked in from the cold and damp outside to eat tom kha gai, chicken soup in coconut milk with lemon grass, or pad thai goong, noodles with prawns, spring onions, ground peanuts and bean sprouts, I have felt that however well cooked they may be (and Thai food tends to be even better from Wednesdays onwards after the arrival at Heathrow of the weekly 747 stuffed with the country’s best produce), they just do not have the same effect.
Perhaps to increase our appreciation of their cooking even further in the UK the Thai Government should also consider exporting a small proportion of that barely remembered combination which Thailand has in such abundance, sunshine and heat.
Ben’s Thai, above the Warrington Castle pub, W9, 020 7266 3134
Talad Thai, SW15, 020 8789 8084, foodstore, cookery school and café
Thailand, SE14, 020 8691 4040
The Siam Food Gallery, Esher, Surrey, 01372 477139
Yum Yum, N16, 020 7254 6751
Y-Thai, Stokesley, North Yorkshire, 01642 7101615
Floating Thai Restaurant, Frankwell, Shropshire, 01743 243123
Chiang Rai, 762 Wilmslow Road, Manchester 0161 448 2277
Vong, London SW1, 020 7235 1010
Vong, New York, +1 212 486 9592
Vong, Chicago, +1 312 644 8664
Vong, Hong Kong, +852 2825 4028.
The Oriental, Bangkok, now celebrating its 125th anniversary, has justifiably been lauded as one of the world’s top hotels and the buffet lunch served in their Thai restaurant, Sala Rim Naam, on the other side of the river from the hotel itself is something that should not be missed.