Lessons in Thai Food

© Christopher Wise

David Thompson and Andy Ricker, the celebrated disciples of Thai cooking, host Tom Parker Bowles 
on an end-to-end tour of Thailand’s best fermented, feral, and fiery regional dishes.

Luu. Raw pig’s-blood soup, a specialty of the truck stops and roadside shacks of northern Thailand. It may be scented with lemongrass and fried shallots and scattered with handfuls of luscious herbs, but it reminds me less of a civilized dinner and more of a cannibal’s amuse-bouche.
But this is no time for culinary cowardice. There’s national pride at stake. Hell, there’s personal honor at risk, too. My belly might be shrinking in fear, my taste buds hurling themselves down my throat in a bid to escape the upcoming onslaught. I cannot, though, show weakness; come what may, that blood must be guzzled.

We’re sitting at Laap Long Goi 1 (Chiang Mai Outer Ring Rd., San Sa Luang District), on the outskirts of Chiang Mai, at a rickety wooden table on wobbly plastic chairs. It’s just after dusk in this lush, hazy large northern city, and the early night air is so thick and humid that it has to be chewed rather than breathed. I last visited Chiang Mai 20 years back. It seemed smaller then, more remote, more, well, provincial. But I was still in my teens, on a gap year after school, and thought I knew it all. As if. Now, despite the thickly forested hills that hug the horizon, the arterial roads are crowded with resolutely modern new malls flogging the usual mass-produced, multinational must-haves.

But back to that bowl of luu, just plonked unceremoniously before me, its surface gleaming malevolently in the cheap fluorescent glare. Even the waitress had balked at our order. She looked up, startled, raised her eyebrows, and paused, her pen hovering over the pad. It mattered little that three of our party are Thai, and the other three not just fluent in the language but also world experts, bona fide Western evangelists for true regional Thai food, miles removed from the teeth-achingly sweet green curries and deep-fried indignities that are served up at home.

These evangelists and experts are chefs David Thompson and Andy Ricker. Two men who have spent their careers telling the English-speaking world about the glories of the salds (yams), phats (stir-fries), laaps (minced-meat salads), khong yaangs (grilled foods), kaengs (curries), toms (soups), and nam priks (chili relishes) that make up Thai food. They’re also the authors of the two great English-language books on the subject, Thai Food and Pok Pok.

Thompson is around 50, Australian, with a thin beard and a wicked glint in his eye. I’ve known him for a decade, and his sense of humor is so arid, so utterly straight-faced, that I’m never quite sure whether he’s being serious or not. The latter, more often than not. His voice is soft, his manner modest, but his knowledge absolute. He moved to Thailand years back, returning to his homeland only to open groundbreaking Thai restaurants: Darley Street Thai, born in Sydney in 1992; followed by Sailor’s Thai, also in Sydney, in 1995; then Nahm, in London, which exploded onto the city’s restaurant scene in a flurry of galangal and prawn paste. It was the first Thai restaurant ever to win a Michelin star. It closed in 2012 (“I couldn’t get the staff or ingredients I wanted,” Thompson tells me), but Nahm in Bangkok (27 S. Sathorn Rd.; 66-2/625-3388; comohotels.com)—which debuted in 2010 and was recently voted the Best Restaurant in Asia by the World’s 50 Best Restaurants list—keeps the flame burning bright.

I must have been to Thailand four times before I saw the heart and soul of the food. Until then, I had relied on concierges and corporate guides and was rewarded with the same toned-down nonsense that I could find anywhere in the U.K. But it was only after meeting Thompson for the first time in Bangkok, about five years back, that my interest in Thai food blossomed and then ripened into a passion, the great culinary love of my life. He opened my eyes, leading me gently away from the bland and ersatz. He taught me that the vast majority of these sorry counterfeits were emasculated, castrated shadows of the real thing. Real Thai food, he said again and again, is about balance. Not just of the sweet, salty, sour, and hot but also of the pungent, bitter, astringent, and alien, too.

To understand it all, Thompson said, we needed to travel up and down the country and taste the marked difference between the more restrained, verdant dishes in the North and the coconut- and chili-infused food of the South. “I’ll get together a gang who knows about these things,” he said.

And, at last, here we are, in 
Chiang Mai, along with
 Ricker, a sort of broader-
shouldered, cropped-haired version of Thompson. Ricker was raised in Vermont but left to travel, crisscrossing the globe, taking odd jobs, painting and the like, to keep the cash flowing in. But it was his first visit to Chiang Mai, toward the end of the ’80s, where one mouthful of a soupy, herbaceous curry, with a chunk of het thawp (a slightly bitter puffball-like mushroom) floating on top, changed his life. “I dipped my spoon in and tasted. It was like seeing an entirely new color,” he writes in the introduction to Pok Pok. “It was nothing like anything I’d eaten before. From then on, my eyes were open.” I know exactly how he felt.

Add in Austin Bush, an easygoing photographer and the man behind the cult blog Austin Bush Photography, plus Prin Polsuk, the head chef at Thompson’s Nahm, and Tanongsak Yordwai, Thompson’s long-term partner, and it is one hell of a gang. These men don’t demand respect. But they sure command it.

Which brings me back to the luu one last time. Six pairs of eyes are now fixed upon this pasty Englishman, his brow slippery with sweat. I dig in and take a sip. Silence. Then relief. The blood is cool as a winter’s grave. And faintly ferrous. Rich, sure, but not unpleasant, with a subtle chili heat. It’s strange and complex but oddly alluring, too. I take another mouthful. “You don’t have to eat it all,” says Ricker, his face daubed with the merest hint of a smile. “It’s just one part of a whole meal. Now let’s have some laap.”

Ah, laap, the famed northern Thai dish of chopped meat mixed with herbs and lime juice and spices. Except that’s not what we’re having. Of course not. I’ve just described the better-known Isaan variation from the Northeast, a whole separate culinary region. (There are roughly four altogether: North, Northeast, South, Central Plains.) Ricker is the high lord of laap, so obsessed with the dish that he has an image of a traditional laap maker tattooed on his arm. “Northern laap, from around here, is very different from the laap of Isaan,” he says, taking a swig of beer. “Here, they use a special paste made of up to 20 varieties of spices. Every village and town has its own version. This is a good one.”

Another plastic plate is plonked before me. Covered with what looks like the aftermath of some horrible massacre. Blood-soaked meat and various bits of gut and liver and Lord only knows what else. Oh, and a drizzling of the oh-so-delicate laap dee khom, the uncooked green bile from a cow’s gall bladder. It adds intense, face-creasing bitterness to an already punchy concoction. The meat is highly spiced with dark, feral depth. Chili is present but not overwhelming. It’s like a steak tartare that’s gone to the dark side. As with the luu, though, seemingly visceral ingredients are combined to create something altogether more elegant. Seriously it’s a dish of such complexity and unexpected charm that no laap will ever seem the same again. And just as Thompson promises, these rich, unusual, and downright gutsy flavors of the North are many miles removed from those of the South. “It’s definitely country food,” says Thompson with a wry smile. “Everything is eaten. Thais from the Central Plains think this food is barbaric.” It’s certainly not to all tastes. Robust, rustic, and unapologetically honest. “This is rough workers’ food,” laughs Thompson. “Bloody and local. Andy’s testing us.”

He sure is. We clamber back into the van, and set off for something deep-fried and salty to soak up the beer at Midnight Fried Chicken (139 Kamphaengdin Rd., Chiang Mai; 66-89/433-0813), a tiny stall a mile or so away. “Northern food is all about the surprise of discovery,” says Ricker as he dodges mopeds and the odd errant chicken. “The North and the South are opposites.” Thompson agrees: “The South is about the sea and its products, not relying on the madness of the jungle.”

At Midnight Fried Chicken, we drink iced Singha and dip raw aubergines and holy basil into various pungent nam priks. This is booze food, plain and simple. Slightly sour raw fermented pork, soft and pink, like a baby’s cheek. Small, fatty fermented sausages with crisp skin and lactic tang. Deep-fried sun-dried beef, chewy and bovine. More beer. More gossip. More snacks. Late, late into the night.

I awake rather fuzzy. But last night’s quiet excess is blasted away by a splendid espresso at Akha Ama Coffee (9/1 Mata Apartment, Hussadhisewee Rd., Soi 3, Chiang Mai; 66-86/915-8600; akhaama.com), owned by Lee Ayu, whose fresh face belies a brilliant business mind. The coffee comes from his parents’ village, up in the hills, and is roasted and ground on-site. “In the beginning,” Ayu says, “my parents wanted to cut the coffee tree down. They saw no value in it. Now we’re growing more and more. I want them to be self-sufficient, to have their own income. Coffee is the bridge.” A cup with conscience and proper depth, too. “He’s doing it his way, helped by Andy,” says Thompson. “And it’s indicative of what young Thais are starting to do—look after his parents, his community.”

Lunch is at Huaen Jai Yong (64 Moo 4 San Kamphaeng Rd., San Kamphaeng; 66-86/671-8710), a few miles outside Chiang Mai. Housed in a ramshackle, old wooden building, we eat more bunches of strange and wondrous herbs with fermented sausage and nam prik ong, and another rich laap with nutmeg and mace and various offaly bits and pieces. “People who like spicy food often complain that northern food is not hot enough,” says Ricker. “But the idea that all Thais crave chili is simply untrue. It’s the South where the heat is.” All I can do is nod.

An early start and we’re on the move again, out of Chiang Mai and flying via Bangkok to Nakhon Si Thammarat, 500 miles due south from the capital, a city steeped in ancient Buddhism. It’s hot, cripplingly, soul-soakingly hot. Hellishly humid, too. The Central Market (Khu Khwang Municipal Food Market, Mueang Nakhon Si Thammarat District) is a little cooler but only relatively. Like hell is less hot than, say, Hades.

It’s spotless. Thai markets always are. As Thompson points out, “Thais are fastidious when it comes to their markets, like the British with their dogs and gardens.” We pass whole aisles devoted to fermented fish, vast barrels of primordial, stinking black goo. (“The best are buried for six months in vats of rice,” says Thompson, matter-of-factly.) And row upon row of dried, salted fish. Thai food, from every region, shares this love of fermentation and funk. Fish sauce and shrimp paste are the soul of all Thai cooking. “It can be hard for us to explain the fermented stuff,” says Yordwai. “And we’re afraid to give it to foreign guests, as they could see it as, well, a little yucky. We Thais think it will offend.” It doesn’t; it delights.
“Fresh turmeric is found everywhere here. It’s the spice
of the South,” says Thomp-son, picking up a root and 
giving it to me to smell.
“Down here, you’ll always
 find a plate of raw or steamed 
vegetables with everything.” 
Thompson points out end-
less exotic leaves: som boi,
 sharp and citrusy; astringent
 cashew; cumin, an odd mix 
of bubble gum and holy ba
sil. Some ingredients are so
 regional that they don’t even 
make it to Bangkok. We pass 
horseshoe crabs, adored for 
their eggs, and seven types of 
shrimp, great hillocks of
 stinking shrimp paste, and 
fragrant curry pastes, rice 
roaches, and chicken necks.
 We’re now hungry and breakfast beckons. As we drive
 to the curry shop Raan Kao
Geng 1 (1763/13-14 Jumrern Vithi Rd.,
 Nakhon Si Thammarat), owned by
the parents of Peace Phanasampol, one of Thompson’s sous-chefs at Nahm, we talk.

“Everything in Thailand is held together by food,” says Thompson. “It’s a democratic thing. Probably the most democratic thing about the country.” We swerve violently to avoid a reckless scooter. “The government,” he goes on, “has unified the country through language and other methods. But the only true unifying force is the love of food. You’d think the Thais would get cross about politics and corruption. The only time there are real riots is when the rice is too expensive.” He’s only half joking.

“You should see them when they miss lunch—really!” Thompson says. “Get between a Thai and their meal and you’ll lose a finger. Very out of character for one of the most kind and polite nations on earth.” But what about the pro-democracy riots that have been, if not raging, then certainly simmering over the past few years? The mass sit-ins; the invasion of the airport; the demonstrations; demands for a free press, real democracy, and a cleansing of the endemic corruption, both political and corporate. Thompson shrugs. He’s a friend and always entirely open and honest. “It’s complicated, Tom,” he says with a sigh. “Very, very complicated.” 
It sure is. A farang like me could never possibly dream of grasping the intricacies and loyalties, both religious and secular, of the situation. They permeate society like dye through silk. What I do know, though, is that the royal family, with King Bhumibol Adulyadej at their helm, is both sacred and sacrosanct. The king is genuinely loved and adored.

Criticism is not an option.
 Food is a rather safer subject. “When Thais are not eating, they’re thinking about what they’re going to eat or working out where they’ll eat,” Thompson says. “Good food is not just a luxury for the rich. All Thais really do eat to live.”

We’re crawling through the heart of Nakhon Si Thammarat, in typical treacle-thick traffic, finally getting out at Raan Kao Geng, a non-descript largish room that’s open to the street with a scattering of scruffy tables and chairs. “Here, very little is cooked to order,” says Thompson. “The food is prepared, laid out, eaten. When they run out, they run out. But good food is easily available and expected. That’s the joy. There’s an ongoing tradition of good eating in the old cities like this. Just avoid the tourists. Wherever there are lots of tourists, you won’t eat well.”

On the television blaring in the corner plays a ceremony for the 64th anniversary of the king’s coronation. The king looks frail. Before him, his generals and politicians; most seem asleep. “Western food is like playing checkers,” says Thompson. “Thai food is like chess. Not just a balance of flavors but of dishes, too.” As if to illustrate his point, a plate of greenery appears with aubergines and universal raw turmeric, which help tame any chili rowdiness. Of which there is a lot.

A fish-gut curry (the innards are used to season, and disappear, into the dish, like cooked anchovies) is sullen and vicious-looking but sharp with lime. And hot. Damned hot. So hot that even thinking hurts. It manages to be both restrained and filthy. Like the Park Avenue princess who moonlights as a stripper. There’s a red prawn curry with sweet pork and pepper and, yup, still more chilies. It starts warm, then hot, then burning, then incendiary. But every flavor manages to shine through. More curries, some mild and creamy, others just plain suicidal. Balance, balance, balance. It’s now pouring rain outside, and I only wish it could wash over my palate, cleanse my capsaicin-scarred tongue. I’m on fire. But in lust, too.

Does Thompson have a favorite region? “I love them all, although the food of the Central Plains, with Bangkok at its heart, probably has the most dishes on the menu at Nahm,” he says. “It’s the most complex, reflecting all that wealth and all those past influences.”

We dive into another steamed-fish curry with turmeric. Or was it the chicken galangal and coconut curry? At this point, my notes begin to fade. The sheer quality, and quantity, of the food makes me put down my pen and concentrate on eating. Thai has to be some of the most exhilarating food in the world. It struts and preens and excites, stomping, dancing, and gliding across the palate, at once fierce and perfumed, rank and refined. By the end of an hour’s eating, our faces are dripping with sweat, our eyes gleaming, our hearts thumping from beautiful chili heat. Suddenly the temperature seems less close and uncomfortable, the colors become more vivid, the sound of street hawkers and diesel engines and dogs barking that much more clear and pronounced. All for no more than a few cents in a restaurant you would normally pass right by.

We eat dinner up a tree—seriously, on a platform entwined in fat, sinuous limbs. A plain, oily omelet soaks up the ridiculous burn of the chicken geng prik. You get the spice, then the acidity, then the endless, relentless wave of rolling fire. There are fish-head ferns with prawns and coconut milk, fresh stinking beans that taste nutty, then bitter, fried with shrimp paste. I shove down rice, anything to quell that heat. Even Thompson and Polsuk and Yordwai are suffering. The greenery helps, but, as Thompson says between gasps, “at this level, you never get used to the burn.”

Later I fall into bed, endorphins still coursing through my veins. We have two breakfasts the next morning. First, deep-fried dough, dipped in condensed milk, at a colonial coffee house. It’s a mouthful of food without chili or spice. It feels daringly different. Then onto a small shack that locals call P’Nee. The taste buds get another hefty work-out. Fresh num ya (fermented rice) noodles and lots of priks in which to dip them. Plus the usual bushels of green. The priks range from mild, sweet, and polite to fetid, spicy, and delightfully coarse. Sweet, sour, rotten, hot, salty, bitter, and astringent. Often in the same mouthful. Incredible.

Finally, back to Bangkok and dinner at Nahm, possibly my favorite restaurant on earth. Nowhere else do the taste buds get so supremely ravished and adored. “My obligation to my guests is to be faithful to the cuisine—that’s all,” says Thompson as he disappears into the kitchen. With fiery thrills and funky bass notes, Nahm has it all, yet served up on porcelain plates, accompanied by chilled glasses of Riesling. This is the historical and the regional, all rolled into one, a place where central may dominate but where northern, Isaan, and southern food can also be enjoyed without going near a plane, train, or bus. The quintessence, if you will, of Thai eating.

There’s northern-style omelet, kai pham, plain and steamed in a banana leaf; stir-fried chicken with wild cardamom, gai pat grawarn; and lon gung koie, tiny krill simmered with coconut and crabmeat. And a clear, startlingly intense jungle curry with fresh peppercorns. No rough edges are rubbed off here, yet the ingredients and cooking are peerless. It’s a fitting distillation of the whole week, a perfect end to a magnificent trip. “Good Thai food reaches the edge,” says Thompson. “But never falls off it.”

After dinner service ends, we join the rest of the kitchen at their favorite alfresco Isaan bar. Icy beer is sold by the yard, and the snacks, salty and hot, are unceasing. I’m off tomorrow, and sad. “Even during the troubles, the demonstrations, and the riots,” Thompson says, “the Thais still had an unspoken agreement to break for lunch.” He smiles. I smile. We hug. “They’re so anarchic, completely rebellious,” he says. “Not constrained by a religion that stops them enjoying life. Delicious, vibrant, and exuberant.” Just like the food, and the city, and the country, and the company.

I bid a long farewell and wobble out into the sultry gloom. My tongue throbs, but my soul sings. I hail a cab, and the driver’s eating. “Som tum,” he says, between bites. “Papaya salad. For Thais, good food means happy life.” He grins. I nod. And we drive off into the Bangkok night.

Image Credits: © Christopher Wise