Christopher Wise

Why You’ll Fall in Love With Bangkok's Food Scene

Especially what's being cooked up by chef Gaggan Anand.

There are 16 for lunch at Krua Sa Ros Chad, a heavily air-conditioned restaurant on a leafy side street in the Bangkok neighborhood of Lat Yao. It’s an off-the-beaten-track showplace for traditional home-style dishes—Auntie cooking—and the name means something like Spicy Kitchen or Tasty Kitchen, spicy and tasty being adjacent sensations in Thai cuisine, as everyone knows. Host Gaggan Anand, the Indian chef behind the Bangkok restaurant Gaggan, holds the center of the group the way a favored child holds attention at holiday meals: loud, bossy, and bright. All eyes are on him.

Anand is world-famous in Bangkok. His self-described “progressive Indian cuisine” earned Gaggan the rank of No. 1 restaurant in Asia and No. 5 globally on the 2018 World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The restaurant has maintained two stars since Michelin’s inaugural Bangkok guide in 2017. Of course Anand has already received the full-episode treatment from Netflix’s kitchen hagiography, Chef’s Table. He moved to Bangkok from his native Kolkata in 2007 to open a traditional Indian restaurant, but Thai ingredients and a two-month stint at El Bulli’s lab in Spain fired his postmodernist dreams. Since Gaggan opened in 2010, it has helped change how people view the Bangkok food scene. One reliable measure is that young stagiaires— unpaid trainees—now flock from around the world to serve on Anand’s kitchen brigade. With his success, Anand has since invested in multiple other restaurants. He openly revels in his celebrity. He is the Golden Brat of Bangkok.

Left: A shopping area in the Creative District. Right: Chef Gaggan Anand introducing one of the dishes from his 25-course tasting menu.

Christopher Wise

At the moment, Anand is standing up from the table at Krua Sa Ros Chad to command the scurrying waiters to increase his order of grilled river prawns, the giant ones weighing a pound each. He miscounted, 14 instead of 16, and his guests can’t be slighted. They include visiting star chefs from Germany, Italy, and Argentina; Anand’s protégée Garima Arora, chef of restaurant Gaa; twin chefs Mathias and Thomas Sühring, Anand’s business partners in their contemporary German restaurant, Sühring; and an aide-de-camp who will later settle the bill with a thick sheaf of high-denomination banknotes. Hosting 16 for lunch isn’t unusual for Anand. “There’s always an entourage,” Arora had said earlier in the day, as Anand led the group through the food stalls at the indoor Or Tor Kor Market and handed out tastes of green mango and durian.

Anand has convened the group to feed us real Thai cooking. Why here and not one of Bangkok’s uncountable street vendors or shop-houses? Two reasons. First, it’s hot outside; food tastes better in air-conditioning, he says. (I will learn the truth of this another day, when I squat on a plastic stool in an airless shop-house and drip sweat even before hot soup noodles land in front of me.) Second, because Bangkok street food isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Some 80 percent of street vendors, Anand reckons, are supplied by central commissaries that operate on the scale of industrial mediocrity. A select few stalls and shop-houses have earned a reputation for quality—Michelin awarded a star to Jay Fai for the crab omelets of its goggle-wearing chef-owner—but fame takes its toll. Four and a half hours is how long a hard-core gastro-tourist from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, I talked to waited for his crab omelet. The better option is family-style restaurants, such as Krua Sa Ros Chad, where the folkloric flavors and ingredients of Thai tradition are safeguarded.

“If you have a $30-a-day budget, street food is your best hello,” says Anand, his hair scrunched into a topknot—a damp dust bunny. “But today in Thailand we have gone far beyond that.” As if on cue, waiters swarm the table and cover it with dishes: lightly steamed cockles smothered in a purée of cilantro and lime juice; green beans stir-fried with crab; prawns in red curry; plates of Thai crudités and herbs.

“This is Thai Food 101,” says Anand, on his feet again to explicate. In Thai service, the kitchen sends out dishes when they’re ready. It’s up to you, the eater, to balance a range of flavors and techniques through wise ordering. Someone murmurs “Ooh!” when a soup spiked with fermented fish comes out in a heated tureen. People laugh. Beers arrive. Anand sits and eats. He is pleased.

“Save this on Google Maps and show it to chefs and journalists,” he tells his aide at the end of the meal. “They always want to go to the famous places, but let’s show them something good.”

Left: The interior of Krua Sa Ros Chad, which specializes in home-style cooking. Right: Grilled squid served with vegetables and a relish of madan, a sour fruit native to Thailand, at Nahm.

Christopher Wise

Full disclosure: this was my first trip to Thailand, and starting with my arrival dinner at Khua Kling Pak Sod—a jet-lag cure consisting of stir-fried stink beans and prawns with shrimp paste— I slipped into a state of uncritical enthusiasm that could reasonably be called love. This article makes no claims to impartiality. Still, calmer and more objective observers than I have found ample reason in recent years to rate Bangkok’s restaurant scene as sensational. True, Bangkok has always had cheap street food and fancy hotel restaurants with menus meant to remind tourists they are in Thailand without making them get down and dirty with the cuisine’s salty-spicy-sweet-sour-stinky flavor-bomb umami realness. But that is not what’s happening in the Bangkok restaurant scene today.

What’s happening today is a full blossoming of chef-driven creativity. In the vast city of 8.5 million people, with its rising middle class and global tourist influx, restaurants offer great food at all levels, from the streets to the palaces. At the bargain end of the list, shop-houses like Krua Apsorn crank out volumes of crab and prawn dishes at pocket-change prices, along with curious delicacies like cowslip flowers sautéed with ground pork. One level up, the notable familystyle restaurants like Krua Sa Ros Chad and Sri Trat serve faithful representations of regional cooking from the country’s four quadrants: south, north, east, and Isan, or northeast.

At the high end of the dining scene are essential restaurants, such as Nahm and Bo.Lan, two kitchens run by chefs who bring historical research, impeccable sourcing, and labor-intensive preparation to their traditionalwith-a-twist Thai cooking. Other equally ambitious chefs focus on a specific progressive priority: Randy Noprapa and Chalee Kader of 100 Mahaseth champion nose-to-tail butchery, and Napol Jantraget of 80/20 is rigorously locavore. In a glossy shopping mall, Paste puts an edible-gold-leaf spin on royal Thai cuisine for luxury-class foreigners and children of local tycoons— kids known as “hi so,” or high society. Near the royal residence of Sukhothai Palace, the Siam Hotel serves aristocratic home cooking in a riverside dining room assembled from antique wooden houses. Non-Thai fine dining options run to modern German cuisine at Sühring, French, Italian, and a tofu omakase counter at Mihara Tofuten.

And somewhere up there in the dizzy realms of global gastronomy, award-hungry chefs are channeling Bangkok’s heady culinary energy to unique ends. Their idiosyncratic styles—Gaggan’s progressive Indian, Gaa’s brilliant Indian-Thai crossover—aren’t necessarily indigenous to Thailand. Or anyplace. To take another example, Rungthiwa “Fae” Chummongkhon at the Waldorf Astoria’s newly opened Front Room describes her menu as “Nordic-Thai.” (The contact points include fermentation and tweezer-y plating.) Anand jokes about “contaminated food,” as in crosscontaminated by two cultures; I pegged the mash-up styles “Blade Runner cuisine”—flat-world improvisations on Asian-century nowness. By whatever name, the crazy fusions make Bangkok a pulse point for global dining culture.

“Five years ago, when I told people I live in Bangkok, they thought it was interesting,” says Austin Bush, an American expat since 1999 andthe author of The Food of Northern Thailand. “Now they think Bangkok is cool.” And it is cool when the tracks spin nightly at Thai-Lao restaurant Funky Lam or when, the next day, digital nomads convene at the Commons public market for Wi-Fi, yoga, and Nashville hot chicken.

“This cosmopolitan sophistication is new,” Bush adds.

For a visitor looking to explore such prodigious possibilities, the only sensible strategy is to admit defeat. The city promises culinary adventure, like Lima, Peru, but on the scale of New York City. Its food landscape sprawls L.A.-style, but with signs and menus rendered in a script that, for the English-speaking tourist anyway, might as well be Zapf Dingbats. (Wayfinding technology helps: GPS apps and the ride-share service Grab make it easier to navigate the language barrier and Bangkok’s labyrinthine streets.)

Left: The hip dining room at Sri Trat, where the cooking is based on the owner’s home province on the southeastern coast. Right: Mushroom, egg naem, and yeast aquafaba at Gaa.

Christopher Wise

In Bangkok as elsewhere, fortune favors the bold. I had heard that Klangsuan served southern dishes in a fine stinky style—not Auntie cooking but Nephew. For lunch in the modest dining room, I ordered what I didn’t know: dried shredded ray wrapped in wild betel leaves followed by sataw beans. (On the menu, the Thai word for stink beans was misspelled as Satan beans—appropriate, given the heat level supplied by two sinister varieties of chilies.) As I ate, thirtysomething chef Nuttavut Mandrananda emerged from the kitchen to see what I thought. He explained in scattered English that he was doing family recipes, but with a spin all his own.

“If you like it, I thank you,” he said sweetly. “If you don’t like it, I thank you, too. Everybody has their own tongue. Some people like it spicy. Some people like it salty. Some people like it sweet. This one is my expression.”

Later that afternoon, I repeated Mandrananda’s words to Bo Songvisava and Dylan Jones as we sat in their calm, shadowy restaurant, Bo.Lan, open since 2009. (The couple, who are featured in the new season of Chef’s Table, met while working in London for Australian-born chef David Thompson, a guru of royal Thai cuisine.) Songvisava explained that Thai cooking, unlike the classical French repertory, isn’t codified: “It’s not like when you talk about béarnaise sauce, and you have these ingredients and this is how you do it.” Instead, Thai cooking is about creativity, improvisation, self-expression, flavor, memory, emotion. The few historic Thai cookbooks that exist—often “funeral books” that collected treasured family recipes upon anelder’s passing—casually omit measurements and other crucial specifics.

And yet Thai chefs, when they teach, sometimes describe with unique subtlety a dish’s intended effect, explained Bangkok-born chef Pim Techamuanvivit one afternoon at Nahm, the acclaimed restaurant opened by David Thompson in 2010 and placed in her hands last May by owner Christina Ong. Techamuanvivit said a dish’s identity might rest on the specific order in which each taste asserts itself on the palate, such as salty first, then sour, then faintly sweet to finish. To alter the order of flavors would be to alter the narrative that personalizes the dish to the chef. I was struck by the idea of a cuisine based on flexible storytelling rather than codified rules. What we want from a chef today is for him or her to create with food a narrative that expresses the authentic experiences of a fluid self, whether that means Thai-Indian or Thai-Nordic or anything else. What we want is a liberation from rules. Bangkok offers this freedom. Everybody has their own tongue.

The big thing you see when you walk past Gaa’s open kitchen is a grill the size of a tuktuk. The live-fire apparatus and modernist menu set a tone of high ambition, but what chef Garima Arora does is hardly macho smoke-and-char. She was born in Mumbai and worked for three years at Noma before Anand hired her for a planned Mumbai restaurant. When that project stalled, Arora spent a year at Gaggan before opening Gaa. (The name pads her initials to satisfy an investor’s obscure numerological requirements.) Arora has mad skills. She slowly grills bitter greens to crisp translucence and plants them like a fluttery hedge on flatbread seasoned with jaggery. She slices and cooks mushrooms over faint embers until they’re barely warm, then finesses them onto a plate with egg naem and yeast aquafaba. As the American restaurant world reckons with the #MeToo fallout of bro-dude kitchen culture, it’s satisfying to see a number of Bangkok’s top restaurants led by women. (At Nahm, chef Techamuanvivit acknowledges the situation but says simply, “Thai cooking has always been in the hands of Thai women.”)

Left: Crab in coconut and chili dip with steamed vegetables at Sri Trat. Right: Chef Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava of the restaurant Bo.Lan.

Christopher Wise

During my dinner at Gaa, Anand’s director of operations, Meenu Kumar, sat with me for a while to talk. Like everyone around Anand, she seemed exhausted. But she recalled the early days at Gaggan as the worst time because “ten people would come.” Today, tourists make reservations for Gaggan’s 25-course tasting menu six months in advance.

So about that tasting menu: It is best experienced in the Gaggan Lab, a U-shaped chef’s counter for 14 in the restaurant’s kitchen. Each of the 25 courses is represented on the printed menu card by an emoji. What comes out for is Anand’s signature yogurt explosion, a sphere of mango-chutney-flavored yogurt within a jiggly milk skin. The chef himself introduces every course with a mini-lecture delivered from the center of the U, as if on stage. One riff on tea amounts to a postcolonialist critique of geopolitical power structures that extract natural and cultural resources from poor countries and accumulate capital in rich ones. Anand also DJs throughout the meal. (For one course, diners are instructed to lick a smear of foie gras off a plate to blasts of Kiss’s “Lick It Up.”) The meal gathers a raucous energy under Anand’s relentless prodding, and after enough wine pairings it begins to feel like a party. On some nights, Anand’s final act is to call in his kitchen brigade and throw an actual afterparty that rolls drunkenly into the club-kid hours.

The effect, at least on the night I stumbled away at 3 a.m., was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a restaurant— spontaneous, liberated, utopian. What Anand creates in his kitchen is addictive for some. Next to me at the counter another night was David Dinesh Mathew, the foodie from Kuala Lumpur who had waited hours for Jay Fai’s crab omelet. Late in the meal, he told me this was his sixth time at Gaggan. “Why come back so often?” I asked. He pointed up to indicate the roar of music, which was approaching liftoff with a crescendo of songs from Tenacious D, Queen, and Eminem. “There are no borders here,” said Mathew, ecstatic. “Here I love life.”