This is a short video (less than three minutes) I edited using some interesting dusk and nighttime footage taken during rainy season. Set to music by Keane. Hope you enjoy it.
This is a short video (less than three minutes) I edited using some interesting dusk and nighttime footage taken during rainy season. Set to music by Keane. Hope you enjoy it.
Does the concept of a Michelin-starred Thai restaurant seem contradictory? Australian David Thompson is the head chef at Nahm, a London eatery that was the first Thai restaurant to receive such an award. A few months ago, two of his disciples, Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan “Lan” Jones (pictured right), launched what they hope will be “a world class Thai restaurant” here in the Big Mango.
Tucked away in a small trok off Sukhumvit Soi 26, the somewhat eponymous Bo.Lan strives to stake out a place in the local culinary scene that I’m not sure really exists: a serious Thai restaurant where the emphasis is on the food in a deeply intellectual way.
Why am I uncertain that this desired place even exists? Krungthep does not lack for “fine dining” Thai restaurants. The nicer hotels all have them (Erawan Tea Room at the Grand Hyatt is quite decent) and there are stand-alones such as Baan Khanitha that are popular destinations when guests are in town.
But despite the attentive service and pretty decor, my perception is that, at its most basic, the food in these places is really no better than what I could get from the nighttime food vendors on Sukhumvit Soi 38. Some of these restaurants do focus on “palace cuisine” – fussier dishes that aren’t the mainstay of either typical Thai home cooking or street vendor’s woks – but the chefs at these fine dining restaurants still seem to be going through the paces, not really thinking about the food they are creating.
If this desire to create an intellectual Thai dining experience sounds like a tall order, that’s because it is. Thais love eating but, if this makes any sense, Thais don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the food they eat. They don’t appreciate the origins or the presentation of their food as much as they are concerned that it is tasty.
In the few months that it has been open, Bo.Lan has garnered lots of attention and is the place for well-heeled Thais to show their faces. One criticism I heard floating around was that the food was “too basic”. For this kind of money, it seemed that diners were expecting either the fussy palace cuisine or fusion food, in which western ingredients are placed into a shotgun marriage with Thai flavors, a recipe for disaster if ever there was one.
Tawn and I decided we should reject all the things we’ve heard and go try BoLan. We enjoy thoughtful dining and wanted to think for ourselves about what Khun Duangporn and Khun Dylan were doing in their kitchen. The perfect occasion presented itself on Tawn’s birthday a few weeks ago.
The restaurant itself is located in what looks like a modified former house. The ceilings are low and covered with traditional rice sorting baskets to help muffle the noise. The ambiance is dark but the volume from the background music (and incongruous mix of bland “world” music that include covers of 1980’s pop hits done in a bossa nova style) was a bit overwhelming. I arrived several minutes ahead of Tawn and it took some effort to get someone to take my drink order. When the bottle of wine I ordered arrived, it was incorrect and there was some confusion until another server explained that they were out of the the wine I had ordered.
In order to get the best sense for the chefs’ skills, we went with the “Bo.Lan Balance” tasting menu which has, depending on how you count, about six courses but maybe as many as ten, depending. Because of the darkness, picture quality is low and I didn’t shoot pictures of all of the dishes as once they started arriving, our table was quickly overflowing with plates and bowls.
After ordering and before receiving the amuse bouche, a pre-dinner drink and snack was brought as part of the tasting menu. “Ya Dong Phaya Sue” is a tequila-like liquor, essentially a type of upcountry moonshine. It was paired with an unsweetened pandan leaf juice shooter. When Thais drink, they like to snack on something salty, sour and spicy. A clever play on this were the slivers of green mango, another very bitter fruit called “ma dan” and a nut called “luuk yii”. These were dipped in the sea salt and chili flakes garnishing the plate.
The process was like this: sip of liquor, sip of juice, bite of sour-salty-spicy snack, repeat.
This was an interesting way to begin because it really was a deconstruction of the core flavors of Thai cuisine. It wasn’t a modernization or substitution, really. No messy fusion here. It was just taking each of the parts and laying them out individually. It was fun and adventurous.
The amuse bouche arrived, five little bites to be eaten from left to right. The first was a slice of starfruit with tamarind and chili paste. Then a southern style rice salad called khao yam with rice, pomelo, kaffir lime skin, and toasted coconut with a fermented shrimp dressing called nam buu duu. Then a rice cracker with another type of salad on top. Then a slice of grilled pork neck with coriander leaf and toasted, ground rice. Then a small seared rice flour pancake – pang ji plaeng – topped with shrimp and fried garlic.
Again, the core flavors of Thai cuisine were each represented but as you progressed through the plate, the emphasis changed. The first bite was very sour with a bit of spice. The second was very salty/fermented. The third was spicy. The fourth was salty. The final one was a little sweet. Especially interesting was the second dish, the southern style salad. The sauce is very complex and it is a rarity in Thai restaurants. Tawn recalls his grandmother especially enjoying it.
The next five dishes arrived all at once, served in typical Thai family style. This was a lot of food and while they covered all their bases – one salad, one soup, one curry, one stir-fry, etc – it gave us too much food for two people.
The first dish, pictured above, was preserved duck egg simmered in fresh coconut cream with lemongrass, white turmeric and chili, served with pickled turnip omelets and fresh vegetables. It was very tasty and had clean, pronounced flavors.
There was also a salad of grilled river prawn with lemongrass, mint, coriander and chili jam dressing. The dressing was a bit heavy. The river prawn was very fresh, though, and the spice of the dressing did cut through the richness of the prawn meat very effectively.
Other dishes we received included a deep fried “blue fish” marinated in turmeric, garlic and shallots served with a southern style lime and chili dipping sauce. The fish was a small portion and was very bony. While the taste was good, the skin was rubbery instead of crispy, an unpleasing texture. Between the fish and the prawn, I think we would have been fine with just the prawn.
We also received a gaeng khiaw wan nuea kem – green curry of salted beef ribs. Tawn isn’t a beef eater but did try this curry. At first, it tasted a bit… not rich, because unlike most versions of this curry, it wasn’t finished with a lot of coconut cream. But the more I tasted it, the more it grew on me. It was like having a consomme, the beef broth’s flavors remaining very distinct, but with the added layers of flavor and complexity of the homemade curry paste. The salted beef ribs added a nice note to the dish and for the first time in my life, I fully appreciated why the little baby eggplant are in this dish. Their crunchy sourness paired very nicely with the saltiness of the beef and the fragrant aroma of the curry.
Each of us ordered a small soup. Tawn had gaeng juut, a so-called “bland” soup with baby squid stuffed with pork in a clear broth. In this case, the broth was very herbal and a little sweet and it wasn’t anywhere near bland. I ordered a spicy pork soup that had large, leafy vegetables that were tangy. It was flavorful but at this point I was getting so full that it stopped being enjoyable.
The meal was served with jasmine rice or “gaba” rice, a darker whole grain rice. In a rather stingy measure, despite having spent 1500 baht (US$ 44) per person on the set meal, they ding you an extra 30 baht if you order the gaba rice.
The main dishes were well prepared but some of the “intellectualism” of the amuse bouche and pre-dinner drink were missing. Certainly, the quality of ingredients and attention to detail during preparation were very high. The preserved duck egg and the green curry were the best of the dishes. The work that went into making the curries from scratch really paid off as the flavor profiles were very distinct. In fact, two weeks after eating them, I can still recall their taste memories.
The prawn and fish dishes were both a little flat. They weren’t bad, but they also weren’t spectacular. The soups were lost in the shuffle. Too many flavors competing for attention on the table and, because of that, I think the menu could use some paring down.
Service throughout the meal was inconsistent. They tried to educate us about what we were eating, explaining the dishes before us. Tawn’s observation, which I agree with, is that they didn’t seem to really comprehend what they were telling us, instead repeating the instructions they had been told to give. It was difficult to believe that these servers are really passionate about the food they are serving. As Tawn put it (as I write this) they probably eat the local vendor’s som tam – green papaya salad – with one single note (spicy!) when they’re on their meal break.
Oddly, in a country where desserts aren’t a major part of the dining experience, there were three separate dessert courses as part of the set.
The first was another deconstruction of a popular dish: tabtim grob – dyed “ruby” water chestnuts that are coated with flour then fried, coconut agar agar and jackfruit served over crushed ice with syrup. This was refreshing and the presentation was fun. Had it been left at this, dessert would have been a satisfying end to the meal.
The “dessert du jour” (different for both of us) started to venture into the overwhelming. There was a plantain that had been grilled in its peel and then drizzled with a perfumed sauce, a play on the grilled plantains that are a popular street vendor snack. This one was starchy in an unappetizing way and a single bite was more than enough. The jar contained saku – tapioca pearls with coconut cream. This is a favorite of mine, but there was nothing about the preparation that was outstanding. The saku I buy at Villa market is every bit as tasty, and I became preoccupied by the fact that the mouth of the jar was barely wide enough for my spoon. Finally, not fully visible in the glass, is a popsicle frozen on a chopstick. I think this was meant to be tamarind flavor, but after one bite I found myself not very interested in it, either.
Tawn’s dessert was gluay kai chuam grayasat – this is an intellectual play on a Thai snack, small sweet bananas that are eaten very ripe with rice crackers. Here, they took the bananas and boiled them in a sugar syrup. The rice crackers were a homemade meusli-like mix of fried rice, nuts and toasted coconut drizzled with palm sugar. This was tasty and kind of fun. In the bowl was graton loy gaew – a tropical fruit that is sour and tough on the outside but cottony and sweet on the inside. The fruit was also soaked in syrup and then served over ice. The elements of the dessert really played off the “balance” theme of the set menu: crunchy and soft, sour and sweet, tough and cottony.
While they may believe that nothing succeeds like excess, the petit fours accompanying our post-dinner tea were too much. They were a scattering of Thai dry desserts, some fruit, and khanom goh – a type of meringue. By this point we were so satiated that we hardly touched the petit fours, calling instead for the check.
Conclusions. For 1500 baht per person, we received a very generous amount (too much, really) of well-prepared, very high-quality food. I would like to go back and order a la carte, trying some other dishes and maybe choosing a bit less food for my meal. There is no doubt that the chefs are giving their creations a lot more thought than most Bangkok chefs, Thai or otherwise, are. That’s refreshing and, most of all, interesting.
The challenges Bo and Lan face are twofold: the first has to do with their staff. If you want to cultivate customers who are passionate about food, you have to have a staff that shares and can spread that passion. I did not feel it. The second is that they have a long uphill slog to find diners who are true foodies. I’m not convinced that breed of diner is very plentiful here. As a chef of the short-lived but very enjoyable Paradox restaurant on Ekkamai explained, Thais who have the means to travel overseas mostly like to stick with group tours and Thai or Chinese food. Expats who have the means to eat well in Bangkok are on expense accounts and go for imported steak, Japanese food, or Italian.
As a foodie, I hope they are successful. Something I noticed on their website is a page that is supposed to link to the Bangkok chapter of Slow Food International. Tellingly, the link doesn’t work. That may say more than anything else about what Bo.Lan’s chances are.
The Bangkok International Film Festival got underway today. I’ll be catching about twenty movies over the next six days, so I apologize if I get a bit behind on my entries and subscriptions.
A few weeks ago we had visitors for a half-day, friends connecting through Krungthep on their way to Phuket. They are one of those global couples – an Austrian working for a German company living in Singapore whose partner is a Korean doing research in Switzerland. With only a few hours to show them a slice of the Big Mango, I took them to Ratanakosin Island – the “Old City” – for a self-guided audio tour.
Above, a view of Ratjanatda Canal at Tanao Road near the Democracy Monument. This neighborhood, filled with families who have lived here for many generations, is in the sights of the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority’s redevelopers. They would like to “rehabilitate” this area to make it an arts and entertainment district. Locals, as you might imagine, aren’t so keen on the government’s ideas and would prefer to undertake their own rehabilitation.
A small side soi – Phraeng Phuton – is described as the best-preserved heritage neighborhood in the city. Residents restored the community and improved the landscape. An open square in the center of the block is still used for public performances and plays, just as it used to be during the reign of King Rama V.
A local businessman has many antique cars, some of which are actually in superb condition, at what was one of the first automobile repair shops in Siam. It was also the first driver’s license bureau in the city. Above, one of the owner’s more recent acquisitions, a piece that is going to need a lot of work to restor.
Across the street was another interesting car, below. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Mini Moke.
Walking through the monk accessories district (alms bowls, anyone?) at the intersection of Tanao Road and Bamrung Muang Road, I was reminded why bicycle riding in the old city is such a challenge. There are actually these cool green bicycles available for hire and a corresponding green path taking you to various places of interest in the old city. Fantastic idea. Poor execution.
We stopped by Wat Suthat, the tallest temple in the city and ostensible center of the universe. Wat Suthat is considered the most finely-proportioned temple and is one of the highest-ranked royal temples. The temple grounds spread more than 45,000 square meters and has the largest bronze Buddha image in the kingdom. Construction lasted from 1807-1847 with King Rama I laying the cornerstone of the main sanctuary’s foundation.
Across the street from Wat Suthat is Kor Tor Mor Square, a large public square that also faces the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority’s headquarters, City Hall. You see the red Giant Swing, which was rebuilt last year by an aging craftsman in northern Thailand. The Giant Swing is part of a Brahmanist tradition and was used in ceremonies honoring the god Shiva. There used to be an actual swing and young men would compete in a contest to bite a bag of coins from a bamboo pole while riding on the swing. This contest was discontinued as deaths and injuries were too common. In ancient Siam there were giant swings in all the major towns. The original one here in Krungthep was nearly twice as tall.
And that’s your snapshot tour of Ratanakosin Island!
Thai police come in for a lot of ridicule and scorn by locals. They are variously seen as corrupt (random road stops to extract a few hundred baht in ticketless “fines”) and lazy (recent campaign at a force-wide weight reduction as there were too many tummies stretching the already skin-tight brown uniforms) by many residents.
There is no doubt that some members of the force aren’t the most outstanding examples of fine police work. That’s probably true of any police force. There are plenty of other members of the Thai police who, despite long hours, low pay and terrible working conditions (traffic police have the highest incidence of lung cancer in the country), do their best to keep traffic moving on the choked roads.
It was on a rainy Friday afternoon a few weeks ago that I caught this snapshot of a traffic policeman, slogging through the recently-formed lake that was the expressway entrance toll plaza on Ploenchit / Rama I Road. No doubt he was earning ever last satang of his salary that day.
While I haven’t posted any pictures in a while, rest assured that I have still been cooking. In fact, Tawn even got in on the act. Below, top row: Kalmata olive and rosemary bread; Bottom row: Golden raisin bread.
After returning from my Sunday morning bike ride (more about that soon), Tawn prepared a nice brunch from one of Ina Garten’s cookbooks. Tomato and feta cheese salad with cilantro and onion; and smoked salmon toasts with egg salad.
Yummy, huh? It Thai, we say it is น่ากิน (nâa gin) literally, eat-able or “looks delicious”. Along the same lines, some other handy Thai adjectives include น่ารัก (nâa rak) literally, love-able or “cute”, and น่าเกลียด (nâa glìat) literally, hate-able or “ugly”.
Thanks to Carey for sharing this funny Thai commercial for ceiling panels. Thought you would enjoy it.
At the end of the commercial, the son is hysterically shouting, “Why didn’t you use Shera Flexy-board? You’re the one who killed the Geckos!” to his father.
Adjacent to the Surasak Skytrain station, there is an abandoned, partially-finished building that is a casualty of the 1997 Asian economic crisis. At a prime location, for whatever reason nobody has stepped in to finish the building which was already being fitted out with duct work for ventilation – meaning all the structural work was complete.
The building is usually subjected to various graffiti. Recently, though, I noticed that an entire floor’s worth of graffiti had been painted over and there was a new bit of word art.
Depending on where you stand, the parts of the word come together. Perhaps the underlying message is that you have to have the right perspective in order to discern what is real.
Thais love ghost stories. It is a popular genre for films, TV shows, and comic books. There was even an animated family film that came out last year in which the popular ghosts were the good guys, taking on a bunch of evil spirits intent on taking over the human world. Here’s the poster for that (right).
If you polls, in excess of ninety percent of Thais will tell you they believe in ghosts and spirits. And by “believe”, I don’t mean casual belief. I mean, dead serious I-can-tell-you-my-own-first-hand-experience-with-a-ghost belief. Whether you share their beliefs or not, Thai ghost-lore is an interesting lens through which to view the culture.
This ad for Sylvania lightbulbs plays off the ghost theme, with the premise that things aren’t as scary in the light. Thai advertising is often very clever and Thai ad design firms win lots of awards internationally. This ad won the Silver Lotus Award at Adfest 2009 – the Asia Pacific Advertising Festival. You’ll probably want to watch it once (it’s only 47 seconds) then read my explanation below and then watch it one more time.
In the video you see the following ghosts:
Kra-Sui – This female apparition often wanders around at night in a white gown, but she is just a detached head and internal organs, usually with a brightly beating heart (which you see in the last two seconds of the ad after the lights are switched off). She is a particularly troublesome type of ghost and insatiably hungry. In the old days, bathrooms were detached latrines often located some distance from the house out near the rice paddies. The Kra-Sui, which eats excrement, was said to hang around these outhouses. Certainly, more than one young child was afraid to go to the toilet in the middle of the night out of fear of the Kra-Sui.
Kra Hung – This ghost appears, usually as a woman, with feathers and a tail like a bird. Kind of similar to a vampire, I understand that Kra Hung eats internal organs.
Banana Ghost – Again in the old days, rural houses often had a small area of banana trees growing near the house. When children would want to go out and play after dinner, they would be warned away from the banana grove by tales of the banana ghost, a nymph-like spirit that would haunt the trees.
Jackfruit Ghost – The English translation is incorrect here, although it attempts to convey the cultural message of the jackfruit ghost. When the boy asks, “Is that a jackfruit ghost?” the father actually answers, “No – a person.” The lost joke is that in the old days, prostitutes used to ply their wares in the trees along roads and parks, trees that often included jackfruit trees. When children would point out one of the ladies of the night and ask who she was, the answer from the unable-to-explain-prostitution parent would be, “That’s a ghost.”
Blue Ghost – The blue ghost is normally a woman, not a man, and isn’t blue in a “Blue Man Group” sort of way. Instead, it is just the name for another type of beautiful but frightening female ghost who dines on human flesh. Tracing how these ghost tales came about, it isn’t surprising that attractive, unmarried village women of a certain age might have been whispered to be blue ghosts or Kra-Sui.
Tall Ghost – To return after death as this ghost, as tall as a palm tree, gaunt in appearance and with a mouth only as large as a needle’s point, was the punishment for children who spoke ill of or abused their parents. Roaming the countryside the tall ghost would plead in a sorrowful voice that sounds like the wind blowing through the trees, for people to make merit for them so they could be released from their sins.
Thais love certainly love their ghosts!
The most famous Thai ghost, one not featured in this ad, is Nang Nak. Set in ancient Siam, Nang Nak is the young wife of a handsome villager who goes off with the army to battle the Burmese. She dies during childbirth but, longing for her husband to return, she and her infant’s spirit continue to inhabit their home.
When her husband Mak returns, he is initially unable to tell that anything is amiss, although to all the villagers the decay of the house is evident. The villagers try to warn Mak but Nang Nak takes her revenge on them.
Eventually, Mak discovers that his wife is a ghost – she drops something through the floorboards when preparing dinner and reflexively reaches for it, her arm stretching supernaturally to retrieve the item from the ground below the house. With the help of the village monks, Nang Nak’s spirit is eventually released so she can go to the next life.
The story of Nang Nak has been made into countless movies (including one that got some overseas play by director Nonzee Nimitbutr, a still from which is pictured above), an opera (which we watched about five years ago), and there were recently two different musicals based on the story playing simultaneously here in Krungthep.
Want to know even more about Thai ghosts? Check out this interesting entry (which I found after writing my own entry!) on the Paknam Web forum.
Tawn and I are wine drinkers. I wouldn’t call ourselves “aficionados” and there’s a lot we don’t know about wine, but we enjoy a nice bottle and have a small wine cellar at home and like to explore different varietals and vintners. Sadly, though, the tropical paradise of Thailand is no paradise for wine drinkers’ wallets.
Wine, extremely little of which is produced locally, faces a hefty import duty on top of which the government places an even heftier excise tax, since wine is, in their judgement, a luxury good. Beer and cheap Mekong whisky, however, apparently are not.
Recently I was commenting longingly on a post by Gary in which he dined at a “wine-centric” place in Glendale called Palate Food + Wine. They had these wonderful wines at very reasonable prices – $9 here, $17 there – and that was after restaurant markup. In my comment, I complained about our 300% duties here in Thailand. That got me curious: what, exactly, are the duties, taxes and tariffs on wines here in Thailand?
A little research and I found a USDA Foreign Agricultural Service Global Agricultural Information Network Report about wine in Thailand. This is the US Department of Agriculture’s effort to educate US based producers on export opportunities. Here is what I learned about the duty, tariff and tax burden on imported wines:
That’s a 390% effective duty, tariff and tax burden! Outrageous! If there is any good news out of all of this, Free Trade Agreements signed with Australia and New Zealand are moving their tariffs (currently 24% and 18%, respectively) to zero over the next half-dozen years. But that is only the tariffs, not the excise tax, etc.
Is it any wonder that when I’m back in the US (not to mention visiting Australia), I try to have wine with every meal?