Thai Me Up
Slightly bowed, with palms pressed together as in prayer, we are welcomed into the land of smiles.
Wats up? We marvel at the intricate detail of Thai craftsmanship, but more breathtaking is climbing to the top of Wat Arun, looking out at the bustling cityscape, and then looking down again at the steps. Not for the faint of heart, if the opulent temples don’t impress you, the vertigo certainly will. While a city tour of temples and the golden reclining Buddha is extraordinary, in Bangkok the time to eat is always “now” and, like a field of dreams, if we are hungry, food will come. Food is everywhere—royal Thai to street-style—with restaurants and carts lining the streets and markets around every corner. Immaculate food courts in the malls of Bangkok offer incomparable selections that leave little room for uninspired fast food.
We begin our day at the Maeklong Railway Market…on the train tracks. One minute we are negotiating a mango, the next, one square inch to stand, as vendors jump to furl their awnings and slide their goods away from the train barreling forward. Here we find mounds of coriander, galangal, peppers, and kaffir lime. A further stroll reveals a flower market that is the envy of the world. In this vast floral oasis is a proliferation of the sweetest aromas and colours imaginable. From land to river, our next stop is the famed Floating Market, in which long tail boats brimming with fresh rambutan, durian, warm coconut-fried bananas, and a buffet of goodies are paddled by.
A boat motors us through canals to the Amita Thai Cooking Class, a fourth-generation home by the water. Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, born in this house, shares with us her traditional family style recipes and good humour. Together we walk through her garden as she acquaints us with the taste and medicinal value of each herb and plant: cloves for toothache; chives for antiseptic; galangal for digestion; turmeric to protect from cancers. During our riverside class, we prepare Pad Thai, stir-fry chicken with blue rice, and Tom Kha Gai soup with our freshly picked ingredients. Tasting and comparing our dishes in this quiet suburb of Bangkok, I feel like I’m on an episode of Masterchef Thailand.
Like Rod Stewart and George Bush before me, I visit the Blue Elephant cooking school and restaurant. Here I find authentic recipes with modern flare. Seated in a classroom, we watch our instructor chop and pulverize ingredients. Moving to a professional kitchen, we pound green curry and cook tiny pop-in-your-mouth eggplants. While renowned chef Nooror Somany Steppe watches over my shoulder, I feel vaguely confident. Dinner is served in the restaurant downstairs with our own prepared creations. All is pretty tasty, if I do say so myself. Then chef Somany brings out her own multisensory panoply of dishes with flavour explosions that blow us away.
A quick flight to “The Rose of the North,” and we arrive at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai, where we are welcomed into tropical paradise with jasmine necklaces and a refreshing burst of blended watermelon, orange and pineapple juice. At its cooking school, nestled in the jungle, we prepare incense offerings to the Gods, and pound spices and chop herbs into a luscious bowl of Chiang Mai curry with a cluster of flash-fried noodles. Proud of our rich velvety curries that we cannot stop eating, we are rewarded with a multicourse Thai tasting meal under the stars.
As the sun rises, the jungle comes alive. Birds sing a cappella, giant hanging fruits defy gravity, and a profusion of fragrant flowers perfume the air. Some opt for breakfast in the rice fields. I choose to plant rice. Cycling jungle paths, energized by rich bright northern Thai coffee, I have a glorious feeling of other worldliness.
Back at the capital, in the gorgeous Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok, we are awestruck by chef Henrik Ydeandersen’s fearless imagination. Here, the gastronomic wow factor is unparalleled. Lobster salad with sweet red curry ice cream and lychee foam is presented in a bowl underneath which our waitress pours liquid nitrogen. Magically, our entire table is engulfed in ripples of fog.
“One night in Bangkok,” as the song goes, “the bars are temples but the pearls ain’t free,” so we head high above the city lights to the top of the world. The trend is toward dizzying open-air rooftops like the Sky Bar on the 63rd floor of the Lebua State Tower. My martini with ginger, chili and pink grapefruit sets my mouth ablaze but, mindful of the Titanic drop beyond the glass rail, I stick to just the one cocktail. Bangkok is electric—an edible kaleidoscope. Armed with spoon and fork, all my five senses are singing sawa dee cup to the harmony and stimulation of the thousand recipes that make up my journey through Thai cuisine.