Thai Me Up

DINE and Destinations - - THAILAND - By Adam Wax­man

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.

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