Travel

Savour­ing amulti-sen­so­rial feast in Bangkok, Thai­land.

Friday - - Friday Contents -

Mar­kets crammed with su­per-fresh chill­ies and vi­brant zesty limes, white-knuckle boat rides on the Chao Phraya River, and a gig­gle-in­duc­ing mas­sage – Mark Setch­field em­braces a new-found pas­sion for Thai­land while flex­ing his culi­nary mus­cles...

Push­ing my way through the nar­row lanes of The Bangkok Flower Mar­ket – Pak Klong Talad – in sear­ing 38⁰C heat, I clutched my shop­ping bag with a clammy hand. Sweat bead­ing on my brow, I was overwhelmed by the sheer vast­ness of this whole­sale oper­a­tion. Stall af­ter stall was crammed with the fresh­est pro­duce – not just ex­otic flow­ers, but herbs, spices and fruits – all plucked and trans­ported from fields sur­round­ing the city.

The mar­ket, which spans two square kilo­me­tres, of­fered patches of peace and quiet next to small tem­ples cov­ered in fresh flower gar­lands do­nated from the mar­ket ven­dors as a sign of hope and hap­pi­ness.

This be­ing my first trip to Thai­land, you’d ex­pect this visit to the mar­ket to be just a sou­venir snap and grab on a well-beaten tourist trail. Let’s face it, buy­ing bags of spices to give as gifts once home seems like a great idea en route to a roof-top pool, but I wasn’t here to pick up for­get­table pre­sents.

In­stead, I took my time to browse the mounds of ripe ba­nanas, sprigs of nos­tril-tin­gling herbs and vi­brant spices heaped into wo­ven bas­kets like tech­ni­colour ant hills. But I had a pur­pose. Ac­com­pa­nied by top chef Pi­taya Phan­phen­sophon, one of Thai­land’s fore­most culi­nary en­trepreneurs and cul­tural am­bas­sadors, I had in­gre­di­ents to buy, be­cause that night I’d be pre­par­ing an au­then­tic red curry for a party of 10 people un­der Pi­taya’s watch­ful eye.

He’d kindly agreed to help me col­lect ev­ery­thing I needed for the feast; su­per-fresh chill­ies and co­rian­der, vi­brant zesty limes, which we were en­cour­aged to taste. “They’re slightly sweeter than I ex­pected,” I said, still winc­ing. The smi­ley ven­dors were more than happy to let us sam­ple their pro­duce. One even demon­strated the best way to smell a fresh bunch of herbs; not to break them in two, but to smack them be­tween your hands to re­lease the fresh flavours.

I watched as Pi­taya dashed over to a nearby stall and picked up a root that looked a bit like gin­ger, “This is ac­tu­ally galan­gal,” he said. With a much stronger taste than gin­ger and smelling like freshly cut co­rian­der, it is used in many Thai cur­ries, he ex­plained. “Sounds de­li­cious,” I said, hand­ing over some coins and pop­ping a cou­ple in my bag.

Pi­taya, orig­i­nally from China, is the main man be­hind famed restau­rant group Mango Tree, which was started on a hum­ble house­boat 57 years ago by his fa­ther. Now it even has a branch that over­looks the foun­tains and Burj Khal­ifa in Down­town Dubai. The restau­rant chain was named af­ter Pi­taya’s mum’s mango tree, which still stands out­side

the restau­rant in Bangkok. “It was Thai­land’s first steam­boat and suki restau­rant,” he’d told me proudly when we’d first met the day be­fore.

As a keen cook, I now lapped up his ex­pert knowl­edge, feel­ing ex­cited about the night ahead.

You see, I’ve al­ways loved host­ing din­ner par­ties for close friends back home, but tonight’s soirée was bound to be one to re­mem­ber. Even buy­ing these in­gre­di­ents in such a vast, yet con­densed en­vi­ron­ment burst­ing with smells and at­mos­phere is some­thing I will never for­get. It def­i­nitely beats the weekend crush at Spin­ney’s!

“Mark, do you have what you need from the mar­ket?” Pi­taya asked. Check­ing my scrunched-up list I was con­fi­dent I did, so gave him a nod.

It was only 8.30am, but most of the shop­pers had come and gone al­ready. This is one of Bangkok big­gest night mar­kets start­ing at 10.30pm with ven­dors work­ing through the night trim­ming, pack­ing, pre­par­ing and sell­ing fresh goods un­til mid-morn­ing.

I drank in how the city’s his­tor­i­cal and mod­ern fea­tures col­lide; it makes a sort of chaotic sense

Care­fully step­ping over flat­tened boxes and squashed flower petals, I spotted de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles revving to life, be­gin­ning their jour­neys to drop off pur­chased goods to shops, homes and restaurants across the city.

Mop­ping my (now sod­den) brow, we headed to the Mango Tree kitchen just 15 min­utes away. “Are we get­ting a taxi?” I asked, pray­ing for air con­di­tion­ing. “No,” Pi­taya replied, promptly. “You have a Metro sys­tem in Dubai, here we have river­boats.”

“And both cities have taxis,” I thought, but kept quiet. There might be air-con­di­tioned cab­ins on the boats I sur­mised, and I couldn’t bear to quash Pi­taya’s enthusiasm. “River­boats are the best way to take in the city,” he added.

The Chao Praya River Ex­press op­er­ates a reg­u­lar boat ser­vice used by tourists and lo­cals alike. A kind of aquatic Metro, it stands as an elab­o­rate net­work of canals known as kh­longs, which gave Bangkok the nick­name “Venice of the East.” Fares are cheap. You can get just about any­where in the city for no more than 25 Baht (around Dh3).

On our way to the Chao Phraya River I stopped to ap­pre­ci­ate the beauty of Bangkok, as the morn­ing sun shone over Phra Nakhon District. The his­toric cen­tre of Bangkok, it stands within the precincts of the Grand Palace, which has served as the of­fi­cial Royal res­i­dence since the 18th century.

Stand­ing still for a few mo­ments, I drank in how the city’s his­tor­i­cal and mod­ern fea­tures col­lide. Shiny tow­er­ing build­ings jux­ta­pose Thai­land’s an­cient land­marks, to­gether mak­ing some sort of chaotic sense. A beau­ti­ful scene for a res­i­dent of gleam­ing new Dubai.

Dur­ing this short, al­beit hot, breather Pi­taya tells me that un­less they’re

talk­ing to for­eign­ers, Thai people never call their cap­i­tal city Bangkok. “In­deed, some Thais in the more re­mote prov­inces may never have heard of it be­ing called that,” he says. “In­stead in Thai it is known as Krung Thep, which roughly trans­lates to City of An­gels.”

Bangkok, which means Vil­lage of Wild Plums (not so al­lur­ing) was the orig­i­nal site for the cap­i­tal city and was west of the Chao Phraya River in the district of the for­mer cap­i­tal Thon­buri.

I’d planned to visit Bangkok in the past, but the day be­fore my flight was sched­uled to take off from Lon­don the dev­as­tat­ing 2004 Tsunami hit. Years on, I couldn’t be­lieve the chaos of the el­e­vated roads that run up and un­der each other, weav­ing through densely pop­u­lated ar­eas so tightly you could al­most knock on the front doors of some build­ings from the car win­dow, while dart­ing be­tween lor­ries laden with goods grunt­ing along­side tiny scoot­ers piled high with pas­sen­gers.

We pass people mak­ing pit stops at the many food ven­dors grab­bing de­li­cious food on the go. Laws have tight­ened up stan­dards and food is much safer to eat nowa­days. It has to be chilled and ven­dors are now more heav­ily mon­i­tored on hy­giene lev­els. That’s good to know be­cause the smells waft­ing through the streets are sim­ply ir­re­sistible.

We stop for a cool drink and take more shady de­tours as I snap away on my cam­era to doc­u­ment my first Thai ex­pe­ri­ence. Thai people are so friendly and with Pi­taya giv­ing a step-by-step guide of his child­hood grow­ing up in Thai­land, I must say I felt very at home.

The city air is very pol­luted, how­ever. That’s down to the sheer vol­ume of ve­hi­cles. Life here is not for the faint hearted and like many trav­ellers be­fore me, I planned to spend only a cou­ple of days in Bangkok, be­fore head­ing south to is­land des­ti­na­tions, like Phuket.

When we fi­nally hopped on a boat I found a good spot to take in the views. Af­ter just a few rather hairy cor­ners we reached our stop and Pi­taya dis­ap­peared for a few mo­ments, reap­pear­ing with two ice-cold bot­tles of wa­ter. I im­me­di­ately poured mine over my head. “We’ll take a taxi the rest of the way,” Pi­taya said, eye­ing my drenched T-shirt. Mu­sic to my ears! I dropped the bags in the boot and took the short ride back to Pi­taya’s pri­vate test kitchen.

“If you cook from pas­sion, it comes through in the food,” Pi­taya said, walk­ing into the kitchen. As a budding (wannabe) chef I couldn’t agree more. Kit­ted out with huge stain­less steel in­dus­trial equip­ment, the kitchen was light and airy. I gazed in awe at walls of shiny knives sharp enough to slice steel, huge re­frig­er­a­tors and a cen­tred counter wor­thy of any TV cook­ing show, in­stantly fall­ing in love.

“This is the kitchen I’ve al­ways dreamed of,” I said. Pi­taya grinned.

“It’s my haven; I like to ex­per­i­ment here with mu­sic play­ing,” he told me.

Un­pack­ing the co­rian­der, shal­lots, le­mon­grass, and chill­ies we set out all the tools I needed to get cook­ing. Apron on, I was ready to make my very first au­then­tic Thai paste from scratch.

I tossed cloves of gar­lic, grated galan­gal root, and soaked half a dozen dried chill­ies. “All of these?” I asked Pi­taya ten­ta­tively, who nod­ded whole­heart­edly. “Tonight you’re go­ing to feel the heat!” he laughed.

Pi­taya was keen to give me pointers as I cooked, shar­ing tips – like how he uses spices and herbs to max­imise flavour – but still mak­ing me feel like the head chef. It’s a bal­ance he’s no doubt per­fected, hav­ing held many cook­ing classes for tourists in this very same kitchen.

As I pounded and mashed in­gre­di­ents in the pes­tle and mor­tar I felt my eyes wa­ter un­der the strength of the crushed chill­ies, so moved quickly on to fry­ing the chicken in oil. Luck­ily Pi­taya, who lives in Bangkok with his wife and four chil­dren, kept talk­ing, dis­tract­ing me from my burn­ing eyes. “My love af­fair with Thai food started

when I was in board­ing school abroad,” he re­calls. “It all started with a small rice cooker, soya sauce and sweet Chi­nese sausage, be­fore I moved on to more elab­o­rate recipes.”

Abun­dle of en­ergy in the kitchen, Pi­taya brings fun and laugh­ter to an arena more of­ten marked by stressed chefs and heated tem­pers. His en­ergy was in­spir­ing.

I blitzed the in­gre­di­ents in the huge blen­der, added stock and le­mon­grass and chopped co­rian­der to the pan. “It’s re­ally tak­ing shape,” Pi­taya com­mented. I turned down the heat and cov­ered the pan to let it sim­mer for an hour or so.

“What do we do now?” I asked. “Mark, I think we de­serve a mas­sage, it’s been a busy day!” A Thai mas­sage right now sounded like the per­fect end to a hec­tic day of shop­ping and cook­ing.

As I en­tered the par­lour I was greeted by a masseur. “Sa-wat-dee Kah” he said. Never for­get­ting my man­ners, I’d done my re­search be­fore ar­riv­ing in Thai­land and learnt this greet­ing, so push­ing my hands to­gether and tak­ing a lit­tle bow in the Thai tra­di­tional way I replied, “Sa-wat-dee kraup” and felt very pleased with my­self.

I opted for a full-body mas­sage (it had been a busy day, af­ter all) and was told to put on a mas­sage gown, which once I’d pulled on made me look like I was about to go into surgery. Feel­ing slightly awk­ward, I laid down and the bend­ing and stretch­ing be­gan. And 45 min­utes of hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter en­sued! “Stop!” I cried, sti­fling gig­gles. Clearly not the ideal re­sponse, but this Mango Tree menu. As the guests took their places and talked about their day ex­plor­ing Bangkok I served up my red curry, be­fore rev­el­ling in the de­li­cious spread.

Pi­taya’s laid-back at­ti­tude to en­ter­tain­ing cre­ated a very re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment for us to talk away. “Just de­li­cious,” one guest ex­claimed, spoon­ing more of my curry into her bowl. It was a proud mo­ment for me. Sit­ting back as the guests rubbed their full bel­lies (a cou­ple still guz­zling wa­ter af­ter feel­ing ‘the heat’) I couldn’t quite be­lieve I’d sourced the in­gre­di­ents and pre­pared a meal with the help of Mango Tree’s top chef Pi­taya – and all in bustling Thai­land!

As I took my last mouth­ful and mopped my plate clean of the fiery sauce, I re­flected on the ex­haust­ing yet fun day ex­plor­ing Bangkok’s hid­den gems and cook­ing in a pro­fes­sional kitchen. Then it dawned on me. “My din­ner par­ties at home just won’t top this one,” I told Pi­taya af­ter­wards. “Re­mem­ber, it’s your pas­sion and love, com­ing through in the food,” he replied.

My time in Bangkok had been a whirl­wind of skil­ful shop­ping, eat­ing freshly made noo­dle soup from the street ven­dors and be­ing over­loaded with the sights and smells (not all pleas­ant ones, mind you) of this crazy city. Now, thanks to Pi­taya, I was tak­ing home newly ac­quired kitchen skills and a height­ened love of cook­ing.

See you soon, Thai­land!

Pi­taya’s laid-back at­ti­tude to en­ter­tain­ing cre­ated a very re­laxed en­vi­ron­ment for guests

was the fun­ni­est ex­pe­ri­ence of my life. Maybe just a head mas­sage would have been more en­joy­able for me, as all the po­si­tions they put me into made me howl with laugh­ter. It was hardly what I’d call re­lax­ing!

Mas­sage and gig­gling over, it was time to freshen up for din­ner, so I headed back to my ho­tel, the Pull­man Bangkok in the mid­dle of the bustling area of Suriya­wongse, just 40 min­utes from Su­varn­ab­humi air­port.

A re­sort ho­tel in the cen­tre of the city, it boasts six fash­ion­able bars, an Amer­i­can-themed diner and rooftop area with stun­ning views of the city at sun­set. I’d al­ready en­joyed a dip in the ho­tel’s in­fin­ity pool over­look­ing a botan­i­cal gar­den and ex­quis­ite spa. But there was no time to spare now.

Show­ered and feel­ing re­freshed (for a few mo­ments at least) I jumped in a cab and headed to the Mango Tree kitchen to meet my din­ner guests.

While I was back in the ho­tel Pi­taya had added some of his sig­na­ture dishes to the din­ner. The ta­ble was el­e­gantly dressed and loaded with cui­sine such as Tom Yum Scampi, Phad Thai Goong and per­sonal favourites of his in­clud­ing very spicy chicken wings – all from the

TRAVEL

The Chao Praya River sup­ports a net­work of canals that gave the city its nick­name of Venice of the East

My ho­tel’s rooftop bar had a stun­ning view

Mango Tree, which you can also find closer to home…

Fab­u­lous flavours I’ll never for­get

TRAVEL

TRAVEL Thai­land is a feast for all of the senses

I’d cooled off with a dip in the ho­tel’s in­fin­ity pool

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