Following the success of his London restaurant, Nahm, Australian-born chef David Thompson has unveiled a second Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel in Bangkok. The world expert in Thai cuisine talks about his first love- street food.
Bangkok is just all about the food. From the moment you step out onto the streets, you’re surrounded by it. In fact, if you’re not careful you might step in it. Eating is Thailand’s national pasttime; it sustains the nation and the soul, the stomach and the heart. The country’s best food is found in its most dinky street stalls and restaurants. The vendors pick up ingredients each morning from the market, so it’s always super fresh, but not always good-looking. Usually, the scruffier a place is, the better the food.
Street food first emerged in Bangkok through the mass migration of Chinese labourers from the South China seaboard in the 19th century. Most of these men didn’t have, or couldn’t afford, kitchens, which created a demand for ready meals. Hawkers would carry these meals in two baskets supported by a pole strung over their shoulders, or by long wooden boats that rowed up and down the klongs, or waterways.
At the turn of the 20th century, Bangkok was overwhelmingly Chinese. Ethnic Chinese immigrants out-numbered ethnic Thais, street signs were in Chinese characters and the Guangdong dialect, Teochew, was widely spoken. Over time some of the food the Chinese brought to Thailand became integrated into mainstream cuisine, for example noodles. Once only the domain of the Chinese, noodles are now found everywhere, including the menus of most Thai restaurants. Even the legendary pad Thai-rice noodles stir-fried with egg, shallots, bean sprouts and firm tofu, is actually a Chinese dish adapted with Thai spices.
The most interesting thing about Thai street food is that very little of it is actually Thai. Most dishes are variations of cuisines found in neighbouring countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, India and China. Walk Bangkok’s streets and you’ll discover a jumble of snack foods like satay, skewers of meat grilled over a coal fire and served with a sweet peanut dipping sauce that originated in Indonesia, roti, a flaky Indian bread and kanom kui chai, Chinese chive cakes.
Eating street food in Bangkok really took off with the mass urbanisation and changes in gender roles of the 1960s, when women headed into the workforce, and consequently did not have the time to prepare meals. Traditionally, all meals were prepared and eaten in the home; people ate out only on very special occasions or for temple festivals. Even up until the 1980s, it was frowned upon for a woman to bring food home for her family. They were considered irresponsible and referred to as “plastic bag housewives”.
Now street food is everywhere, on every corner, and a very integral part of the culture. Thai people live and breathe food; if they aren’t thinking about it, they are asleep and dreaming about it.
Even traditional Thai dishes- once purely the domain of the home- like nam prik (a spicy relish served with raw vegetables) and curry have also made their way onto the streets and markets. Street vendors only usually cook one or two things- but these they cook exceptionally. If they didn’t they simply wouldn’t have any customers.
I first came to Bangkok in 1986. I had been planning to go to Tahiti with some friends, but when they changed their plans, a Thai kitchen hand in the restaurant I was working in Sydney at the time suggested I buy a ticket to Bangkok. The city was a lot more edgy and dangerous back then, but I just fell in love. The Thais’ languid savoir faire attitude to life; the Buddhist idea that all living is transitory and so should be savoured and enjoyed. I sold my house in Sydney and moved over here for two years, squandering the money away, which actually turned out to be a pretty good investment! I lived like and became almost Thai: agreeably languid.
I met Tanongsak (Yordwai, Thompson’s partner of 23 years) here. We moved back to Sydney and opened Darley Street Brassiere in the bottom of a pub in the wrong end of New Town. Every Sunday we did Thai nights- which were so ragingly successful we decided to change the brassiere into a Thai restaurant. At that time Sydney was leaping and bounding into the world culinary scene.
Bangkok has changed dramatically in the last 25 years- its population has quadrupled and it has grown from rice fields to skyscrapers and monorails. Up until the end of World War Two there were still rice paddies along Sathorn Road. But despite the fast evolution, Thais have never lost their humour and traditional values.
I think Bangkok has softened me considerably. It has taught me that there are some things that you just can’t change and any urgency that you may have shouldn’t be at the expense of other people.
The city has taken a real battering over the last few years- there was SARS, the tsunami, Avian flu, multiple coups and the riots in May last year. Before the riots, I was thinking I would have to cater a lot for tourists to fill the new Nahm. In a way the cloud had a silver lining because now my focus has changed to the local crowd. I want to keep the prices reasonable- approximately 1400 Baht a head (S$60) and make it as authentic as I possibly can.
As I get older I feel the true essence of Thai food is less about “royal cooking” and more about what Thai people actually eat. This is where the history lies.
I love Thai food. It’s very open- it can easily absorb the influences of other cuisines. It also exists- and flourishes- at very different levels, from rough and ready street food to elegant high class.
These days many Thai restaurants just dress up for tourists; Thais are inherently hospitable, and cooks just modify dishes to what they think foreigners want. Thai food is becoming much more centralised; based on the foods of the Central Plains. Fewer people want to cook, or have to cook. Instead they rely on the fruits of the streets- which are cheap and you don’t have to clean up. Thai food is also becoming milder, sweeter- although you can still go to the countryside and get a wallop.
The Thais are very confident in the superiority of their cuisine. They only dabble in other foods- be it Japanese or Italian- as a novelty. Thai people will forgive you for almost everything- espionage, theft, maybe even murder- but they will never forgive you if you try to get between them and their food.
It’s just fabulous to have such a rich array of quality produce on your doorstep. For Nahm in London we have to fly everything in… and some things, like padek (fermented fish sauce) or smoked mackerel, you just can’t get past the border.
I think the Thais feel incredulous when they see a foreigner cooking their food. I also feel this when I see a Westerner cooking Thai food. The best compliment I ever had was from the wife of a Thai minister who came to eat at Nahm in London. Literally scowling, she came up to me when she was leaving and said “I came in to complain about the food, but I can’t”.