Anna had a full day of work on a shoot with Ian Kittichai at Issaya Siamese Club so Aaron wanted to show me “his” Bangkok. Just to clarify that, he lived her for 3 years working as restaurant chef at the Centara Hotel so know his way around town. He has a working use of the language and of course knows all the places to get the best raw food, snacks, drinks and restaurant food. I think that if you came to Bangkok you might be tempted to stick to the neighbourhood that your hotel occupies and not see much outside of the major tourist sites. Honestly, it is a little intimidating but if you venture onto the sky train you will quickly figure out the system and have the whole city at your beckon. The train only costs a buck or two to get to most destinations; bear in mind that if you only looked at the tourist areas of any given city you would not get a realistic impression of local life.
Our first stop was Ari, a neighbourhood where Aaron and his wife Pai lived, busy around the main road and train stop but then trickles into a quiet block, likely not much different from where any of us live. However, the abundance of street food and produce in the busy area will make your head spin. In addition to the shops, the sidewalk is painted into yellow rectangles, each a leased spot for vendors, mostly food but also a full range of things like shoe repair, mending, tailoring and so on. It has ruined us for “food festivals” as it appears that every day here is a food fest. People have the knack of setting up quickly and constantly offering fresh, clean stuff all day long, it never ends. From something as simple as a tray of peeled segments of pomelo to a complicated snack or dessert, it is all there, all the time. He said hello to many of the vendors along the way, many recognizing him or feigning interest with a big smile (hey, why not?). We approached a corner divey sort of place and he announced “this is the best Thai restaurant in the world!” – I waited for the guffaw but he was serious. They don’t open until 11 so we planned to come back. We headed over to the “Ontagon Market beside JJ Market”, a fresh produce and wet market with an astounding variety of prepared food, all remarkably fresh and delicious looking. Honestly, it looked like what a super high-end yuppy grocery store would aspire to have in their case, just wonderfully shiny and properly prepared. We bought a few things, tasted, strolled and asked questions. BTW we were the only foreigners in the place. I did notice that those things that I might have thought would be jarred/canned staples like curry pastes, nam prik or dipping sauces were simpley prepared, ready to be packed into a bag. Everything goes into a bag. Cold drinks, hot slices of sausage, fried chicken, sauces and “kits” of fresh seafood with sauce or marinade in order to make a soup or stir fry. There is also a keen use of fermentation everywhere, a vestige of the pre-refrigeration days, fresh pork sausage for example has a fermented rice “sour” added to it for flavour also because it would prevent bacterial contamination. And by the way, the place was spotless.
After a walk through a mostly closed (public holiday) open air market for furniture and such, we headed back to Ari for lunch. First, I must explain the concept of “Lady Boys”; there are a lot of transvestite and transexual men in Thailand, many working in bars or in the sex trade. What became apparent right away was that most of the staff were in this genre and if I may guess, maybe just carrying on with a service career after leaving the bar life. Who cares. What matters is that this little corner restaurant, unassuming and with very good reason, had many excuses to be mediocre but rather, served us what I might suggest was one of the best meals I have eaten in the last year. Food is ordered in small plates and cooked to order, there is no formality in service or decor, the cutlery the cheapest possible metal utensil made on the planet. Barely metal. The cooking style is known as Esam, from the North of the country and unlike any Thai food I have tasted. The chefs work in front with a good set of mise en place; garlic, onions, chilies, some sauce bases, tons of herbs, peanuts and crisp shallots. The food that comes out is as tasty as it gets and they simply drop off the dishes nonchalantly. I tell Aaron a story about being in a famous American restaurant where the waiter would set down the plate, announce the dish and not leave until you gushed and exclaimed “oh my god it is so wonderful, this is just the best” Ugh. We eat fried chicken and grilled pork neck, full of citrus and chili and the sauce translates to “fire whore water”, nice, thanks Aaron. There is a mound of crisp fried Morning Glory shoots with this freaky sauce of minced pork, onion, lemongrass, galingal, coriander and basil, ridiculous. Sticky rice. Papaya salad smashed in a mortar with fresh raw crab. And more, just silly. I exclaim to the chef and waiters just how wonderful and life changing the meal was and they were basically, “yeah, whatever” ha ha I loved it. It made me pause and hit the restart button. They were not doing this for money or to get their picture on a magazine or social media shot, you know that stupid open-mouthed expression with devil horns or thumbs raised, they were simply doing a job, something they are good at doing.
We rolled out of there and spent some time at a major mall, wandering around in a full belly stupor, looking at every possible form of electronic gadget, real and knock off. A wonderful food hangover. Aaron had to catch a flight back to Singapore so we said goodbye unit the next visit, he bounced off and I went back to the room to look at the pics and think about food. What a day, really, what a day.