There is much to love about Thai cuisine, not least its melange of intense flavours that have charmed both royals and the masses, and that continue to woo an increasingly diverse community of diners across all levels.
The cuisine is defiantly bold; food that has withstood the test of time and yet continues to evolve in the skilled hands of some of today’s best chefs such as Duangporn “Bo” Songvisava and Dylan Jones, the married duo behind Bo.lan in Bangkok, which ranked 19th on the 2017 Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants list. The couple met while working at Australian chef David Thompson’s now-defunct Nahm in London, the very first fine dining Thai restaurant in Europe to earn a Michelin star.
Fierce locavores and champions of authenticity, Songvisava and Jones are also curators of this year’s Chang Sensory Trails, a multisensorial celebration of Thai flavours, which made its third stop in Singapore in July this year following a successful turnout in London and San Francisco.
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In the course of their travels, the couple has noticed how globalisation has impacted the spread of the cuisine’s popularity, and believes that it has evolved tremendously. “Before we opened Bo.lan in 2009, there were just generic Thai restaurants in five-star hotels, and that was considered high-end dining,” Jones muses. “Today, you have so many high‑end standalone restaurants in Bangkok that are doing similar things but going in different directions.”
Chefs like Songvisava and Jones, as well as pioneers such as Thompson, who has since reopened Nahm in Bangkok and opened Long Chim in Singapore, Perth, Sydney and Melbourne, are partly responsible for this evolution, as they work hard to research and give old recipes new life. Meanwhile, a new generation of Thai cooks have become equally invested in “putting their own stamp on the cuisine”, says Jones.
But he is not referring to a complete overhaul of Thai cuisine, as a good part of this evolution involves the rediscovery of time‑honoured techniques and flavours that have faded in the glare of the commercial market’s limited perception. Jones mentions chefs who are experimenting with fermentation, which has been part of Thai cuisine for thousands of years, but is being now revived in their inspired takes on the cuisine.
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Names that come to mind include the guys behind Samuay & Sons in Udon Thani who dish up unique cross-regional dishes, and highlight native ingredients using modern cooking techniques. Then you’ve got people in Bangkok such as chef Ton of Le Du who’s doing a modern interpretation using western techniques. Even Bo.lan’s food has evolved since it opened eight years ago, Jones explains. But make no mistake, it is essentially Thai, Songvisava defends. “We just don’t want to use the word authentic or royal Thai,” she explains, adding that their focus is on foods that are almost impossible to find because home cooks and restaurants don’t cook them anymore. But their presentation is definitely contemporary, Jones adds. “It’s not stuck in this muted, old way of serving Thai food,” he explains, though they remain open to trying new techniques and have adopted new ways of pickling and fermenting. They also make their own vinegars.
Bo.lan was founded on the belief that the best Thai restaurant should be found in Thailand. It also explains the restaurant’s dedication to safeguarding Thai food heritage. This includes the use of local produce, Songvisava adds, expounding on the many types of really good fish sauce that many don’t know about because most fail to venture past the ubiquitous commercial brands.
There’s also the importance of being mindful of one’s geographic index, which the couple believes should be at the forefront or at least a strong part of a chef’s or restaurant’s philosophy. They go on to give the example of how many chefs are buying factory-made khanom jeen (fermented rice noodles) these days. “But you can actually make them yourself,” Jones suggests. “It takes seven days, but it’s worth it.”
So how can exported representations of the cuisine remain geographically true? Well, for starters, the couple posits chefs and suppliers will have to work harder to import the right ingredients. “People are also growing more tropical produce now,” Songvisava explains. “Now you can get kaffir lime leaves from Spain.” But Jones also believes that Thai chefs abroad have a responsibility to also use local alternatives that are appropriate. Thai food, he adds, is going places, though it wouldn’t necessarily have to be in a fine dining format. “For me, fine dining is just good-quality food—you’ve got people like Andy Ricker in the US, and the guys at Som Saa and The Begging Bowl in London doing really good-quality Thai food.”
There are, of course, challenging issues beyond a travelling chef’s control. Authentic shrimp paste, for instance, cannot be imported to certain Western countries because it is not commercially certified by agencies such as the US Food and Drug Administration. “But there’s no problem importing unpasteurised cheese from a local cheese artisan from a small village in France into Asia,” Songvisava laments.
“I think if we just stop letting big businesses and the capitalist markets control our food systems, we’ll probably have a better chance of eating better food everywhere,” Jones adds.
Now, wouldn’t that be something more to smile about.