Cuisine : A Taste of Thailand with Chef Degan

AXIS OF TASTE. Culinary tourism in Bangkok offers more than premium restaurants but also traditional markets and cooking workshops. Chef Degan explores

Freshly shucked oyster in a spice marinade, grilled and served with kokum ice cream (Copy)

Freshly shucked oyster in a spice marinade, grilled and served with kokum ice cream at Gaggan

So far it would seem that Thaksin Shinawatra’s ambitious plan has succeeded. The drive to open thousands of Thai restaurants in every corner of the planet has not lessened the country’s appeal as a culinary destination. If anything, it has grown. This phenomenon is especially prevalent in Thailand’s capital, Bangkok, where food tourism has become increasingly popular, rivaling even the city’s nightlife and shopping scene. Bangkok, Southeast Asia’s culinary axis, serves up a succulent combination between timeless traditional dishes and modern fare created by brilliant chefs. Below is a lineup of locales offering superb gastronomical experiences around Krung Thep, aka. The “City of Angels.”

INDIAN MOLECULAR GASTRONOMY

The culinary hotspots in Bangkok aren’t always situated within malls or concrete buildings. Gaggan (68/1 Soi Langsuan, Ploenchit Road, Lumpini; 66 2 652 1700; eatatgaggan.com), from the Hindi word for sky, sits in a 70-year-old home at the end of a dead end street in the Lang Suan district. The white interior is decked in a romantic colonial style, and, in one corner, there is a gap connecting the dining room with the kitchen, thus allowing patrons to enjoy their meals while watching the chefs labor in front of their stoves. Gaggan only offers three tasting menus. This restaurant specializes in Indian progressive fusion cuisine, which is full of surprises and is presented in the unique style of molecular gastronomy. Armed with extensive knowledge gained directly from elBulli laboratory’s research team under Ferran Adrià, chef Gaggan Anand is now attempting to overthrow the general perception around India’s conventional culinary offerings. With unlimited culinary imagination, Anand manages to create globally inspired authentic Indian dishes. He freely deconstructs age-old standards to create masterpieces of cuisine that will either melt or explode in your mouth. One of his major strengths is his creativity in exploring rarely used ingredients, from edible flowers and the world’s smallest cucumber to mango blossoms and tobacco smoke-flavored ice cream. It is as if that through this initiative, Anand is trying to spur us to forget about the classic definition of Indian cooking. In the three tasting menus, which consist of five, seven or 10 courses each, culinary aficionados are invited to set their senses free within a swirl of imaginative flavors. Each menu begins with a welcome drink, in this case a mocktail of orange juice and lemon with watermelon foam and caviar made from raspberries and strawberries. The next serving is an amuse bouche, which is a yoghurt explosion shot with white chocolate, nuts and potato mousse samosas. It is only after these surprises that we get to the first course.

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Wagyu Striploin Tartare at Eat Me

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Frozen Red Curry with Lobster Salad at Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin

THAI DECONSTRUCTION

Henrik Yde-Andersen’s invasion into Bangkok back in 2010 managed to inject new energy into the city’s culinary landscape. The renowned Danish chef owns six outlets in Copenhagen, including Kiin Kiin, the only Thai restaurant in the world with a Michelin star, after David Thompson’s Nahm in London lost its star. In Bangkok, Henrik established the Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin (Siam Kempinski Bangkok, 991/9 Rama 1 Road, Pathumwan; 66 2 162 9000; kempinskibangkok.com), a modern restaurant that is often compared to Nahm Restaurant. The two restaurants do share a number of similarities: Both were initiated by foreigners and brought Thai cuisine back home. However, the two are also incredibly dissimilar. Nahm tries to bring back ancient traditional Thai recipes, many of which have long been missing from local kitchens. Sra Bua, on the other hand, deconstructs Thai flavors and then serves it up with in a way that is as far removed as what the general public might imagine but without losing the spirit of traditional cookery. This approach is what eventually brought Sra Bua to the top of “Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants 2014” list. In essence, Sra Bua offers a modern interpretation of authentic Thai cuisine. The restaurant’s fare is full of surprises, as might be expected from an establishment dabbling in molecular gastronomy. What’s really unique, however, is in how traditional flavors are retained as Sra Bua’s chefs tinker with various techniques and temperatures to create exquisite variations of form and texture. It is no wonder then that Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin is now considered an ambassador for the ultra-contemporary spectrum of Thai cuisine. Past the 2.5-meter wooden doors, visitors will find themselves in a quiet interior with high ceilings, wooden panels and majestic columns draped in Thai silk. Among Sra Bua’s most attractive dishes, we have Gaeng Daeng, a frozen red curry with lobster salad that is served in liquid nitrogen vapors; Tom Kha Cornette, a curry soup flavored with key lime and lemongrass served in an ice cream cone; Tom Yam with its broth served separately to be leisurely slurped with a herbal jelly; and finally an Orchid Salad with spicy roast beef.

INNOVATIVE INTERPRETATION

After opening its doors back in 1998, Eat Me (Soi Pipat 2, Convent Road, Silom; 66 2 238 0931; eatmerestaurant.com) has gained a reputation for its laidback atmosphere, its simple Aussie-styled cafe fare and opening hours that stretch way into the night—giving the public a place to dine after exploring Bangkok’s nightlife scene. Eat Me is located in a white twostory building that also functions as an art gallery. The establishment received a significant aesthetic makeover after New York chef Tim Butler took over the kitchen. Naturally, his creative influence also extended to the selection of ingredients, which led to a range of innovative dishes such as Black Chicken with papaya, roasted coconut, chilies, lime and a betel nut leaf salad; as well as Grilled Tasmanian Pacific Oysters with miso and scallions. Butler’s creations are basically an innovative interpretation of international modern cuisine and regional tastes. Visitors will find Eat Me’s lounge and bar at the ground floor, while the dining room extends throughout the upper floor surrounded by balconies. Each month, the restaurant becomes a venue for local and foreign artists—including painters, photographers and sculptors—to showcase their work.

CULINARY TOUR

Bangkok doesn’t only offer innovative menus but also invites visitors to dive into the traditions that  enliven every kitchen and every spice. This invitation is extended, among others, by Bangkok Food Tours (66 89 1263 657; bangkokfoodtours.com) through several tour packages covering local culinary hotspots. Participants are taken along Yaowarat Street in the middle of Bangkok’s Chinatown to  sample Thai-Chinese dishes or to the Bangkrak area that focuses more on Thailand’s rural cuisine. These guided tours serve to heighten our awareness of the diverse variety of local Thai cuisine, which would otherwise remain a secret shared among locals. The packages on offer are also quite inspiring. The Tha Kha Floating Market Tour, for instance, invites participants to explore Thailand’s culinary offerings on a floating boat. Various local specialties are cooked right on the vessel, starting from chicken curry, tom yam and fried bananas with roasted sugar. Those hankering for a more comprehensive culinary investigation can opt for tours guided by professional chefs. One such tour is offered by Anantara Bangkok (Anantara Baan Rajprasong; 66 2 264 6464; anantara.com). Participants will be led to local markets and then instructed on the finer points of mixing, tasting and reviewing local kitchen ingredients. This is definitely a “weightier” tour, and the fare is appropriately higher as well. For those with extra time on their hands, the Blue Elephant Cooking School (66 2 673 9353; blueelephantcookingschool.com) could be worth going to. This institution operates in 11 locations all around the world and offers various programs covering both classical and modern Thai cuisine under the watchful eye of chef Nooror Somany Steppe. Held in a professional kitchen atmosphere, each cooking class provides tutorials on fruit and vegetable carving, cooking and spice mixing. The Blue Elephant Cooking School often becomes a training workshop for culinary minded businessmen looking to open new Thai restaurants. The school’s main rival would be the Bangkok Cooking Academy (66 2 259 5853; bangkokthaicookingacademy.com). There are three types of classes, each with a different duration: five, 10 and 20 days. All classes feature both cooking and fruit carving lessons covering a wide variety of Thai dishes. After the tours and cooking classes comes the time to shop for herbs and spices to take home. Various ready-to-Mango Snowball at Gaggan use spice mixes can be found in malls and large shopping centers such as Siam Paragon (991 Rama 1 Road, Pathumwan; siamparagon.co.th), Emporium (622 Sukhumvit Road; emporiumthailand.com) or CentralWorld (Ratchadamri Road, centralworld.co.th). There we can find, among others, gaeng kiew wan (green curry), panang (red curry) and massaman (Southern Thailand’s signature sour curry).

RIVERSIDE EXPLORATION

Chatuchak is still widely renowned as a culinary center, but it has found a better organized and better smelling rival: Asiatique, a mega-complex on the edge of the Chao Phraya River featuring more than 1,500 boutiques and restaurants. This is perhaps the only night market in Bangkok where visitors can track

individual restaurants using a map. With a design inspired by the face of Bangkok’s past as a prosperous inland port city under King Rama V, Asiatique looks like a wharf littered with logistic warehouses. There’s also an interesting bit of history behind this location: Asiatique is built on lands that used to belong to

the East Asiatic Company, a Danish teak trading company from the 19th century. In combining two of Bangkok’s most popular shopping experiences—a traditional night market and window shopping in modern malls—Asiatique shares a number several similarities with the Suan Lum Night Bazaar, which was closed in 2011. However, Asiatique offers a lot more, both in quantity and quality. Take, for example, the Joe Louis Puppet Theater that holds traditional Thai puppet shows or the Calypso Show that features ladyboy cabarets. To make exploration easier, Asiatique is divided into four districts. After alighting from their boats, visitors will step into the Waterfront District, which offers a wide variety of bistros, Irish pubs and wine bars. Meanwhile, fashion stores are spread around the Factory District, while Charoenkrung District is populated by

more than 1,000 designer boutiques, souvenir shops and performance halls. The last district, Town Square, has a beer garden, sports bar and an outdoor activity arena sitting on more than 2,000 square meters of land. The easiest and fastest way to reach Asiatique is by taking the sky train and getting off at the Saphan Taksin station. From there, you simply walk to the dock’s end to get on Asiatique’s special shuttle boats, operating free of charge until 11PM.

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Mango Snowball at Gaggan

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YUM NEA (THAI BEEF SALAD)

Ingredients

Beef:

  • 2 tbsp. cooking oil
  • 150gr beef tenderloin
  • 2 tbsp. oyster sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. finely chopped garlic
  • 1/2 tsp. finely chopped coriander root

Dressing:

  • 1 cup freshly squeezed lime juice
  • 125gr sugar
  • ⅓ cup fish sauce
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped garlic
  • 1 tsp. finely chopped coriander root
  • 2 bird eye chilies, finely chopped
  • 1 big red chili, seeded and finely chopped

Vegetables:

  • 1/2 cup tomatoes, seeded and julienned
  • 1/2 cup onion, peeled and julienned
  • 1/2 cup Japanese cucumber, julienned
  • fresh coriander leaves
  • fresh celery leaves
  • big red chili, seeded and julienned

Method

Marinate the beef tenderloin with a mixture of oyster sauce, garlic and coriander root for 10 to 15 minutes. Heat up the cooking oil in a pan, and briefly sear the beef evenly on both sides. When the beef is a nice medium rare, take it off the heat and let it rest. In the meantime, place all of the dressing ingredients in a bowl and mix well. All that’s left to do now is plating.

Place two tablespoons of the dressing on the bottom of the plate. Gently slice the beef into thin strips, arrange them on the plate, and drizzle some more dressing on top. Next up, arrange the julienned tomatoes, onions and cucumber on top of the beef, and drizzle the remaining dressing on top of the vegetables. Finally, garnish the dish with coriander leaves, celery leaves and the julienned chili.

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TOM KHA GAI (CHICKEN COCONUT SOUP)

Ingredients

  • 1 stalk of lemongrass (15cm, as garnish)
  • 1 piece of ginger
  • 50ml chicken stock
  • 10gr young galangal, sliced and crushed
  • 2 stalks of lemongrass, cleaned and sliced
  • 5gr coriander root, sliced and crushed
  • 3 kaffir lime leaves
  • 2 small chilies
  • 20gr straw mushrooms
  • 25gr Shimeji mushrooms
  • 100ml coconut milk
  • 100gr chicken thighs
  • 2 tsp. fish sauce
  • 0.5 tsp. sugar
  • 1 tbsp. lemon juice
  • Some shallots

Method

Put the coconut milk and chicken stock in a medium-sized pot. Put it on the stove and then turn on the heat. Add in the shallots, lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime leaves and chilies. Now, bring the broth to a boil, and add in the galangal, coriander root and the mushrooms, followed by the chicken thighs. Make sure that the chicken is cooked all the way through. Then pour in the fish sauce and sugar. Give the soup a quick stir and then remove the pot from heat. Finally, sprinkle a bit of lemon juice on the soup and serve it in individual bowls, garnished with a lemongrass.

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Chef Degan Septoadji is the head judge of MasterChef Indonesia.