Author and Thai food expert Leela Punyaratabandhu has a bone to pick with the way you think about Thai food. “When people think of Thai, they often think of something cheap. It’s always about street food,” she says.
“There’s a lot more to Thailand and Thai cuisine than what you can see on the street. I have a problem with thinking that street food is the best food Bangkok has to offer.”
Long feted as a street food paradise, the Thai capital is undergoing a culinary evolution amid an explosion in sit-down eateries, ranging from Michelin-starred restaurants to homestyle shophouses, and a government crackdown on street hawkers.
During the last five years, Thailand’s restaurant market has grown by about US$500 million annually, according to Euromonitor International. Casual full-service restaurants, which captured only 2 per cent of the market in 2010, accounted for a third of that growth. The Michelin Guide to Bangkok 2019 highlights no fewer than 27 restaurants, all of which qualify as fine dining on the basis of price if not presentation, save for a single shophouse – described as the only “street food eatery” to receive a star. The Guide, which for more than 100 years has claimed to designate the world’s best restaurants, only began recognising restaurants in Asia in the past decade. Half of the picks on this year’s Bangkok list serve Thai food.
The city of 8.2 million people has at the same time become a hotbed of culinary experimentation, from “progressive Indian” at Gaggan – lauded as one of the best restaurants in the world – to excavations of curries past from the palace archives served at Paste, whose chef-owner Bee Satongun was last year awarded the title of best female chef in Asia by William Reed, publisher of the World’s 50 Best Restaurants.
“Bangkok is at this transformative stage right now, where New York or London was 20 years ago,” says Garima Arora, who became the first Indian woman to head a Michelin-starred restaurant with this year’s award for her modern eclectic restaurant Gaa.
At Gaa, Arora applies French, Nordic, and Indian cooking techniques to Thai ingredients. “Within the same course, you have separate ideas of what the same food should be, and it surprises you,” she says. “That’s what we’re trying to do with our food, present something familiar in a new way, or hold contrasting ideas about the same food at the same time.”
Accentuating the transformation of the city’s culinary image has been a controversial decision last year by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration to ban street food on main roads in all of the city’s 50 districts. The authorities argue the ban is needed to improve hygiene and make pavements more accessible to pedestrians.
Street vendors on some of Bangkok’s most popular streets protested against the ban in September. While pavements have been cleared in crowded areas like Siam and Thonglor, the ban appears to be unevenly enforced, and vendors still occupy areas under the city’s skytrain and motorways in many parts of the city.
With an estimated 300,000 street vendors, Bangkok’s pavements have for years been considered among the best places in the world to pull up a plastic chair and tuck into a bowl of noodles. The blend of influences on the city’s streets – China for deep frying and wok-cooking, India for coconut milk curries, and Portuguese traders for the signature sting of Thai chilis, according to food author Chawadee Nualkhair – finds its apotheosis in khao soi: chicken and egg noodles cooked in a coconut milk broth with cardamom, turmeric, and curry.
Bangkok was the world’s most visited city in 2016, according to Mastercard, with more than 21 million overnight visitors. Tourism will contribute nearly a quarter of Thailand’s GDP this year, with an estimated 38 million tourist arrivals, a number projected to nearly double over the next 10 years.
Observers say the street food crackdown could affect millions, including vendors and the estimated more than 2 million Bangkok residents who buy cooked food daily from pavement vendors.
Per capita income in Bangkok is about US$6,590, and many Bangkok residents earn less than US$300 a month, making food served on the street and in shophouses a cheap and familiar staple for residents and catnip for tourists coming to indulge in the world’s best street food. The crackdown on street vending could be a turnoff for tourists, critics say.
“Street food makes the ecosystem what it is,” says food blogger Dwight Turner, aka BKKFatty. “It subsidises people of different backgrounds to drop US$100 in a fine dining restaurant when they’re eating for a dollar the rest of the week.”
But other figures connected to the city’s food scene see it differently and support the crackdown.
We don’t want to say the only way to experience Thai food is to experience the old way it existed. We want to look forward
“Other countries have the right to live in such a way that their urban residents can enjoy the public infrastructure, but Bangkok can’t have that because it has to keep its charm for visitors?” says Thai food expert Punyaratabandhu. “There has to be a balance we can strike somehow.”
Panon Leelamanit, the business development manager at a Bangkok-based real estate firm, agrees.
“A lot of people argue for street food because it’s what sells Bangkok to tourists, but we are left with the chaos, we have to live with it,” he says. “Is it worth the money we are getting from the tourists to be stuck in a chaotic city with very little order?
Developers, who have advocated for the ban amid concerns over the effect of hawkers on property prices, are themselves playing a major part in the shift to eating indoors.
“There is high pressure on building owners and real estate developers to be responsible for access to food – if we develop an office building where the neighbourhood food vendors used to be, we make allowances in the building to replace what we built on,” Leelamanit says.
Leelamanit says food courts are becoming popular among landlords of new developments as a way to attract tenants, suggesting a model in which the landlord or owner receives a percentage of a vendor’s revenue in exchange for space in the building.
City officials have confirmed that clearing the pavements is motivated in some locations by real estate developers concerned about vendors’ presence affecting property values. The BMA is reportedly considering incentivising developers by allowing them to build higher on the condition they include a food court in the complex which incorporates local vendors.
“It would help immensely if the government would choose to intervene at the city planning level,” says Leelamanit. He suggested the government allow real estate developers to change parking space to food court space.
‘WE LIKE IT THIS WAY’
In 2017, Michelin’s first guide for the city awarded a star to the shophouse of 72-year-old Jay Fai, who had been slinging fluffy omelettes bursting with fresh crabmeat for years before the little red book took notice. Dishes at Jay Fai’s shophouse typically cost no more than US$12 to US$25.
The recognition means that locals who could previously stop in for a bite while they were in the neighbourhood now find themselves needing an online reservation. Luxury vehicles often pull up across the street to roll down their tinted windows and order from the veteran proprietress, instantly recognisable for wearing ski goggles to protect her eyes from hot frying oil.
While the guide may describe Jay Fai as a street food eatery, since she cooks out of a shophouse, she’s safe from the pavement clean-up. Others will not be so lucky.
“We’re in a transition period,” says Leelamanit. “The tourists will inevitably have to change their expectations of what the Bangkok food scene is like. People need to accept that things will move indoors.”
Punyaratabandhu is adamant that there is no turning back the clock, as much as Thais love their heritage.
“We don’t want to say the only way to experience Thai food is to experience the old way it existed. We want to look forward.
“If we’re stuck in the past, we’re doomed, man. We have to take what we have and move with the times.”
Change is already happening, she continues. The biggest transformation in the dining scene – for now still overlooked by tourists – has been the expansion of mid-priced restaurants serving homestyle Thai food . This is neither shophouse nor white-tablecloth fare, but still caters to the everyday experience of Bangkok residents.
Independent and family-run restaurants, often run out of shophouses, can grow quickly if they get noticed on the internet. Often, the younger generation will leverage their family’s recipes in a new format like a casual dining restaurant in a mall or shopping centre.
“You see people who had the chance to travel, who went somewhere like [culinary school] Le Cordon Bleu, coming back to Bangkok and making the simple food they grew up with, starting these higher-end restaurants that serve homestyle food,” Punyaratabandhu says.
The growth of these restaurants, using seasonal ingredients to refine homestyle classics, has elevated how Thais think of their own food. “They’re saying, ‘here it is – our heritage, our culture, our pride. We use organic ingredients, locally sourced ingredients, and we’re selling it at a higher price point. Get used to it, we like it this way’.” ■