When it comes to Thai cuisine, everything old is new again in Bangkok kitchens, especially in those of Bangkok’s best restaurants where chefs are cooking Thai heritage cuisine, everything from the dishes of their ancestors to the centuries-old recipes of the Siam aristocracy.
Everything Old Is New Again in Bangkok Kitchens
Not far from the Chao Phra River in the historic quarter of Bangrak lies Bangkok’s first thoroughfare, Charoen Krung Road, built in 1861. Dotted along it and in the surrounding narrow streets are some of the oldest eateries specialising in Thai cuisine in Thailand’s capital.
In a charming old shophouse converted into a stylish little café, the fourth generation of bakers at Pan Lee Bakery has been making buns filled with barbecue pork, along with pandan custard, to the original family recipes since 1955.
Down the road, at the retro-looking Muslim Restaurant, the third generation of an Indian Muslim family that moved to Bangkok over a century ago is still serving the rich Thai-Indian curries they’ve been cooking for customers for the last seventy years.
Around the corner, at no-frills eatery, Mr Soong has been selling his glossy succulent khao na phed or Thai-Chinese roast duck and rice for over 50 years, while a short stroll away, by the Hindu Sri Maha Mariamman Temple, local workers crowd a 50-year old noodle shop to slurp big bowls of yen ta fo or red noodle soup.
I like to call this sort of food ‘Thai heritage cuisine’.
Until recently it was rare to find old dishes in restaurants
Heritage cuisine is the food of one’s ancestors, a cuisine based upon recipes that have been passed down from one generation to the next, over decades and even centuries, still cooked the way the dishes have always been.
In Thai cuisine, in the kitchens of the rustic eateries and refined restaurants we’ve dined at in the country, some of these dishes may only be a few generations-old, while others may date back two hundred years.
Heritage cuisine has long been served on the streets of Bangkok, at food stalls and small family-owned eateries, in the homes of aristocrats and the Royal Palace, but until recent years it was rare to find old dishes in Bangkok’s best restaurants, let alone the tourist restaurants that preferred to serve up the usual Thai standards which diners were more familiar with, such as fish cakes and red and green curries.
Australian chef David Thompson’s Nahm restaurant in Bangkok, voted #1 in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in 2014, and Bo.lan, the restaurant of Thai chef Duangporn ‘Bo’ Songvisava and her Australian chef husband Dylan Jones, who had been protégés of Thompson’s at his restaurant Nahm in London, have been the exception until recently.
Memorial books have been a source of old recipes
Thais have a tradition where they publish funeral books as mementoes when they die and these often include the recipes of the deceased. These memorial books have been an inspiration for chefs such as Thompson and Songvisava and the source of most recipes cooked at Nahm and Bo.lan since the chefs opened the restaurants 2010 and 2009, respectively.
Created as commemorative books to remember the dead and distributed at funerals, these memory books tell life stories that not only include biographies and family photos, but also what their recently deceased loved-one liked to cook and eat.
Proud, respectful Thais of all classes and levels of income produce and publish these funeral books to keep the spirit of their ancestor as much as their family’s cultural traditions alive.
They range from rudimentary pamphlets with cardboard covers to beautifully bound and embossed books sprinkled with charming baby photos and fond anecdotes.
Found in bookshops, second-hand markets, family homes, and on the shelves of collectors and connoisseurs, the memorial books have been a rich source of recipes for chefs Thompson and Songvisava, who both collect the books.
And they are increasingly proving to be a valuable resource for new chefs seeking inspiration from Thailand’s culinary heritage.
Funeral book recipes enabled Thompson to hark back to 19th century lives
Fluent in Thai, with a Thai partner, Thompson has been collecting Thai funeral books since he first moved to Bangkok in the late 1980s. Discovering them largely through specialised booksellers, he says they are though now quite hard to find.
Thompson, who has a collection of over 600 rare recipe books, says they enable him to “hark back to 19th century lives”.
Thompson’s precious collection of funeral books are well over a hundred years old with one dating to the 1890s. With faded covers, torn corners, and paper so fragile they look like they might easily disintegrate, Thompson keeps them carefully wrapped in plastic.
The chef is planning to have his collection digitised and establish a culinary archive with digital library for chefs and researchers.
Thompson’s beef Mussaman curry is from the book of Thanpuying Plian (also written as Plean) Passakornrawong, the wife of a late 19th century courtier. He also serves a duck soup, which dates to around 1920, from a noble woman called Jip Bunnag, and the granddaughter of Thanpuying Plian, one of the great cooks of the Rattanakosin period.
Still one of Thailand’s oldest and most influential families, the Bunnags are Thais of Persian ancestry, descendants of Sheikh Ahmad, a Persian trader who settled in Siam around 1600 and quickly established ties within the royal court at Ayutthaya.
Thompson also makes a lon (a dip or relish) of prawns that is of a similar vintage, made with fermented rice, coconut cream and minced prawns, and eaten with banana blossoms, white turmeric and smoky pork.
Another recipe he cooks is an aromatic chicken curry called geng gari gai is 120 years old, by a courtesan who was a famous musician. It comes from one of the first ever published books in Thailand, around 1895, although the chef believes it could be a much older recipe, given the consistency of culture in Thailand at the time.
“I began to understand a cuisine that I would not normally understand”
Thompson said he had been cooking Thai cuisine for well over a decade when he began to feel like a novice and become uncertain and unfamiliar with a cuisine that had occupied him for so long.
“I had no idea of the type of food I was eating, I just knew that I liked it,” the Chef admits. “I knew nothing about its history, its past, how it developed.”
“Luckily I met a very old woman (in the royal palace) who cooked with an inherent skill that helped me to understand how exotic Thai cuisine was,” Thompson reveals.
The chef vividly recalls a sour orange curry made with fish deep-fried and served in a curry made with shrimp paste (“the very soul of Thai cooking”) and tamarind leaves.
“It was a very simple dish but it was beguiling and it made me realise that Thai cuisine was so very different to what I understood,” Thompson admits.“The food transformed me and led me to investigate more. I began to understand a cuisine that I would not normally understand. I started to write a book in order to begin to understand this strange cuisine.”
“However, that Thai cuisine was fixed not only to the 19th century and to Bangkok but to a certain class — affluent, rich and urbane — that had servants that could cook for them,” Thompson elaborates. “In some way it dismissed all other types of food, like food from the streets. It disregarded it and it denied a rich cooking from houses that were not affluent.”
“But bringing them to life was difficult,” Thompson reveals. “There are so many interpretations that can be interpreted in many ways. One in particular from the 19th century was written down as a ‘jungle curry’, made from a bird that was tough and full of flavour.”
“The curry paste was simplistic, rustic. We tried it and it was alright, it had interesting characteristics, but after we added more chillies and shrimp paste, it started to come to life,” he says. “Bit by bit we moved the dish into from 19th century to 2010.”
Thompson likened it to a chess game. “You make one move and then you need to make another and another… bit by bit we moved the dish into from 19th century to 2010 — not only with other ingredients, but with different cooks — in order to achieve an exacting result.”
“Not many people cook these dishes… a special feeling comes from their rareness”
Chef Duangporn Songvisava, better known as Chef Bo, said she came across her first funeral book while doing research for her master’s degree dissertation in the university library.
“It was a moment of discovery,” Chef Bo reveals.
Ever since Songvisava has sought memorial books out in libraries, at the Siam Association, and at book fairs. Sometimes, customers bring them to the restaurant as gifts for her.
“One recipe, geng nok mor, which translates to “the soup outside the pot” came from an antique female journalist association cookbook,” Songvisava reveals. “The special thing about it is that you put all the ingredients in the bowl and then pour the soup into the bowl. The soup is not finished cooking in the pot.”
Another Thai cuisine favourite that she serves at Bo.lan is a red curry of pork with green banana that is about 100 years old and comes from one of the first cookbooks in Siam, as old Thailand was known.
“Not many people cook these dishes anymore, so a special feeling comes from their rareness,” the chef admits.
“It’s special for me because I believe that continuing to cook them is the only way to make them last,” Songvisava confides. “By passing them on to the next generation. Otherwise, the possibility of losing them is very high.”
Dishes of his childhood are an inspiration for Chef Kittichai
At his Bangkok flagship restaurant Issaya Siamese Club, located in a beautiful old villa, filled with retro furnishings, with a kitchen garden at the back, Ian Kittichai includes dishes from his childhood on a Thai cuisine menu that features his modern iterations of classic dishes.
“I really appreciate what David and Bo do and I think it’s great that it gets positive attention,” Kittichai says. “Thai cuisine is broad and very deep. I think there is room for all styles of Thai cuisine.”
Coming from a humble home, Kittichai rose before dawn to go to the market with his mother, and then after school helped her out by selling her curries from a mobile food cart in their neighbourhood.
“I cook the way I cook as it is the way I was taught by my mother and family — as well as my professional training and life experiences,” Kittichai explains.
“I was very close to my mother and she has always been my inspiration and the person I always give thanks to for shaping the person and the chef I am today.”
Kittichai acknowledges that while he does a lot of research and loves to find inspiration everywhere, the past is always a wealth of knowledge.
Old Thai cuisine recipes are precious and need to be collected
At his stylish shophouse restaurant in Bangkok’s hip neighbourhood of Thonglor, restaurant owner Thanaruek ‘Eh’ Laoraowirdoge’s chefs cook the recipes of his grandmother, Khun Yai.
Born as Somsri Chantra in a small town near the east coast city of Trat, Khun Yai moved to the inland northeastern Isaan city of Khon Kaen after his mother married his father. Her Thai cuisine recipes reflect the culinary styles and influences of both regions.
“Our family culture revolved around dining together for every meal of the day and my grandma cooked these delicious meals,” he recalls. “Her food wasn’t only known within our family, but it was recognized by all our family friends who loved to come to our home to dine on her food.”
The family began to collect their grandmother’s recipes two years before she passed away, helped by a maid and assistant cook who lived with the family for more than 20 years.
At the two branches of Supanniga Eating Room in Thonglor and Sathorn, Laoraowirdoge serves dishes such kaeng moo cha muang, tender pork meat stewed with Thai herbs and cha muang leaves, and nam prik khai pu, a spicy dip of sea water crab roe and crab meat served with fresh vegetables.
“Guests love the dishes because the traditional family home dining culture is starting to fade away and the dishes remind them of the real home cooked meals of their childhood,” Laoraowirdoge explains.
“Old family recipes are full of charm,” he elaborates. “Different homes had different specialties and different tastes. The old recipes are very important and precious and need to be collected.”
Ancient recipes leave a lot of room for interpretation
Down the road, at his funky casual Thai restaurant Soul Food Mahanakorn, former food writer Jarrett Wrisley discovered many of the recipes he serves during staff meals, when his chefs were would cook things they’d never consider making in a restaurant setting but that they themselves wanted to eat.
While Wrisley’s not trying to embrace heritage recipes, he’s using old methods, like traditional slow-food techniques and natural ingredients.
“We might take a dish such as duck larb, for instance, cure the duck, and throw it in the smoker before making the dish. Chef Thompson would never do that. But he forgives us for our sins,” Wrisley jokes.
“It’s hard to underestimate how much David and Bo and Dylan have elevated the idea of the ‘Thai restaurant’ here, and how much they have raised an awareness of Thai food as a fine, complex cuisine among food cognescenti around the world,” Wrisley says.
“They’ve preserved some dishes and cooking techniques, but in doing so they’ve carved out their own, individual styles, as most of the ancient recipes leave a lot of room for interpretation,” he explains. “I first learned about Thai food from David’s books and each time I go to Nahm or Bo.lan, I learn a little bit more.”
“Thai food — like any other cuisine — has been affected by industrial food chains, simple convenience, and especially by cutting food costs, in very negative ways,” Wrisley elaborates.
“So it’s nice to see chefs using real coconut cream, frying their own shallots, squeezing their own limes rather than using citric acid, and making their own pastes. A return to traditional cooking and away from factory-made convenience is always a good thing.
Old dishes have a depth only something rooted in the past can have
For all of the chefs, cooking heritage dishes is important for the future of Thai cuisine.
“It’s special for me because I believe that continuing cooking them is the only way to make them last, by passing them on to the next generation,” Chef Bo says. “Otherwise, the possibility of losing them is very high.”
Kittichai doesn’t believe the old recipes would be lost forever if chefs didn’t cook them.
“These recipes live on through Thai cooks and families all over Thailand,” Kittichai says. “It’s just the rest of the world wouldn’t know about them.
For Thompson, the older recipes have a dimension, a difference and a distinction unlike late 20th century or early 21st century dishes.
“The old dishes have a rich and delicious depth that only something rooted in the past can have,” says Thompson, as he carefully places one of the books back into its plastic case.
UPDATED June 2016
Como Metropolitan Hotel, 27 South Sathorn Road
Sathorn, +66 2 625 3413
Note: David Thompson and many key staff have now
42 Soi Pichai Ronnarong, Songkram Sukhumvit 26
Klongteoy, +66 2 260 2961
Issaya Siamese Club
4 Soi Sri Aksorn, Chua Ploeng Road
Sathorn, +66 2 672 9040
Supanniga Eating Room
160/11 Sukhumvit Soi 55
Thonglor, +66 2 714 7508
Soul Food Mahanakorn
56/10 Sukhumvit Soi 55
Thonglor, +66 2 714 7708
More Bangkok Restaurants To Try
A Thai grandma is in the kitchen cooking old recipes from Southern Thailand at son-in-law Steve’s riverside restaurant.
68 Sri Ayutthaya Eoad, Soi 21, next to Thewet Pier
Dusit, +66 2 281 0915
Heritage cookbooks, including memorial books, are on display in the small museum at this restaurant, where the Thai cuisine menu includes many old family dishes.
32-32/1 Sukhumvit Soi 23
Asok, +66 2 664 3360
Thai Lao Yeh
Rare, authentic dishes from northern and northeastern Thailand, as well as Laos, that you won’t see often on other restaurant menus.
Hotel Cabochon, 14/29 Sukhumvit Soi 45
Sukhumvit area, +66 2 259 2871
A shorter version of this story appeared in Fah Thai, the Bangkok Airways in-flight magazine. Thank you to Bangkok Food Tours for first introducing us to the old Bangrak eateries and their owners, cited early in this story, and to Chef David Thompson for allowing Terence to photograph his fragile Thai memorial books, pictured above.