In our recent episode The Food of Thailand, we explored the cuisines found in different regions of Thailand. But, we also wanted to hear about the food of Bangkok, Thailand’s capital city and home to 15 million people. If you look at pictures it’s all gleaming skyscrapers and golden royal temples, but Leela Punyaratabandhu has a closer perspective. She grew up there, in a house built by her great grandparents. She writes about the history of Thai cuisine, from regular home food to dishes created for royalty, in her books Simple Thai Food and Bangkok. Make her recipe for 24-Hour Chicken Matsaman Curry, a serious party recipe that serves up to 16 people!
Francis Lam: Here's something I want to start with because I've been told, I feel like a thousand times, that the food most Americans think of as Thai food is actually Central Thai food, which is where Bangkok is. I've heard it so many times I just assume it's true, but I don't really know what it means. What does that mean?
Leela Punyaratabandhu: I've heard that many times too and I don't know what it means either. It seems a little too simplistic and a lot of assumptions go into that. It’s kind of complicated. I agree that most of the dishes that you find on the menus in most Thai restaurants outside Thailand are based on the dishes that you would find in urban areas of Thailand, including Bangkok.
FL: Those dishes like pad Thai and pad see ew. You write in your book that Bangkok, even though it's in the heart of Central Thailand, has food of its own.
LP: Yes. Central Thailand is a broad, flat, alluvial plain with many rivers including the Chao Phraya River, and the region also touches the ocean, the Gulf of Thailand. So, we're talking about an extremely fertile area, the land of rice and fish. Central Thai cuisine relies heavily on marine life and the vegetation that grows in the river basins. But, what makes the food of Bangkok different from the food of Central Thailand in general, where the secondary elements come into play, are the cultural elements. Bangkok has always been the center of government, diplomacy, and trade. The city is more than 235 years old. So, out of the traditional Central Thai cuisine we see a new cuisine emerge; it's a result of a confluence of many cultures and belief systems, migrations, settlements. You don't see this in other regions of Thailand, at least not on this scale. You see Persian and Indian influences and very strong Chinese influences as well. Also some Portuguese influence, British influence, and later on, American influence.
FL: What are some of the Persian influences? I've never heard of that.
LP: Have you heard of matsaman curry?
LP: That is Persian.
FL: Oh! Matasman, like Musulman. Like what people used to call Muslims.
FL: So, matasman curry is yellow – if we’re going with the color guide, that stereotypical menu –
LP: The traffic light curries, you mean? [laughs]
FL: Yeah. It’s yellow-orange-ish. But what distinguishes matasman curry, in terms of its technique or ingredients, from the other curries?
LP: I would say the presence of dry spices, which you don't see a lot in the other color curries. For example, the use of dry spices like cinnamon, cloves, star anise, and some other dry spices that you don't see in red curry or green curry or other curries.
FL: Because a lot of the other curries are made with fresh curry paste ground, pounded shallots and lemongrass; things like that, not these dried spices.
LP: And another thing is that, if you notice, matasman curry isn't as spicy hot as green curry or red curry. That is another one of the characteristics of Persian or South Indian influences in Thai cuisine.
FL: In the book, you also write about the house that your great-grandparents built in Bangkok in the 1940s, and you describe their kitchen so beautifully. What was it like cooking in that kitchen?
LP: This is not a typical Bangkok kitchen. I grew up in a pretty weird home – in a good way. In retrospect, I didn't see it as being good at that point. It’s a very traditional family, and my great-grandparents were born at the very end of the 1800s. My great-grandfather served as a civil servant in The Royal Court. His generation was the last generation that lived through, worked through, and retired in times of the absolute monarchy system against the backdrop of the social hierarchy of that age. So, he was very set in the way that he wanted to live and eat. I will never understand it fully, but his house, which is the house that my parents, my aunts and my uncles and my cousins all lived in or around, was set up in such a way that it never really moved on from the 1800s. It was happily stuck in that era.
We had electricity which we used it for other purposes, but not really in kitchen. We had a large built-in clay and brick stove with two burners that came up to your waist. It was all wood- and coal-fired. All the food shopping would be done in the morning and only once. We would buy just enough for the day, so there was no freezing or storing anything other than the pantry items like shrimp paste, garlic, stuff like that. Most of the cooking would be done in the morning. The burners would be on throughout the morning, mostly to cook things that needed to be cooked for a long time. Then for quick last-minute cooking we have a few small clay stoves for that. It's like a museum.
Try Leela Punyaratabandhu's recipe for 24-Hour Matsaman Curry. Photo provided by Leela Punyaratabandhu
FL: There's another detail that I thought was so striking. You talk about how they would have a pot outside the window for catching water that you then scent with flowers.
LP: There's a huge clay jar that is reserved for the purpose of collecting rainwater.
FL: And that water would go into a dish I'd never heard of but sounds incredible. It's rice in ice-cold flower-scented water, served with all these different accompaniments like shrimp dumplings, preserved radishes and stuffed peppers. Tell us about the dish. You would take cooked rice and then you would basically put it in a bowl of ice cold water?
LP: You would polish the rice until the grains are clean. Because the rice comes out of the pot starchy, you want to wash off all of the starchiness so that the water would remain clear – like crystal clear –throughout the entire meal. It's a very sophisticated, complicated dish, but I'm glad you picked this dish to talk about because I can't think of a better dish that would exemplify what we've talked about in terms of what makes the cuisine of Bangkok unique.
This dish originally comes from the Mon, an ethnic group who migrated in several waves from Myanmar, from Burma, and have assimilated into the Thai culture almost seamlessly. The original Mon version is very simple. The version you see in Bangkok today, though, is very sophisticated, very elaborate; we have the ladies of The Royal Court in the early days of Bangkok to thank for this. They were of Mon descent and they were the ones who took this dish and reinterpreted it through the lenses of the royal cuisine. That's how we got the current version, which is served mostly during the Thai New Year celebration in April. It's really hot in April, so this comes in handy. It takes a village to put it together, it's definitely not a weeknight meal.
Bangkok: Recipes and Stories from the Heart of Thailand
by Leela Punyaratabandhu
FL: Tell us about some of the things that go into the process. You have this rice which you've cooked and then cleaned. You submerge it in ice cold flower-scented water – which sounds incredible – to infuse flavor –
LP: And you had to prepare the night before.
FL: Then there are all these things that go with it. Tell us what them.
LP: Those things vary, but certain things remain the same regardless of who the cook is. The shrimp paste dumplings and stuffed shallots are always present. The sweet preserved radish is always there, as well as the stuffed pepper that is wrapped in strands of egg – you have to make it by hand. It's really something. It's a celebration. You don't want to do this every day.
FL: What is the dish called in Thai?
LP: Khao chae.
FL: Khao chae. I'm going to plan to Thailand in April to get some khao chae during the Thai New Year.
LP: That sounds like a plan.
FL: I've never been to Bangkok, but I've never wanted to go more.
LP: I'm glad if you want to go. I'd like to be your tour guide!
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.