Everyone who has been to Thailand will rave about the food, often to the point of annoying their listeners. Can it really be that much better?
Yes. Yes it can.
Before we arrived I was under the misconception that the fuss was only about Thai food itself. Barely knowing a pad se ew from a hole in the ground, I was neither prepared nor honestly very excited about the prospect of more than a month of Thai food. I was so completely and utterly mistaken.
The Thai people do love food, and that love shows through in their cooking. It is not just a necessity to abate hunger. Cooking is a form of art. This is not just for rice and noodle dishes as some westerners might expect. Nearly every major cuisine on earth is present in Chiang Mai, and all of it is simply amazing.
There is an exacting attention to detail at the heart of it. In many countries, (ours included) a rough approximation of someone else’s signature dish is usually what you get. Mexican food the world over may have something called by the right name on the menu, but it rarely tastes spot on. There is a local pepper of some kind no one bothered to find. A sauce may not really be quite the same.
In Thailand, however, they nearly always get it very, very right. The abundance of fresh ingredients make nearly every dish an option with raw, local, fresh constituent parts. No need to ship a sauce half way around the world. Everything you need seems to be growing somewhere nearby.
If the cuisine in the innumerable restaurants seems too prosaic, there is, of course, street food. Everywhere, seemingly in every corner of town, the ubiquitous street stalls can be found dishing out some version or another of amazing food. Rotee, a fried, folded bread pouch filled with bananas, egg, cheese — whatever you can imagine — was a staple. As were smoothies of every variety and endless varieties of meat on sticks.
This does not mean that the Thai food we had was not amazing in its own right. It was absolutely incredible. Even for a confirmed carnivore like myself, there were vegetarian dishes that went beyond satisfying into the category of crave-worthy meals that hang in your memory. One khao soi, pictured below, has been haunting me ever since I fought down the urge to lick the bowl dry.
We also found out that words like “buffet” can be taken to a whole new level. A far cry from the Golden Corral, the one Thai buffet we visited was a singular experience. The open air building could likely seat 2,000 people when full. Each table came equipped with a charcoal filled bowl where you grilled your own selection of meats pulled from a buffet line longer than a full-size basketball court. The trays of food were unmarked, and contained meat of every description, fried foods of endless varieties and bowls of fruit more than two feet across. All of them were endlessly replenished, albeit not always in the same order or place in line, by a crew of people constantly buzzing around the building.
The night we visited, we were the only table of unaccompanied foreigners present. The staff paid special attention to us, figuring we didn’t know what we were doing. Their assessment was not far wrong. In the end, it didn’t matter. I finally gave up trying to select carefully from the endless options. No matter what you came back with, nearly all of it was amazing.
Throughout our time in Thailand, we consistently found a deep, innate understanding of the underlying principles of good food which surpassed that found in most restaurants in the States. Sweet, salty, savory, bitter … it is all calculated and applied to great effect. Tables in Thai restaurants at the lowest price point will still have a condiment tray with fish oil, sugar, chilis in sauce and more to allow you to balance your dish as you see fit.
This attention to detail extended to the decor, the presentation, the full experience of dining. There were white linen fine dining options to satisfy the fussiest foodies. We found farm-to-table experiences that would curl any hipster’s mustache with delight. For all that, rarely did we find that the polish outshone the product itself.
And then there was the fruit. And the juices. And the smoothies. We drank a mango smoothie nearly every day. For $1.00 you could watch someone peel and cut the fruit in front of you … straight from the basket to the blender with a little (or sometimes a lot of) ice to keep things cool. The result was an experience unavailable anywhere in the world more than a few miles from the nearest mango tree.
Local, european fusion, sushi, Indian, even Mexican … it didn’t matter. It was all amazing and all spot on to the original. Even the classic American upscale hamburger, something we have rarely found done right outside the States, was pulled off in high fidelity.
After a month of food so fresh, so good and so cheap, anywhere else would feel like a letdown. Singapore, our first stop after Thailand, is often regarded as the place to go for amazing food from all over Asia. It barely held its own against the memories of what could be had from every corner vendor and back-alley stall in Thailand.
From improbably small kitchens, and sometimes none at all, we had a month of the best food we have ever eaten. So, yes. we will now, like so many before, try to restrain ourselves from being those bores talking about the food. Just trust us; it is really that wonderful.
And if you don’t believe us, go check it out for yourself. You are sure to be surprised.