Friday, May 18, 2012

Tangy Tom Yam in Bangkok Thailand

Bangkok is the archetypal Southeast Asian metropolis. The humid air is thick with the heady scent of jasmine and the oceanic reverberation of distant traffic. Temple spires glitter alongside pounding discotheques, respectively temples to the ascetic and the hedonistic. The city’s best-loved dish, tom yam, explodes with an energy that’s perfectly in tune with this whirlwind of a city.

Although intensely urbanized, Bangkok exhibits an uncompromised Thai identity beneath its modern veneer. Glass-and-steel buildings shaped like cartoon robots stand next to terra-cotta-tiled temples; wreaths of good-luck flowers dangle from the rear-view mirrors of buses and taxis; shaven-headed, orange-robed monks walk barefoot along the street beneath a bank of giant Sony screens carrying images of the latest global pop star.
Visitors can move across the city on water, via 18th-century canals; through the air, aboard the sleek Skytrain; or below ground, in the high-tech Metropolitan Rapid Transit Authority (MRTA) subway.
Cultural highs are both high- and low-brow, from museums, galleries, and classical theater or dance performances to Thai boxing or club outings, to hear international DJs spin the latest house and hip-hop.
Just as the Bangkok Thai dialect has become standard Thai throughout the country, so Bangkok Thai cooking is today considered classic Thai cuisine.
Tom yam, one of the most quintessential Bangkok Thai dishes, has an ancient history, making use of the oldest ingredients and techniques known to Thai food historians. It is a spicy, tangy broth with lime and chili pepper overtones that’s almost always made with seafood, though chicken is occasionally substituted.
Lemongrass, kaffir lime peel, and lime juice give tom yam its characteristic sour taste. Fueling the fire beneath the broth’s often velvety surface are fresh whole bird chilis and sometimes half a teaspoonful of roast chili pepper paste. Improvisation comes into play with this dish more than most, as Thai cooks try to out-do one another in providing a savory soup with at least one or two “mystery” ingredients. Many cooks add galangal to give the mix an extra fragrance.
For color and flavor, halved cherry tomatoes will sometimes work their way into the recipe. Aside from the lemongrass and galangal that will remain at the bottom of the serving bowl, solids in this soup are usually limited to shrimp and straw mushrooms, jostling beneath a sprinkle of leafy cilantro. Like Bangkok itself, the first taste often leaves the uninitiated delighted but gasping for breath.

The Temple of the Emerald Buddha, in the compound of the Grand Palace in Bangkok

Best Places to Eat Tom Yam

Taling Pling

One place that scores highly on all counts is Taling Pling, where the cooks make tom yam from scratch using ingredients purchased fresh every morning. The restaurant name comes from a venerable taling pling tree (Averrhoa bilimbi) that still stands alongside the old Thai house that houses the restaurant. Don’t let the trendy mauve walls fool you; this is local food, with a central/southern Thai slant, and you’ll get no mercy from the kitchen when it comes to spices. Every dish is prepared with the utmost attention, yet the prices are affordable for middle-class Thais, who make up most of the clientele. Other exemplary dishes that will go well with your tom yam include phanaeng curry with roast duck and thawt man plaa (fried fishcakes with a cucumber-peanut dipping sauce). If you want to try the restaurant’s namesake fruit, order yam plaa salit taling pling, a fresh salad made with taling pling (a juicy, sour fruit) and small Gulf fish, fried whole. At lunchtime, Taling Pling is crowded with local office workers, so it’s best to arrive after 1:00 PM or in the early evening to guarantee a table.
60 Pan Road, Bangkok; open 11 AM–10:30 PM; +66 2234 4872

Tom yam is an everyday treat for many people in Thailand
Also in Bangkok
Most locals rate Supatra River House (www.; moderate) as the best restaurant on the river; it’s an old teak house with wonderful views of the Grand Palace and Wat Arun. Enjoy great tom yam either alfresco or indoors with extremely efficient air-conditioning.
Raan Jay Fai (+66 2223 9384; inexpensive) on the Maha Chai Road was once a local secret but is now quite well known among foodies.
This open-air café serves a delicious tom yam haeng, a dry-fried (rather than soupy) version of the dish, and its pad khee mao (drunken noodles) are legendary.
Also in Thailand
If you find yourself on the resort island of Phuket, head to the historic town of the same name and look for Nai Yao (+66 7621 2719; inexpensive) on Phuket Road. It’s one of the oldest seafood restaurants on the island, and uses fish straight from local fishing boats.
Around the World
The world’s first Michelin-starred Thai restaurant, Nahm (; expensive) is found not in Thailand but in London, where Australian virtuoso chef David Thompson holds court. Try his version of tom yam with fresh mussels, or geng jeut pla meuk yord sai, another clear soup, made of squid, chicken, samphire, and shiitake mushrooms.
Cooking Schools
You can amaze your friends back home with deft preparations of tom yam and other Thai delights by attending a cooking course in Bangkok. The oldest and best-known program in the city is the plush Oriental Thai Cooking School (www., opposite the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok, which teaches four dishes a day, Monday to Saturday. At The Thai House (, visitors choose from one- to three-day residential cooking courses held in a traditional Thai teak house about 40 minutes north of Bangkok by boat. The family kitchen lies next to a fruit orchard growing mangoes, bananas, papayas, and coconuts, and the perfect herb garden. Baipai Thai Cooking School (www. is one of the newer schools and its popular nonresidential programs are held in a two-story townhouse in Bangkok.
A Day in Bangkok
Take advantage of the cool of the morning for a walking tour of the cultural center, then use the river as an “expressway” to other sights.
MORNING : Start the day in Ko Ratanakosin, which rests in a bend of the Chao Phraya River and contains some of the city’s most historic architecture. Wat Pho is Bangkok’s oldest temple and home to one of the largest reclining Buddha statues in the world. The nearby Grand Palace has been superseded by Chitlada Palace as the primary royal residence, but it is still used for ceremonial occasions. Adjacent Wat Phra Kaew, home to the “Emerald Buddha” (actually jade), is a gleaming example of Bangkok temple architecture at its most baroque.
AFTERNOON : Catch a ferry across the river to Supatra River House to sample some great tom yam. From Chang pier, rent a long-tailed boat for a two-hour tour through Thonburi’s extensive canal network, admiring the old wooden houses and floating vendors.
EVENING : Cool off by quaffing a cold beer and sampling more foodie treats at the Soi 38 Night Market, off Sukhumvit.
Getting to Bangkok
Suvarnabhumi International Airport is 18 miles (30 km) from Bangkok; “Airport Express” buses and taxis go downtown. Where to stay in Bangkok
Phra-Nakorn Norn-Len (inexpensive) is a trendy hotel with pretty, affordable accommodations in a quiet part of Bangkok near the river.
Conrad Bangkok (moderate) is conveniently located downtown near the BTS Sukhumvit line and shopping centers.
Chakrabongse Villas (expensive) are exquisite riverfront villas in the grounds of a century-old Thai palace.

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