Food to Die For
Osborne, Lawrence, Newsweek
Byline: Lawrence Osborne
Welcome to Bangkok, heaven on a plate.
Chef robert Oliver, in a recent piece on The Huffington Post, declared that Bangkok is "the Lady Gaga of Asia" and that her street food is the best on earth. It's an understatement, insofar as Lady Gaga is quite restrained compared to Bangkok, and insofar as the English language--never very good at approximating the sensuality of food--strains at the bit when trying to render the movable feast that is the Thai capital today.
Cast an eye down the miserably dated restaurants suggested by Fodor's online guide to Bangkok and see how Western arbiters have failed to keep up with the city. When Michelin tasters ventured into Japan a very few years ago, they accidentally upended the world's gastronomic hierarchies almost overnight. Now Kyoto, a relatively small city of under 2 million, hosts almost as many Michelin-starred restaurants as the United States does. Tokyo is so dominant among the world's food cities that it is in a category all its own. It is not just Japan but Asia as a whole that is the true epicenter of humankind's most engrossing (and occasionally ludicrous) pastime: eating. How long before Hong Kong, Singapore, and--perhaps most interesting of all--Bangkok become the cities where you not only eat better than anywhere else on earth, but know you do so? In these Asian cities one understands that food is not ghettoized in the restaurant. It swarms and seethes in the streets.
Street food is something we simply don't have in the West. The commissars, the hygiene bureaucrats, and the police would not permit it. And so the Western city slowly becomes an old people's home without any sidewalk spice. Having moved to Bangkok after 18 years in New York, I am surprised to discover that I have been plunged into a kind of wild, pagan food Satyricon that makes my beloved Gotham feel like a self-denial program for recovering bulimics.
In Bangkok (to take the humble example of shopping for groceries) I shop at the supermarkets at Paragon and Emporium, and I must confess that nothing prepared me. Certainly not a grim decade at Whole Foods in New York.
Westerners love to mock their own consumerism. But if only they had any. The market at Paragon is so vast, so variegated, that I literally get lost in it for hours with no idea where the points of the compass are. Nor do I care. This is not food shopping for survival; this is just surrender to the fruits of the earth.
There is, for example, a purely Japanese section at both Paragon and Emporium where you can buy lavender Hokkaido milk and fresh natto and that morning's tuna from Tokyo--after all, 100,000 Japanese live in Bangkok, and they have their own supermarkets, the Fuji chain, as well as their own products in the Thai markets. There are tea sections stacked with roselle and blue-pea anchan and flowered green teas with jasmine and vanilla, whole Thai meals in little plastic bags, live crabs and homemade tofu, fresh-squeezed coconut milk, guava, passion fruit, and mango for $2, and saba mackerel served on beds of crushed ice to the sound of female voices cooing on the sound system in Japanese, Arabic, English, Thai, French, and Mandarin.
But at Paragon the actual supermarket is the least of it. There are about 100 restaurants inside and around it. There are South Indian dosa joints, handmade-ramen stalls, sushi and sashimi outlets by the dozen, Issan (northern Thai) barbecue places, guaytio naam noodle-soup benches, French boulangeries, Tokyo chocolatiers, Shandong stir-fry and shabu shabu palaces. Yeah, do your groceries!
Shopping therapy completed, a doorman in white gloves summons a taxi, and I am taken home, a spoiled, sweating Billy Bunter smelling of guava and octopus sushi. Well, one thinks, it's not the First World. But then in Bangkok, food is a spectator sport, a form of the Hunt. It is sanuk--Buddhistic "fun." It would devour your average foodie alive. …