Postcard from Bangkok
We find humble shophouses like Roti Mataba (136 Phra Athit Rd; 00 662 282 2119); fwap, fwap, fwap goes the lady at the grill, slapping the dough into the most unutterably delicious, flaky rotis to be stuffed with curries or slathered with condensed milk. Or renowned Thip Samai (313 Thanon Mahachai, near the wonderful Phratu Phi street food district), a vision of inferno, open burners showering the pavement with sparks. It's rammed with people scarfing pad Thai of such fresh, vivid, luxurious flavour that it makes any you've ever tried before taste almost laughable.
And there's Bo.Lan (bolan.co.th) opened by a pair of young ex-nahm chefs, a groundbreaking and beautiful place where they recreate ancient and authentic Thai recipes: they aim to be 'as Thai as we can', so no concessions to nelly Western tastes. Wow, oh wow - our heads are blown off by pheasant with green peppercorns, river fish in banana leaf with red curry and some remarkable relishes: rose apple with cashew, cured pork with coconut cream. Pork floss? Where have you been all my life? The flavours are so intense, we feel almost trippy.
Sure, we have the occasional strikeout, like when I try to track down Lao/Isaan cuisine, featuring the likes of grilled chicken, sticky rice, som tum green papaya salad and red-ant-egg dip (well, maybe not so much that last one). We wind up in Balee Laos (86/8 Soi Sukhumvit 16; 00 662 663 1051), a jungly shack where fat, middle-aged farang paw long-suffering Northern Thai girlfriends and I become entirely invisible. We don't have a great deal of luck with street food - especially a positively alarming experience we have in sleazy Patpong where the chicken looks suspiciously like rat (another Isaan specialty; no, really).
But Aw Taw Kaw market (or OrTorKor, Phaholyothin Rd) opposite the Camden Markets-on-steroids Chatuchak is a jewel. OK, it may be a little sanitised, but it's the Bangkok equivalent of Borough or Barcelona's Boqueria, where well-heeled locals shop for the finest produce. You'll find rows of ponging durians and fragrant mangoes, the freshest fish and seafood, sauces, relishes and dressings - but the restaurant stalls at the far end of the market are genuinely sensational. Fermented sausage (sai grok) that explodes on the tongue into a kaleidoscope of dancing flavours; a rainbow of curries; incendiary chilli-laced salads (larbs); soups, noodles and roasted meats; intricate, paintbox-coloured sweets. Since we've been home, my tastebuds miss this place every day. Everything here seems so... flat by comparison.
Am I now an expert on the Big Mango? Not likely. But I do realise that most of what we happily wolf down over here isn't fit to touch the hem of the humblest shophouse in the Thai capital. We simply can't replicate the almost outrageous flavours. In this steamy, frantic, uglybeautiful, often malodorous megalopolis, the people know how to live. And, woah mama, do they know how to eat.
About the author
Marina O'Loughlin, London newspaper Metro's restaurant critic, has remained incognito for the past 11 years. She regularly travels the UK and abroad in search of culinary adventure.