Thai food is all about balance.
Story + photography by Frank Copeland
As an avid fan of food and travel, my latest journey took me to the land of mangoes, jasmine rice, chilies and all that is wonderful — Thailand. It was my second visit to Bangkok this year and I am captivated by this incredible city, which keeps pulling me back.
Bangkok is the most visited city in the world, welcoming more tourists each year than any other place on Earth. It is massive with a local population in excess of 8 million and a climate that is always warm to very hot every month of the year. Prepare for traffic that can potentially keep you from moving an inch unless you quickly adapt and utilize the mass transit rail system. Bangkok is also the best value in travel. Food can be dollars per day, transportation either by cab, Grab (Uber for SE Asia, a must have app) or subway/rail is 10 percent the cost in the USA. Five-star hotels can easily be found for under $125 per night and really great hotels with full breakfast included (think Hyatt Place or equivalent) can easily be had for $50 or less per night. Full day, eight-hour tours of the city including meals, snacks and beverages cost less than $100.
I love that Bangkok is gritty, grimy, frenetic and captivating with the most food-focused culture I have ever experienced. Bangkok alone has 500,000 street food vendors with fresh food being sold on almost every street and every corner of the city. Wonderful, complete meals can be had on the street for less than two dollars. Don’t be afraid; just dig in and try. This is the best reason to go to Bangkok and certainly the most rewarding. You will need to just go for it; it will pay off.
Thai food is all about balance. Balancing sweet, sour, bitter, spicy and umami is key to the art of Thai cuisine. American Thai restaurants focus on the most basic forms of Thai food and once you experience the food of Thailand you will be happy to move past pad Thai and green curry shrimp. The offerings are vast; noodle dishes, fish preparations, lamb curries, soups, vast vegetable dishes and regional specialties that you will never experience without a journey.
My favorite experiences in Bangkok have been on tours led by Chili Paste Tours and Bangkok Vanguards. Chili Paste Tours is completely food focused and led by a Thai native, Chin, who is an encyclopedia of knowledge of the Thai kitchen. Chin leads her groups through a journey that gets as deep into the food as you want to go. As a chef, I wanted to be fully immersed in learning the produce, cooking techniques and seeing the foods prepared. On both tours with Chin I felt as though my whole culinary spirit had been enlightened and revitalized. I know that Chin took me on a culinary journey that I appreciated. Had I not been as interested in the finer points of Thai cooking, she would have taken me on a much more basic tour. The great thing about this tour is it will allow you the ability to try so many unfamiliar things.
Bangkok Vanguards is another tour operator I can say will provide an unbelievable experience into the scenes of Bangkok. While still touching on food, these tours go behind the most common tourist sights and focuses in on areas that show the real Bangkok life. They offer both day and night tours and one that I especially loved was a night mountain biking excursion. This experience I would only recommend for those in really good physical condition.
Visiting Bangkok can be overwhelming, as the shear pace of life in this city can be very different from most cities in the US. With the exception of NYC, LA, Chicago and San Francisco, there are very few comparable places. I often say Bangkok reminds me of Manhattan 20 years ago. It has a pace and an energy that many cities do not possess. Whereas Singapore is the Asian equivalent of a perfect Disneyesque city with manicured hedges and immaculate streets. Bangkok is raw and welcomes exploration and allows equality where common appreciation of food, culture and humanity binds everyone together. Western, Eastern or neither, everyone is welcome and a smile is all that is necessary to have a great experience. If you love food, travel and adventure, Bangkok cannot be missed. It will change you forever.
Thai Green Papaya & Persimmon Salad
Ingredients (serves 4-6)
1 large shallot, peeled and diced
1 large garlic clove
1/2 bunch cilantro, washed and chopped
1 Thai Bird’s Eye chili (add several more for authentic Thai Heat Level)
1 tablespoon palm sugar or 1 1/2 teaspoons agave syrup
2 tablespoons lime juice
1 teaspoon dried shrimp paste
1/2 tablespoon fish sauce (Three Crabs Brand)
1 green papaya or 3 green mangoes, peeled and shredded
2 ripe persimmons, cut into wedges
1/2 English cucumber, peeled and shredded without seeds
10 cherry tomatoes, quartered
2 tablespoons crushed salted peanuts, garnish
1 tablespoon small cilantro leaves, garnish
Pound in a mortar and pestle shallots, garlic and pinch of salt until smooth. Add cilantro and continue to pound until broken down into a paste. Add Bird’s Eye chili, pound to incorporate; add shrimp paste and pound until smooth. Add palm sugar, lime juice, and fish sauce. Mix well. Taste for seasoning. This sauce should have a balance of sweet, spicy, salty and sour. All of these flavors can be adjusted to personal preference at this point.
Combine papaya, cucumber, and persimmon with tomatoes. Add 5 tablespoons of dressing. Mix lightly, taste and add additional dressing as desired as well as additional salt as needed. Served with crushed peanuts and cilantro leaves sprinkled on top.