10 Days In Thailand: So That’s What [Insert Dish Or Ingredient Here] Is Supposed To Taste Like!

It’s no secret that the lack of great Thai food in Philly has been long lamented. Personally, we’ve always been pretty happy with the likes of Aqua and Café de Laos, but after ten days eating the real McCoy, we kind of understand the grumbling all of a sudden. The food, oh, man, the food. It really is like nothing we’ve experienced stateside.

Our vay-to-the-cay began in Bangkok, then headed east to Koh Samui (site of the Deb/Dr. Bob honeymoon), over to Krabi on the Andaman coast and back to Bangkok. We’d love to give you a blow-by-blow, but we’re still too jet-lagged, so here’s the Cliffs Notes of the edible highlights. Drool away, friends.

THE FRUIT: We ate a lot of fruit on this trip. Like, an abnormal amount of fruit, more than we’d ever consume during a normal week home. We blame the hotels, which practically forced their country’s tropical bounty down our throats with fresh passion fruit, pomegranate, papaya and freshly pressed juices—new addiction: guava juice, playa—at breakfast, dragon fruit-and-pineapple kebobs by the pool in the afternoon and in our hotel rooms, bowls fresh fruit changed daily with the sheets and towels: finger bananas, Garden of Eden-type apples and fragrant coochie-coo Mandarin oranges with the leaves and stems still attached. Bastards.

There were many “first” fruits: rambutans, longans, rose apples, jackfruit—which tastes remarkably like a stick of Big Red and a stick of Juicy Fruit wadded together (in a good way). We partook of the Almighty Mangosteen, and, yes, it’s everything you’ve heard it is. Purple as a bad bruise and shaped like a small decorative pumpkin, the mangosteen is eaten by making an equator incision around the fruit and popping off the top to reveal the yellowish-white segmented flesh inside. The flavor: peaches and pineapple and flowers. Boombastic and juicy. They were recently legalized here in the U.S., where they’ll run you about $45 a pound. In Thailand: one baht (approximately 33 cents) for a kilo.

All the fruits were ridiculously vibrant, vivid. The watermelon tasted like watermelon. The honeydew tasted like honeydew. The snozzberries tasted like snozzberries! We could write an ode to the Thai mango alone… Compared to what passes for a mango here, they seem amplified, hi-def in flavor.

BREAKFAST: Most the better Thai hotels put out massive breakfast buffets that are included in their nightly rates. At the Peninsula, our Bangkok base camp, the spread made Lacroix’s brunch look like slumming. Pastries like whoa: baby pistachio brioches, red bean twists, croissants as buttery as any you’d find in Paris, all spread with an array of tropical fruit jams and chutneys. And get a load of that nifty honeycomb contraption. Wish list. Breakfasts cater to Western appetites, but the presence of the highly skilled baking tradition nods toward the French occupation of Southeast Asia—also why, stateside, Cambodian bakery Artisan Boulanger turns out such divine brioche and the heavenly banh mi from Ba Le are served on those amazing house-baked baguettes.

THE STREET: In Thailand, ironically, quality is inversely proportional to price in terms of food. The real cooking in this country is done on the street. With the exception of (amazing) breakfasts, the hotel food generally lacked compared to what we ate on the street, at the markets and in the local beachfront haunts. Anybody spit-roasting a whole pig right there on the street is our kinda guy; that shot comes from a sidewalk barbeque in Chaweng Beach on Koh Samui. The best thing about eating this way is that everything is cooked right there in front of you, from the roti at the cart speckling the streets to the huge ears of corn basted in lard and grilled over hot coals on the longtail gypsy boats that dock on the sands of Krabi’s Phranang Beach.

This isn’t to say we did all our eating from the street carts. We hit some amazing local restaurants as well. In Bo Phut, the adorable fisherman’s village in Koh Samui, Starfish & Coffee was packed with Euro and American tourists, but the unbelievable food unapologetically catered to a Thai appetite. Definitely the best meal we ate in all of Thailand, consumed on the outdoor patio to the soundtrack of waves crashing a few feet away. Highlight: pomelo salad, bright and tart and sour and hot, with lots of lime and fish sauce. Like many of the beach restaurants, Starfish & Coffee (ironically, they serve no starfish and very little coffee) displays their fresh catches on beds of ice right in the front of the restaurants: whole fish, massive tiger prawns, squid, glossy green mussels. It doesn’t get much fresher.

A close second was lunch at open-air Chote Chitr, tucked away in a warren of streets near the Democracy Monument in Bangkok. The owner’s Chihuahua greeted us, while a lhasa-apso relaxed by our feet at the floor. One thing about Thailand, if you’re (a) afraid of dogs or (b) one of those animal-lovers that wants to take every stray you see to the shelter, don’t go. Whether they’re collared pets, strays or otherwise, dogs are everywhere in Thailand. At Chote Chitr, we dug into a crunchy banana flower salad mined with whole dried red bird chilies and a big-ass prawns battered and fried to an airy crisp.

THE HEAT: Most of the hotel restaurants (which cater more to Westerners) didn’t make anything spicy (notable exception: Lan Tania at the Four Seasons in Koh Samui, which seemed to take great pride in making a beef salad that blew our tongues off), but on the street and in the local cafes, they spice you up right and not really give a shit if you like it or not. At the Suan-Lum night bazaar in Bangkok, we had the hottest tom yum soup ever, the kind of hellbroth that’ll make you sweaty and teary-eyed.

THE PEOPLE: Though the killer food and spellbinding scenery didn’t hurt, the Thai people were the biggest reason this trip was so amazing. The natives are incredibly gracious, sweet, warm, patient and good-natured. Strangers stop and bow hello to you. Uniformed policemen salute you on the street. And—with the exception of the hawkers by the big tourist attractions—no one is working an angle. People here are actually just that nice. How unusual! To visit a country where American tourists are embraced—at least three Thais we met enthusiastically mentioned Obama when we told them we were from the U.S.—is such a refreshing change of pace. We’re not saying we need to be coddled, but it’s always nice to feel loved. Already, a craving for a return trip is taking root, and with tourism at an all time low thanks to December’s airport debacle, there’s never been a cheaper time to visit the Land of Smiles. (Thanks, political insurgents!) Get to Thailand now. And take us with you.
Photo: blogalicious

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