“Challenge yourselves!” said Michelin-starred chef-restaurateur Andy Ricker, the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Northwest in 2011 and a recognized authority on Thai cuisine. Six sleep-deprived journalists, who had traveled for as long as 28 hours to claim a seat at Ricker’s table, heard his challenge. As guests of the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), we were embarking on the first meal of our “Thai-licious” tour of five provinces — billed as "Beyond Pad Thai" — with the award-winning chef as our expert guide to one of the world’s great cuisines. Credited with introducing “authentic” northern Thai cuisine to the United States with his first Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, Oregon, Ricker enjoys serious street cred in Thailand; this promised to be a provocative journey.
The setting for our first meal was Saffron, a serene restaurant in Bangkok’s Banyan Tree Hotel, with stunning floor-to-ceiling views of the city. courses all featured modern riffs on mostly central Thai dishes and emerged from the kitchen elegantly plated: crispy fried squid with garlic-pepper-ink sauce; seared salmon salad with pork cracklings and a spicy citrus dressing; prawn soup redolent with lemongrass and galangal; a creamy beef curry; and a beautiful dessert of chilled agar-agar rosella (hibiscus) with a coconut crêpe, fresh mango, and pandan crème brûlée. Every dish was approachable, delicious, and a gentle introduction to a national cuisine that was far more varied and complex than I had imagined.
Of the journalists present, I was the least familiar with the elements of Thai food and its preparation. Despite years of mindlessly eating my way through assorted dishes, including curries and, yes, pad thai, I had never studied the food nor taken a single course in its preparation. I was a tabula rasa. I had a lot to learn.
The chef was not always happy to oblige. Distracted by the weight of managing his burgeoning empire of restaurants, which now includes several Portland locations as well as iterations in Brooklyn, Los Angeles, and Richmond, Virginia, he was a tad, well, testy. To be fair, Ricker was also charged with appearing on film for much of the tour taping a Thai-licious web series with the wildly popular Thailand Cultural Ambassador, Daniel Frazier, a charming and beautifully mannered Canadian. The additional tasks of educating and wrangling six journalists, all of whom had different agendas, must have felt like herding cats. Still, kindness and courtesy from our guest host were in short supply throughout the tour; his saving grace was his clear respect and affection for the Thai people and, when pressed to share it, an awe-inspiring, truly encyclopedic knowledge about the country’s peoples, food and culture. In short, the man is wicked smart and knows his stuff.
At Saffron, Ricker took a moment to instruct us in the correct method of eating Thai-style: for all but noodle dishes, one uses a spoon and fork. The fork, held in the left hand, is used to push food into the spoon, held in the right; chopsticks are only used to eat noodles. The fork-to-spoon method proved ideal for rescuing errant grains of rice and for capturing luscious sauces.
We received a brief lecture about rice — its importance to the economy (until recently, Thailand was the No. 1 exporter of its staple food) and its importance as the main element around which a Thai meal is created. In many Thai homes, rice is elevated to main dish status, with proteins, vegetables, and relishes used like condiments.
We also learned that the scent of a dish is critical to its appreciation, and approval is often voiced as “it smells [rather than tastes] good.” As a server carries in no fewer than four types of rice — jasmine, golden, sticky, and black (the latter of which resembles in scent and chew the American grass known as wild rice) — the fragrance is almost overwhelming. My sense of smell goes on full alert, and stays that way throughout the next 12 days of this life-changing trip.
Ricker explained that the food choices and flavor profiles of each of the five provinces we will visit are naturally dependent upon what is available locally as well as influences from nearby countries, among them Laos, China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), and India. Thailand is not a monoculture, and its food did not develop in a vacuum.
Central Thailand, which includes the kingdom’s capital, Bangkok, is fertile and rich and located near the sea, ensuring a steady supply of fruit and vegetables and beautiful fresh seafood. People of Chinese descent make up the region’s second largest demographic (after native Thai), and their influence is clearly felt here. The iconic dishes are the ones most familiar to tourists, such as pad thai, tom yum and other sweet and sour soups, and meat and seafood curries enriched with coconut cream. The flavor profile tilts slightly towards sweet — the five taste sensations the human palate can distinguish are sweet, bitter, salty, sour, and savory (umami), and these create the balance in Thai cuisine — and dishes here are almost always accompanied by jasmine rice. Stir-frying is the preferred method of cooking. In addition to the five tastes, another critical element in Thai cooking is heat; central Thai food is spicy, though not nearly as blistering as northern or southern Thai food.
Abruptly interrupting himself, Ricker literally turned up the heat with his first challenge: fingering a whole green Thai chile which the kitchen had used to decorate each of our beef curries, the James Beard Award winner advised us each to pop one in our mouths.
Through the haze of travel fatigue I vaguely remembered that Thai peppers register about ten times higher than jalapeños on the Scoville scale, but what the hell — a challenge is a challenge, and it was my job to taste anything and everything Ricker threw at us. I chomped on the chile and felt each of my senses shutting down as my brain tried to process the ferocious burn. I was, quite literally, in awe of the conflagration in my mouth. Discreetly spitting the mangled chile into my napkin, I waved weakly at one of the servers, who leaned in to hear me croak “Milk? Yogurt?” Alerted by a concerned fellow journalist, Ricker glanced in my direction and recommended water and rice. From life-long encounters with blistering vindaloo curries, I knew that this advice was dead wrong — milk protein, casein, is the only way to go; water just makes the burn worse. The server disappeared. By the time she returned, with a small bowl of yogurt granita, I had soaked the spine of my blouse and my hairline was beyond damp. The blessedly cold granita worked its magic, and I tried to focus on the rest of the meal as my senses returned to normal.
The following morning, after a lightning tour of Bangkok's monument area and a visit to a local temple, we piled into long-tail boats and headed upriver to lunch at a waterside restaurant, Never Ending Summer. A pretty, open space with mercifully cool breezes (it was November, officially the start of Thai winter, but still hot and humid enough to frizz hair), the restaurant stunned me with a softshell crab curry that perfectly balanced the heat of fresh chiles with the sweetness of fresh crab. It was one of the most memorable dishes of the entire trip, which is not to disrespect another course, a perfectly fried softshell crab that more than equaled its rivals from the Chesapeake. We also devoured fried chicken wings with fried basil and chiles and an edible flower salad that delighted the eye and cooled the palate.
After an afternoon of more touring we were prepared for dinner at Michelin-starred Bo.Lan. Bo.Lan is the cooperative effort of two chefs who are passionate about historically authentic, sustainable, biodiverse Thai cuisine. Chef Duangporn Songvisava, familiarly known as Bo, met her Australian spouse, chef Dylan Jones, when they both worked at London’s renowned Thai restaurant, Nahm (now closed). The couple — who, Jones admitted cheerfully, dislike being in the kitchen together and prefer to alternate as head chef — returned to Thailand and poured themselves into creating a fine dining establishment in Bangkok. It was a bold move in a city renowned for its delicious, affordable street food, and there has been some backlash against the restaurant’s pricy prix fixe menu (about $75 per person in late 2016).
I am not among the naysayers. The meal was simply spectacular, with each dish perfectly balancing the five flavors and heat that enhanced rather than overwhelmed the dishes. I especially enjoyed the stir-fried red curry with long beans and fish, a salad of braised beef, and a complex naam prik (spicy relish, for lack of a better term) featuring shrimp paste. The thoughtful wine pairings — a dry Portuguese verdelho to begin, segueing into a riesling from northern Spain — added to the experience. The dining rooms have an appealing rustic simplicity and the service was attentive and thoughtful. I’ve paid $75 (and substantially more) for much lesser meals in other world capitals, and this is not an experience to be missed. (If budget is an issue, go anyway and order à la carte or come for lunch.)
The next day, we left the flat plains surrounding Bangkok and flew northwest into Tak province, descending among hills colored deep emerald to pale pea-shoot green. We were here for the national Loi Krathang Sai festival, during which thousands of people gather at night to float polished coconut shells filled with flaming wax into the river Ping, creating a glowing, undulating ribbon of light. It is a beautiful and moving ceremony, which serves to honor the river goddess and what legend holds to be a footprint of the Buddha, and to both release and earn release from one’s transgressions and disappointments of the prior year.
The festival also helps dispose of the shells that contain one of Tak province’s plentiful and favorite foods the creamy flesh of the coconut. As Ricker led us on an eating tour of the local market, coconut was very much in evidence. Toasted coconut is a popular condiment, and locals are extremely fond of miang, a leaf-wrapped dish filled with shredded coconut flavored with chopped chiles, ginger, garlic, shallots, dried shrimp, and green mango. My favorite sweet was a rice flour coconut cream custard, dropped into hot oil and fried until the bottom was brown and crispy — so delicious I greedily burned my mouth rather than waiting for it to cool.
In fact, I loved all the freshly prepared street food here: sugar cane filled with black-bean-flecked sweet sticky rice, delicious grilled meats on wooden skewers, steamed dumplings, massive vats of bubbling frying chicken parts. A colorful array of pickled fruits and vegetables beckoned, as did olives that looked like Mediterranean olives but were crunchy rather than fleshy. The array of seasoned and fried insects neither alarmed nor attracted me, although I advise neophytes to stick to the smaller ones, since the larger specimens are said to have disquietingly squishy abdomens.
Dinner, held at Chiang Mai's Baan Rai Yarm Yen, significantly upped our food challenge. We were seated at a long table in an attractive, spacious, open-air dining room, and Ricker had enjoyed himself in ordering our meal. He proudly presented a dish of bee larvae on tamarind leaf, which I managed to place into my mouth without wincing. My teeth encountered some resistance and then sunk into the firm jelly of the beast. The flavor was faintly smoky, but as with much of the food in the North, the experience had as much to do with texture as flavor.
Next up: a gray and unlovely-looking steamed beef shin, which was deliciously savory, enlivened by its naam prik relish; a disquietingly pink and oily pork sausage that looked as if it had exploded but that proved delicious despite an unnerving cartilaginous crunch mid-chew; and a steamed snake-head fish, which tasted much better than it sounds. Much of the food on this table was steamed or grilled rather than fried, a welcome change. My take-away from this meal, with its savory, clean, Northern flavor profile, was that I hadn’t had any Thai food like this before, and that’s a damn shame, because it was every bit as delicious as the central Thai food I’d been enjoying all my life.
After dinner, we staggered through a very late check-in at the gorgeous and luxurious Four Seasons Chiang Mai. Breakfast, served at an outdoor pavilion overlooking the resort’s serene rice paddy, was as lovely as it was restorative. Small fried chunks of dough, similar to Spanish churros, were accompanied by condensed milk and sugar for dipping. The popular rice porridge known as congee was as comforting as oatmeal, but was served with dried fish, preserved egg, and crunchy vegetable condiments. A flat egg frittata and a cold meat salad served with northern-style sticky rice rounded out the meal, finished with a gorgeous platter of exotic fresh fruit.
After a morning’s touring, and with innumerable false turns, we finally managed to locate Khao Soi Prince. This modest outdoor restaurant is deservedly famous for its khao soi, the creamy curried noodle soup which is an iconic dish of the region. The owners are Muslim, and the Burmese and Muslim Chinese influences are more pronounced in their version of the soup: the aromatics are warmer than is standard, and include cardamom, coriander, and turmeric in addition to typical Thai ingredients such as lemongrass, galangal, and shrimp paste. A light hand with coconut milk enriches the dish without overwhelming the other flavors, and the flavors and heat develop slowly as you work your way to the bottom of the bowl.
Khao Soi Prince offers two varieties of the soup, chicken and beef. The bone-in chicken was more tender than the somewhat chewy beef, but the latter had a stunning depth of flavor. The bowls aren’t enormous, so I’d come here hungry to sample both — they are that good.
Dinner was held in the resort’s Rim Tai Cooking Academy. The beautiful outdoor dining area (PIC) is divided into wok stations, each featuring a menu of items and fully stocked with the ingredients for the preparation of each dish. Guests were invited to cook for themselves or simply let the half-dozen chefs work for them — a fun concept, but the results were hardly representative of the country’s finest. Unless, of course, one happens to be Andy Ricker, who, egged on by the Four Seasons’ cheerful head chef, killed it with a creditable version of one of his least favorite dishes, pad thai.
The following day, after exploring local markets and filling our suitcases with the beautiful silk scarves for which Chiang Mai is famous, we headed for dinner at Pa Daeng Jin Tup. “Restaurant” is too grand a word for the place, with its mismatched tables and chairs that threaten to tip into the street, but the aromas rising from the joint’s meat-filled grill were tempting. Someone mentioned that Anthony Bourdain had dined here, a red alert for weird and wonderful, and the place fulfilled expectations.
The meat on the grill was a nose-to-tail celebration of all things pig — from cheek to cheek, so to speak — and included all manner of offal. Ear, cheek, tongue, liver, butt, shoulder, and intestine were grilled, chopped up, and heaped on a plate. With the exception of the liver, I had no idea which part I was eating, and frankly it is all so good that I really didn’t much care — until Ricker proudly produced some deep-fried, hacked-up frog. After 13 years of living in France and Spain, I have eaten my share of frog legs, some delicately sautéed in wine and garlic butter, others crumb-coated and fried. I had never before put a chunk of frog in my mouth and felt it splinter. I glanced up at Ricker. “I’m not getting much flavor here,” I confessed, retrieving a handful of toothpick-like shards from my mouth while trying not to think about which part of the frog had delivered this inedible mess. “Exactly!” he beamed. “It’s all about texture!”
The following morning we took a flight to Khon Kaen in the eastern province of Isaan, where we endured, for me, the roughest of the food challenges of the entire trip. Isaan is much drier than Chiang Mai, and the land is not nearly as fertile. Many of the people here, including the ethnic Lao and Khmer populations, are poor and survive on snails, frogs, and fish from the rice paddies. The few proteins are stretched to feed many, and no part of any critter is wasted. To my dismay, much of the food was flavored with a strong, funky fermented fish paste called plaa raa, which I cannot love, and the flavor profile of the region leans towards bitter and sour. And hot. Seriously hot.
The saving grace for me was the famous Isaan grilled chicken, the specialty at Khao Suan Kwang Mittraphap. Boasting an enviable skin-to-flesh ratio (as one of our group observed), it was just delicious. fowl was accompanied by a refreshing papaya salad and a green mango salad with black crab that was a bit too salty and funky for me. Grilled pork liver slices were tasty and rich. Another welcome respite from more fiery fare was a whole fish stuffed with lemongrass and encased in a salt crust, then grilled over charcoal — delectable. We finished with classic Isaan desserts of melon in tapioca broth and taro root custard and egg in coconut cream.
Alas, I was subsequently felled by a meal featuring larb, a delicious raw beef salad perfumed with warm spices, and was restricted to a diet of Cipro and water long enough to miss several meal experiences. One of our very kind Thai guides brought me his country’s version of Gatorade and, rehydrated, I boarded the plane to Phuket for the final leg of our tour.
We arrived in Phuket in time for a very late lunch (early dinner?) at Mor Mu Dong. This is a local place, unfrequented by tourists, and we were seated outdoors in a leafy bower adjacent to mud flats crawling with tiny black crabs. (Another seating option, preferred by many Thais, is to sit on the ground, but our travel-weary bones were grateful for the chairs.)
Our meal included a fresh crab curry with red chiles, a creamy green chicken curry, and a spicy southern dry beef curry called kua kling — all delicious, and all hotter than anything we had eaten in central Thailand. The flavor profile included warm spices such as cumin, clove, and turmeric, and a less pronounced use of fermented fish sauce than in Isaan, though still enough to add a slightly funky saltiness to the food. Local fruits such as tamarind add a tangy, sour note to the food here, and a local bounty of coconuts contributes a creamy element to many of the iconic dishes. Stuffed, we wandered back to our van and headed for Blue Elephant, a world-renowned restaurant and cooking school located in downtown Phuket. Like many of the buildings in the capital, Blue Elephant is Sino-Portuguese in style, and the impressive 115-year-old mansion is a harmonious blend of two very different cultures.
Having stuffed ourselves silly at lunch, we demurred at Blue Elephant’s generous offer of food and drink, but could not refuse a small nibble of sweet scallop, pristinely fresh and beautifully presented. We piled back into the van for a tour of the famous Phuket Walking Street in Old Town, and I found myself fervently wishing I had more than one stomach, so compelling were the aromas from the street food along the way.
Finally, we headed to our resort hotel, Keemala, perched at the edge of the jungle, some miles from the sea. Keemala is whimsical — its architect has created a village of four different building styles based on the supposed characters and habits of four fictional tribes. Having drawn a dimly lit “tent” honoring “wanderers,” I collapsed, without dinner, into my blessedly comfortable, mosquito-netted bed and passed out.
The following morning, I discovered a private plunge pool with sun lounges outside my room’s sliding glass doors, and a large private outdoor sala with generous seating and views towards a narrow bight of the sea. We had nothing on the day’s agenda that would force us to leave this place, and I was more than willing to be seduced by its admittedly wacky charms.
Breakfast was amazing. Both indoor and outdoor dining rooms beckoned, and there were so many choices that I was at a loss. Sublime? Salted caramel brioche French toast. Local? Thai omelet with minced pork and jasmine rice or creamy rice congee. Exotic? South Indian rice and lentil cake with lentil and vegetable stew and coconut chutney, or assorted Chinese dim sum. There was even a gourmet riff on Brit-beloved beans on toast, and a spa menu for those watching their waistlines. The list of beverages made with freshly pressed fruit, leaves, herbs, and spices was extensive.
And here’s the kicker: Everything was delicious. Chef Poonsak Srimuang showed off his chops again at lunch, as he and his staff led our group through an intensive cooking class, the best one of the trip. I was paired with an adorable, tech-savvy Canadian journalist, Renee, and together we nailed a beautiful crab curry and pounded out a southern version of naam prik relish. A luncheon gave Keemala’s Indian chef, Sunil Bhoyar, a chance to shine with excellent Indian fare.
Our farewell Keemala dinner was just as remarkable as the previous meals, each dish thoughtfully seasoned and beautifully cooked. We began with amuse-bouches — wild pepper leaf wrapped around ginger, chiles, peanuts, dried shrimp, and roasted coconut; and a delicious pork and shrimp rice noodle roll with tamarind sauce — then segued into a sparkling fresh-seared scallop and crabmeat salad with coconut reduction and sweet chile sauce. Soup was a creamy chicken and mushroom chowder, warm with turmeric and galangal. I had an exquisite duck entrée, a red curry with longan, pineapple, dragonfruit, and kaffir lime, accompanied by riceberry and purple potato mash. We were seated en plein air, and the light breeze refreshed, the wine flowed, the conversation swelled and waned. It was a magical evening and a fitting end to an astonishing trip.
What I learned from the trip was this: Approach every Thai meal with an open heart and an open mind, and you will learn a great deal more about the culture, economics, and geography of each region of this beautiful, hospitable country; the food will inform you, and your experiences will be transformative.
I also learned not to pop a whole chile into my mouth.