RESTAURANTS, $25,000 GOURMET MEALS AND STREET FOOD IN THAILAND

RESTAURANTS IN THAILAND

Many restaurants in Thailand are run by Chinese. They offer Chinese food as well as Thai food. On every corner there is a noodle shop. Restaurants serving Indian, Japanese, American, Korean and other ethnic cuisines are common. The large cities have restaurants serving French, Russian and Italian food. American-style fast food restaurants such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken are also very common. Off the beaten path the choice is usually more limited: small local restaurants.

Hygiene-wise and selection-wise the best palaces to eat are the restaurants at upscale hotels and good restaurants frequented by tourists. Many people worried about hygiene bring their own kitchen utensils or carry swabs and packets of alcohol to wipe off chopsticks and rims of glasses in restaurant. Street food is generally okay. Just make sure it have been cooked and hasn’t been sitting around for to long. To this end get it hot.

Resorts along the ocean are famous for fish, prawns and other kinds of seafood. Popular seafood dishes served in Bangkok include steamed prawns, barbecued pawns, sweetened prawns in a bamboo cylinder, cockles, clams, snails, deep-fried snakehead mullet, steamed white sea bass in spicy lemon sauce, and clams with chili.

On fast food at his local shopping mall, Nattawud Daoruang wrote on his blog Thailand Life: “ Sometimes on Sundays I go to "Seacon Square" shopping mall to play bowling, watch movies...In Seacon Square there's a lot of fast food restaurants like K.F.C., Pizza Hut, McDonalds, A&W, Popeye, Chester Grill etc. But I always eat K.F.C. sometimes I eat Pizza.. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang Thailand Life, February 13 2007 ]

Restaurant Customs in Thailand

Thais don’t generally use chopsticks. Many local restaurants have no menus or menus only in Thai. In tourist areas most restaurants have menus written English. In some restaurants you often get a ticket and pay before you get your food. Bars, and sometimes restaurants, are filled with cigarette smoke. At crowded, busy restaurants, sharing tables with strangers is common. Restaurants generally serve water or tea for free. Sometimes no napkins are available. But dishes are often accompanied by a hand-wrapped candy or pieces of lime.

The easiest way to get a good meal is find a restaurant with a lot of customers, look around at what people are eating and point out to the waitress a dish that looks good. Sometimes the dishes don't tastes like you think they will and sometimes other restaurant customers don't appreciate having their food stared at and pointed out, but all in all it is the best method for sampling a variety of good dishes. You can't have fried noodles, fried rice and sweet and sour pork every meal.

Tipping is not necessary. A service charge is usually not added to bills, except at some hotel restaurants and fancy restaurants, where 10 to 15 percent is surcharge is added. It is a good idea to bring cash. Many restaurants except credits cards but sometimes they don't.

Street Food, Stores and Markets

Street and market food is tasty but travelers run the risk of getting stomach parasites or even hepatitis. Popular snacks sold on the streets include squid, pork, dried squid, fish balls, mango with sticky rice, barbecues meats, satay, barbecued chicken, barbecued prawns, noodle soup, dumplings, steamed buns with barbecued meat inside, mango slices dipped in chilies powder, sugar and salt, miang kam (skewered leaves packed with tamarind, peanuts, lime, dried shrimp and coconut), steamed coconut cakes, fried quail eggs, pandanus-flavored ices lollies, rice cakes with palm sugar, and a kind of Thai crepe called khnom buang. Street food is generally okay. Just make sure it have been cooked and hasn’t been sitting around for to long. To this end get it hot.

Large towns and cities have well stocked supermarkets. In rural areas the selection is more limited. Stores of the beaten track generally have cookies, packages of noodles and soup, cheese, potatoes, sardines, Cadbury chocolate bars, milk, fruit and vegetables, powdered and condensed milk and hard candy. Meat and ice cream are usually hard to get. Weekly markets are a good place sample street food and shop for fruit and vegetables. Local markets sell things like potatoes, rice, cabbage, tomatoes, pumpkins. squash, dried fruit, nuts, vegetables, yoghurt, bread, fruit and melons

Street food is often served in pandanus leaves, or pandan, fragrant, spiky-looking members of the screw pine family. It is also served or wrapped in banana leaves. Drinks are often served in in a tied up plastic bag with a straw coming out of it.

Thais often don’t cook but rather eat on street or pick up prepared food and bring it home. Nattawud Daoruang wrote in his blog Thailand Life: “Usually, my girlfriend and I go out to the local Namdaeng market to buy some fresh food (vegetables and meat) and then come back to cook together at home. But sometimes, we are both too lazy to go to the market so we just walk out to the main road and walk along the pavement to look for something to eat. We often sit down and eat at a shop which is right by the side of the road. There are dozens of these shops so you can have something different each day. If you go during the late afternoon then you will have a bigger choice. [Source: Nattawud Daoruang Thailand Life ]

Sometimes we buy some take-away food to take back home for the next meal so we don't have to come out again! It is very cheap as it only averages 25 baht a meal. For less than an American dollar you can get a meal and a drink too! The other good thing is that you don't have to wash up anything! One of the hawker shops by the side of the road that we like to visit sells Chinese chicken with rice or noodle. The chicken hangs in a display case. Are the food shop near where we live we usually stop here for some take aways before we go home. You choose which curry you want and they put each one in a different plastic bag.

My girlfriend's favourite is a , the noodle shop. It sells egg noodles with red pork in soup, delicious. But my girlfriend likes it without the soup and vegetables. Our first choice in the morning when we don't know what to have for breakfast: porridge rice. We have it with a poached egg. It costs 20 baht.

When we come out for a walk or to buy some fresh food and vegetables, we sometimes stop at a food stall to buy desserts and drinks. We eat them as snacks or as sweets after we have finished our main meal. "Deep-fried Dough Sticks", or pla tong go in Thai, is always seen around every market, even by the side of the road, in the morning. We have it with coffee, tea, or a bowl of Thick Rice Soup (Congee). Fruit juice in crunchy ice is what my girlfriend likes to drink very much. We often buy one to take back home whenever we see it. My favourite, coconut ice cream, is sold everywhere in Thailand. A woman down my road sells it. She sometimes gives me extra ice cream without charging me more! One of Thai sweets called " kanom tuay". It tastes sweet and has a nice smell. My girlfriend and I pretty like it.

Popularity of Thai Food Abroad

Thai food is regarded as one of the world’s six most popular cuisines along with French, Chinese. Italian, Indian and Japanese. By one count there were 7,000 Thai restaurants worldwide with half of them in Europe. There are more than 500 in Britain alone. The number of Thai restaurants in the United States grew from 500 in 1990 to 2,000 in 2000.

Thai food became increasingly popular in the 1980s and 90s as overseas Thais opened up more restaurants, the Thai government promoted its food and tourist who traveled to Thailand spread the word about the good food they had there. The Thai government has been involved in launching Thai restaurants, including a chain called Elephant Jumo, in the United States.

In a study on the popularity of Thai food among foreigners called “Finding Thailand's Place in World Cuisine in the Next Ten Years” researchers interviewed 1,001 foreigners from 68 countries on five continents — Europe, Asia, the Americas, Australia, and Africa — who had come to Thailand between December 1999 and February 2000. The interviews took place at various places, such as the departure areas of Bangkok International Airport and Phuket International Airport; at tourist attractions in Chiang Mai and Bangkok; and other places where foreigners were likely to be, such as an UNCTAD conference, Bang Sai Vocational Training Center, and the Board of Investment Fair 2000. Almost two thirds of the respondents were male, over a third were female. Most of them were tourists between 26 and 45 years old, and for most, this was their first time in Thailand.

The research showed that 96.3 percent of the respondents liked the spicy, sour, sweet, and salty tastes of Thai food. It also revealed that the 12 most popular dishes were spicy shrimp soup ( tom yam kung), stir-fried Thai noodles ( phat thai), green curry with chicken ( kaeng khiew wan kai), grilled pork and peanut sauce ( satay), spicy chicken curry in coconut milk ( tom kha kai), fried marinated chicken wrapped in pandanus leaf ( kai ho bai toei), grilled chicken ( kai yang), sticky rice ( khao niao), spicy papaya salad ( som tam), deep-fried spicy fish dumpling ( tot man pla krai), stir-fried rice with basil ( phat kaphrao), and spicy grilled beef salad ( yam nuea yang).

Around the the same time, the National Culture Committee, in conjunction with Top Ten Television Program, broadcast on Channel 9, conducted a similar survey about popular Thai food among foreigners, with similar results. In this survey, the most popular kinds of food were tom yam kung, kaeng khiao wan, phat thai, phat kaphrao, hot curry with roast duck ( kaeng phet pet yang), tom kha kai, yam nuea yang, satay, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts ( kai phat met mamuang himaphan), and thick curry with beef ( kaeng phanaeng nuea). Surveys conducted later showed that foreigners still preferred generally the same Thai dishes, such as grilled chicken served with sticky rice, som tam, kai ho bai toei, and tot man pla krai.

Golden Hamburger

In 2007, Philip Golingai wrote in The Star: “In rural Thailand, 6,600 baht (RM700) can buy you half of an adult buffalo. At a Polynesian-styled franchise restaurant in cosmopolitan Bangkok, you get a beef burger for the same amount. Not just any beef burger. A Trilogy Burger as Trader’s Vic restaurant in Bangkok Marriott Resort and Spa calls it. The Trilogy Burger is the most expensive burger in Thailand and probably the world. [Source: Philip Golingai, The Star, March 10, 2007]

What is it made of, you ask. Gold? Actually, yes. The Trilogy Burger is sprinkled with edible gold leaf. It also features Matsusaka beef, morel mushroom, black truffles and foie gras. The idea of serving the most expensive burger in Thailand was baked in the kitchen of Bangkok Marriott’s executive chef Simon Beaumont and executive sous chef Kevin Thomson. Their gastronomic inspiration arose from recent events in Bangkok such as the one million baht (RM102,000)-a-head gourmet dinner and 540,000 baht (RM57,300) Valentine Day’s cocktail, which is a Martini containing a dazzling heart-shaped ruby instead of an olive.

“Instead of copying (other restaurants which charged a million baht or 540,000 baht) we thought of doing something a little closer to a price our guests could afford,” explained Thomson at the resort that is along the Chao Phraya River. “Our burger costs only 6,600 baht which is about US$184.” But why is the Trilogy Burger expensive? It is reasonably priced, defended the sous chef, when you factor in the ingredients used. The Matsusaka beef is 6,600 baht (RM700) a kilo, morel mushroom (13,500 baht or RM1,434 a kilo), black truffle (8,800 baht or RM934 a kilo), foie gras (2,000 baht or RM212 a kilo) and the gold leaf (220 baht or RM23).

When the two chefs were discussing which meat they were going to use for the burger, both of them looked at each other and said “Matsusaka.” “No meat other than Matsusaka,” declared Thomson, adding “it is even better than Wagyu and Kobe beef.” The chef admitted that even some of the five-star resort’s guests are unfamiliar with Matsusaka beef. And he had to explain to the diners about the meat. “In Japan, a Matsusaka cow listens to classical music, eats oat, drinks beer and is massaged with sake for three years. Then it ends up on our table,” he said, quickly adding “it is a wonderful life for three years.”

Once the two chefs decided on Matsusaka, they complemented it with luxury products like truffle, morel mushroom and foie gras. “They marry well with the beef,” Thomson explained. The gold leaf is included to add colour to the rather darkish-coloured burger. Also, the Thais believe the colour gold brings good luck.

The Englishman beamed confidently when asked whether he was confident the Trilogy Burger would sell. “The guests staying in a five-star hotel are not short of money,” he noted. “And sometimes they want a luxurious item that they can’t get at home.”But a burger at that price? “It’s a steal,” he shrieked. Some of the guests, he said, were amazed at how cheap the burger was. For example, he added, in the United States, it would cost US$160 to US$180 (RM561 to RM631) for a Matsusaka steak and that is without the foie gras, truffle and morel mushroom. Trader’s Vic restaurant sold seven golden burgers the first week they were on sale. Seven, according to the chef with 19-year experience, is a pretty good number for selling a US$184 burger. So how did the burger taste? Arooy (Thai for delicious).

$25,000 Gourmet Meal in Bangkok

In February 2007, AP reported: “It was an evening of utter decadence - a 10-course gourmet dinner concocted by world-renowned chefs at $25,000 a head. Many of those who attended the culinary extravaganza in Bangkok hailed it as the meal of a lifetime. But it's no easy task to eat plate after plate of Beluga caviar, Perigord truffles, Kobe beef, Brittany lobster - each paired with a rare and robust vintage wine. "It's really amazing," said one diner, Sophiane Foster, a wealthy Cambodian who lives in Malaysia, as she eyed the dinner's eighth course - a pigeon en croute with cepes mushrooms. "But I can't finish it. Your senses can only appreciate so much." [Source: Associated Press, February 11, 2007]

High-rolling food lovers flew in from the United States, Europe, the Middle East and other parts of Asia for the 40-seat dinner organized by the Lebua luxury hotel in Bangkok, grandly titled Epicurean Masters of the World. Cooked by six three-star Michelin chefs—four from France and one each from Germany and Italy—the menu featured complicated creations like tartar of Kobe beef with imperial Beluga caviar and Belon oysters, and mousseline of pattes rouges crayfish with morel mushroom infusion.

Among the talented chefs, some said they found it challenging to give diners their money's worth. Antoine Westermann of Le Buerhiesel, a top-class restaurant in Strasbourg, France, said he shaved 3 1/2 ounces of Perigord truffles - worth about $350 - onto each plate of his coquille Saint-Jacques and truffles. "For $25,000, what do you expect?" he said.

As guests entered the dinner, held at the hotel's rooftop restaurant on the 65th floor overlooking Bangkok, attendants bowed and scattered rose petals at their feet. Men wore tuxedos and women were dripping in diamonds. "It's surreal. The whole thing is surreal," said Alain Soliveres, the celebrated chef of the Taillevent restaurant in Paris. Soliveres prepared two of his signature dishes, including the first course: a creme brulee of foie gras that was washed down with a 1990 Cristal champagne that sells for more than $500 a bottle but still stood out as one of the cheapest wines on the menu.

Chefs submitted their grocery lists to organizers beforehand and the ingredients were flown in fresh: black truffles, foie gras, oysters and live Brittany lobsters from France; caviar from Switzerland; white truffles from Italy. Diners also sipped their way through legendary vintage wines, like a 1985 Romanee Conti, a 1959 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, a 1967 Chateau d'Yquem and a 1961 Chateau Palmer. The latter is considered "one of the greatest single wines of the 20th century," said Alun Griffiths of Berry Bros. & Rudd, the British wine merchants that procured and shipped about six bottles of each wine for the dinner. The wine alone cost more than $200,000, Griffiths said.

Organizers say the event was designed to promote Thai tourism and that most of the profits will go to two charities: Medecins Sans Frontieres and the Chaipattana Foundation, a rural development program set up by the king of Thailand. Some chefs confessed they were astonished by the $25,000 price tag. "It's crazy," Westermann said. "After this, nothing can shock me."

Controversy Over the $25,000 Bangkok Dinner in 2008

In 2008, AP reported: “Somewhere in the firmament of Michelin-starred chefs there must be one willing to accept $8,000 for a single night's work. The only catch is that this particular dinner at a Bangkok luxury hotel has stirred up a mighty controversy, and two dozen chefs around the world have declined to cook it. Several have confessed fears of losing a coveted star in the Michelin guide, the gastronome's bible that can make or break culinary careers. [Source: AP, March 20, 2008]

Bangkok's Lebua hotel, which is organizing the dinner, is no stranger to publicity — or to Michelin-starred chefs. In 2007, it put on a decadent feast billed as the meal of a lifetime for $25,000 a head. Six three-star Michelin chefs were flown in from Europe to cook the 10-course meal, each plate paired with a rare vintage wine. In 2008, the Lebua offered another 10-course spread, this time for free. The hotel invited 50 of its biggest-spending customers to the dinner prepared — it had hopes — by three top-ranked Michelin-starred chefs. There was one twist. Before dinner, guests were to be jetted to a poor village in northern Thailand to spend the afternoon soaking up the sights of poverty. The dinner and full-day excursion was to cost the hotel $300,000.

Deepak Ohri, Lebua's chief executive, said the hotel's intention is to wine and dine its top customers while also doing some good. The bankers, casino owners and corporate elite invited from the United States, Europe and Asia were asked to open their wallets to build a school, a hospital and other infrastructure the village lacks. "There are poor areas in the world that everybody is aware of," Deepak said. "We want to help a corner of the world where most people haven't been."

A trio of France's top chefs initially agreed to cook the feast: Alain Solivérès, whose famed Taillevent in Paris has two Michelin stars, Jean-Michel Lorain of the three-star La Côte Saint Jacques in Burgundy and Michel Trama from the three-star Les Loges de L'Aubergade in southwest France. Press releases went out advertising their attendance, and the menu was finalized. Solivérès was to cook a risotto with Brittany lobster and a Roquefort ice cream for dessert. Lorain's three dishes featured his signature "Black Truffle and cabbage 'Michel Lorain.' "

When the story hit French media it sparked an uproar. Headlines slammed the event as a $300,000 poverty tour for the rich. Within days, all three chefs bowed out. "You can't see people living in misery and then go back to Bangkok to eat foie gras and truffles," Solivérès said by telephone from Paris. "It started an enormous, enormous scandal in France. I had no choice but to boycott the meal." Lorain wrote an e-mail to Lebua executives on March 7 calling the event "unhealthy and morally unjustifiable." Lebua executives apologized for any misunderstanding over the event and insisted the dinner would go ahead.

Robot Sings and Serves Food at Bangkok Japanese Restaurant

Pannawit Nanthachoknetinan wrote in The Nation: “There's nothing quite like a tasty Japanese dinner in Bangkok while a robot serenades you with "Nobody" by South Korea's Wonder Girls....A little taller than humans, two robots dressed in samurai gear and kimonos entertain diners with song at the Japanese restaurant Hajime, which just opened last Thursday They finish with a flourish and then work the room, offering everyone a wai before heading back to the kitchen to help cook something nice. [Source: Pannawit Nanthachoknetinan, The Nation, on April 5, 2010]

Dentist Laphasrada Thanaphan invested Bt30 million in toothwork of a different kind by opening Hajime in Monopoly Park on the Industrial Ring Road. Hajime is Japanese for "original", and the restaurant certainly is that - the first in Thailand fully catered by robots. They prepare the food, serve it and accompany it with a show. Yes, the MK suki chain has robots too, but they're merely waiters, sniff the mechanical hosts at Hajime.

Hajime's performing robots wear costumes imported from Japan, but they themselves - apart from the outer structure - were developed and programmed by the Thai firm Submit Company. Laphasrada bought four of them for Bt16 million. Two remain in the kitchen as chef's assistants - not necessarily an easy job when they only have one arm each. The two crowd-pleasers out front have two arms each, which facilitates serving the food, not to mention giving customers a wai. Along with the four machines, there are 14 actual human beings on staff. "This was a dream I had as a child," says Laphasrada, who's now in her late 20s. "Like every other kid who loved the superhuman characters in cartoons, I thought it would be fantastic to be served by robots."

She started thinking seriously five years ago that this dream could become a reality. A robotics show in Japan got her pondering a mechanical assistant for her dental clinic. That might be a little too complicated (and scary for patients), Laphasrada decided, so she shifted her focus to her love for Japanese food. The robots at Hajime have LCD screens for faces and gaze around with big, innocent eyes.

Diners sit at U-shaped tables equipped with touch screens linked to the robots' processing units. They punch in their order and a robot slides over on its track with a tray of food. If the customer just wants a drink, a human server brings it. One would like to imagine the robot waiters snapping their fingers to summon a Homo sapiens, but the fact is the machines are too slow for drink service. "They're accurate and quick, though," Laphasrada insists. "They know what's what on each food tray, thanks to barcode identification, so the customers never get the wrong order."

Japanese Chain Restaurants in Thailand

In 2012, the Yomiuri Shimbun reported: “An increasing number of restaurant chains serving traditional Japanese cuisine such as ramen and sushi are entering the market in Thailand. For restaurants faced with decreased demand due to a falling birthrate and a graying population, Thailand is an attractive market, as the country's economy has seen significant growth recently. [Source: Takeshi Nagata, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 24, 2012]

Kourakuen Corp., a Koriyama, Fukushima Prefecture-based ramen restaurant chain, opened its first overseas outlet in July 2012 in a shopping center in central Bangkok. While it offers the same dishes and flavors as it does in Japan, an official of the chain said flagship dishes such as "chuka soba" (Chinese soba) priced at 99 baht (about 250 yen) and "noko gyokai tsukemen" (rich-tasting seafood-flavored dipping noodles) priced at 139 baht are also popular.

Although the prices are about twice that of local fare, the restaurant continues to attract many customers two months after opening. All 48 of its seats are filled between opening and closing time, 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., on weekends. Thai people account for about 80 percent of the restaurant's customers. A 41-year-old homemaker visiting for the second time said: "I like the tsukemen dish. Japanese food is more refreshing and has a healthier image compared to other countries' [food]."

In Bangkok, Japanese restaurants account for 8.3 percent of all restaurants, following those that serve Thai cuisine. According to the Organization to Promote Japanese Restaurants Abroad (JRO) and other sources, the number of Japanese restaurants in Thailand jumped about 2.2-fold to 1,676 between 2007 and 2012. One factor that has led to the expansion of Japanese restaurants in the market is that Thai people have developed a taste for authentic Japanese food. "More Thai people than before have become familiar with Japanese tastes while traveling to Japan or on other occasions, and now they're seeking out authentic Japanese cuisine," said a researcher of the Daiwa Research Institute.

While Japanese restaurant chains have in the past focused on the Chinese market, full-fledged efforts are now under way to enter Southeast Asia, which has a population of 600 million. China and South Korea both come with risks of anti-Japan sentiment, and in the past, Japanese restaurants were attacked. A Japanese restaurant chain official said, "In Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries, people are pro-Japan, so it's easy to do business."

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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