David Thompson will never forget his first encounter with a Thai fishcake. In truth, he still seems slightly traumatised by it. It was the 1970s, in his hometown of Sydney, at a restaurant called Siam.
‘Hated it,’ he says. ‘Absolutely hated it. It was awful. It was rubbery. It was just like every other fishcake you eat outside of Thailand — like every other fishcake that’s not fried right in front of you.’ Then he tried lemon grass. ‘Hated that as well. Really appalling stuff.’
Then he rubs his greying stubble. ‘It’s ironic where life leads you,’ he says. Ironic doesn’t come close. Thirty years later, this erudite and affable Aussie is a world authority —perhaps the world authority — on Thai food, as well as the chef behind Nahm at London’s Halkin hotel, the first and only Thai restaurant on the planet with a Michelin star. He also enjoys the ‘gentle pursuit’ of food history writing — ‘Gentle, that is, compared to working in a kitchen’ — and his second book, Thai Street Food, is published by Penguin this autumn.
Today, the 49-year-old Thompson is in Bangkok, his second home after London and my first home for the past decade. When he’s here he rarely cooks or visits restaurants — there are only two or three he actually rates in the entire Thai capital. Instead, he says, ‘I raid the streets. That’s where the best Thai food is found.’ Thompson offers to take me on a tour of Bangkok street food, which is a bit like Botticelli offering you a tour of the Uffizi.
We meet at a coffee shop during rush hour. The street is gridlocked but somehow he is only a few minutes late, the sign of a long-time resident (we know the short cuts). He’s wearing a striped shirt and ragged jeans. Unlike most other famous chefs, he is soft-spoken and laid-back.
The curious thing about Thai street food is that much of it isn’t particularly Thai. ‘There are so many foreign elements chewed up, digested and returned as something uniquely Thai,’ says Thompson. China is the biggest influence, which is why we head first for Chinatown. ‘In the late 19th century, 50 per cent of the city’s population was Chinese,’ he explains. ‘And they brought with them their cooking habits — their noodles, their fish dumplings, their roast duck.’
Even that classic dish, phat Thai (‘in the style of the Thai’), owes a big debt to the Middle Kingdom. ‘It’s Chinese noodles stir-fried, but with additional palm sugar and tamarind water,’ says Thompson.
Thais attach great kudos to knowing where the best street food is. ‘Some countries express part of their culture through food and cooking, and Thailand is one of them,’ says Thompson. While Brits talk about the weather, Thais prefer to discuss their food. When giving directions, he says, they will often use food as signposts: turn left at that egg noodle stand…
Our first stop in Chinatown is a no-name, hole-in-the-wall restaurant with stools and fold-up tables spilling across the pavement and into the gutter. Smoked duck is the speciality here — ‘I don’t know of any other place that sells it,’ says Thompson — but we also order stir-fried clams in chilli jam and pork with Chinese olives. ‘Absolutely delicious,’ he declares over the roar of passing tuk-tuks. (See Thompson’s recipe for stir-fried clams with chilli jam and Thai basil.)
I’m full already, but Thompson is just getting started. We stop on Yaowarat — the main, traffic-choked road through Chinatown, flanked by gold shops and food stalls, a cauldron of light and noise — for tom leuk moo. That’s pig’s stomach, broiled with galangal and pepper until soft, and served with cakes of pig’s blood in a soup flavoured with pungent sagebrush. It’s an acquired taste, to say the least, and I suspect it appeals more to Thompson the historian than to Thompson the chef. ‘It was once the food of peasants, coolies and labourers who worked in the area,’ he says. ‘Coolies would eat it because it gave them the energy they needed.’
Thompson first came to Thailand ‘by accident’, he says. ‘I meant to go to Tahiti.’ Instead, upon the urging of Thai kitchen hands at the Sydney restaurant he was working in, he took his holiday in Thailand instead. ‘I really fell in love with the place. You know how you can drop into a country and feel at ease there? This was the one for me.’ That was 1986. He moved to Thailand soon after.