Bangkok, according to Kay Plunkett-Hogge

Cookbook author and food writer, Kay Plunkett-Hogge takes us on a culinary tour of her favourite cityTuesday, 23 July 2019

Tha Kha floating market in Bangkok
Tha Kha floating market in Bangkok
photo by Getty

When she dreams, she does so in Thai; when she cooks, she thinks in Thai. The city that’s her true home is Bangkok. Kay Plunkett-Hogge was born in the Thai capital and returns every year, eating at her favourite roadside stalls, laughing and chatting with the vendors, visiting friends who own some of the best restaurants in the city, shopping in the markets, picking up recipes and ingredients.

Her book, Baan: Recipes and Stories from my Thai Home, published by Pavilion, is the culmination of a childhood lived between two kitchens: her parents’ indoor English kitchen, and the outdoor kitchen where the family’s cook Prayoon would rattle metal woks and pans over flaming charcoal burners as little Kay’s greedy eyes absorbed everything. Prayoon’s recipe for Thai fishcakes, which is featured in Baan, honours this time.

“Two kitchens, two cuisines, but if I had to choose, it would be Thai,” says Kay. “And there’s nowhere better to eat than Bangkok: high-end to low-end, from ridiculous gastronomic posturing about with pipettes and tweezers to down and dusty, glorious street food grilled right in front of you while someone fans the flames with a piece of cardboard. Eatingis a national pastime, to be shared, discussed and enjoyed. There’s always another dish to be found. Even now, on every trip back I discover something new.”

Baan means home in Thai and until she was a teenager and packed off to boarding school, hers was a glorious mid-century modern bungalow in Bangkok, where her mother would host glamorous cocktail parties. Kay’s parents arrived in the city in 1961, after her dad landed a job selling tractors for Anglo-Thai Motors. Kay says: “They sent him for two years and he ended up staying 35. I get that. They lost their hearts there. Mine was made there and it’s where it remains.”

Like many visitors to the city, Kay remains in thrall to the sheer variety of food on offer, and the city’s ability to surprise. “I always prefer a mix of really thrilling street food and taking the weight off my feet and sitting down at a table — it doesn’t have to be fancy, but of course in Bangkok there are amazing, fancy restaurants, so I do sometimes indulge.”

“People feel overwhelmed by Bangkok,” she adds. “It’s so sprawling and frenetically busy — but, traffic jams aside, you can hop on the super-speedy metro or fly around on a tuk-tuk and cover a lot of the best places to eat. 

“And one of my favourite things to do is hop on and off the river taxis. You get a real sense of the city that way — it all starts making sense from the water. Or to take a solitary long-tail boat trip down the canals at dusk, just as the sun’s setting over the city. People eating, washing and going about their day; children swimming and splashing. The smell of incense and wood smoke, of grilled pork and nose-tickling roasted chillies. This is the Bangkok I love.”

Kay Plunkett-Hogg’s five current favourites

Issaya Siamese Club
My dear friend Ian Kittichai and his wife Sarah have turned a beautiful old Peranakan villa into a colourful, airy restaurant serving truly glorious food. It’s a long time since Ian pushed a cart around the streets of Bangkok shouting ‘hot curries coming’. He’s trained as a chef all over the world, but the menu is rooted in the dishes of his childhood when he went to the wet market at dawn every morning. Curry pastes are made fresh every day. His quirky takes on Thai street snacks are fabulous — the sweet coconut cake kanom krok reimagined as tom kha soup, green curry macarons, yum som-o (pomelo salad) served in a little flowerpot. Fun and feisty. issaya.com

Soi Polo Fried Chicken
Tucked down a side street off Wireless Road, Soi Polo (aka Gai Jay Kee) serves, to my mind, the best fried chicken in the world. Marinated in secret spices and fried low and slow, then smothered in a layer of crisp, deep-fried garlic, this chicken makes me weep. Served with a tangy dipping sauce, sticky rice, some fermented bamboo shoot salad (soop nor mai) and an ice-cold beer — it’s what dreams are made of. Top tip: they deliver. T: 00 66 2 655 8489

Ruen Urai
A hidden gem — and I do mean hidden, as this beautiful, 100-year-old house sits in the shadow of the Rose Hotel off Surawong Road. Owner Tom Vitayakui has incredibly good taste — not only is the decor stunning, but the food is impeccable. Don’t miss the raw tuna laab, the curry of crab and betel leaves, and the stir-fried barbecued duck with black peppercorns. They make a cracking martini too. ruen-urai.com

Sri Trat
Focusing on the more unusual eastern seaboard dishes, Sri Trat’s chef owner is a former beauty queen — as evidenced by the huge mural of her on one wall. You enter this establishment through a gorgeous little cocktail bar, so don’t forget to order one of their Thai-inspired concoctions. Stand out dishes in the restaurant include a herbal chicken soup, crab omelette, barracuda ceviche and the very Thai relish of nam prik kapi — shrimp paste and chillies — which they stud with snake fruit for a hint of sharpness and serve it with a selection of crudites. Make sure to buy some of their Three Rabbit fish sauce as a souvenir. T: 00 66 2 088 0968

100 Mahaseth
This restaurant has taken nose-to-tail cooking to a new level. Of course, Thais have always eaten every part of the animal, but here chef Chalee Kader puts a modern spin on it. His showstopper is a charcoal-burnt bone marrow dish that’s crunchy in texture and benefits from the heat afforded by perilla seeds and spices. Then there are the excellent goat ribs with pickled shallots and a sprinkling of curry powder. He also serves up my favourite sausage — sai oua, which comes from northern Thailand andis made from pork, chilli paste and cooked rice, with nam prik noom (a green chilli dip) — in a hot dog bun, in a box that you might get at the movies. Fabulous. T:00 66 2 235 0023

Kay Plunkett-Hogge’s book Baan: Recipes and Stories from my Thai home, is published by Pavilion.

Essentials
Thai Airways flies from London Heathrow direct to Bangkok from £494 per person. Rooms at Shanghai Mansion in the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown are around £45 a night. thaiairways.com shanghaimansion.com

More info: tourismthailand.org/home

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