Why do I find it hard not to be charmed or even excited by the sound of shattering ice when some liquid is poured on to it, or when the sizzle of meat hits a searing grill, the ping of the burning oven, the soft rip of a warm crispy baguette and the pop of a wine bottle being opened? Perhaps beneath this mind stimulating-palate teasing phenomenon; lies an emerging image of a place where they all exist, we call it simply – the kitchen.
Kitchens are like conversations. In the beginning, you hear the acoustic fracas of so many people speaking to each other – and sometimes over the other. It’s the continuous repartee against the quick pause and the chaffing response thereafter, only to lead, more often than not; to an endless confabulation. Then there are the dialogues – between its concrete walls and countertops, between the cupboards and the sink, between preparation and menu. A curious soul listens in – drowning in the hum- and joins in this ceaseless conversation about what this place is.
I am on a plane, crossing over the Gulf of Thailand. Mid-flight, drifting into my own slumber, the voice from the cockpit comes on announcing “Ladies and gentlemen..uhmm..this is your captain speaking. Aaaahhh, it looks like we’ve hit some unexpected turbulence. I appreciate if you remain seated and please keep the seatbelt fastened until I turn off the fasten seatbelt sign…Thank you!”
Interrupted from my kitchen fantasy, the captain continued into his sing-songy Thai version, almost as if it was a smack in the face to wake me up. For a second, I thought about the taxing announcement, coupled with the minor turbulence might be just what I needed to shake my faculties and allow me to alight from the plane, physically and mentally alert. After being airborne for almost two hours, our flight will finally be touching down.
I have come to Bangkok on a “kitchen” pilgrimage. After several recent trips to explore the country’s supercharged gastronomy and exquisitely refined cuisine, I am back, but not for gustatory delights; this time to find out more and maybe take a closer glimpse at the city’s most exciting kitchens. And because it’s a city that always embraces new trends, never losing its identity, Bangkok possesses the ideal quality in my quest for my very own “kitchen” experience.
Its streets are always intoxicatingly captivating. Culinary energy is evident on every intersection and “soi”, displaying a strong jarring mix of modern and ancient food preparation techniques.
I knew right away that I had to go to Yaowarat in the old Chinatown (เยาวราช). This street cuts through the heart of Bangkok’s Chinatown and is a narrow alleyway filled with makeshift carts sporting beach umbrellas that are colorful enough to attract visitors to come closer only to notice their weather beaten surface. There are rickshaws made out of wood reinforced by welded iron bars and interestingly shrunken convertible vans that transform almost immediately into mobile kitchens.
I had to admit, regardless of their diminutive sizes, they all have the complete amenities of a kitchen run by Thai street food masters. From stoves either powered by charcoal or gas, barbeque grills, woks and casseroles of all sizes, chopping boards, aluminum pans and all sorts of things that I would imagine seeing in my kitchen. With humidity rising, smoke and steam, spice-scented vapors coupled with the shouts of the street hawkers, it can all be crazy yet fun in this neighborhood.
It’s almost the same scene that unfolds in the soi’s of Sukhumvit (สุขุมวิท) and Petchaburi (เพชรบุรี). Here is where the flexibility of a kitchen is tested. There are free standing kitchens that can be pushed or pulled close to the road but not too far from the gutter. Most of them are fully equipped with a tiny electric fan that serves as an exhaust or to add more fire to the wood. Sometimes it comes with foldable tables and movable chairs. Others appear out from a hole and some emerge as an extension of a tree. As I looked at them closely, and with a dose of imagination, it could somehow rival the latest IKEA kitchen ideas. This is also the side of town where expats and locals alike succumb to the Thai’s street stalls and where ordering take away is common.
Getting away from the chaotic intersections and Bangkok’s never ending traffic snarls, I headed next to a more laid back environment. Nakhon Chaisi is another place in the city that is home to two of the oldest and most traditional markets – Ratchawat (ราชวัตร) and Sriya (ตลาดศรีย่าน). Some secrets are revealed simply, not by asking the old auntie with a wok or the toothless man with his skewers, or the friendly motorbike driver with attached trays of fried grasshoppers and crispy maggots, but by marveling at the coordination in the series of food preparation in such a small confined space and with time, can produce such great tasting dishes.
Drawing inspiration from all of these, I started to imagine again how my kitchen would look like. Is a small working area relative to the freshness of the food? How big or deep my wok should be or whether or not I should use a wide wooden chopping board? In search for more answers and antithesis to what I’ve seen, I decided to ascend to the 32nd floor of Sofitel Sukhumvit, the hotel is a short walk from Nana BTS station. I’ve heard for months that L’Appart, is not only an intimate French restaurant bar and lounge but features an open kitchen reliving the architectural style of 19th century Paris.
Here is a kitchen that comes with a library, a fireplace, a balcony, and on top of it all it’s the highest kitchen location that I have visited. Glamour, style, intimacy and functionality, they are all married here. Did I just hear the pop of the cork from a champagne bottle?
I spent an idle hour on the terrace sipping beers, switching cocktails and wine while taking advantage of the sweeping 180° panorama of Lumpini Park and the shimmering lights of downtown Silom. I grew to like the gentle tropical breeze up here and started to notice the waitresses who were dressed in pastel-grey French maid’s uniforms.
Sitting on my chair, watching the lights of the business neighborhoods come on, I began to have a clearer vision of my kitchen. The blurring image slowly faded. I saw a stove, a sink, an oven, and then there is the cutlery and the messy cupboards. Somehow, I can hear the shattering of ice when liquid is poured onto it, the sizzling of meat hitting a searing grill, the ping of the burning oven, the soft rip of a warm crispy baguette and the pop of a bottle of wine being opened. But above all I heard a familiar voice from background calling me that dinner is ready.
A beep from my phone ebb my imagination away. I slowly read the text that says “Jan…it’s mom! Have you eaten?” Then I knew – above all, which kitchen I should go to next.