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Richard H Turner's column: on Bangkok's superlative street-food scene

Richard H Turner makes the most of a stopover in Bangkok, squeezing an epic, crab-heavy street-food tour into his short time in the city. Crustaceans, beware…

Richard H Turner

It's early evening and I'm wandering around the Suan Lum night bazaar when a vividly coloured jar on a busy stall catches my eye. The jar turns out to contain fermented crab, a peculiar concoction I've heard of but never had the pleasure of eating – it's exactly the sort of thing I keep coming back to Thailand for. I sample a little of the crab and it meets all my expectations; sweet and sour and mildly funky, but it really comes alive when paired with a green papaya salad.

I love Thailand and I adore Bangkok. This is one of my favourite places in the world, and with few exceptions the street food here is so often better than anything you'll find in restaurants. It's always possible to discover new flavours, ingredients and food combinations, and I'll try anything new to me (within reason). Not so unusual for a chef perhaps, but the knowledge that tasting new things exercises and extends the life of my taste buds galvanises my resolve.

This particular trip is just a quick stopover, so it's straight into the action. After an inevitably arduous flight, a quick snack of fermented pork ribs at my vintage-chic hotel sustains me, and I set off on my search.

From Suan Lum, and that crab, I move to a very cool riverside joint called Err in Banglamphu. After a swift beer and a few snacks, I take a quick tuk tuk ride to R&L seafood in Chinatown. Here I have more crab, this time in a curry with egg, and some excellent grilled squid with morning glory and steamed rice. The seafood is sublime, and there's also a curried scallop dish that I've heard is superb – one for next time, for I am but one man with but one stomach.

On the opposite side of the water to Chinatown is another hip place on the river called The Never Ending Summer. Here, in an arty warehouse setting, chefs cook throwback dishes from their childhoods; interesting old Thai recipes that include a splendid watermelon and dried shrimp dish. Next up is a 15-minute tuk tuk ride west to Krua Apsorn, part of a group and an eatery favoured by the local Thais. I can heartily recommend the lotus root yellow curry and the crab omelette – yes, I'm gonna look like a crab by the end of this, but it'll be worth it.

fish guts curry is spicy, funky and more than a little challenging

The Silom district is next on my list and since the ethic of 'nose-to-tail' eating is close to my heart, 100 Mahaseth is a must-try. The cuisine is Isaan style – imagine a northern Thai St John – and it's pretty bloody decent. I have the bone marrow, of course, topped with perilla seeds (a nutty and minty liquorice flavour), spring onions and lemongrass. It's followed by cassia-curried oxtail flavoured with fish – a genius move, and one I'll borrow.

Two other temples of northern Thai cooking are Ruen Urai – set in an old Thai house behind The Rose Hotel, not far from the infamous Soi Patpong market – and Som Tam Jay So, where they serve som tam (or jungle salad - oft touted as the best salad in the world): hot and crunchy, savoury and sour.

Along the way, I can't help but stop in at Soi Polo, the fried chicken (a personal favourite) is the best in the world – I promise – and Bo.lan, created by the same people behind Err. Situated in Bangkok's hippest district (Thong Lor and Ekamai), Bo.lan has some really special Thai food and I order the Bo.lan balance menu and one of chef Dylan Jones's revered ginger martinis.

On the way back to my hotel, I stop off at Baan Ice which serves good and proper southern Thai food. In the spirit of adventure – and on the sage advice of food writer Kay Plunkett-Hogge – I order the gaeng tai pla or fish gut curry, a famous, 200-year-old dish with Indian influences, made from the fermented guts of catfish or snakehead (another fish). It's spicy, savoury, extremely funky and, not surprisingly, more than a little challenging. Like I said, I'll try anything – once.

It's something of a relief, then, that the very best food I found in Bangkok on this trip – and an exception to the 'street-food rules' rule – was right there in my hotel. The Cabochon's truly remarkable kitchen knocks out the most spectacular Thai food I've eaten outside of a Thai home. Fermented pork sausages that could beat an English sausage into submission, and another mighty crab and egg curry I'll remember fondly for weeks to come.

And in case you're wondering how one man with but one stomach ate all this in one evening, I've got a confession: I didn't. No one could have pulled that off in one session; this lot took me two separate nights, between which I sandwiched five nights in Laos. Who ever said extending the life of your taste buds was supposed to be easy?

Need more? Catch up on the rest of Richard H Turner's columns.

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