Updating a cuisine without sacrificing its essence demands a chef with a great skill.
Chef Nooror Somany works expertly, demonstrating how to make a nam prik paow, or Thai roasted chilli paste. The base ingredients are large red chillis, vegetable oil, garlic, shallots and, today, ground dried shrimps, seasoned with palm sugar, fish sauce and tamarind juice.
After the ingredients are stir-fried, they are combined in a mortar and pestle and hammered hard into a paste. Sure, a blender is close to hand but Chef Nooror insists on a more manual approach.
“Chinese food comes quickly,” she says as the pestle comes down with a crunch. “But we need to be patient.
“It used to be when young ladies pounded the curry paste, it was very important because it showed whether they have a sharp mind and personality,” she explains, demonstrating first how a lazy girl might work the pestle, before resuming her more vigorous hand-grinding of the ingredients. “But now, all ladies are working women.”
Chef Nooror retains a healthy sense of tradition but when it comes to Thai cuisine, she is one of the standard- bearers for its march on to the world’s dining tables.
She is, of course, the co-founder and head chef of Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant, which has enjoyed runaway success in the 30 years since it first opened, with 12 branches around the world and now established as a global Thai brand.
In Sathorn, the Bangkok outlet does a bustling trade. A morning class at Blue Elephant begins with a stroll through the Bangrak market, a covered maze where the whiff of chilli hangs thick in the air, where stalls overflow with mangos, coconuts, giant watermelons and enormous sweet turnips, alongside piles of eggs and onions and stores of garlic, tamarind and palm sugar.
The proximity to all this produce, the hands-on aspect of it all, is thrilling. And in its dishes, Blue Elephant prioritises authenticity and presentation but also balances tradition and innovation, walking the tightrope between centuries-old recipes and creative, unique variations of time-tested themes.
“This is not fusion cuisine. Thai people cook with what they have in the gardens,” Chef Nooror explains while demonstrating how to prepare a plaa jiean ta-kri, a deep-fried sea bass topped with lemongrass sauce. That, however, does not mean there are rigid guidelines.
“Cooking should be flexible – this way is authentic but you can adjust as you like,” she says when considering how much chilli to add. “If you don’t like it too spicy, you can take out the chilli seeds but I think it is more charming to have some spice to give you energy.”
Later, after her class has finished preparing their own Thai dishes in Blue Elephant’s gleaming kitchen, Nooror expands on her remit of combining familiar Thai flavours with more forward-thinking, truly world-class food. Blue Elephant’s menu, for example, includes a foie gras with tamarind sauce and an Isan-style laab salad using raw salmon and lemongrass.
“On one hand we serve all the Thai dishes that people expect – the som tam and the pad thai – but we also want to update Thai food and bring it to the rest of the world and make it international,” Nooror explains.
“Technique is part of it and for Thai food to be an international cuisine chefs have to be able to adapt. The style needs to be more refined.”
Crucially, cooking modern Thai is not a license to appropriate endlessly from other cuisines – according to Chef Nooror, there are still some non-negotiables.
“Thai food is about the herbs and spices – you can’t make a tom yum gai without lemongrass,” she insists. “Ingredients like tamarind, kaffir and galangal – they are part of Thai cooking. But you can use those and still find new ways.”
Of course, it is not just Thai chefs updating their national cuisine. Bangkok is home to a growing cadre of non-Thai chefs fascinated by the palette of flavours. Jason Bailey, an award-winning Australian chef who last year opened his first restaurant in Bangkok, Paste in Thong Lor’s soi 49, is adamant Thai food can be modernised and refined without compromising the elements that make it quintessentially Thai.
“A good modern Thai chef is not bastardising the cuisine,” Bailey says, before outlining the importance of produce and technique in adapting Thai cuisine from classical to modern.
“If you’re talking poultry, you need free-range. It tastes better,” he says. “Seafood, we want wild – it’s richer in flavour. Thailand is the largest producer of farmed prawns in the world but a wild prawn is firmer.
“And the technique is what I consider the single most important part of cooking. In modern Thai, we’re employing things that the average Thai cook never employed in their kitchen, like oven- roasting – consistent, rounded heat that we can use to slow cook. With coals or a wok burner, you can’t get that – you can’t slow-cook pork belly for 12 hours like that.”
Bailey is zealous in his attention to detail when it comes to technique and higher standards in selecting produce but believes traditional Thai flavours are already world-class.
“Thais are very good at flavours – maybe the best in the world – and they’re masters of seasoning,” he says.
“With modern Thai, you need intense flavours – a hallmark of Thai cuisine, the most intense flavours in the world. To call it modern Thai, you must have that: hot, sour, salty, sweet and, often forgotten, astringent and bitter.
“Thai food is about balance and offsetting – all cuisines aim for that balance but none have achieved it like Thais. In terms of flavours, as creative and wondrous as it sounds to say we’ve got more flexibility in modern Thai, no, I think I would be doing wrong to the customer – that’s where I disagree with fusion. If you don’t get those flavours then it’s not Thai.”
Still, Bailey concedes there is a degree of cross- pollination within Asian cuisines. The idea that Thai food, or any other, has evolved in a bubble is simply ahistorical.
“Even if I’m anchored in Thai ingredients, they can be Vietnamese ingredients as well. And if you’re going to say, ‘what is Thai and what is Chinese?’ – they’re like brother and sister. You look at a dish like pork leg with light and dark soy sauce, the khao kha moo, that’s southern Chinese and the wok is Chinese, not Thai; the curries came from the Indians and the salads are influenced by Vietnamese and vice versa. The Gang Hung Lae (left), is a northern Thai curry adopted from the Burmese.
“So what is a native Thai dish? You have nam prik, the thick pungent relishes, which I love, and the elegant, refined lon, a more liquefied, less dense, soupy dish with a coconut milk base. That’s native Thai.” Even allowing for this crossover in regional cuisines,
Bailey insists the Thai table already has sufficiently sophisticated and satisfying flavour profiles that it simply isn’t necessary, or desirable, to keep dipping into some vast pan-Asian melting pot.
“You can bring in techniques and ingredients, sure – I mean, we’re talking Australian beef, definitely,” he says. “But I don’t think you need to include flavours from other countries – Thailand already has a vast repertoire.”
233 South Sathorn Rd, Sathorn | 02-673-9353 blueelephant.com | Classes daily 8.30am and 1.30pm
120/6 Sukhumvit Soi 49, Thong Lor | 02-392-4313 pastebangkok.com | Wed-Sun noon-11pm, Tues 6pm-11pm