The chefs changing Thai fine dining for the better
A new wave of local chefs are redefining Thai cuisine for the era of the degustation menu.
Maybe you’ve been there too—that moment when you think the dry cleaner has shrunk half of your wardrobe in a terrible steam-pressing accident, causing your legs to no longer fit into your pants. A trip on the Sky Train is scrapped because going up those stairs seems far too much like hard work. And your two new boyfriends are named Ben and Jerry.
The solution: get fit, fast. But if you want to keep prying eyes off your cottage cheese thighs at the gym and your brain from inventing myriad excuses for you to stay at home (“the latest Entourage episode comes on in 85 minutes!”), there is only one solution: A four- to six-week long program called “Boot Camp” dedicated to making you and your fat miserable.
For three days a week at Lumpini Park and at around B10,000 a month, commitment is usually not a problem—even in the face of 6am starts and far-too-cheery motivational chatter before the first coffee of the day. Since exercises during the 60-minute sessions (ranging from hill sprints to innocuous-looking stretchy band things that are actually the devil) are time-oriented rather than result-oriented, people can feel free to work at their own pace. Goals include a higher heart rate, improved flexibility, lower body fat, and better confidence once your time is up. And if you feel dissatisfied with your experience, there’s even a money-back guarantee.
Be serious and be prepared: Boot Camp rewards the hard working and is only open to people who are committed to trying all of the exercises, even those murderous suicide drills. Cringing moments during the sessions (aside from crying like a girl during pull-ups and tripping over your jump rope) include the shout-out of how many calories you’ve expended at the end of the sessions. Women, on average, use up about 400-800 calories in a one-hour session, while men can go from 600-1,000. And if you’re looking to snag a cute, fit mate during the Camp, you will be sorely disappointed—most people are really into getting fit and you won’t be in any condition to lure anything other than flies. “We can be selective about who we work with, because we take our job seriously,” says Daniel Remon, head of Fitcorp, the company running Boot Camp.
Sick of the snarky skinny girls by the drinks machine at your gym? Tired of knowing the names of all the contestants on America’s Next Top Model? Think you’re up to the Boot Camp challenge? To sign up, contact Remon at 02-656-8828/-30 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I had a fish thrown at my head almost 10 years ago in a kitchen in Paris. As a (pretty bad) cooking student, I had things thrown at me all the time. But the waste of a perfectly good sea bass brought a particular pang to my heart: After I had trimmed the tail into an attractive “V,” basted it to a sheen and garnished it with lemon, my teacher ended up tossing the fish at my ear upon discovering I had failed to remove the scales. He missed, of course (he was a French chef and not a baseball pitcher for a reason), but I still recall that day with some degree of shame.
While red-faced, fish-flinging Frenchies are probably not in your immediate future, it’s best to be safe and cover all the bases before venturing into your own kitchen to try your luck. Here, a few tips on how to keep your fish in the pan and not on your person.
Lucky Thailand abounds with markets where cooks can get their fish plucked straight from the ocean. Favored among cooks are the wet markets that pepper the capital. Degrees of freshness depend on the shopper’s determination—and resources. Those with a yen for fish fresh off the boat and unlimited petrol can head to Samut Sakhon province (25 miles south of Bangkok), where the Thalad Talay Thai (Thai Ocean Market) in Mahachai boasts the freshest fish around. People who still want fresh fish but lack the traveling bug can head to Thalad Gow (Old Market) on Yaowaraj Soi 23 (open 4-11am), which once served as the seafood center for all market vendors and restaurateurs and is still the earliest-opening market in town. For those who think bigger is better, there is Thalad Thai (Thai market) on Phaholyothin and Wipawadee-Rangsit roads (open 9am-noon). Cooks-to-be with cleanliness on their minds can head to Sam Yan (Rama 4 and Ratchaprarop Rds., open 9am-5pm, MRT Sam Yan) or the Emporium (622 Sukhumvit Rd, 02 269-1000), where the high quality and freshness are rivaled only by the prices.
Once you get to the market, you have to pick yourself a good one. This may be the hardest part of the task, but there are plenty out there with advice (see the box below for ours). If there is an ultimate sensei on the issue of fresh fish, he or she must surely come from Japan, where people eat the stuff raw every day. Ryoji Ishii, owner of Japanese Restaurant Erawan (B1 Erawan Bangkok, 494 Ploenchit Rd., 02-250-7890), should know: his chefs go to the royal palace to cook three or four times a month. (See the box below for his tips) The easiest fish to find alive or fresh in Bangkok? The pla krapong, or sea bass, chefs say.
Once you have obtained your fishy treasure, it’s time to get to work. But while restaurant chefs can happily grill, deep-fry or poach their catch of the day, most home cooks have to make do with simpler recipes and easier techniques. Mediterranean maestro Nicolas Joanny of Le Vendome (All Seasons Place, M Thai Tower, 87 Wireless Rd., 02-654-1187-8) advises oven-baking a white-fleshed fish such as snapper, flounder or sea bass with white wine, shallots, garlic or tomatoes, or for those who favor Asian flavor, baking with soy sauce, sliced ginger and spring onion. To ensure against overcooking (which is even worse than not having any fish at all), Joanny suggests baking at 350 degrees (Farenheit) for no more than 10 minutes and flaking the fish with a knife toward the end to make sure the flesh is firm. Others simply poke the fish with a finger once the flesh turns opaque; it should feel a little softer than your forearm.
In sidewalks, in shopping malls, in secret back rooms, in offices, in drug stores, in restaurants, in homes…perhaps even in your home (no!), we’re awash in counterfeit and pirated goods. And we’ve grown up with fake stuff—lightweight “Rolexes,” Grand Theft Auto installed from a blank CD, crap Chloe bags, “Abibas” shirts—so we can tell the difference, right?
Maybe not. Modern counterfeiters are making replicas so sophisticated, they can fool some experts. It’s not only backpackers from Europe who are buying fake jeans to sell on eBay to fund their extended holidays. More and more people who can afford the real thing are sporting fake watches and bags—you’d be surprised just how much is out there. No wonder Bangkok has been dubbed the “piracy capital of the world” by international news agencies.
Even some people who work for luxury goods manufacturers look at the issue philosophically: Imitation is flattery. “In the case of every brand that has become famous, counterfeit products have become unavoidable,” said Jirapat Nilwong, senior brand manager of luxury watches such as Panerai at watch purveyor Pendulum. “In a way, it shows the brand is becoming well-accepted in the market.”
Should we care that the guy next to us has a fake Gucci wallet? How would you feel if you unknowingly bought a fake Gucci wallet? What if the pirated software you bought that isn’t covered by a warranty failed and caused you to lose a month of work? Or what if the medicine that was supposed to cure you made you even more sick?
While some items like handbags and shoes are knowingly purchased as cheaper versions of the real thing, other people can get duped by fakes passing themselves off as the real McCoy—a major issue in brand-conscious Asia. “You know if you go to Khao San Road, you’re getting a fake, but a mix-up between the counterfeit product and the real thing at the same price is a real problem,” says Suebsiri Taweepon, lawyer for international law firm Tilleke & Gibbins.
Some steps to make sure what you are getting is for real:
1. Go to the source. People are sure to have bought the real thing if they avoid buying from walkways, flea markets or the nice lady next door who got some presents from her stewardess friend. “The best way to avoid this problem is to buy these items from a reliable source,” says Suebsiri. For example, luxury handbag retailer Louis Vuitton has only three branches in Bangkok, so shoppers should be wary of LV-branded goods anywhere else.
Drug companies say the items most likely to be counterfeited are the expensive drugs, like anti-cancer medications, or those in high demand, like anti-virals. They recommend consumers purchase their drugs from legitimate sources such as hospitals or a reliable drug store instead of the Internet, and to check out special features on the packaging such as holograms.
2. Buy at a store with a good reputation. It’s no guarantee, but you can get your money back if you find out you’ve been duped.
3. Pay full price. Although not always a surefire indicator of whether the item is real or not, shoppers can be reasonably certain that a “branded” pack of cigarettes or polo shirt at a third of the price of those at the branch store is probably trying to pass itself off as the real deal.
4. Change your attitude. Counterfeit goods reward people who are stealing ideas from someone else and making money off of them without giving due credit. So if you don’t have the money for that Fendi Spy bag, why bother? “Manufacturers will never stop producing these imitation products if the customers keep demanding them,” said Suebsiri. “One of the main functions of the trademark reflects the taste of the person who’s wearing it. If you wear a counterfeit product and your friends know it, it’s like you don’t respect the creators’ rights and want to discourage newcomers who want to create their own brand.”
Telling the difference between the real thing and the poseur may be simply a case of knowing the right designs at the right time, but for many manufacturers, it’s a matter of survival. That’s why many—including luxury retailer Louis Vuitton, who did not return repeated requests for comment—keep important details on how to distinguish the genuine product secret.
“We cannot tell you all the differences because it’s a trade secret,” said Suebsiri of Tilleke & Gibbins by way of explanation. “If we tell everything, people can copy these products to look like exact originals.”
However, Suebsiri can impart a few pearls of wisdom to the detail-oriented, such as scrutinizing the fabric quality and stitching for items like jeans. He also says that some manufacturers hide special security markers in their original products which are frequently invisible to the naked eye.
“They cannot use expensive leather to make the fake bags”, said Henry Prichabhanich, senior store manager of Bottega Veneta and Gucci, home of sought-after luxuries like Bottega’s basket-weave bags or Gucci’s horse-bit hobo. In the case of Bottega Veneta, “We use calfskin and it’s really, really soft,” Henry says. Meanwhile, only Grade A fabrics and leathers such as ostrich, stainless-steel hardware and durable zippers go into each Gucci bag. “The fake ones, you can really distinguish the difference. The material, fabric they use is really, really different.”
That doesn’t mean some counterfeit goods manufacturers aren’t trying their best. At one handbag store in Siam Square, a shopgirl who declines to be identified points out bags that are eerily like their real counterparts, down to the last grommet and inside pocket, thanks to customers who willingly bring in their real bags to be copied by fake goods manufacturers. “Our customers mix and match between the real and the fake things,” said the shopgirl. “They want to help other girls save their money, so they bring in their real bags and let us copy them down to the last detail. The only thing missing is the inner code.”
Less easy to distinguish are items like drugs, cigarettes, or even ink cartridges. Unfortunately, it’s often a case of trying it out before realizing the mistake, says Suebsiri. For example, copies of branded ink cartridges use the actual cartridges that have been discarded but replace the real ink with their own fake version.
Wine—particularly the exclusive, priciest vintages—can fall prey to counterfeiters. Philippe Bramaz, a wine agent, says that while wine counterfeits are less pervasive in Thailand than in China or Vietnam, some bottles are especially prone to copycatting: “They are most often one of the most expensive grand crus and best vintages,” he says, singling out sought-after Bordeaux such as Chateau Petrus, Chateau Margaux, Chateau Lafite, and Chateaux Mouton and Latour (especially from 1982, popular among Thai customers). Other famous frauds include fake Penfold’s Grange from Australia and Sassicaia from Italy.
Manufacturers of legitimate goods are fighting back. In the case of wine, winemakers are using DNA technology, bottles with laser etching and bottle closures with embedded microchips, among other techniques, to keep the pirates at bay.
Bramaz offers some tips for telling the difference:
1. Check the price. If it’s a lot cheaper than ones sold at another store, there is a reason.
2. Check the label by comparing it to another bottle by the same winemaker. With fakes, often the paper and printing will be slightly different.
3. Look at the cork. It should read the name of the chateau.
While luxury goods manufacturers aren’t willing to talk specifics, veteran shoppers know the telltale signs betraying a fake bag:
• While some good fakes are also handmade, the artisans are unlikely to be as gifted with the thread and needle, resulting in uneven stitching.
• Some bags, which have a flap over the closure, are lopsided, so would-be buyers would do well to hold these bags at an arm’s length.
• Some bags use different types of leather from the real thing. Know exactly what the real bag is supposed to look like in order to tell the difference. Many bagmakers don’t trot out neon green or fluorescent orange versions of their best bags.
• Chain-link straps or the lock used to keep a bag closed can prove deceptively light, proving the bag is not the real thing.
While few are naturally willing to go on the record about buying or selling fake goods—or even telling the real from the counterfeit—others have opened their hearts about trends emerging on the fake goods front.
According to handbag vendors, for instance, classic versions of Louis Vuitton and Chanel remain perennial favorites with customers. But vendors never display these bags openly in the store, so luxury-seeking browsers have to ask for these specifically.
As in the real retail world, a few new brands are nudging their way into the “I-gotta-get-it” collective consciousness. The Gucci-logoed hobo, the Dior saddlebag, the Balenciaga biker bag, the Luella Bartley bag and anything remotely resembling Chloe, Miu Miu or Mulberry have all become popular with customers. “I didn’t want to get this bag at first, but the vendor said Luella was very hot right now,” says society matron Pao, showing off a white fake in her closet.
Another trend: the fact that these bags, which are almost all made abroad and brought secretly into Thailand, are increasingly being manufactured in China, experts say. That makes cooperation with customs officials paramount in denting the trade in fake goods, but officials cannot hope to stop it altogether until the customers themselves curb their cravings for cheap versions of brand-name bags.
There is hope for shoppers who admire some designs but don’t want to go over to the Dark Side. For example, a new line of Guess brand bags appears to have been inspired by the folks at Gucci, says one eagle-eyed shopper, serving a convenient alternative for G-loving shoppers who don’t want to break the law by buying fakes.
Only rookies and amateurs do MBK or—just imagine!—Patpong. You know better. Instead there you are, down a quiet side street, in a secret back room, hidden from the long arm of the law, while a woman reveals her cellophane-wrapped wares. “This is ‘Grade AAA’—10,000 baht,” she demands in a low voice. You examine the handbag, then hand over the cash. You can’t wait to show this one off to your friends.
We all know buying fake goods means breaking the law, but many of us just don’t care. We’ve all heard the excuses for buying counterfeit goods, usually along the lines of the greedy multinationals taking advantage of us poor consumers. But as a consumer you should be aware that there are other reasons why giving money to the pirates is a bad thing.
The likelihood that the very software you use could be pirated is relatively high; experts estimate three-fourths of the business software in use in Bangkok comes from an illegal source. This includes offices, government agencies, schools—you name it.
Software giant Microsoft derives revenue from its operations in countries where piracy rates are low (the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Japan, and Europe), and piracy dampens the incentive to innovate, says Microsoft Managing Director Andrew McBean. “The reality is that piracy hits small and medium size Thai enterprises much harder, especially in the software development sector where a lot of talented Thai developers and business people are struggling to survive when their innovation is not being rewarded,” he says. “This is not a strong incentive for continued innovation which has implications domestically and internationally.”
The potential damage wrought by counterfeit items can creep into every aspect of your life. The drugs that are supposed to make you healthy may be fake. At best, they may not do anything (vitamin C pills passed off as something else); at worse, they could kill (hundreds of children in developing countries have died from ingesting fake painkillers). Experts say that over 11 percent of legitimate pharmaceutical revenues go to counterfeiters, and this figure is expected to increase to 16 percent by 2010.
Or how about that bottle of wine or vodka? Thousands of people have become sick or died around the world from drinking fake alcohol.
In the City of Angels, clothing is the most-copied item, but all copycats of branded goods face stiff fines and/or hefty jail terms if they are caught. In cases where the goods are copied with obvious mistakes, such as an “E” instead of a “G” on a Gucci bag, manufacturers risk a maximum of a B200,000 fine and/or two years’ prison time. Those whose fakes attempt to be exact replicas could see double the jail sentence and/or fine.
Authorities conduct daily raids on both manufacturers and vendors, but healthy demand encourages others to take their place almost immediately. “It’s still a big problem,” said Police Detective Wichien Pramulsin, handing in his day’s haul of six counterfeit logo’ed wallets. “Although we catch many vendors, they still return later and keep on selling.”
The goods Det. Wichien has seized are earmarked for court, where a judge decides whether to destroy them. The days of steamrollers and elephant-stomping are gone; now police are more likely to build a bonfire to ensure the products are completely destroyed.
But eradicating the problem completely is nearly impossible. “Raiding the vendors would be useless,” says lawyer Suebsiri Taweepon. “We’d be doing it every hour.”
In the case of software, companies and senior management of companies caught using unlicensed programs face penalties of up to B800,000 and up to four years in jail.
Established in 1989, this museum has been painstakingly cultivated from years of raids on manufacturers of counterfeit goods, which were later used as evidence in court and then stashed away in boxes. The museum now features around 1,500 pieces ranging from jeans, shirts and sports gear to guitars, auto parts, pharmaceutical products, cigarettes and even ink cartridges.
“The objective of this museum is to educate people,” says Suebsiri Taweepon, lawyer at the firm. “We want to educate law students and any other people interested in intellectual property law, and encourage young people to stop buying fake goods.”
Before you rush on over to their office on Soi Tonson, the museum is not open to the public, so an appointment must be made through Tilleke & Gibbins for a private viewing. If you’re interested, call Tilleke & Gibbins at 02-263-7700 during business hours (9am-5pm) to request your own guided tour into the world of fake goods.
Tilleke & Gibbins, 64/1 Soi Tonson, Ploenchit Rd., 02-263-7700, 02-652-2822-26, 02-254-2640-53. Open by appointment only. BTS Chidlom.
2-2/1 Soi Convent, Silom Rd. 02-631-0355.
Open daily 7am-10pm.
The Setting: La Boulange offers both indoor and outdoor dining in cheerful, if somewhat sterile, bistro-like surroundings. Blackboards with the day’s specials are offset by a generous use of brick and checkered tablecloths. People-watching opportunities abound out front, as long as diners are willing to put up with sweltering heat.
The Selection: The loaves of bread are prepared daily at their bakery on Rama 3 Road, then transported to Convent Road every morning, where they are warmed again. On any given day, around 11 types are on offer, ranging from the mini retro, or white bread (B15), to the hefty boule campagne (B120).
The Taste: Although in need of some warming, the bread is consistently good, with a crunchy, floury exterior that belies a soft and chewy center. The popular montagne, or sourdough (B72), is perfect for a midday sandwich, while the campagne (B60) could happily accompany any soup bowl in town.
The Verdict: For good, tasty consistency, it is hard to go wrong with La Boulange, with its welcoming atmosphere and extensive French bistro menu. But the selection could be more extensive and bread could come warmed.
G/F, Natural Ville Executive Residences, Lang Suan Rd. 02-250-7050-1.
Open daily 6am-10pm.
The Setting: The venerable French institution comes to town with a flagship restaurant decked out in enough natural wood, dark marble and glass to make any Bangkok grande dame feel at home. Service treads the fine line between unobtrusive and solicitous. Three other branches are located at Emporium, the Sofitel Silom hotel and Siam Paragon.
The Selection: Le Notre, which bakes all its bread on the premises, offers a heftily priced country baguette (B60), an old-fashioned or brown bread loaf (B80), crunchy white tabatiere (B80) and sourdough (B80). However, the offerings still weigh on the scant side when compared with rival bakeries.
The Taste: Made daily upstairs, all bread sports a crunchy, flour-dusted shell and a dense texture within. The sourdough long and round loaves are most popular and bear just a hint of tartness. Bread is always served warm and the Lang Suan restaurant is popular with executives and families alike.
The Verdict: You can’t beat what is on offer. While the surroundings are tranquil and the bread tasty, breadophiles with an eye for the exotic should turn elsewhere for more adventurous offerings. You may need to order one day in advance, too.
G/F, Siam Paragon, 991 Rama 1 Rd. 02-610-9845.
Open daily 10am-10:30pm.
The Setting: A bright space on the ground floor of a busy shopping mall was the latest branch to open at the end of last year. Some tables are available for diners, but the shop appears to do a brisker takeaway business. Two other branches are tucked away in the Central Chidlom and Emporium shopping centers.
The Selection: The Oriental Shop offers on average about 12 types of bread, from the tiny mini baguette (B20) to the hard-to-find dark Bavarian rye (B80). The Belgian (B53), meant to showcase pate, is also a rare find, as is the slightly sweet brioche loaf (B33).
The Taste: Strangely, the baguette manages to be chewy both inside and out—unusual for those hoping to get a traditionally flaky loaf. A better bet might be the popular muesli loaf (B80), a dark bread sprinkled with the ingredients of the morning cereal and a rarity in rice-eating Thailand.
The Verdict: The Oriental Shop certainly has variety, so diners would do well to try out the more difficult-to-get types such as the sesame (B30) and sunflower (B30) mini-loaves.
309/3 Nanglinchee Rd.02-818-2700-6.
Open daily 10am-10pm.
The Setting: The bakery for expats in the know or young Thai yuppies-in-training, Folies proves that even in easygoing Thailand, the unique French style of service can be contagious: the main shop features frugal surroundings, while the Alliance Francaise branch sports a pared-back restaurant.
The Selection: A decent range of breads comprising around 10 types on any given day, including the perennial favorite French Stick (B33), the Italian (B35), the Paysanne (B50), the honey wheat (B22) and the pre-sliced honey bread (B50).
The Taste: The baguettes are perfectly made with a pleasant, crunchy texture and yeasty fragrance, while the Italian is cheerfully chewy and the whole wheat robust enough to placate any health-food lover.
The Verdict: Good enough to warrant braving the traditionally surly service. Go early in order to avoid seeing particular favorites out of stock for the day.
Carrefour, on the corner of Rama 4 Rd. and Sukhumvit Soi 26. 02-661-5580-4 ext. 123.
Open daily 9am-11pm.
The Setting: Not a place for lingerers, Carrefour Bakery is set up for the housewife on the go: a corner packed with baked goods also lends a glimpse into the state-of-the-art kitchen, where chefs can be seen industriously pounding or patting creations into place.
The Selection: The most extensive selection surveyed, Carrefour offers at least 15 varieties of bread on any given day, including two kinds of baguettes—the rustique (B27) and the French (B23), country sourdough (B59), hearty French Village (B70) and the bacon sourdough bread (B60).
The Taste: Freshly made every day, the Carrefour baguette has a chewy texture and a rather tough crust that could deter those with less-than-strong teeth. The buttery croissants (B45 for four) are more widely acclaimed.
The Verdict: A convenient location geared toward people in a hurry, Carrefour Bakery ensures Bangkok housewives have their very own place to buy freshly baked baguettes. Their sweet goods may prove more popular.
Remorseful husbands call in standing orders for them at the corner florists. Recovering patients receive baskets of them at the hospital. In bridal bouquets, on birthdays and for Mother’s Day, people almost always choose to say what they feel with flowers. Where does all the floral bounty come from? In Thailand, a good bet would be the outermost fringes of the biggest wet market in Bangkok—Pak Klong Talaat, perched on the edge of the Chao Phraya River.
This bustling flower market along Chakraphet Road truly comes alive after most people go to sleep—the wee hours of 2am-4am, when boats and trucks from nearby provinces come laden with fruits, vegetables and flowers to hawk their wares to vendors who will re-sell them in the morning. Forming the northeastern edge of Chinatown, a trip to Chakraphet Road not only allows visitors to cut out the middleman by getting their flowers from the source, but also lends a good excuse for a hearty Chinese meal and a glimpse into Thailand How It Used To Be: full of smiling people eager to make you feel at home. Just make sure to come before 10am, when this market finally tucks itself into bed.
While most of the flower shops look similar and all charge similar prices,
a few do stand out. Chon Panyaditikun has run Nana Florist (98/1-2 Baan Mor Rd., 02-221-9210) for 14 years and says hers is the oldest remaining shop on the street. Her carnations, lilies and chrysanthemums hail from places as diverse as Kunming and Malaysia. Although the year has been a hard one due to an uncertain economy, she expects a big boon on August 12—Mother’s Day, when white lilies (B300 for three) and white daisies (B20 for one bunch) will be snapped up by hundreds of Thais. “It’s clean to the eye,” said Chon, explaining the Thai emphasis on the color white for Mother’s Day. “Anything white works.”
Roses and lilies may be well and good, but traditionalists will always favor the fragrant jasmine flower, tucked into bouquets lined with banana leaf. “Jasmine is a symbol of Mother’s Day and has been for a long time,” said Goong of Napasorn, the chicest flower store on the block (67 Chakraphet Rd., 02-222-6895, 02-221-2039). “When people buy for those who are older, they expect simple arrangements that denote respect. Valentine’s Day is when people really go all out.”
One problem: The price of jasmine bouquets, which usually hovers around B20, soars fivefold to B100 in the days running up to Mother’s Day. “You can get good profits on Mother’s Day,” cackles Thuk, a sidewalk flower vendor for the past 10 years. “It doesn’t matter if the economy is no good. People still have to buy flowers for their mothers.”
As a result, Napasorn’s Goong advises a small basket of jasmine buds, which will be cheaper and may last longer than a traditional bouquet. “It’s like potpourri and is easy to do,” he says.