Housed in a glass-front, two-storey building in Bangkok’s Watthana district is Ici, a dessert café that serves up sugary works of edible art. It was founded by Thai-born, French-trained pastry chef Arisara ‘Paper’ Chongphanitkul, who worked in some of Bangkok’s most renowned fine-dining restaurants before opening her own place.
“You can find almost everything you want in Bangkok,” Paper says. “It’s a perfect mixture of culture, people and food.”
There’s nowhere this mixture is better experienced than in Bangkok’s street food scene, which is celebrated the world over. Vendors line the streets in neighbourhoods such as Banglamphu and Saphan Lueng, but perhaps the most popular place for street food in Bangkok – and Paper’s personal recommendation – is Chinatown’s Yaowarat Road.
First-time visitors to Bangkok shouldn’t leave without trying classic Thai dishes such as street noodles, pad thai and tom yum soup, says Paper. Jeh O Chula in Bangkok’s Pathum Wan District is the pastry chef’s favourite restaurant, and is famous for its huge, colourful tom yum noodle bowls. “It’s street food made with good-quality ingredients,” she says. “I’ve been eating at Jeh O since I was young, with my family, and I still go there now. I recommend it to everyone.”
Fragrance, spice and fresh ingredients are key elements in Thai cooking. For organic produce, Paper shops at Talad Thai, a large market just north of Bangkok, and also works directly with local farmers. She speaks highly of her boss, Frederic Meyer, a French restaurateur who manages an impressive portfolio of Bangkok restaurants. “He wants our restaurants to use organic ingredients, so he does everything himself. He goes to vegetable farms, rice fields and tea plantations.”
However, it’s not only local cuisine on the menu in Thailand’s capital. The city’s restaurant scene draws inspiration from all over the world, including “Thai food from every region, plus Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Mexican, Lebanese and Western”, according to Paper.
This meeting of cultures is manifest in Paper’s desserts. At her café, Paper merges the craft of pastry-making she learned in Europe with the unique flavours and ingredients of her home country, such as lemongrass, mango and coconut.
“In Thai culture we don’t adjust our existing traditions,” she says. “We take good things that we see or experience in other places and adapt them to what we already have, making them better.”
For the ultimate Bangkok experience, Paper recommends the ever-popular Chatuchak Market – the largest market in Asia. “You’ll be surprised at the variety of things you can find in one place,” she says. As for Bangkok’s coolest spots, Paper favours traditional areas rich in history that offer a respite from the big city, such as Old Town, Wat Pho temple complex and the Grand Palace.
Overall, though, she believes it’s the food that makes Bangkok special. “You can eat anything at any time – in the streets, in restaurants, from early in the morning until late at night,” Paper says. Alongside Jeh O, she recommends her own restaurant as one of the city’s best places to eat. “Everything I really want a café to be, I put into this place.”
Explore some of the world’s most vibrant cities through local chefs and unique food with the full series of Hungerlust.