“You paid how much for Thai food?”, asked a friend over lunch one day.
Yes, I paid $300 for a dinner for two with a bottle of wine. But that’s at Nahm, the Thai restaurant that received a Michelin star in London – the first of restaurants specialising in that cuisine to do so – before it moved to Bangkok in 2010. This year, it was named the top restaurant in the region in Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ranking.
The price is steep, if you associate Thai food with hole-in-the-wall eateries run by sweaty matriarchs. But to put things in perspective: Dinner at Swissotel’s Jaan or Hashida Sushi at Mandarin Gallery, both respected restaurants, would cost almost $1,000 for two. The same friend didn’t seem to think this an obscene amount for these fine-dining establishments.
The question is, why would people be willing to fork out more for French or Japanese cuisine but baulk at paying the same for other types of food?
In their defence, the ingredients in French and Japanese cuisines aren’t as accessible as those of regional foods. Replicating the dishes also takes time and technical ability. In Japanese cuisine, that could mean deboning and slicing fish neatly – skills that take decades to master. Then there’s the act of getting them fresh enough to consume raw – you just can’t hide the taste of stale fish.
French restaurants, on the other hand, conjure images of status and refinement with their thick white table cloths, polished silverware and impeccable service by suited waiters. Even bucolic dishes like the duck confit, regarded by many as the centrepiece of French fare, takes two days to make. Salt-curing the duck leg takes 36 hours, then it’s poached in it its own fat for up to 10 hours. Did I mention that duck fat can be found only at a few locations in Singapore and costs as much as an actual duck confit at a restaurant?
The thing is, neither French nor Japanese were born as haute cuisines. In A History of Cooks and Cooking, Michael Symons wrote that restaurants were conceived only in the 1800s, in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Chefs, once exclusively employed by the nobility, were left jobless when scores of aristocrats died at the guillotine. Out came the first restaurants with all the trimmings of la noblesse dining: table cloths, menus, private tables and, of course, haute cuisine. This new way of eating was further fuelled by a growing middle class which moved from the countryside to Paris, in order to take up jobs in heavy industries.
If it took time for the French culinary discipline to reach such heights, then so can other cuisines. As it is, the food at Nahm is hardly the stuff served at the average Thai eatery. Its Australian chef, David Thompson, was said to have scoured the kingdom for ancient recipes. And there certainly isn’t a lack of skills or mastery of flavours on display.
I had his signature guinea fowl braised till tender in a yellow curry that’s the perfect blend of spicy, sweet and sour. It doesn’t require fish-deboning skills or take two days to prepare, but Thai food has a much wider range of tastes. It takes an experienced flavour memory to combine ingredients like spicy chillies, sour kaffir limes and creamy coconut milk into a harmonious whole.
Premium ingredients and adventurous combinations? Sure. They’re present in Thompson’s stir-fried wagyu beef with holy basil and phak phai – or laksa leaf. Some communities in the north-eastern Thai region of Isan even have raw minced beef with the leaf as a salad. Steak tartare, anyone?
It would seem then like there’s a discrepancy in the appreciation of skills – and that’s unfortunate. If the French bourgeoisie can have enough faith to dine at the then new concepts called “restaurants”, why can’t we play our part and support the beginnings of fine dining for other types of cooking closer to home?
So, yes, dinner at Nahm cost $300. But that sum went to more than just my meal. It’s my small contribution to fuel the ascent of regional cuisines to international standards. It’s about time Asians take our place as equals of the giants in the culinary world.