Jason Bailey, an award-winning Australian chef who earlier this year opened his first restaurant in Bangkok, Paste in Thong Lor’s soi 49, is adamant Thai food can be modernized and refined without compromising the elements that make it quintessentially Thai.
“A good modern Thai chef is not bastardizing 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, 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.”