Tim Footman: Check bin! What I hate about Bangkok restaurants

Tim Footman: Check bin! What I hate about Bangkok restaurants

After one too many bad pieces of blueberry cheesecake, a Bangkok food writer lets rip on the city’s eating culture

Living in Bangkok and writing about food is a bit like living in Lapland and writing about snow. It’s everywhere, from hi-so establishments where you need to mortgage your firstborn before you’re allowed to look at the wine list to humble roadside establishments where the plastic chairs look as if they’ve been around since the days of King Chulalongkorn. 

“It must be such fun,” say my friends. 

Well, yes it is. But there are just a few things …

At some point in the distant past, an apparatchik in the Tourism Authority realized that if he said enough times that service in Thailand is fabulous, people would believe it.

It’s not that service is always bad; it’s just not noticeably better than anywhere else in Asia. 

Leave aside the all-pervading concept of "sanuk" -- fun -- which means that chatting to friends, watching TV soaps or attending to one’s zits is at least as important as taking and fulfilling orders; it often seems that waiting staff don’t have the faintest interest in the food they’re serving, and certainly can’t be persuaded to offer any opinion or advice on it. 

In fact, in many smart eateries, it seems that the main criterion for getting a job is a good pair of cheekbones and the ability to look nice in a black T-shirt. 

In many a Thai restaurant a waiter, confronted with an all-Western party, will make a unilateral decision to have all the spices and flavorings expunged from the dishes.

Do you know what tom yum goong is if you leave out the chili and lime juice? It’s fish soup, and pretty boring fish soup at that. 

green curry Green curry without the spice? Not so hot. It’s fair enough when the punters specifically ask for their food “mai phet," but if foreigners are served denatured, emasculated Thai food as standard, they’ll think that’s what it’s supposed to taste like; and in that case they may as well have gone to their local “Thai” place in Dortmund or Des Moines. 

This works both ways, incidentally. More than once has an Italian chef admitted to surreptitiously adding fish sauce to a pasta dish, “because Thais think that’s what it should taste like." 

Originality is not the be-all and end-all of eating out; sometimes it’s nice to enjoy an old favorite.

But in Bangkok, restaurants take this to extraordinary degrees, with even the spelling mistakes replicated from one menu to another -- how many times have you been offered “lamp” chops, or maybe “cappers” on your pizza? 

But things really reach Groundhog Day proportions when you get to the dessert section. Somewhere there must be a law that all eating establishments must offer tiramisu, panna cotta and (give me strength) blueberry cheesecake. Like traffic jams and blue plastic pipes, they’re just part of the landscape. 

A bossa nova lite version of an old Cyndi Lauper song does not make a mediocre dish taste better. Quite the opposite. 

Of course, eating out isn’t always just about the food. Many want to be seen at the newest, smartest, most hi-so places, to show they know where they are, and that they can afford them (or that daddy can).

Restaurateurs inevitably respond to this by adding ingredients that are the culinary equivalent of Lacroix and Louis Vuitton to dishes that either don’t need them, or can’t be saved by them.

Does it work? Does it taste good? No, but it’s got foie gras/white truffles/gold leaf/Beluga caviar/Matsusaka beef in it, so hey, who cares?

And they wash it down with an eye-poppingly expensive bottle of Romanée-Conti. With ice. And soda. 

Finally, what's with these 'Thai girlfriend' menus? He chows down remorselessly on an all-day breakfast or some other vague approximation of his own national cuisine; she chooses khao soi from the Thai menu at the back, but seems more intent on checking the messages on her new phone, or maybe doing her nails. They’re sharing a table, but they may as well be on different planets.

 

Tim Footman has written for The Guardian, Mojo, Prospect, Thailand Tatler and the Bangkok Post. He is the author of "The Noughties 2000-2009: A Decade that Changed the World."
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