Part Uno: From Bangkok, with love
(Our accommodation and flight to Bangkok were kindly sponsored by Bangkok2Tour as part of their new Halal tour program. All views expressed, however, are our own.)
Bangkok has a reputation synonymous with value-for-money shopping, a vibrant street food scene (which has since been put on pause), and a cultural mecca of temples, shopping centres, and fancy restaurants. While inclusive in many ways and promising something for everyone, there is, however, a group of tourists for whom travel to Bangkok may prove to be arduous; Muslims.
Given their strict dietary requirements, finding Halal restaurants could be an exercise in frustration or one that is quixotic. While not completely uncommon, Halal-certified restaurants in Bangkok are in such low supply that coming up with an exhaustive list of places that are Muslim-friendly would be a walk in the park. But what Muslim travellers are really missing out on is the experience of enjoying Bangkok’s gastronomical jewel: its street food.
According to the latest census, there are 6.3 million Muslims in Thailand, making up about ten percent of the population. A majority of them lives in the southern Thai provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Satun and Pattani and some districts of Songkhla. In the past, Thai Muslims in the South has been at the receiving end of military oppression, often being scapegoated for all the troubles in the region. But royal patronage of Islam has softened its image and markedly abated Islam’s negative reputation.
Recently, Bangkok2Tour approached The Food Project SG, offering to sponsor our flight and accommodation to Bangkok for a bespoke travel experience focused on Halal street food. Interest piqued, we immediately said yes and two weeks later found ourselves on a Jetstar flight out to the land of smiles with our travel companion, Chef Firdauz Nasir. The flight was as uneventful as a weekend flight could be, save for a kindly elderly Caucasian lady who shared the same interest as us in Netflix shows (Black Mirror, Altered Carbon) and wasn’t shy about quietly listening in on our conversation.
Upon reaching Bangkok, we were greeted by our local Bangkok guide, Tiger, who whisked us away in our own personal aircon; perfect for a typically warm and humid day in Bangkok. Tiger, is also the co-owner of Bangkok2Tour and coincidentally, a walking Wikipedia of all things Bangkok. His knowledge spans the gamut from road navigation to politics to hidden places of interest, all tinged with a brilliant sense of humor. It helps that he is fluent in English, a skill we would soon come to appreciate as we traversed places undisturbed by tourism and commercialization and teaming with friendly locals who do not speak the Singapore vernacular.
After whizzing through the infamous Bangkok traffic in our personal sedan (which in actuality is a huge 10-seater van, but could as well pass for a magical flying carpet ride), we arrived at Al-Meroz Hotel. A gilded palace (Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore) rising out of the neighbourhood of Suan Luang, Al-Meroz is Bangkok’s first Halal 4-star hotel, offering Muslim tourists an accommodation option that caters to their religious beliefs. The hotel opened in 2015 and has dedicated itself to cater to practicing Muslims by ensuring bed linens are washed in accordance with Islamic rules and that the provided toiletries are free of alcohol and animal fat. There is no alcohol for sale and the rooftop infinity swimming pool and gym have specific timings for when men and women can use the facilities.
Bags settled and bodies slightly rested, we continued with the part of the tour that we, as ambassadors of The Food Project SG and lovers of street food, have been looking forward to. Into the van, we went, off to adventures unknown.
But, we ran into a snag. The market we intended to visit was unfortunately closed on that particular day. While others might crumble in utter despair, we had Tiger. He ran through his Rolodex of places, streets, markets, nooks, and crannies to find us a market that sells Halal food.
As we made our way to the market, looking around, I noticed the roads becoming smaller, with cars and lorries rumbling by. Lining the streets were shops that, instead of selling trinkets and tiny things well-loved by the typical tourists, sold sundry essential goods that were more functional for a resident in his daily life; pails, brooms, cheap handbags (yes, for some these are necessary, okay), and medicinal supplies. The van rumbled to a stop and we alighted, very clearly out of place in this quaint residential town. An accurate comparison to my Singaporean readers would be to bring a tourist to Mayflower wet market at Ang Mo Kio during the morning hustle and bustle.
Yes, we were those tourists. We were those tourists gushing in mild embarrassment at not being able to speak a word of Thai to these wonderful shopkeepers who were, for all intents and purposes, gracious, sincere, and ever so willing to explain to us through miming or intensive gesticulating that this sausage is made of chicken meat. This was where Tiger’s impeccable United Nations level translation came in extremely handy. Being a native of Bangkok, Tiger was very familiar with the street foods sold at this market, and accommodating to our occasional fascination at something he would find common.
This beautiful lady (with rouge on her lips, like a model) positioned right at the entrance of the market sold the most amazing Quail egg wrapped in Wanton skin. At this point in time, Tiger was away looking for a stall where could sit and enjoy a bowl of noodles. Left to our own devices, we merely pointed and held up fingers to indicate quantity. Being the visual creature that I am, I bought more of the chicken sausages on the right but dutifully making sure I bought a little bit of everything she sold.
Dipped with a homemade blend of authentic Thai chilli sauce, the quail wrapped in wonton skin was by far, the best thing I’ve eaten in the three days we spent in Bangkok. This was the perfect example of exquisite simplicity for such a remarkably common ingredient. It was fried to crispy perfection, a feat that could only be achieved with immaculate timing and acute control over the oil temperature. Perched on a bamboo skewer, the wonton stayed perfectly pert even after some time. This, I’m certain, was the true taste of Bangkok. If you had the opportunity to visit this amazingly local market, please patronise the stall of la belle dame au rouge à lèvres if only for her wonderful quail eggs, wrapped in wonton.
A few metres down from the market is a Thai noodle stall run by another friendly lady who ushered us in like it was her own home. The set-up was neat and immaculately clean; tables draped with highly patterned fabric before being wrapped in a plastic sheet, lest anyone makes a mess in this home. On one side of the wall are huge pots of boiling broth, and an assembly station where the owner prepares the orders for her customers.
We tried three noodles dishes; Tom Yum, Tomato, and Beef Curry. This here was an outstanding example of culinary authenticity prepared lovingly by a chef who has achieved mastery of her art. Unlike in Singapore where halal foods often exists as an exercise in substitution for a non-halal option (ie swapping out pork bones with chicken bones), here, the local Muslim community, having spent their whole life in Thailand, has not only adapted traditionally non-halal Thai food for the Muslim lifestyle, but elevated it to the point where familiar flavours are not conveniently discarded. Forget what you think you know about Tom Yum noodles from all the variations you can find in Singapore. Here, in this humble eatery, the chef cooks from the soul of a Thailand native, using ingredients and cooking methods she’s known since youth. Every level of Tom-Yumness is brilliantly amalgamated; the spicy, the sweet, and the sour. Truly, what could be better?
To cap off day one, please allow me to introduce you to the best and only way to cook, sell and eat corn.
1) Boil corn
2) Quickly immerse in a brine of salt water
3) Slice it length-wise
4) Put in bag. Enjoy.
Stay tuned for Part Duo!