It’s difficult to imagine any Thai food lacking in flavour, or aroma, or punch … but according to Bongkoch 'Bee' Satongun of Bangkok’s Paste restaurant, the vibrancy of her national cuisine is being slowly eroded, as Thais opt for convenience over freshness. And Bangkok-born Satongun, who has just been named Asia’s Best Female Chef 2018, an award she’ll collect at Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants sponsored by S.Pellegrino and Acqua Panna on 27 March in Macao (live-stream the ceremony on Fine Dining Lovers here), is on a mission to revive what she sees as the golden age of Thai cooking.
“Nowadays, you can buy many things at the market, such as curry paste, when in the olden days they would make it fresh,” says Satongun when we speak over a crackly line from the Thai capital. “If the paste has been sitting at the market for a long time, it loses the aroma of all those fresh herbs,” she continues, “coconut milk too. Before, people would squeeze it fresh, but now machines have come into the picture … and even tinned coconut, which has changed the flavour of Thai cuisine.”
Satongun spent her early childhood in the kitchen, helping her mother at the small Bangkok restaurant the family owned, making curry paste and squeezing coconuts from as young as five-years-old, before pursuing a career in business, feeling the cook’s life was too much of a “chore.” It was only when she met her husband, Thai food loving-Australian chef Jason Bailey, at the age of 28 (she’s now 41), who would go on to train her, that she made the decision to pursue cooking professionally and to try to recreate the flavour and aromas of her childhood. The husband and wife team have opened two incarnations of Paste in Bangkok and have won rave reviews for their ‘heirloom creative Thai cuisine.’ Now based in Gaysorn, they love to plunder the old cookbooks of aristocratic Thai families such as the Sanitwongs, who are also partners in the business, particularly from the period 1870 to 1930.
“In the olden days, they didn’t have to go out to work, so cooking was like a sport for them, [the families] tried to compete with one another,” says Satongun. “The recipes we find in that period are the peaks of the Thai food scene, because everybody created and they mixed with Chinese, Thai-Indian or even Western cooking. Then when Thailand changed to a democracy [from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy in 1932], the creativity in Thai cooking stopped because the females – most of the cooks were female – had to go out to work. The cooking became easier – fried rice, green curry and tom yum. Instead of a lot of prep, everything had to be quicker for people.”
Each dish at the restaurant, Satongun says, is around 80% traditional and 20% innovation – "something old, something new" – and she and Bailey, who looks after front of house and operations, like to travel the length and breadth of Thailand in search of inspiration and new ingredients, particularly rare herbs. All the curry pastes are of course made in house, food is smoked using lychee wood and coconut husks and meat, while the menu also features Islamic-inspired cooking from the south of the country, including a signature smoky yellow curry of crab, samphire and turmeric. Galangal and lemongrass are her closest friends. “When the customer comes, they see the presentation and they think that the flavour might not be traditional, but when they taste the food it reminds them of their grandma’s cooking and that’s what the customer loves about us. To see that the customer really enjoys the food is the reward for us.”
That customer is now more likely to be foreign she says after the arrival of the Michelin Guide in Bangkok, in which Paste was awarded one star, but apart from that she hasn’t noticed any real difference in Bangkok’s dining scene due to the Red Guide, though she feels it almost certainly will have an effect (one recipeint of a star has already expressed her desire to return it.) She herself likes to eat in home-style restaurants, with “old grandmas” at the stove. The Asia’s Best Female Chef award, which was a complete "surprise," is a great opportunity for her to show off Thai cooking to the world, she says.
Throughout our call I can hear Satongun and Bailey’s five-year-old daughter Sydney in the background and Satongun tells me she has been helping out in the kitchen since she was two, beating even her mother’s early start in the industry. “The restaurant’s inside of her,” says Satongun. “She says she’s going to take over Paste when she grows up. I’m not sure if it’s cooking or operations, but she said ‘Mum when I grow up you’re going to stop cooking.’”