Meet the Thai women reviving ancient recipes for food-lovers in Bangkok

Meet the Thai women reviving ancient recipes for food-lovers in Bangkok

A project designed to revive ancient Thai recipes and reinvent them for modern diners is causing a stir in Bangkok.

Published September 30, 2023

8 min read

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

A Thai princess and her entourage sweep through the glass-atrium foyer of Time Kaan, past tall cabinets stuffed to the ceiling with antique tomes and recipe books, to take a seat for dinner. Dutiful waiters are lined up against the wall waiting to be called forward, and the mingled fragrance of cinnamon, pepper and coconut drifts from the kitchen. A flash-happy photographer buzzes around the dining room, capturing the royal arrival, while, behind him, a large clock with golden hands counts down the minutes to the first course.

After opening in December 2022 in Bangkok’s Khlong Tan Nuea district, Time Kaan — its name meaning ‘according to time’ in Thai — quickly became the talk of the town. Restaurant critics have admired the subtle flavours and balanced dishes, while social media pundits have fallen in love with head chef Pornprom (Pol) Laomanutsuk’s theatrical presentation. It’s little wonder the princess has been drawn here tonight.

The signature seasonal 14-course set meal features versions of dishes that graced humble tables long before King Vajiralongkorn’s ancestors founded Bangkok in 1782, and even before the founding of the Kingdom of Sukhothai, in what’s now north-central Thailand, in 1238. Dining here promises to transport the princess back in time through the eras, conquests and dynasties that shaped Thailand, by exploring how and what Thai people ate.

When co-owner Tripradap (Pui) Wangwongwiwat greets me at my table, she is cool and composed and seems utterly unfazed by the royal spectacle that has just rolled in. It’s a demeanour she perfected over many years spent working under pressure in Michelin-starred restaurants used to receiving celebrity and millionaire diners.

For two years, during the Covid-19-induced border closures, Pui fastidiously collected as many books about Thai cuisine as she could find, forensically tracing the origins of dishes and ingredients through the pages of diplomatic diaries, poems, archived newspapers and dog-eared cookbooks. Most were found in libraries and antique bookshops, but others involved missions across the country to find forgotten texts gathering dust on family bookshelves.

The resulting library is contained in locked glass cabinets, which Pui shows me on an impromptu tour around the restaurant. There are well over a thousand books here, but I’m taken aback when Pui slides open the door of an unused function room to reveal hundreds more books haphazardly scattered across a large table, still waiting to be properly catalogued.

Joining us on the tour is chef Pol. After settling on which dishes would be resurrected to create Time Kaan’s menu, Pui called in Pol to shape her findings into the restaurant’s signature menu. The two had become friends while working together in the restaurant industry, and Pui knew she could trust Pol to faithfully reinvent the dishes. Even with years under her belt working among Bangkok’s culinary elite, Pol admits she was baffled when she first heard the brief.

“One of the dishes dates back more than 1,200 years,” says Pol, to a time when people lived off a subsistence diet of rice, meat and foraging. “A lot of what people ate in the past isn’t suitable for diners today. I had to reinterpret the recipes for modern taste buds.”

Taste was one dilemma; another issue was health and safety. As we return to our table to eat, Pol serves one of the first courses: a spicy salad made with red sea bass. She explains that, historically, this dish was made using an uncommon river fish now known to carry a risk of parasites. That fish has been swapped for sea bass, which Pol chooses herself at the market.

Other changes were more sartorial. A vibrant and aromatic chu chi curry from Ayutthaya, the product of Indian, French and Portuguese trading influences mingling in the ancient port city, is dressed up for social media-loving diners with an artistic wafer made from rice flour, lime leaves, coconut and turmeric. The wafer is a fragrant introduction to the curry’s sweeter flavours before diners dive into the rich, fiery sauce.

Decorations aside, every plate has a story to tell. When each course arrives, Pui transforms into a keen amateur historian, rapidly reciting facts and dates. A grilled chicken and rice dish delivers a deep, earthy spiciness, which Pui explains comes from green peppercorns that were originally used to add heat in Thai food before Portuguese traders arrived in 1511, likely bringing chillies from South America.

Later in the meal, a black sesame and rice dessert called the ‘gold scratching rock’, which resembles a rough brick of charcoal topped with a leaf of edible gold, lands on our table inside a glass pot. Pui’s research found it first appeared three centuries ago and was made for soldiers as a source of energy to carry into battle during the Burmese–Siamese wars. The women who originally baked this dish were, apparently, themselves inspired by Ayutthaya’s gold-mining past, when miners would scratch gold with rocks to test if it was genuine.

But for all that’s known about these recipes, there are also many details and ingredients that have been lost to history. Pui says Time Kaan isn’t striving for complete culinary authority. “I don’t like when people say one type of food is more authentically Thai than something else”, she tells me in between courses. “We’ve been through over 10,000 years of evolution and we should let our food evolve, too. A century from now, how do we know that people will still be eating what we eat today?”

That intersection between tradition and progress is exactly where Time Kaan finds itself as it entices Thai youth to rediscover their heritage in a new, playful way. Halfway through our meal, I’m presented with a palate-cleanser that perfectly captures this concept: a refreshing granita made from ma mao (also known as Thai blueberry), an ancient fruit that’s increasingly being grown by progressive Thai vintners to make wine. The granita arrives adorned with delicate pearls of mint gel, promising a taste of the past and future in one zesty, mouth-popping bite.

Published in the October 2023 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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