Thai in London: The British chefs putting a twist on ancient tradition
For many years, British food was the laughing stock of the culinary community. A stick with which to goad Brits at every opportunity, the food we produced was famed for being overcooked, under-seasoned and often shambolic. Fortunately, times have changed. As a modern country defined by a unique blend of national heritages and cuisines, the cooking culture that has now blossomed is a true melting pot, with influences drawn from every corner of the globe. It’s little wonder, therefore, that the UK is today home to some of the finest examples of Thai cooking found anywhere outside Southeast Asia.
The recent explosion of high-quality Thai food has been more noticeable in London than anywhere else. A concentration of exceptional chefs are all riffing on Thai traditions and enjoying great commercial and critical success. Restaurants like Som Saa, Smoking Goat, Farang and The Begging Bowl have introduced Londoners to a world beyond green curry paste, incorporating barbecue, street food and European ingredients. The result is something recognisably Thai, yet subtly unique.
While this sudden surge in popularity is a welcome addition to London’s culinary landscape, it also prompts a number of questions. Why does Britain suddenly have such an embarrassment of riches when it comes to Thai cuisine? What is it about the food that attracts such a wealth of talent, and why has it now become so popular? To try and get some answers, we’ve had a look back at the history of Thai, spent some time talking to the chefs on the front line and eaten some of their acclaimed food. It’s been a tough week.
Until relatively recently, Thai cooking outside Asia was a fairly unknown quantity. When compared to other Asian cuisines, such as Chinese or Indian, it didn’t come close. It could even be argued that the food’s current global profile actually owes as much to Australia as it does to its homeland. This is thanks to the well-known Thai food advocate and Australian chef David Thompson. His London-based restaurant Nahm became the first Thai restaurant in the world to be awarded a Michelin Star, marking a turning point in Thai’s rise to mainstream prominence. While exceptional Thai food had been produced in Southeast Asia for centuries, this recognition undoubtedly helped it to capture the world’s attention.
It was under the guidance of Thompson that many of the UK’s current generation of Thai chefs began to blossom. This is certainly true for head chef and proprietor of Peckham-based restaurant The Begging Bowl. Jane Alty was sous-chef at Nahm during the early to mid 2000s and she fell in love with Thai under Thompson’s tutelage and credits him as a major influence.
“For sure, David’s been such an inspiration to a huge echelon of people,” Alty says. Thanks to Thompson’s influence, many of the techniques used at Nahm have now become staples at The Begging Bowl. “We make our own coconut cream and still do many things 'the Nahm way'”, she reveals.
The use of these techniques has become hugely significant for the entire British Thai scene. According to Seb Holmes, head chef at Islington's Farang, “almost everyone working [at his restaurant] has spent time working in The Begging Bowl”. Indeed, almost all of the most celebrated Thai restaurants share a common ancestry when it comes to training. Seb himself spent time as head chef at Thai barbecue specialists Smoking Goat. While maintaining a professional rivalry, many of the scene’s front-runners have a very close personal relationship with each other. Clearly, this pooling of techniques and resources has had a huge impact on the incredible quality of Thai cookery now on display.
There are many reasons why talented and enterprising British chefs may find themselves drawn to Thai cooking. Holmes says that it is the flavours of Asian food that appeal - “the combination of sweet, salty, sour and spicy” providing a constant source of inspiration. Alty says that it is “the technical side of Thai food” that really appeals to her. What’s clear is that, whatever your style as a chef, there is something for everyone in a Thai kitchen.
While Jane Alty owes a good deal of her culinary training to modern British fine dining institutions, she has since had to perfect a whole new range of skills specific to Thai food to make a success of The Begging Bowl. Seb Holmes puts the reason for so many shared resources amongst the modern Thai cooking community down to the level of specialisation required in the kitchen. As he puts it, since “everything about the food is so specialist” so it’s inevitable that many chefs end up working in the same restaurants.
It’s this specialisation that explains why Thai cuisine may only now be enjoying mainstream success. The complexity of the cooking and variety of flavours on display helps it appeal to a more food-literate audience. It’s no coincidence that Thai has become more popular just as Britain has become a far foodier place than ever before. According to Alty, when The Begging Bowl first launched, “people treated it as a takeaway rather than a place to spend an evening. It has taken a long time for people to take it seriously as a restaurant”. Alty is in no doubt that “customers have become more daring” as the business and scene as a whole have become more established.
Though the success of Thai cookery has brought a great deal of joy to diners throughout the country, there are nonetheless question marks over the authenticity of the modern scene. For all the success that they are enjoying, it’s painfully clear that the current scene is short on people of direct Thai descent.
Both Alty and Holmes are forthright when it comes to discussing the authenticity of their own cooking, and neither are trying to take credit for the real thing. "Farang" literally translates as “white foreigner” - Holmes’ acknowledgement of his place in the pantheon of Thai eateries. As he puts it, “I’m a 27-year-old white dude, born in Oxford, who’s been to Thailand for a bit. I’d be a **** to claim to be the real thing”. Similarly, Alty “doesn’t prepare traditional dishes, but uses ingredients that have to make sense with Thai food”. The new wave of British Thai restaurants may not be traditional, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t delicious, or aware of their heritage.
With successful Thai restaurants now a feature of the foodscape, the future seems bright. Farang, originally intended to be a six-month popup, has just found a permanent home in Highbury. Meanwhile, The Begging Bowl is now a firm favourite with Peckham locals and travelling customers alike. Smoking Goat have opened a second restaurant in Shoreditch and Rosa’s Thai have recently launched an exclusively vegetarian branch of their popular chain in the heart of Soho. Thai food has the ability to challenge customers and chefs alike and, under the watchful eye of skilled practitioners, is constantly reinventing itself. It’s this flexibility that will help it continue to appeal to a growing customer base. Foodies around the world should take note: Britain is well and truly established as a top Thai food destination.