It had been five years since I was last in Bangkok. Five years since I was living in The Big Mango. Two-and-a-half of those vanished into an adventitious pandemic void, 912 days lost to history. The other half was dedicated to work commitments and a severe lack of funds. And then, in a quantum leap flash, there I was, caught up again in the city’s sputtering fumes and within the sweaty street stall bustle, like a nostalgic echo of a once lived life. And in my hand, a golden ticket: my reservation for Sorn.
At one point, an actual colour wheel arrived in front of me, an ingredient hotchpotch of turmeric, Jasmine rice and a parade of southern herbs
If you do not know Sorn, then it is the modernist southern Thai restaurant in Bangkok leading the vanguard in all that is good and honest coming out of the country about Thai chefs and Thai cooking. It also happens to be the most difficult reservation to secure in the country behind an audience with the king. The last time the city found itself in such an agitated culinary frenzy was over restaurant Gaggan, between the years 2014 and 2018, when it topped Asia’s Best Restaurant list for four consecutive years. Eager epicureans and international restaurant box-tickers were climbing over themselves to secure a booking at Gaggan’s Lab, even if it meant selling their children’s limbs. I ate there in 2016, 2017 and a handful of times in 2018. But Gaggan was all about Gaggan, the titular name telling you all you needed to know. Sorn, though, does not suffer from the same flaunting exhibitionism. For starters, it’s called Sorn, and chef Supaksorn Jongsiri (semi-titular, admittedly), better known as “Ice”, is not to be found slipping magic mushrooms to diners or quoting Dave Grohl, but in the kitchen cooking. Wow, imagine that.
A Bangkok native, Supaksorn spent much of his childhood with his grandmother on the southern coast of Thailand. Seafood was plentiful and it was a young boy’s education in chilli threshold capabilities. You could divide the country into competing chilli regions, the liberal lathering of endemic spicing and the coping mechanisms of its victims. According to WorldAtlas.com, Thai food is the world’s spiciest cuisine and the southern states responsible for some of the most fearsome, knee-trembling recipes. Much of this feeds into the menu at Sorn, not to cripple or incapacitate visiting farangs, but as a testimony and authentic reflection of southern family Thai recipes, refined and plated to befit a capital setting. Nothing about it is outside influence or international imitation; it isn’t even inclusive of all Thai regional cooking and it certainly isn’t trying to pass itself off with “Royal Recipes”, as so many of the restaurants here do. The menu at Sorn is solely and boastfully the story of the south.
Lots of plates came and went. Recipes of fish and rice, meat and veg. All intricately wired with smells and flavours that I could not even begin to deconstruct. The colours and tonal patterns were all wildly vivid. At one point, an actual colour wheel arrived in front of me, an ingredient hotchpotch of turmeric, Jasmine rice and a parade of southern herbs – lemongrass, gotu kola leaf, torch ginger flower, pink pomelo, kaffir lime leaves, wing bean and so on – the sum of its parts set forth. Then a dressing made from fish innards was poured over the kaleidoscopic ingredients and a gloved waiter used a wooden fork and spoon to mingle and mash it all together, melding and blending everything, pausing only to squeeze in a whole lime, and then continuing to jumble, fork over spoon, spoon over fork, releasing pangs of fishy fumes and the aromas of crushed ginger with cashew and curry leaves. It is a surprisingly simple course, not really a recipe at all and requiring no cooking. Instead, it is a raw vegetable medley specifically served post-starters and pre-rice course to demonstrate the flavour complexities of the south’s vast and ravishing output, the magnitude of its markets and an encompassing of all that is brilliant about Thai cooking – the lip-smacking, salty, sour, spicy, bitter, silky flavour wheel that so defines and represents the country.
Sorn’s most recognisable course is called Gems on Crab Stick. It is an early course in the evening’s proceedings, a single crab leg with the shelled end pointing up. The meat end sits in a grey, granite bowl, the hunk of flesh at the bottom end lathered in a glossy yellow chilli paste. I am encouraged to pick it up and nibble away at the sweet meat, to bite and scoff and go to town while the dressing does its work and begins to build, up, up, up… at first tingling my lips, then rattling my tonsils. I could feel the beads of sweat form on my forehead. This was followed by a dish called simply Coconut, described on the menu as including “all good things from the coconut” and served with southern Thai plants, dried squid and tiny shrimps. Then the forest flavour colour wheel and an entire mid-way course dedicated to rice. The restaurant only uses Jasmine rice from the southern province of Phatthalung, and only ever cooks it in traditional charcoal clay pots using mineral water from Ranong in the coastal south. From where I was seated, I could see into the kitchen, where militant staff stood behind large, fire-scorched clay vessels filled with rice, stirring.
When the mains began to arrive, beginning with a southern beef curry and a fluffed roti for moping, staff paused the table conversation to introduce and educate us in the accompanying condiments. No standardised chilli flakes or table garlic here but a juxtaposing duo of blazing grilled chilli paste – made from hat yai fried chicken skin with fermented soybeans – and a cooling coconut milk – with sweet pork and fish sauce – allowing guests to add themselves and deduce their own heat threshold. Following the meaty peng and ambrosial comfort of the curry, which I layered over with rice and chilli and is made from a nine year-old dairy cow, cooked for 10 hours, was crispy pork belly with a tamarind chilli paste, and then a crab curry followed by a lobster with pumpkin and wild quail’s egg, and yet another curry with southern fruits and vegetables (sun-dried mullet roe later added). Finally, a clear bamboo shoot soup to cool and refresh before continuing on. The amount of food is colossal.
Many of the core ingredients arrived at the table throughout dinner, prior to being cooked
Many of the core ingredients arrived at the table throughout dinner, prior to being cooked. It is an exercise in culinary theatre and in creating either inflictions of food-chain guilt or sadist dining. Admittedly, I fall into the latter. I make no bones about eating meat and fish, I have hunted and I have fished. I have attended butchery workshops and visited abattoirs and processing plants. If you wish to show me a badger or a flamingo in all its natural beauty and grandiosity before serving it to me, then that is absolutely fine. Here, there is a huge mantis shrimp, spindly and barbed, as colourful as a peacock, brought to the table before another crustacean is put in front of me, this one boiled and deconstructed, ready to be devoured.
Facing the culinary listicle of rising heats, and because of my migraine affliction and my inability to enjoy bibulous bottle after bottle of alcohol, I asked for some cold juice. They had none. Is there a juice pairing, I enquired? Nope. But this is Thailand, their branches are bending under the heavy hang of tropical fruits. This is The Big Mango! Disappointed, I requested a tea. Nope. No tea either. So what can the tee-totaller expect, the alcohol-allergy sufferer, the pregnant diner, those practising abstinence. Coca-Cola or water, I was told, already with a large glass of San Pellegrino in front of me. A strange pandan green drink did arrive at one point, but I could only manage one gruelling, perfumed sip before giving up.
Having lived in the city and worked in and around the food and restaurant scene, this was not simply a Thai dinner at Bangkok’s latest hip-ascended restaurant. Not for me, anyway. It was something more personal, a return to what was once home and a life, to the roots of my Thai culinary education and subsequent fascination and devoted adoration for the country’s fiery output. Therefore, I examined recipes and flavours and the menu’s narrative more closely. More than any other restaurant in recent years, this was a meal that demanded distance and decompression. I needed time to think and space to breathe. During dinner, I found the courses expansive and playfully labelled: The Beach, Torch Ginger Ice Candy, Gems on Crab Stick, enticingly named but eliciting more questions than answers. Having now given it time to settle and the manifold flavours unravel, it has become an even more subjective sensory experience.
Back in the UK, Thai food has been gaining purchase for a while now. The likes of Kiln, Som Saa, Farang, Supawan, Singburi, Smoking Goat, Rosa’s Thai, Speedboat Bar and Plaza Khao Gaeng have all obtained serious traction, forcing the public to re-evaluate their order. Most of us have been eating the same three dishes for years. Now we are fanatical for fermented fish, hot stir-fries and serious, punchy heat despite the threat of public arsehole annihilation. We thought we had had our fill from vindaloos and chow meins and high-street Indo-Chinese takeaways, but a recent tidal-wave of Thais has swept across the nation showing us prik kaleang and gaeng tai pla, a dish so scalding, it will boil your tongue into a meaty mass of muscle and membrane. And, my long-time favourite takeout order, goong ob woon sen, a sticky shrimp and glass noodle assemblage, all fragrant and glued within a potted gingery, peppery soy sauce.
Sorn will not indulge you in the full and all-encompassing Thai flavour wheel. Instead, the cooking is a schooling in southern Thai ingredients and recipes, repackaged for the capital diner. And all from a deeply personal place for the chef – home. This has earned them plaudits and critics. The celebratory cheers are for food that is representative and laudatory of the south, which has resulted in two Michelin stars and an enviable place on both Asia and the World’s 50 Best Restaurants lists. However, there has and will continue to be the argument of restaurant Thai food like this. The food of Thailand has a complex history of undocumented, so-called Royal recipes, and while many are authentic and served in restaurants, plenty are crammed incorrectly under that banner by plucky chefs cooking with vagary and misplaced chance.
Overwhelmingly, the best Thai food should always be found in the alleys and sois, but you won’t find the same history and levels of ingredient sourcing there. In order to really understand and appreciate this country and its people, you must eat with them. You must see, feel, smell and taste the mangoes and the peppers and chillies. You must sit within a restaurant setting and look a mantis shrimp in the eyes before eating him. As a farang, you must be guided. And the southern reaches are just about as good as any place to start. But in Bangkok. With Ice as your chaperone. C
Sorn, 56, Sukhumvit 26, Bangkok 10110, Thailand
Sorn at TableCheck.com