Wongwich ‘Ack’ Sripinyo pushes back his floppy fringe. He’s a little bleary eyed, he admits. He had his first child five months ago which is interrupting his sleep. And Burapa, his latest Orient Express-themed restaurant representing modern Eastern Thai cuisine, which first opened its doors in 2019 as the dark clouds of the pandemic were gathering around Bangkok, is only really being born now too amid the glorious cacophony of the Thai capital’s comeback.
Đọc bài viết bằng Tiếng Việt
First off, Thailand’s north-east region and east region are not the same. And neither is the food. Inevitably, though, there’s a dotted line of cuisine and culture separating the two.
“What looks like the eastern side of Thailand we actually call the north-east,” Wongwich ‘Ack’ Sripinyo, the co-founder of Sri Trat and Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine & Bar (both of which he founded with his wife Nontawan ‘Taam’ Chitwattanagorn), begins confusingly.
So, where we wonder, is the east? “It’s south of the north-east,” Ack shrugs as if that should already be obvious.
Finding Expression At Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine & Bar
Sri Trat opened in February 2017. When it did, it introduced Bangkok to Eastern Thai cuisine, through Ack’s mom’s cookbook of stir-fried tiger prawns and spicy sea bass soups. To ensure standards didn’t fall, they painted a mural of her looking across the dining room on the wall, disarmingly choosing a photo from her time as beauty queen to base the mural upon.
If Sri Trat was for Mom, then Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine & Bar is Ack and Taam expressing themselves.
North-Eastern Isaan And The Eastern Region
So, to clarify, Thailand’s north-east province is called Isaan. It’s on the Khorat Plateau and it’s home to around 22 million people. The rural region is known for its rich cultural diversity and its cuisine with its bold flavors. There’s lots of fermented fish paste or shrimp paste to give dishes a strong kick of umami – and it has a famously fiery nature.
There’s a constant influx of its residents to Bangkok too – rural people living out their big city dreams. That means Isaan cuisine is easy to find in the Thai capital, as they seek out (or bring with them) a taste of home.
And, at first glance, Isaan does appear to be in the east of Thailand. But the relatively small region known as Eastern Thailand is right there below that on the map. Its seven provinces (the biggest of which are Trat, Chonburi and Rayong respectively), swoop along the coast east and south-east of Bangkok like a buzzing hummingbird, eventually embracing the border with Cambodia, while gazing out into the gulf.
If people know Eastern Thailand at all it’s usually for its islands. Ko Chang is the largest and most popular but there’s other idyllic islands like Koh Mak, Koh Kood, and Koh Kut. But its cuisine is just as noteworthy.
Strangely, most coverage of Thai cuisine only mentions four regions of the country – the north, the north-east, central Thailand and the south.
But What Is Eastern Thai Cuisine?
And even Thai people still confuse or conflate the east and the north-east, Ack complains. “But they’re different. And the food is distinct. Lots of Isaan food is fermented, with sourness and saltiness. Overall, the cuisine from the East has a sweeter, milder, but no less complex taste profile than Thai food in general, with influences from Laos and Cambodia. In the east, we also use herbs and spices from the mountains and seafood including fresh oysters from the coast. And we have some of the best produce in the country – only the farmers in the East don’t usually share their produce with provinces outside of their own.”
Thankfully, being born in the region, Ack and Taam have exclusive access to the fresh ingredients that underpin the menus at Sri Trat and Burapa. “Right, so we work directly with private farmers and fishermen from the East in places like Trat, where I’m from, or Rayong, and even from Isaan and the North-East,” Ack confirms.
And so, if Southern Thai cuisine with its aromatic, creamy coconut-rich curries has had its place in the sun (literally) already then it might be still-under-appreciated underdog Eastern Thai cuisine’s time to shine.
Where The Imaginary Eastern Thai Cuisine Railroad Terminates In The Thai Capital
Like Eastern Thailand, Sukhumvit Soi 11 is not famous for its food. The street has developed something of a seedy reputation over the years. But, these days, at this end, where the Soi abruptly forks in two directions, there’s a glossy, big-branding sheen to the restaurants and bars.
Next door to Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine & Bar By Sri Trat there’s poppy Bang Bang Burgers and, on the other side, the clean beauty-parlor frontage of the Ink. Inc. tattoo shop. Outside, even the weed truck is branded, cheekily appropriating the logo of a well-know porn site for its WeedHub logo.
And Burapa Eastern Thai Cuisine & Bar By Sri Trat, with its regal blue frontage and sleek art deco logo, fits right in.
The location’s transient guests – where tourists usually spend a night or two before taking a flight to the south islands, or a plane journey home – means most restaurants take the lax we’re-never-going-to-meet again approach to service and standards. Or they simply serve them fatty burgers and over-stuffed sandwiches to help soak up last night’s alcohol. Not so at Burapa, with its unique take on regional Thai cuisine, and where Wongwich ‘Ack’ Sripinyo obsesses over quality control.
It’s personal, after all.
As further proof of that, outside Burapa, engraved in the floor are the words ‘My Journey Has Just Begun’ above the coordinates of Ack’s hometown, 12° 30’ 0’ / 102° 30 0” E.
Downstairs Burapa has the chic sensibilities of a speakeasy. There are old books, and retro lamps, and crystal vessels and vitrines on the long teak bar with its black marble countertop and on the shelves behind. Then they’ve designed the two floors upstairs to look like train carriages, carrying guests to and from Trat Province, gathering the region’s fresh fruits and other ingredients along the way.
Modern Techniques But Authentic Eastern Thai Flavors
“Here, I used my imagination. I transformed the dishes into vibrant, playful cuisine that has delicate layers, but that still has bold and robust flavors,” Ack explains.
Then the food arrives.
There’s blushing tuna-pink chunks of marinated jellyfish topped with peanut brittle. “With Thai mustard greens – a bit like wasabi – and topped with the peanut brittle that’s a popular snack in the region,” he smiles.
It’s all authentic enough for Mom to approve of if she boarded the train, but with fun, modern twists like that peanut brittle topping. There’s some creative cocktails too, like Burapa’s The Field with Bourbon Whiskey infused with corn, corn husk, red yeast rice and beal.
“The root of the cuisine here at Burapa comes from my mom’s cooking and some of the iconic dishes at Sri Trat,” Ack elaborates. “But to those, we’ve also applied some contemporary techniques,” he nods, as the beef tongue Eastern-style Ka-ree curry arrives.
“Here, we sous vide the beef tongue for the curry,” he says pointing to the rich sauce. On top is grilled durian that’s youthful enough not to have developed the fruit’s usual funk. And there’s the spicy slow-burn of the Thai-Wagyu Short Rib Curry, which, he recommends, we should take the edge off with a bowlful of Rice Vermicelli With Lump Crab Meat with its pour-over coconut milk soup that just arrived too. “Drinking the coconut soup works the same way drinking milk does after too much chili,” he advises.
There’s a ceviche. The Burapa team make it using fresh King Emperor Fish, from Eastern Thailand. And they serve it with crackers that are speckled green with dried freshwater algae, also from Eastern Thailand. And there’s an Eastern Thai-style chicken soup with Siamese cardamon shoots as well.
“That soup is really good for hangovers,” Ack says looking suspiciously at us. It’s nothing personal, we hope, it’s probably just the part of town we’re in, or maybe the second The Field cocktail we just ordered because the first one was so good…