When it comes to traditional Thai food in contemporary Bangkok, there’s a sense of an ending. The city’s culinary scene is changing, modernising, and, in some way, losing some of the characteristics that made it so special. Charcoal is being replaced by gas, MSG’s taking prevalence over time and effort, and recipes that have spanned generations are being swapped for fast food picked up in one of the city’s thousands of 7-Elevens.
Thankfully, then, you’ll still find cooks determined to use classic techniques and time-honoured recipes. Cooks like Raan Jay Fai.
Known to some as Sister Mole, Fai was awarded a Michelin Star in late 2017. This, it goes without saying, isn’t an everyday occurrence for street vendors working in a part of Bangkok known as “The Ghost Gate.” Look for the lines that spill into the street from the neon-signed Thipsamai—the phad thai restaurant made famous by Thai food television—and instead head next door because Raan Jay Fai is the real gem.
“Jay”, for the uninitiated, is Thai slang which roughly translates as “strong mafia-type woman” and when you see her, you’ll understand why: 70-something Jay Fai is a one-woman machine who still cooks every single dish herself. The result is ripplingly-muscled arms that would make a regular gym-goer weep with envy. She also wears red lipstick, dons a beanie and recently began wearing goggles to shield her eyes from the ferocious heat she has to deal with day in, day out.
For 35 years, Jay Fai has been working Monday through Saturday, manning two woks and stir-frying noodles. She’s never missed a day and has cruised way, way beyond the Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule– the principle that 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” are needed to make you world-class in any field. If this is the case, then Jay Fai is in an interstellar class of her own.
She cooks some of the best seafood dishes in Bangkok and is known for her fabulous noodle dishes that incorporate startlingly large pieces of seafood. In her pad kee mao, or drunkard’s noodles, nestled among the wide rice noodles that have absorbed some of the smoky wok aromas, are “shrimp the size of sheep” (as one expat friend exclaimed), jumbo lumps of crab and tender rings of squid. She charges a pretty penny for her dishes but executes them with such exactness and precision that each shrimp is cooked perfectly and each noodle has been left to stick to the side of the wok for exactly the right amount of time. The price, then, is worth paying.
That same luscious crab can be found tucked inside one of her deep-fried, torpedo-shaped omelettes—the same omelettes that got her the Michelin nod. She adds a generous portion of crab to the eggs she’s whipped with a dash of fish sauce, then carefully nudges and manipulates it all into a cylindrical shape with her spatulas. The omelette, or kai jiao boo, is crisped and golden on the outside, and moist and crabby on the inside, then served up with a side of Thai sriracha sauce (more mild and sweet than the familiar Red Rooster), which adds the obligatory touch of heat.
Two more dishes are worth the splurge. Fai’s version of tom yum koong (the very familiar hot and sour soup that is available in nearly every Thai restaurant in the West) is exceptional. Very spicy and very sour, it will make every other version you’ve tasted seem bland and insipid. If you’re willing to ruin all your past Thai food memories, take the plunge and try hers. Then there’s her talee prik daam, or black pepper seafood: succulent seafood that’s wok-fried with copious amounts of black pepper and garlic. The sauce is so good, you’ll be licking it off the the plate as soon as no one’s looking.
Because she cooks every dish herself, you’ll be waiting a while, but pass that time watching her gracefully flip, chop, orchestrate and compose dishes. At Raan Jay Fai, you won’t pay the average $1-2 dollars for a plate of the usual street food – a meal for two can easily set you back $40 – but then again, you’ll never taste anything quite like this.
Visit Raan Jan Fai at 327 Maha Chai Road, Bangkok