Feb 14 2013

Ayutthaya’s eclectic food scene

Published by at 7:34 am under Ayutthaya


As Thai cities go, Ayutthaya is an eclectic one. During its glory days as the capital of the Siamese Empire from the mid 14th to late 18th centuries, the city was home to a diverse range of people from throughout Asia, the Middle East and Europe. Although the royal palaces, and all that goes with them, were moved down river to Bangkok in 1767, this mixed cultural legacy lives on in the food of modern Ayutthaya. Here are a handful of the highlights.

There's more to Ayutthaya than ruins and elephant rides.

There’s more to Ayutthaya than just ruins and elephant rides.

Practically all initial Google search results for the term “boat noodles” (including this Travelfish.org post) relate to the canal-side “boat noodle alley” near Bangkok’s Victory Monument. Yet this popular and ancient dish known as kwit-tieau reua in Thai was being served from wooden sampans in the canals and rivers of Ayutthaya well before Bangkok ever existed. These days, most of the narrow old rowboats have been removed from water to be perched up in roadside eateries, where they serve as storage space and — more importantly — the sure fire “boat noodles here!” signal to anyone passing by.

They do seem to make handy counter space.

They do seem to make handy counter space.

It’s true that this classic dish is widely available in Bangkok and elsewhere, though Ayutthaya is thought to have birthed boat noodles and modern day locals take much pride in their recipes. Vendors sink or swim by the balance in flavours and subtleties of their broths, which are rich, savoury, tempered with pig’s blood and possess almost smoky undertones. A really great boat noodle broth reminds us of cosying up to a campfire surrounded by warmth and pillows and stars. It can be that good!

Boat noodles at Jaymouie -- porky heaven in a bowl.

Boat noodles at Jaymouie — porky heaven in a bowl.

With various parts of the pig (beef is also common), including tender and thin roasted strips, Thai-style pork balls or luuk muu (and no, we don’t mean the testicles), liver sliced into triangles and crackling skin along with sliced morning glory stalks, fresh green onion and a choice of small (sen lek), large (sen yai) or extra thin (sen mee) rice noodles, kwit-tieau reua is an Ayutthaya highlight to rival the best of the ruins and temples (at least in our food-obsessed minds). The dish is most often served in small ceramic bowls that typically run 10 to 15 baht each. If you find a great soup, a single bowl is never enough.

Boat noodle shops are everywhere in Ayutthaya but several locals pointed us to the nondescript Jaymouie mid-way down U-Thong Soi 12 to the south-centre of town (see map). We were not arguing after two of their generously sized bowls for 20 baht with handmade luuk chin that made us forget all about the squishy production pork balls so often found in Bangkok. Melt-in-the-mouth bites of roasted pork shoulder were another pleasant surprise.

Jaymouie focuses solely on boat noodles with pork, though many Ayutthaya boat noodle shops also serve fantastic, egg-heavy pad Thai as well as colourful rice flour sweets that are usually put out on the table whether you order them or not. At five baht each, good luck resisting them.

That's Jaymouie from outside -- easy to miss.

That’s Jaymouie from outside — easy to miss.

It’s important to point out that noodles were first introduced to Ayutthaya and other parts of what’s now Thailand hundreds of years ago by the Chinese. Chinese influences run deep in Thailand — especially when it comes to food — and Ayutthaya is no exception. While boat noodles are, strictly speaking, a mesh of Chinese and Thai flavours, more “truly Chinese” foods worth seeking out are the sala bao, or rice flour steamed buns filled with savoury pork and egg or sweet taro (among other fillings) and handmade pork dumplings that disappear as fast as they can come out of the steamer at 40-year old Pen Bakery to the northeast of town near Hua Ro market (see map).

Inside Hua Ro market -- typical but extraordinary.

Inside Hua Ro market — typical but extraordinary.

While in this neighbourhood, don’t overlook Hua Ro itself and the bursting mix of colourful rice and coconut based treats, fresh fruit and veggies, fish and meats and Muslim-Thai curries for takeaway. A small night market also sets up nearby and is a great spot to enjoy Muslim specialties like khao mok gai, a biryani style yellow rice with fried garlic and roasted chicken legs (or thighs) with meat that slides effortlessly off the bone when the dish is done well.

For an even wider selection of foods ranging from Muslim goat curry to slabs of fried pork fat to classic central-Thai style chilli pastes to Isaan salads and even pizza and cake, the larger night market at the western end of Bang Lan Road (see map) is also worth a couple of hours of grazing.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Ayutthaya is also home to a large Muslim community. Many of the area’s Muslims carry on traditional customs passed down from Islamic Indian and Persian traders who lived and practised their religion freely in Ayutthaya centuries ago. Arguably the modern city’s signature food and by far the most noticeable edible that was adapted from these rich culinary traditions, is roti sai mai.

Come on, try it!

Come on, try it!

Every afternoon just south of the hospital on a stretch of U-Thong Road that’s been dubbed “Roti Road” (see map), dozens upon dozens of vendors fill the footpaths with colourful bags of coconut sugar that has been twirled into threads and resembles cotton candy. To the touch, the strands have a consistency almost uncomfortably similar to human hair, but thankfully they melt in the mouth and come in a variety of flavours from banana to coconut to strawberry and pandan leaf. The thin, delicate strips are exceedingly sweet on their own, but when wrapped in round slabs of unleavened roti style bread (though made from rice flour rather than the usual wheat), they make the perfect late-night treat or early morning riser.

Sala bao from Pen Bakery, Khanom Tien from Hua Ro market and roti sai mai from Roti Road -- aka breakfast of champions.

Sala bao from Pen Bakery, khanom tien from Hua Ro market and roti sai mai from Roti Road.

Ayutthaya is a fairly spread out city and at first glance it can feel like the only accessible food options are from tourist-oriented restaurants around the most popular ruins and backpacker accommodation strip. If you love authentic food, don’t settle on a mediocre, overpriced meal as Ayutthaya has loads of interesting nibbles to offer. The places we’ve mentioned above (and many other excellent choices) require a bit of effort to locate and perhaps to communicate an order, but isn’t that half the fun?

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