Home to temple ruins recognised by Unesco, adored by Instagramers and revered by Thais as the ancient seat of kings, the city of Ayutthaya now has another claim to fame: Its culinary culture has been put on the global foodie map by the prestigious Michelin Guide.
For both Ayutthaya and the rest of the country it is a major boost after two years of tourism lost to the pandemic. Covid-19 has cut deeply into this city, once renowned as an easy getaway for the international visitors who flocked to Bangkok, while Thailand’s Tourist Authority hopes that the seal of approval from the famous French foodie bible will tease back visitors to the kingdom when the pandemic finally eases.
An hour north of the capital, decorated by 14th century stupas and crumbling red brick ruins, Ayutthaya is treasured by Thais as being at the heart of their history. But visitors are also drawn to Ayutthaya for its food, a stand-out cuisine even in a nation with no shortage of proud, regional flavours.
This year’s Michelin Guide for Thailand marks Ayutthaya (under its formal name Phra Nakhon Si Ayutthaya) as a “gastronomic city”, picking out 10 affordable restaurants and street stalls for the ‘Bib Gourmand’ distinction. The honour nudges readers towards “quality cuisine, carefully prepared and reasonably priced”, at a maximum of 1,000 Thai baht (S$41) for three courses.
That it should be so honoured should not be surprising. Culinary influences have been carried over the centuries along the three rivers which converge on the former capital; from Portuguese missionaries, Muslim traders, Japanese and Indian emissaries these influences have all merged into the spicy broths, thick curries, boat noodles, street-side rotis and unexpected desserts which make Ayutthaya famous.
Yet for 68-year-old Mae Pom, the listing of her shop selling roti sai mai – an Indian-inspired dessert of a crispy crepe with a sugary string net stuffed inside – was an unexpected boon.
“I didn’t even know until my customers told me!” she said. “I couldn’t believe it. How is it possible for a small street side shop like mine to make the list?”
Thailand’s tourism-heavy economy has been hit hard by the pandemic, with billions of dollars lost since borders closed in early 2020.
The winter surge of the Omicron variant has pruned hopes of a high-season rebound, with authorities reimposing mandatory quarantine from red zone countries and freezing new entries under the Thailand Pass entry certificate until further notice.
That has doused optimism for a return to normal across Ayutthaya.
Phatharita Thareeseub, 36, owner of Phak Wan Noodle – which received the Bib Gourmand recognition from Michelin – dishes out noodles and curries with the local ‘phak wan’ vegetable as the main ingredient, known for its high nutritional value.
Pre-pandemic she could sell between 700 and 1,000 bowls of her signature noodles or Pad Thai dishes a day, charging less than US$1 for a bowl of each. During the bleakest months of the pandemic that dropped to 10 bowls a day.
“Next year we hope the Michelin Guide will bring us a brighter future,” she said. “But if we have another lockdown … it’ll be the end of the story for us.”
For the past few months, the city has survived on business from Thais unable to travel to their favourite pre-pandemic destinations like Japan, South Korea and China.
Food is high on the list of knowledgeable day trippers who seek out the centuries-old recipes kept dutifully by families through the years, as are Instagram pictures of traditionally-clothed people in front of temple ruins.
Korakot Tremake, whose boat noodle shop teems with customers during lunch hours, said the city had always been a magnet for travellers.
“Back in the day when there weren’t any roads, trading was done by boats – that’s why selling boat noodles became a speciality,” he said, breaking off to ferry a tray of clay pots carrying his shop’s main dish.
Times have been tough but his restaurant has survived for decades thanks to a family secret – the broth.
In the long-term Ayutthaya hopes to get a high-speed rail link to Bangkok that would go some way to easing the traffic jams that clog the short ride north on holidays.
But for now, Korakot said, the city would take all the help it could get, starting with the Michelin recognition.
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.