One of the types of Thai cuisine we are unfamiliar with is what is considered Royal Thai cuisine, based on rich, traditional recipes. These are recipes adapted from ancient recipe books, and funeral books left by past generations. We were first introduced to Royal Thai cuisine during our final stop of our Taste of Thailand Food Tour, but otherwise it remains elusive.
Visiting Naj Exquisite Royal Thai Cuisine
We hoped that would change walking into Naj Exquisite Thai Cuisine, just off of Silom Road in Bangkok. First impression, it was like stepping back in time. The restaurant sits in a historic Thai building, that was once owned by a Thai aristocratic family, dating back to the era of King Rama V. Not being a specialist in Thai royal history, I found out later that means the house has been around since the late 1800s. It was certainly colonial, with high ceilings, large doorways, and wooden trim, and well appointed interior.
We were greeted by Can, one of the owners of Naj Cuisine. Although opened in 2004, the family has been in the restaurant business for thirty years. Can remembers helping in his parent’s restaurant when he was a child. Now, he and his sister run Naj as a family business.
Can was thrilled to have us join him for lunch. He walked us to a fancy table, complete with throw pillows on the chairs, to talk about the menu. We did not really spend much time looking at the actual menu. Can just wanted to know what we liked and what we didn’t.
Mostly, though, he wanted to figure out what traditional Thai foods we have not eaten before. After mentally walking through each dish he wanted to present, he became animated, adjusting recipes in his head based on our discussion, and ending with a “Okay, let’s try.”
Then, the circus began. Can rose from the table, with a quick, “okay, I will go cook for you.” Returning to the table awhile later later with a dish, eating, chatting, and then rising again to make his way to the kitchen. His passion for food was apparent, as was his attention to detail.
Royal Thai Cuisine With Unique Ingredients
As much as both Can and his sister are young, he questioned why young Thais are so hesitant to seek out traditional, or Royal Thai cuisine. Instead, they often look for western or fusion food. Most of the nicest Thai restaurants in Bangkok offer fusion cuisine, but very few places are focusing on cooking the traditional Royal Thai cuisine, with traditional methods.
The staff were certainly attentive, and I imagine a meal at Naj would generally be pretty serene, peaceful, and elegant. But, I was happy to get the Can treatment, as he excitedly brought dish after dish, trying to explain what we were eating, and eagerly awaiting our responses after each one.
The food was amazing, and you could tell it was all made with precision, and loaded with traditional, fresh, local ingredients, many of which he could not translate into English. Unfortunately for us, many of these special Thai ingredients were the corner stones to the dish, what made them unique to Naj and the history of Thailand. Ingredients like bitter herbs, sour leaves, and a strange red herb that I have never seen before. It was almost though Can wanted to wow us, but not share all of his Chef “secrets.”
We started with an Issan style Tom Yum soup, with mushrooms, and some special kind of seasoning that makes it sour. Can did not use lemon or lime to make it sour, but a deep red, flowering seasoning. Next was a yellow curry made with young galangal, a cousin of ginger. Can was clear to note this was young galangal, which makes it easier to eat. A catfish was served with some unique bitter herbs, and a beef curry with sour leaves, but a different kind of sour herb than the Tom Yum soup.
Is Ox Tongue Royal Thai Cuisine?
The most unique ingredient, though, came in a traditional Massaman curry, a thick brown curry with giant hunks of potatoes. What made this curry unique was the protein – Massaman curry with Ox tongue. This was a first for us. It was super tender and soft, having been cooked for a long time. The ox tongue was good, but I almost wish I did not know it was tongue until after. I just kept eating it and thinking, I am eating tongue. This is not something that I think when eating heart or intestines, so I am not sure what this was the case with the tongue. I still would recommend the dish, though, as it was tender and the curry creamy.
I wish I could offer more specifics on what we ate, and what made it special, but Can had his own views on what makes food amazing, even noting that it is not only the ingredients that affect the food, but how you feel when you cook, it’s your mood.
Regardless of my poor reporting, it was clear that Can is passionate about the food he serves. It was clear that preparation takes time. And it was most clear that he is proud of the Thai Royal cuisine that he offers, in order to hold onto Thai traditions.
Located on Thanon Convent, just off of Silom Road, Naj Cuisine is open most days for both lunch and dinner. They also have a cooking school on premises. Their menu is seasonal, and changes regularly, more regularly than the seasons in Thailand. Most entrees are about 300-400 THB, or roughly $10-13 USD.
We were hosted by Can at Naj Cuisine, but as always, my yummy sounds are my own.
For more tips about eating in Thailand, check out our Southeast Asia Food Guide.