It looks like just another day for Supinya Junsuta, a 72-year-old chef, as she stands before her frying pans in her signature ski goggles, whipping up Thai staple food for her many customers. But it’s no ordinary day, because this Bangkok shophouse that she has run for more than four decades just won a Michelin star, the first and only street food venue in the Thai capital placed among 17 restaurants awarded with stars a day before.
“I’ve heard of Michelin before, but I didn’t expect it to be such a grand affair. I was so nervous when I stepped foot into the event,” Supinya, better known as Jay Fai, says during the inaugural launch of Bangkok’s edition of the world’s oldest restaurant guide on Wednesday.
Jay Fai, also the name of her shophouse in Bangkok’s Old Town, means “sister mole” in Thai, an homage to her facial mole.
Named the best city in the world for street food by CNN Travel in March, Bangkok has long been synonymous with around-the-clock food options catering to the tastebuds of locals and tourists.
But a Michelin star, traditionally reserved for fine dining, is seen as the next step in the elevation of quality street food.
At the launch, Michael Ellis, Michelin Guides’ international director, calls the food “an integral part of daily life in Thailand.”
“I’m glad she’s there [on the list]. I think it shows that there is some excellent food to be had in shophouses and open-air settings as well as in air-conditioned hotels and restaurants,” adds Chawadee Nualkhair, a Bangkok-based food blogger and author.
The critics’ opinions are endorsed on the street. Chalintra Wasita Kukiatkulchai, a 32-year-old office worker orders Pad Thai with prawns, a popular Thai-style noodle, at a pop up market in one of Bangkok’s shopping districts after a long day at work.
“I eat both at restaurants and on the street,” Chalintra says.
“If I want a nice ambience, I go to restaurants. If I want something delicious, I go on the street. Some street food even tastes better than food in hotels.”
For locals like Chalintra, street food is a normal part of life. But for millions of tourists visiting the South-East Asian city each year, it is a cheap luxury they cannot find at home.
Natalia Escobar, 28, and Andres Restrepo, 42, from Colombia, are waiting in a long queue in front of Jay Fai just two hours after they landed in Bangkok.
“We came to Bangkok specifically for the food. This is the first stop we made,” the foodie pair say.
The Colombian tourists are among many who are now drawn to the shophouse after it made headlines, swelling the numbers at the usually busy eatery that can accommodate no more than 70 people.
“We are more into traditional street food than restaurants,” the pair say.
But as excited as tourists are about street food, Thai authorities have been cracking down on street vendors since April, with many forced to evacuate “prime areas” for the sake of cleaner streets.
Many upscale areas of Bangkok — notably Thonglor and Ekamai on Sukhumvit Road — have been cleared of street vendors, while other areas have been subject to regulated operating hours and routine hygiene inspections.
“Vendors — some of whom have been there for decades — have had to relocate or switch jobs… The impact has been felt and will continue to be felt for years to come,” blogger Chawadee says.
“The government’s inconsistent ‘clean-up’ also indicates a confused view of global food lovers. These people don’t just want to eat in fine restaurants with white tablecloths,” Chawadee adds, referring to the authorities’ change of course away from their original plan of banning all street food in the capital, after media backlash.
Although the ban never materialized, the authorities insist on the need to regulate what foreign visitors call “the charm of Bangkok.”
“The real charm involves hygiene and order. If the food is dirty, no tourists would want to eat it,” says Wanlop Suwandee, chief adviser to the Bangkok governor.
“We can’t just let anyone set up a stall as they please. We need a standard. Even Michelin can’t make decisions without their standards,” Wanlop adds.
Street food, though, is here to stay, as this is “what Bangkok is all about” and what draws tourists to the city of 9 million people, according to Richard Barrow, a prominent travel blogger in Thailand.
Jay Fai, which is famous for its crabmeat omelette and other seafood dishes, is testament to that.
“We’re just a very small shophouse on the street. But our customers trust us for the quality of our ingredients. They didn’t come for the ambience, because there is none,” Supinya says. “I feel so proud. This is the award of my life.” — dpa