Gary Butler knows a thing or two about Thai food. The creative force behind the popular YouTube channel, The Roaming Cook, Gary creates content that focuses on Thai street food. He’s also a regular contributor to our online magazine with his Thai food recipes proving to be a hit with readers. Our editor, Roy Cavanagh, met up with Gary to talk about all things Thai, life in Bangkok and Gary’s advice for visitors to the Thai capital.
A Thai food obsession
Some people eat to live, others live to eat. Gary Butler is firmly in the latter category. This is a self-taught cook who became so obsessed with khao soi while he was still living in the UK, that he flew to Chiang Mai to find out the secrets behind one of the signature dishes of Northern Thailand. It is this dedication to Thai food and his genuine love of Thai culture that helps make Gary’s videos so enjoyable to watch. As a Westerner living in Thailand, one of the biggest compliments a Thai person can pay you is saying you have a Thai heart. But in Gary’s case, he not only has a Thai heart, but a Thai stomach too! It’s a pleasure to join him as he roams around his favourite food haunts in Bangkok and watch his interactions with the people he meets and the food he eats.
Discover another side to Bangkok
Gary lives with his wife Helen and their young son, Finley, in west Bangkok. Gary jokingly refers to the Thonburi side of the Chao Phraya River as the ‘Dark Side’ because it doesn’t see many tourists. It’s an area that he knows well and one which he showcases often on The Roaming Cook YouTube channel. Gary says, “Life has a slower pace on this side of town compared with the glittering malls and upmarket restaurants on the Sukhumvit Road. In my opinion, Thonburi has hands down the best selection of Thai food in the city.” He can also be found in Bangkok’s Old City and Chinatown areas where he seeks out old-school restaurants and street food stalls.
What advice would you give for nervous eaters or first-time visitors to Bangkok?
I would advise booking yourself on a food tour with a local guide when you first get to Bangkok. They will know where it is safe for you to eat and it will help you acclimatise yourself to Thai cuisine and your new surroundings. Remember, no food tour company is going to want you sick, it’s bad for business!
For families with children, what Thai dishes would you recommend?
As someone with a crazy toddler myself, I know the difficulties that feeding new things to the kids can present. I say keep it simple and try dishes that aren’t spicy but can be dressed up to suit Mum and Dad’s tastes too.
Pad See Ew
Nothing offensive here, just some good old stir-fried noodles in soy sauce.
Fried rice in Thailand is known to be some of the best in the world and it’s a great way to get some protein and veggies into the kids!
Khao Niao Mamuang
From toddlers to grandparents, everybody loves mango with sticky rice. A hit for the whole family.
What are your top 5 Thai dishes and where can people try them in Bangkok?
Khao Soi: Northern Thai curry noodles
Khao soi was the first dish that I ever travelled specifically to eat so it will always have a special place in my heart. That was 12 years ago and I still love it today as much as when I had my first mouthful in Chiang Mai all those years ago. Khao soi is hands down Northern Thailand’s most iconic dish. This unbelievably delicious coconut-based curry consists of egg noodles in a coriander and black cardamom seed spiced coconut curry broth, topped with crispy fried egg noodles and served with fresh shallots, pickled cabbage and roasted chilli oil. If you’re looking for a taste of regional Northern Thailand, this is it.
Where to find it
Pad Koong Sataw: Shrimp with bitter beans
Pad koong sataw is a dish from the south that can now be found all over Thailand. The sweet shrimp with the unique tasting bitter or ‘stink’ beans is a match made in heaven. This one’s spicy, so not for the faint-hearted!
Where to find it
Som Tam Gai Yang: Grilled chicken with papaya salad
Som tam gai yang is like the perfect Thai marriage. Smokey, sweet tender chicken with a fresh, spicy sour salad . . . this is what true love looks like!
The world-famous Thai papaya salad, som tam as it’s known locally, has too many variations to name in this list, so we’ll just tell you about the main ones for now. Som tam Thai is the most recognisable and is made by pounding freshly shredded green papaya with palm sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, tomatoes, green beans and peanuts. Other versions include pla ra, a fermented fish sauce, pickled crabs and even fresh fruit. Som tam is a sweet, sour and super spicy salad that is a must-try for anyone serious about eating Thai food.
Gai yang could possibly be the best grilled chicken in the world, and who doesn’t like grilled chicken? You’ll find it either grilled over coals in pieces or if you’re at a serious gai yang joint, slowly roasting in a line of whole chicken on a rotisserie. The flavour is simple; soy, garlic, coriander root and white pepper, but the results are amazing. Try it with the sweet, tart, spicy dipping sauce that is nam jim jaew.
Where to find it
Gaeng Massaman: Meat Potato and Peanut Curry
This rich, creamy curry is perhaps the most popular among tourists to Thailand as it tends to be less hot than other Thai curries. Massaman is a curry made of meat, potatoes and peanuts stewed in coconut milk until the meat is meltingly tender. It’s more spice driven than a red or green curry and has a similar taste to Indian/Malay style curries. Chicken and beef versions are widely available, but in some higher-end places you’ll even find it made with lamb.
Where to find it
Kuay Teow Ruea: Thai Boat Noodles with Blood
Kuay teow ruea is an incredibly tasty noodle soup made with an array of Chinese spices, sliced pork, pork liver and Chinese water spinach. It’s thickened with raw pig’s blood, which can be a bit daunting for Westerners trying the dish for the first-time. Don’t let the blood put you off, you don’t really taste it, and it’s no different to eating black pudding back home.
Boat noodles traditionally come in tiny bowls for 10 to 15 baht a bowl, so grab an eating partner and see how many you can get through.
Where to find it
Discover another side to Thailand
Although Gary is based in Bangkok, his love for Thai food takes him around the country. I asked him to suggest three destinations away from the main tourist trail that visitors should check out and this was his selection.
Nan is a stunningly beautiful, little travelled province in the far north of Thailand bordering Laos. This often overlooked province in Northern Thailand has it all: beautiful scenery, great food and awesome coffee. A must visit for anyone looking for a slice of the slow life.
Highlights include the Bo Kluea Salt Mines, Wat Phuket, Wat Phumin and the Tat Luang waterfalls. I however just love driving around the mountains, taking in the stunning views and eating anything with makwaen (a type of local spice) on.
As anyone who follows my channel will know, I like to get off the beaten track in Bangkok and I like to do exactly the same when I’m travelling Thailand. Nakhon Phanom is about as close as you can get to ‘Unseen Thailand‘, there really aren’t many Western visitors here.
Nakhon Phanom is set on the banks of the mighty Mekong River with stunning views over Laos. If you are a fan of biking, you’re in luck. Nakhon Phanom is a cyclist’s dream destination as the whole town is one giant cycle lane! The town is also full of amazing Thai-Vietnamese as well as Lao and Isaan food so make sure to take advantage.
I think the main reason I love Chanthaburi so much is that it’s home to what I’ve said (for what it’s worth) is my favourite bowl of Thai noodle soup that I’ve had anywhere . . . EVER! The shop is called Jae Eid Seafood Noodles and for me, it’s a must-visit. The tom yum seafood noodles are AMAZING!
There’s also an amazing park, a cathedral and plenty of coffee shops in the teakwood house-lined old town to keep you entertained for a couple of days.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to friends or family visiting Thailand for the first time?
Don’t change up any money before you get here, you’ll get a much better rate once you arrive.
And what advice would you give to repeat visitors to Bangkok?
I would say get out of the tourist areas of Silom and Sukhumvit and head over the river to Thonburi. The best way to see Bangkok is by boat on the old canals. You’ll see the city like it was 50 years ago. It’s like being transported back in time. For this, I would recommend a tour with Hidden Bangkok Boat.
A massive thank you to Gary for his time and for sharing his insights into Bangkok and the Thai food scene. Subscribe to his entertaining YouTube channel and try your hand at Gary’s Thai food recipes here.
You may also enjoy
Fan Club Thailand
Tourism Thailand (UK & Ireland)
We are here to help you experience the best of amazing Thailand. Bookmark our online magazine for ideas and tips for what to see and do in Thailand, and follow us on social media for even more travel inspiration.