BANGKOK: A giant pot is brimming with beef – a melt-in-your-mouth selection of cuts that have been stewed for more than 8 hours, with fresh coriander roots and a bag of secret ingredients.
The smell is sweet and rich. Star anise. Cinnamon. Black peppercorns. Garlic. Nearly ten kinds of aromatic Chinese herbs and spices soaked in the dark soup that has been simmering here for more than 40 years.
It is probably the oldest beef soup in the Thai capital Bangkok, with the Wattana Panich restaurant serving countless bowls for three generations. Despite new eateries cropping up on every side, the business has managed to maintain its spot in the city’s competitive food scene with a long history of dedication, consistency and precision.
“We keep tasting. There is no recipe,” said Chinese-Thai owner Nattapong Kaweenuntawong.
The 40-year-old works every day, filling bowl after bowl with his family’s legacy – different cuts of beef cooked to perfect tenderness, noodles, garlic oil and the rich, dark soup topped with fresh Chinese celery.
Each bowl is an execution of the art of cooking that has taken Nattapong decades to master. He began tasting his family’s soup since a young age and under the expert guidance of his father, learnt how to maintain its perfection.
“My father would season the soup and let me taste it. At the beginning, I didn’t really get it but once I started doing it every day, I began to notice when the taste changed. My father would tell me what was lacking,” he said.
“When we add the stock, the taste changes. The amount of stock we add is also different each time. So, we have to keep tasting and we’ll find out what is missing. Then, we season the soup to taste.”
Customers beat Bangkok’s notorious traffic to this old-school shophouse to savour the taste of decades-old culinary heritage, which was first created by Nattapong’s grandfather when he set up a small food stall near the Chao Phraya River nearly 60 years ago.
The stall was then moved to another location before transforming into a two-storey establishment in Ekamai, central Bangkok, where the soup has been simmering since before Nattapong was born.
For four decades, staff have been using the previous day's soup as the base for the following day's offering.
“Our soup is collected every day. Each night, when the soup has reduced, we would keep it in a pot and simmer it. We keep it as the stock and use it the following day. We’ve been doing this since we opened the restaurant, which was more than 40 years ago,” he said, adding the current location was like a forest back then.
The soup is made from beef bones and meat stewed for hours each day to extract the sweetness. Nattapong said huge chunks of beef are boiled for four hours until they are tender, then cut into bite-sized pieces and stewed for four more hours in the stock before serving.
As the soup continues to age, the restaurant’s fame continues to grow. Besides its loyal Thai customers, the business also attracts foreign visitors from around the world.
“We found out from YouTube about this place, and also some of the online food bloggers that reviewed it. So, we decided to come down to try because I think this broth has been brewing for many, many years. And it’s such a huge pot of goodness. The broth is really, really awesome and the beef is really, really tender,” said Sebastian Lee from Singapore.
“I had the first sip of the soup and it was very rich with all the things that have been stewed for so long,” he added.
“You would be surprised it’s not salty at all, unlike the one we have in Singapore. It’s just very rich and you can taste the beef and the herbs inside,” said his friend Winna Ho.
They kind of top it up with additional garlic oil. So, it’s like ‘ooh!’
According to Nattapong, most foreign customers are from China, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore and Korea. But in recent years, he has begun to notice more clients from the United States and Europe.
“Maybe 10-20 years ago, when western tourists came to look at our menu, we knew they’d just walk away. This wasn’t the kind of food they’d want to try,” he said. “But that has changed.”
For him, however, one thing has never changed. His family’s beef soup.
“Like I said, we keep tasting it. So, the flavour is the same.”