This Bangkok Restaurant Serves Fried Whole Chicken Skins with a Side of Politics
Bangkok restaurant Err focuses on doing street food and drinking snacks in the best way possible—with a little wink to Thailand's food politics at the same time.
If you scan the menu at Err for fried chicken skin, you're going to have a hard time finding the snack. What you need to look for is Nang Kai Tort, or Chicken Movie.
"When you translate it word-to-word, nang can mean 'movie' or 'skin,'" Err chef and co-owner Duangporn Bo Songvisava tells me. "A lot of times because people in kitchens don't speak English, they just translate literally."
The literally translated dish is figuratively incredible.
A fried whole chicken skin balances on a bamboo-handled wire skimmer in a vintage Thai serving bowl. Accompanying the ghostly chicken skin is a small bottle of house made sriracha sauce.
"There's a lot of sriracha sauce on the market that add papaya to make it yellow, and papaya in Thailand is 90-percent contaminated with GMO papaya," Bo says. "That's how we started doing our own sauce."
The more I talk to Bo and her chef husband, co-owner Dylan Jones, the more I learn how dedicated they are to taking the culinary high road.
They've been demonstrating their passion for cooking with ethically and sustainably sourced, high-quality ingredients since opening their first restaurant, Bo.Lan, in 2009. It was one of Bangkok's first fine-dining Thai restaurants.
"It was quite well received when we first opened because no one else was doing it," Bo says. "It wasn't a new concept but it was totally new to the city."
It wasn't just about cooking Michelin-worthy Thai food. The couple were also invested in larger food issues.
"You start looking a bit deeper," Dylan says, "then you realize, 'Look at the fish we're using. Are we going to completely deplete the ocean or should we start looking at more sustainable fish stocks and more sustainable ways of catching fish?'
"From there it basically snowballs into a minefield of what we should and shouldn't do in terms of food production. I think we've navigated it OK so far."
At one point, the couple almost stopped serving chicken. The frustration with finding local free-range poultry was building, but then they stumbled upon a solution at a farmers market. That solution was an orphanage in the south of Thailand.
"They are really self-sustained; they don't ask for any money from the government," Bo says of the orphanage. "So they started off having the chickens to sell the eggs.
"We were buying eggs from them and thought, If you have the eggs, you have the chicken as well."
The orphanage eventually agreed to sell the chickens to the restaurateurs. Results varied.
"The chickens we get would be pretty old, but we learned to deal with it," Bo says. "We slow-cook it, we braise it before we do something else with it."
Once they had conquered fine dining to their standards, Bo and Dylan wanted to do something more fun and approachable.
"The food at Bo.Lan is really detailed. It's intricate and labor intensive, driven by philosophy," Bo says. "Also the front-of-house at Bo.Lan is really formal, really rigid, really structured. And we got over it."
The couple decided to create a more casual concept that championed street food. Err is what Dylan calls a Thai-style izakaya.
"In general, Thai food works really well with beers and cocktails," Dylan says.
The menu started with drinks and drinking food, then expanded to feature some more hearty dishes.
"Because we actually want this place to showcase Thai spirits, a lot of the menu was built around drinking," Bo says.
The drinks menu highlights spirits produced all over Thailand, made with ingredients like banana, corn, rice, and sugarcane. The cocktails are as interesting as the spirits.
For example, the GMtini pairs Mr.popcorn brand corn spirit, lime, Thai basil, and cinnamon with a garnish of popcorn coated with larb seasoning.
"That one we call GMtini because it's a spirit made with corn, and corn is another one that has GMO problems in Thailand," Bo says. "The corn for human consumption is not GMO yet—it's just for animal feed—but we play on the idea."
Err is laid back—they call it a "rustic modern Thai" restaurant—yet the quality of the ingredients is the same as at Bo.Lan. Bo and Dylan use the same network of suppliers they've spent seven years developing. The kitchen staff at Err are graduates of Bo.Lan as well.
"We want to take on street food and do it properly as well," Bo says. "We wanted to put attention on the quality. Delete the MSG, delete the oyster sauce, the all-purpose seasoning sauce that they use in everything.
"We try to go to the root of street food."
At the root of street food lies incredibly juicy grilled sour cured pork, tangier than the factory-produced varieties found on the street. There's freshly toasted watermelon seeds with kefir lime leaves. There's crispy Chicken Movie.
Bo and Dylan aren't shy to point out obvious flaws in Thailand's food system, yet are quick to champion its progress. Whether they're praising hardworking farmers or waxing poetic about Thai ingredients, the couple's enthusiasm is contagious.
"It's a really good time to be cooking in Bangkok," Dylan says.
It's a good time to be eating here, too.