The beautiful three-way junction that feeds the river offers views of a stunning, yet slightly tilting, white chedi (Phra Chedi Mutao at Wat Paramaiyikawat), an important landmark for Ko Kret in Nonthaburi near Bangkok, is what inspired Buncharas “Yai” Kaewwatanaborawong to change her life and pursue a culinary career ten years ago.
That’s the story behind Chang-Wang-Imm The White Pagoda, one of the newest Bib Gourmand restaurants of MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021.
How a hair stylist turned into a chef
“I was on a boat passing by here and felt enchanted and amazed by the beauty and way of life at this bend of the Chao Phraya River. Then, as fate would have it, a friend moved here and invited me to visit again. The atmosphere charmed me even more to the point that I decided to rent a house on the other side of the river. One thing led to another, and I opened a restaurant instead.”
After a 25-year career as a hair stylist and salon owner in the heart of the capital, this successful hairdresser decided to put down the scissors and reach for the spatula, changing careers to open a restaurant.
Starting with no experience in cooking at all, this chef began by studying ancient, traditional recipes and then cooked them for herself until she was certain of her skill and technique. Now, she heads the kitchen as the Chef Director as well as an owner of many restaurants, including Baan Chid Krung, Busaban Waterview, Tanamkwan Riverview, and MICHELIN Plate recipient Am-Dang-Typhoon. The latest addition to this gastronomic family, Chang-Wang-Imm The White Pagoda, received a Bib Gourmand in the MICHELIN Guide Thailand 2021.
“I was entranced by the river lifestyle when I opened Baan Kalabok, my first restaurant, ten years ago. It sat on the other side of the river, so you could see this beautiful, elegant house. I contacted the owner to see if I could rent it, but the owner was a wealthy aristocrat who wasn’t interested. But after more than ten years of trying, I succeeded.”
What's in the name?
This vintage, aristocratic residence is over 70 years old, being built just after World War II. It is now home to Chang-Wang-Imm, which is an unusual name, even for Thais. Chef Kaewwattanabunwong explains the name’s origin.
“Beyond being a detailed student of cooking, testing myself through trial and error, I also have a vivid imagination. So, when opening the restaurant, I knew I had to come up with an engaging concept, a story. Take this house -- its age and history made me think of ‘Chang Wang’, which is a high-ranking chamberlain position established during the reign of King Rama 4. That person would oversee operations at the Grand Palace or at their master’s royal residence, supervising the servants and looking after matters for the royalty. This position was removed over 70 years ago. Now, as for ‘Im’ -- this refers to the satisfaction from flavourful foods as well as from a pleasant atmosphere. That’s ‘Chang-Wang-Imm’. Then it also has a view of Ko Kret’s tilted white chedi, or pagoda, so the name became ‘Chang-Wang-Imm The White Pagoda’.”
Riverside dining with traditional recipes reminiscent of days past
Chef Kaewwattanabunwong has a love for riverside life. This is made apparent in that almost all her restaurants are located along the water, except for Am-Dang-Typhoon on Sukhumvit Soi 32. She opened that spot to bring her delicious dishes to the city centre. With her latest establishment, Chang-Wang-Imm, she went back to the waterfront and conceived a menu meant to create riverside dining as it was in the old days, evoking a longing for the flavours and lifestyle of Thailand of antiquity.
“We want diners who come to Chang-Wang-Imm to enjoy the food, enjoy the atmosphere. Once they’re here, they should feel relaxed and content. We love seeing warm, family pictures -- dad, mom, kids -- delighting in a meal together. We love those pictures from Thai families because nowadays it seems to happen less and less. Modern life is making it difficult for people to enjoy eating together. We want to offer this happiness to everyone who visits Chang-Wang-Imm,” explains the chef.
One of the dishes full of nostalgia is Pork Crackling Fried Rice. The chef’s mother used to make this simple favourite for her to eat as a child. She remembers how the house would fill with its aromas from the kitchen as her mother prepared the dish. This was a time before vegetable oil was popular, so to make lard that was used instead, you would get pork crackling. This is what her mother would stir fry with salt to get this menu favourite, a fried rice that is fragrant and hearty.
Follow it with Chang-Wang Snacks -- a plate of finger foods to snack on consisting of crispy, deep-fried vegetables including betel leaves, fennel leaves, madan leaves, and acacia leaves served with satay sauce.
Betrothed Chilli Paste was inspired by the flavours of Southern Thailand. It binds the flavours of fried bitter beans and shrimp paste with anchovies. Each bite gives crispiness and saltiness in this hearty, aromatic chilli paste that goes so well with the bitter beans fried whole. Frying makes them even more fragrant and easier to eat. When combined with the chilli paste, you get a perfect pairing.
Roasted Cumin Leaf Curry with Shrimp features hot spiciness from turmeric, along with cumin leaves bringing more heat, topped with fresh shrimp. Looking to indulge in some guilty pleasure? Pork Crackling Fried Rice is an ideal side dish as its fattiness cuts through the spiciness that keep you wanting for more.
Then there’s Fried Sea Bass for Wrapping. A large, fresh sea bass is cut into pieces and deep fried, then served beautifully to be wrapped in betel leaves with accompaniments and dipped in traditional sweet fish sauce, made with high-quality fish sauce and jaggery cane sugar. This sharing dish is a star amongst Thai families.
The chef also recommends Grilled River Prawns, the huge prawns, full of sweet, tender meat, fragrant from being perfectly grilled, only needs some spicy seafood sauce for dipping.
Flavourful, accessible, and affordable for all
Chang-Wang-Imm’s menu may remind you of traditional Thai meals that Thais ate as children that may have been a rare treat. It also highlights ingredients that feature large in a riverside community as the Thai chef emphasises ingredient selection and traditional cooking techniques without taking shortcuts. All this creates the delicious flavours, inviting and warm, that led to being recognised with a Bib Gourmand in its first year of opening.
“We do our best to take special care in selecting ingredients. High-quality fish sauce, real jaggery cane sugar, organic lime juice -- it all comes straight from our farm in Lamphun. We only use the freshest fishes that are so big that they would be expensive in the city. But we make sure to keep prices reasonable because we want everyone to be able to eat here. As for our methods, we use traditional Thai techniques, no shortcuts allowed. We don’t even have oyster sauce or packaged seasonings. Our curry pastes are freshly made by our hands. We do our best to avoid shortcuts as much as possible.
“We think it’s wonderful that our restaurant achieved a Bib Gourmand since most of the places recognised by the MICHELIN Guide are in central Bangkok. There aren’t that many places in the outskirts of the city. The fact that Chang-Wang-Imm made it through tells us that there are people who know the value of what we offer. And we really must thank MICHELIN Guide, especially considering what’s been happening in the economy. We had to shut down temporarily because of the COVID situation. When we opened up again, we got the great news that we received a Bib Gourmand. Then, we got so many customers, lifting the team’s spirits and morale incredibly.”
Here is a restaurant that is warm and inviting, satisfying appetites and hearts at affordable prices, and completely deserving the recognition of a Bib Gourmand.
Here’s What Our Inspectors Said About Chang-Wang-Imm (Bib Gourmand)
Located in a charming house built in 1957 on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, Chang-Wang-Imm serves delicious wallet-friendly Thai cuisine with relaxing river views. Everything at this two-storey restaurant is vintage, from the décor to the lack of air-conditioning and the traditional cooking techniques and flavours. The traditional Thai curry with pork, shrimp paste and basil is flavoursome and highly recommended. Sit outside to take advantage of the views.
Hero photo: © Anuwat Senivansa Na Ayudhya / MICHELIN Guide Thailand