This fifty-year-old soup from Wattana Panich in Bangkok has no specific recipe

The broth at Bangkok’s Wattana Panich restaurant has been simmering on the stove for over half a century. And it has no specific recipe

author_img Maithreyi Soorej Published :  18th September 2022 09:50 PM   |   Published :   |  18th September 2022 09:50 PM
Kaweenuntawongs at work, stirring the magic soup

Kaweenuntawongs at work, stirring the magic soup

Good food advice is to avoid anything over a day old, especially if unrefrigerated. But a soup that is 50 years old? It’s a rare delicacy in Bangkok, the city of culinary surprises and an exotic gastronomic destination. The Thai capital is where the Kaweenuntawong family has been running the famous Wattana Panich restaurant for over five decades. The eatery now occupies a special place on the world’s gourmet map, legendary for its beef or goat soup—not a preferred meat for many Indians, but a delicacy for less conservative foodies nevertheless.

Owned by Nattapong Kaweenuntawong, Wattana Panich is a 40-minute taxi ride from Sathorn to Ekkamai Road in central Bangkok— a small pavement eatery with a striped green and saffron canopy, bustling with delivery boys, hungry locals and of course tourists. The appetite of any finicky foodie, especially a vegetarian, is bound to be spectacularly spoiled at first sight itself, of pots filled with meat scattered everywhere, including on the pavement outside.

It is obvious by the clutter and randomness that the Kaweenuntawongs do not do business in a fashionable part of modern Bangkok with its tall, glass-fronted skyscrapers and mammoth malls; instead, thick braids of electric lines overhead spoil the look or are perhaps part of it. But one glance at the impressive array of awards, certificates and testimonials on the walls dispels doubt about Wattana Panich’s global celebrity—one of the plaques is from the Michelin guide.

Enter the restaurant’s kitchen and the first sight that captivates you is Nattapong’s mother, a middle-aged Thai woman wearing a Covid mask, stirring black peppercorns, coriander root, garlic, star anise, secret Chinese herbs and fresh meat into a mammoth cauldron of boiling neua tune, a favourite Bangkokian broth. The meat’s fat, melted overnight, has emulsified the stew and given it a thick consistency. The cauldron is massive; about five feet in diameter and two-and-a-half feet deep. Around Kaweenuntawong are scattered an assortment of plates, pots, pans, plastic food baskets, melamine bowls and spoons. Off-the-shelf sauce bottles line the crowded wooden shelves.

The wall space above them is festooned with pictures of gods, Thai shrines, monks, the Buddha and a cheerful black and white family photo. Wattana Panich is a typical Thai roadside eatery, seen in hundreds of streets and bylanes of Thailand. It has been in the family for three generations; Kaweenuntawong and his parents, who are of Thai-Chinese descent, are in charge of the cooking. What is the secret sauce of the legendary soup?

Nattapong proudly declares to shocked visitors that it is never made fresh. He employs an ancient Chinese culinary method called Hunter’s Stew that uses the previous day’s leftover broth reduction as the stock base of the next day’s soup. Much like the legendary Akshaya Patra, he says the pot is never empty. The miracle is that there is no specific recipe although the flavour components came from Nattapong’s father.

The Chinese influence is evident in Wattana Panich’s limited menu,  which has just about a dozen items. The most popular item is goat stew with Chinese herbs, and beef noodle soup. Lemongrass and local chillies are mandatory in traditional Thai broth preparations, while Chinese herbs give the Kaweenuntawong soup a different taste and aroma. It takes about 10 minutes for the order to be served. And when it arrives on your tin top table, the aroma, flavours and tenderness of the meat do the soup’s reputation justice. Many customers have it by themselves. Pairing the soup with roselle juice made from Hibiscus flowers or cold chrysanthemum tea is highly recommended.

It started as a pushcart owned by Nattapong’s grandfather by the Chao Phraya river. Now, the fourth generation Kaweenuntawong, Nattapong’s 12-year-old-daughter—who was not even born when the soup came about—could be stirring the pot when the time comes.

One glance at the impressive array of awards,  certificates and testimonials on the walls dispels doubt about Wattana Panich’s global celebrity—one of the plaques are from the Michelin guide