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Bangkok Lures Visitors With Its Growing Gourmet Scene

In a plush Bangkok ballroom one evening in May, hoteliers, ambassadors, celebrity chefs and socialites gathered to dine on foie gras, oysters and sushi while they talked about promoting Thai cuisine.

Between helpings of Alaskan king crab, French wine and melt-in-your-mouth Parma ham flown in from Italy, the assembled crowd discussed ways of putting Bangkok on the international culinary map. Although a creamy mango pudding proved a hit, few other local dishes were served at the launch of Gourmet Asia, a five-day event last month that aimed to showcase the world's culinary talents in the Thai capital.

Despite the absence of the kingdom's famously fiery flavours, organisers of Gourmet Asia threw open the food fest with the words: "Bangkok is a true destination for gastronomes and food lovers from all over the world."

The Thai capital is building a reputation for the quality of its local and international cuisine, and the food alone is luring well-heeled gourmets, mostly from Asia's burgeoning economies. "Almost every cuisine is available here. I think the scene is very metropolitan and international, it has become a dining destination in Asia," says Cheryl Tseng, author of the bar and restaurant guide "Chic Bangkok".

Optimistic hoteliers and restaurateurs are hoping that Bangkok will soon rival Hong Kong, Singapore and Tokyo as the culinary capital of Asia. "Bangkok has started knocking the world's culinary cities and telling them, look at us," says Deepak Ohri, managing director of Lebua Hotels, who thinks Bangkok will rival Singapore and Tokyo in just five years.

Ohri's group made its own mark on Bangkok's gastronomic scene -- and some patron's wallets -- when it organised a one-million-baht (29,000 dollar) per head dinner in February featuring six Michelin-star chefs from Europe.

The so-called Epicurean Masters of the World event attracted 15 paying guests from around the globe, and enormous media coverage for the capital. Other culinary events planned in Bangkok this year include the World Gourmet Festival at the Four Seasons hotel in September, while Gourmet Asia, which was in its first year, plans to return soon.

The hospitality industry here is keen to capture the growing wealth in Asia, especially China, where the nouveau riche are keen to try the finest food and wines at luxury hotels and restaurants across the region. Michael Dreyer, of Singapore-based events manager Koelnmesse that was one of the Gourmet Asia organisers, says wealthy Chinese increasingly fly across the region for a one-night dinner before heading home pleasantly stuffed.

"They don't mind paying first class, doing some shopping and just having dinner here," he said. The question for many is when a Thai chef will find his or her name in lights at one of the gourmet line-ups, as it is the kingdom's fiery curries, sharp savoury salads and spicy soups that attract many tourists.

Australia-based travel agency Peregrine Adventures offers a 12-day Gourmet Thailand tour, which they expanded recently to cope with increased demand. But Becky Last, the company's Asia manager, says it is Thailand's robust flavours that attract their clients, not the European and fusion fare offered at some of the five-star hotels and chic eateries.

"Our clients prefer to 'do it local' so we?re more likely to hunt out a popular restaurant with locals and take our clients there for a local experience," she said by email from Melbourne.




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