For this edition of SEAtizens, we feature Jay Fai, the culinary icon from Thailand who is getting more buzz and raves from foodies around the world.
Bangkok is known for its unique and varied street food, which is prepared by Thai culinary masters who have perfected their skills and recipes through years of hard work. Among these street iron chefs, one stands out as the “aharn daam sung” (made-to-order) street food master. From the streets of Bangkok, she now represents Thai culinary culture on the global stage.
An ‘undisputed queen’ of Thai cuisine
Meet Supinya Junsuta, also known as Jay Fai (loosely translated as “Sister Mole”), a 74-year-old street food chef in Bangkok at her seven-table shophouse restaurant, Raan Jay Fai located in 327 Maha Chai Rd, Khwaeng Samran Rat, Khet Phra Nakhon, Krung Thep Maha Nakhon 10200, Thailand. She has been known as Thailand’s “Street Food Queen,” and in 2017, she was the first person selling food on the street in Thailand to get the prestigious Michelin Star!
Wearing her signature goggles and red lipsticks, the local legend continues what her father started 70 years ago, becoming famous for her signature dishes that she perfected, which includes crab omelette, drunken noodles, crab yellow curry, and logic-defying dry tom yum.
Diners at her restaurant are willing to wait in line and pay more (Jay Fai’s restaurant is one of the most expensive restaurants in Bangkok; she claims that this is because she sources the best ingredients for every dish), with some having experienced waiting for five hours just to have a taste of her dishes! Ultimately praising the food served, they describe it as “delicious and unique” and an “art-like performance.”
A ‘master of her craft’, renowned for her skills and dedication
Would you believe it if we told you that Jay Fai is the only cook in her restaurant? Although she has assistants doing menial kitchen tasks and customer assistance, all of the dishes that come out of her famous Wok are her own. In an interview with Michelin, she said that she is not considering hiring additional cooks to help her.
“When it comes to this sort of cooking, it’s difficult. I need to be the person to make everything myself,” she said.
According to Food Vlogger, Mark Weins in 2015, although she was quite famous back then in Thailand, her Michelin star boosted her to fame, and since then, her restaurant has been flocked by tourists around the world. In 2019, she was featured in a Netflix documentary called Street Food: Asia that featured different Asian cuisines, making her name a global institution in the Thai culinary scene.
Although her life’s work has been celebrated in her country and around the globe, she has never written down any of her own recipes to pass on to anyone, even though she has followed a path of perfecting her recipes all her life. She also reportedly said that she would not make her children inherit her restaurant.
“I have children, but I don’t want them to take over. This is very hard work, and I made enough money to send them to study abroad. When I decide not to do it anymore, it will just end,” she shared in an interview with VICE magazine (a Canadian-American magazine focused on lifestyle, arts, culture, and news/politics).
A ‘global powerhouse’, thrusting Thailand’s bid for soft-power globally
But while she is still not giving up her Wok, she continues to spread her legacy and help Thailand introduce its culinary culture across the globe and strengthen its soft power.
Jay Fai recently went to Florence Art Week, where contemporary Thai art and culinary excellence were on display. The exhibition of Thai soft power is organized by the CP Group in collaboration with the Thai Art Initiative (ThAI) and Museo Novecento, which is in line with TAT’s strategy of using “soft power” to promote Thailand as a preferred tourist destination.
In a report by The Nation Thailand, she expressed her gratitude for the chance to attend this event. She said that “every time she cooks in a foreign country, she gives it her all to show that Thai food can become well-known and eaten by more people if it is done right, because Thai food is delicious and unique.” She also hopes the occasion could attract more foreigners to try the taste of Thai cuisine.
‘A SEA master’ and a true queen of street food
While Jay Fai does not want her legacy to live on after her death, she is doing everything she can to ensure that what she started is recognized across all nations and that her government appreciates street vendors like her.
In 2018, Reuters reported the continuous crackdown by city officials to “return the pavement to pedestrians,” evicting hundreds of vendors selling food, clothing, and trinkets for greater “order and hygiene.”
“Street vending occupies an important space in Thai culture and history, helping to build community bonds, enabling women to work, innovating in Thai cuisine, and enriching families with no opportunity otherwise,” said Chawadee Nualkhair, a food blogger.
“Shepherding them into ‘centers’ or eradicating them completely leaves a huge hole in the city’s ecosystem,” she continued.
“This hole will inevitably be filled by big corporations” like food companies and department stores, she added.
In Southeast Asia, street food is not your ordinary “cheap eats” that you find in a corner to buy to fix your cravings; it’s a culture with a history that spans generations or even centuries. It is a sneak peek into our nations, which are so diverse that it’s hard to comprehend for outsiders.
Through these dishes that we have perfected to bits and made people experience, we tell our stories. It is our encyclopedia, but with real flavors and real people. It connects us with each other and with the rest of the world. Making it go away is like making what makes us unique and beautiful disappear.
SEA Wave magazine’s SEAtizens initiative is a series of inspiring stories of people in Southeast Asia who champion the human spirit by demonstrating courage, ingenuity, generosity, and selflessness.
Featured Photos from Food For Thought