Prawn soup for the soul

Prawn soup for the soul
Local joint in the city,

The story of Thai cuisine - freshest ingredients, fiercest flavours and, of course, the finest cooks

Pankaj Butalia
March 20 , 2014
21 Min Read

There was a time, not so long ago, when food was just another passion in Thailand — not yet an industry. But then things changed. Tourists fell in love with Thai food and cooks left home to set up restaurants. As eating places flourished, more and more people took to eating out. Today, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Thai are always eating — and eating out — and that they don’t really cook at home.

But then again, why should they? Food on the streets is close to home food — and eminently affordable. For five days I roamed the streets of Thailand trying out different renditions of Thai cuisine — some in fancy restaurants, some in middling ones, some in food courts and, of course, on the streets. I tried authentic Thai food, I tried fusion, I tried seafood, I tried vegetarian. Almost always what I came across on the streets was simple fare — basic pork, beef, chicken or seafood with noodles, crisp vegetables, rice and broth — cheap, and always, always clean.

Koh Samui was my first destination. Considering it was an isolated island completely cut off from the mainland as recently as three decades ago, it is amazing to see how complete a tourist trap it is today. Exclusive resorts jostle with spas and gourmet restaurants. Today’s international clientele will not settle for less. But it also has many outstanding standalone eating places, most of them concentrated near Chaweng beach. “You’ll never go hungry in Koh Samui,” I was assured.

I walked into Zazen Restaurant, set in the Zazen Boutique Resort & Spa, just off Bophut beach. There was talk of Chef Wally, its Italian chef from Belgium, who was making waves among diners for his Thai fusion cuisine. The restaurant, like most others in Koh Samui’s beach resorts, boasts a panoramic view of the sea with its Rouge Lounge and Bar providing a backdrop of Singha beer and exotic wines. I thought I’d try the tom yam goong (spicy prawn soup) because it is a soup so familiar that it can be used as a marker to test a chef’s abilities. While other herbs and spices no doubt play a role in this soup, it is the balance between lemongrass, galangal and lemon juice that is crucial. Chef Wally’s soup was very tasty but it lacked bite. It needed the galangal and lemongrass to tug at the taste buds but they seemed content to rest. It needed the chillies and lemon juice to make their presence felt but that didn’t happen either. Chef Wally’s explanation was that his clientele was mainly European. Hmmm! But then he produced yam hua plee (banana flower salad with prawns) and I forgave him. It was one of the most outstanding salads I have ever eaten. The flower was just ripe — not dark — and it had absorbed the lemon juice so deeply that it was only in the biting of the flower that the juice blended with the contrasting golden fried shallots, roasted coconut, tamarind, quail eggs and fish sauce. The delayed release of the lemon had to be a major artistic achievement! But just when I was about to start singing Chef Wally’s praises came the gai pat met memuang (fried chicken with cashewnuts and jasmine rice), a dish so forgettable I rushed into the kitchen to protest, only to find the chef had left. There was little point then complaining about the rubbery texture of the dish so I left, grateful for the memory of the banana salad.

Just short of Samui’s popular Namuang Waterfall is a small food place. No chefs, just a small family-run kitchen turning out three dishes as fast as the orders come in. The gai yang (grilled chicken) was coated with garlic, coriander, pepper, palm sugar, oyster sauce, fish sauce and soya. That’s it. And grilled. Finger-licking good! I took a bit of the papaya salad I’d seen the old head of the family make. In a large wooden mortar and pestle he’d thrown some chilli, garlic, palm sugar, peanuts, shrimps and lemon, pounded away for a couple of minutes and added the grated papaya to serve a salad very difficult to put down. Just shows how some of the tastiest food is also the easiest to make. In his broken English he told me, “Secret not pound too hard, use spoon also to mix,” and with actions he showed me that it was all about pounding and scooping alternately. Good secret to remember.

This is what I like about Thai cooks and chefs — they love to talk. They boast about the special touches they impart to their dishes, and about how that actually makes a difference. This is true to quite an extent, because no two green curries, no two papaya salads ever taste similar, at least in Thailand.

Perhaps the most amazing meal I enjoyed in Koh Samui was at Dining on the Hill, a restaurant at the plush Six Senses Hideaway. Eating in a restaurant with a stunning view of the sea at a table laden with mouthwatering dishes was an experience to remember.Eating too much of one thing was not possible. So I played a food taster that night — taking miniscule helpings of each dish — and repeating a dish only if it was outstanding. Problem was, everything was outstanding. I’m not a great fan of satay but then I’d never had satay goong (prawn satay) before. Not only was the prawn crunchy and succulent but the satay sauce was a bit extra nutty to deal with the prawn’s blandness and was served with slices of pickled cucumber. Another great appetiser was the gai hor bai tuey, marinated chicken baked in pandanus leaves. I decided to ignore the tom yam goong not because it’s not a great soup but because I wanted to try something we don’t normally get — like the kaeng-jued woon-sen moo sub — a clear soup of minced pork and glass noodles. The deep yet light flavour of the excellent stock was primary and was enhanced by the bite-sized pork and glass noodles.

Bangkok was another kettle of fish. It’s one thing for the ambience of an island resort to uplift the food one is eating and quite another thing when one steps into a restaurant simply to escape the madness of city streets. But Bangkok seemed adequately equipped to deal with this handicap.

Deva is a small restaurant tucked away on Sukhumvit Road. Its celebrity chef M.L. Kwantip Devakula agreed to discuss the dishes I liked. After I’d eaten the stuffed chicken wings (with ground pork, shiitake mushrooms and chopped onion) to my heart’s delight, I attacked the beef sirloin with holy basil gravy. It was such a complex dish that I needed help figuring out what she had done to it. “You need to ensure that the beef is grilled to the right redness first. This is crucial. Then you make the sauce and spoon it over the beef. Ah, the sauce! Make sure you balance the chillies, garlic, oyster sauce. Don’t overwhelm the beef. And make sure you use enough holy basil. Don’t use black pepper — use white pepper!” Since she made it seem so simple, I next asked what had made the spicy seafood salad so special. “It’s the mint leaves. Mint counters the chilli, galangal and lemongrass. Make sure you use enough fish sauce because you need a deep saltiness which only fish sauce can give. The rest is easy.” But, of course!

As I sat in a old wooden house by the Chao Phraya river, now converted into a restaurant, I was transported into a romanticised Siam of yore, looking out at the futuristic Rama IX cable bridge across the river. I was at the Baan Klang Nam, one of Bangkok’s most fashionable restaurants, where it would be a rare day when someone from the small Thai elite was not sitting at a table across you.

Though it offers a wide range of food, everyone goes to Baan Klang Nam for the seafood and its incredibly personalised service. Two of the most amazing crab dishes I have ever eaten are its stir-fried crabs with black pepper and the curry crab. The curry paste of the latter was aromatic and full of flavour while the pepper in the former exploded as I bit into it and enhanced the salty sweetness of the crab.

Luckily, I visited with a large group of friends, so it was possible to sample several dishes. The range of whole-fish dishes was impressive. Since I try and avoid deep-fried food, I lost out on many of their preparations, but this was more than made up for by the steamed whole white sea bass with soya sauce, so delicately nuanced that the gentle trickling of the spring onion and soya into the flesh transformed a mild tasting fish into a rich full-bodied mouthful.

If Baan Klang Nam is where the Thai elite is seen, Taling Pling, probably Bangkok’s best cheap and friendly restaurant, is the favoured hangout of office workers. It’s one of the few places where one has to fight for a place at lunchtime. I started with a crispy fish salad. In most other places the sour-crunchiness in the salad comes from raw mango. However, Taling Pling uses a sort of sour starfruit of the kind we find served with roasted sweet potato on the streets of Delhi in winter. The sour juice from the starfruit counters the deep saltiness of the fish and the colourful red chillies in the salad, and prepares you for the low key but exotic sun-dried mackerel in sesame that must follow the salad.

The menu was so extensive that I felt almost cheated at not being able to order everything I saw being eaten around me. So I summoned a poor unsuspecting waiter and made him tell me what was going on so I could at least be privy to some vicarious gratification. This is what he reported in his broken English: tom tum goong with slices of coconut, an innovation I didn’t know was possible in this commonplace soup, the roast duck panaeng, served as a dry dish, with a rich and rounded taste, the incredible looking stir-fried gourd leaves with oyster sauce — a dish I will certainly go back to Bangkok for. Such inspiration called for cooking classes so I asked around for a good cooking school and was told I couldn’t do better than The Blue Elephant on South Sathorn Road.

The Blue Elephant, like Deva, is an outstanding restaurant-cum-cooking school. Like Deva, here too the inspiration behind the project is a woman — Nooror Somany Steppe, who has now been joined in the project by her daughter Sandra. Chef Charles here decided that our classes needed to start at the wet markets from where he bought his ingredients. So we were taken on a skytrain ride to Bangkrak market. “Each chef has his favourite wet market,” he told us, “from where he gets his fish, meat, vegetables, spices...everything.” For me the hygiene at the market was a revelation. No one touched the meat with their hands, there were no flies, no accumulated filth of discarded innards or stale vegetables.

The cooking class was conducted with a demonstration followed immediately by ‘practicals’ in a kitchen with 20 burners, individual sets of ingredients and pots and pans. Both mother and daughter explained the simple principles of each ingredient to us. That day, we were first taught a chicken green curry. The idea was to take up a dish the students were familiar with so that its nuances could be explored. “Use fresh coconut and the root of the green coriander,” said Sandra, “That makes a big difference.” “Try to make your own curry paste — it’s not as salty as the readymade paste. And pound the lemongrass stems properly to extract the flavour,” she added. I rushed to my kitchen station, eager to see if I could improve on the green curry I made back home. “Give it an attractive finish. Make the dish appealing to the eye,” we were told, “Do what you want — add the basil leaves in a pattern — or stick two red chillies into the green curry...” Next, I dutifully worked on my tom yam goong, keang kiaw waan kai and som tam, and found them looking far more appetising than I’d ever managed and sat down to eat, content in the knowledge that my instinct about coming to Thailand for food, and only for food, had been right. Who says the way to a man’s heart is not through his taste buds?

The information

Koh Samui 

Lan Tania With a winning, bird’s-eye view of the beach and warm-toned wooden décor, Lan Tania at the Four Seasons Resort offers more than just a generous spread of southern Thai specialities. But the grilled lobster with satay sauce and the honey-basted pork spareribs, in particular, come well recommended. 

219 Moo 5, Angthong, +66-77-243000, www.fourseasons.com

Rocky’s Restaurant Dine al fresco by the sea at Rocky’s. Try the steamed sea bass in three flavours -- tamarind, shallots and sweet chilli, or green papaya salad served with grilled chicken wings. 

Rocky Resort, 438/ Moo 1, Tambon Market, 77-233020, www.rockyresort.com                     

House of Thai With culinary ‘envoys’ from all the major regions of Thailand, you’re likely to be spoilt for choice here. Don’t miss the deep fried tofu with plum sauce, the Thai glass vermicelli salad with minced pork, and the stir-fried tofu, shiitake and veggies with crushed garlic, chilli and basil. 

13/6 Moo 2, Chaweng Beach Road, Bophut, 818-219388, www.houseofthaisamui.com    

Sala Thai Restaurant A short walk from the town of Lamai, Sala Thai is within sneezing distance of bazaars, bars and spas. But before you head out to shop, pile your plate with stir-fried asparagus, shrimp and shiitake, blanched, sliced pork topped with chilli sauce, or spicy prawn salad with fresh herbs.

124/115 Moo 3, Lamai Beach, Tambon Market, 77-233180, www.sala-thai.com 

Zazen Restaurant Thai fusion cuisine’s latest poster-boy Chef Wally Andreini is Zazen’s jewel in the crown. Sink your teeth into his signature fried chicken with cashewnuts and jasmine rice or sample his banana flower salad with prawns.

177 Moo 1, Tambon Bophut, 77-425085, www.samuizazen.com

Dining On The Hill Happily situated on the sunset side of the Six Senses Hideaway, Dining On The Hill is arguably among the best restaurants in Koh Samui. Don’t come away without trying their prawn satay and chicken baked in pandanus leaves.

9/10 Moo 5, Baan Plai Laem, Bophut, 77-245678, www.sixsenses.com

Bangkok

Nara A warm, friendly restaurant, Nara prides itself on offering authentic Thai cooking. Dishes to try include the famous boat noodle with a bowl full of pork or beef, Thai-style pomelo salad and papaya salad with pork.

Erawan Pathumwan, Lower Ground Floor, +66-2-2507707, www.naracuisine.com

Deva Restaurant Tucked away on Soi Sukhumvit, it had a generous selection of both ‘modern’ Thai and Continental specialities on the menu. Order a plate of stuffed chicken wings and beef sirloin with basil, and try a few of their house wines as well.

32/1 Soi Sukhumvit 39, 2-6625427, www.devabkk.com

Lan Som Tam Nua Food here tends to be rather spicy, since it’s closer to traditional Thai tastes. But if you can handle the heat, their papaya or pork salads are well worth a try.

Siam BTS, 392/14 Siam Square, 2-2514880

Vientiane Kitchen Home to the Thai-Esarn (Northeastern) style of cooking, the Kitchen is known for its catfish with bean curry, papaya salad with fermented fish, stir-fried mixed vegetable and fried leg of pork.

8 Naphasap Yak 1, Sukhumvit Soi 36, Klongtoey, 2-2586171, www.vientiane-kitchen.com

Taling Pling A pocket-friendly restaurant, it’s usually teeming with office-goers during the day. Stir-fried gourd leaves with oyster sauce and sun-dried mackerel in sesame are among their most popular dishes. And their desserts are excellent too.

60 Pun Road, Silom or at Central Mall, Ratchadamri Road, 2-2344872

Blue Elephant Set in a 100-year-old colonial house, Blue Elephant also doubles up as a cookery school. Their Thai fusion cuisine, oriented towards the European palate, does credit to the bamboo fish and larb salmon with fresh Thai herbs which grace its menu. Cooking classes start at 2,800 baht per person, per class.

233 South Sathorn Road, Yannawa, 2-6739353, www.blueelephant.com

Mahanaga Thai Fusion Restaurant If you’re looking for reasonably priced gourmet fusion food, head to Mahanaga. Order their crispy pork spareribs with spicy basil sauce -- it’s a blend of the Thai- and Chinese-style of making spareribs -- and their deep-fried prawn and chicken stuffed with fresh shiitake mushrooms, served with a spicy mint sauce.

2 Sukhumvit 29, 2-6623060, www.mahanaga.com

Baan Klang Nam Unlike most things in Thailand, a meal at Baan Klang Nam is not really cheap. But if you’re willing to loosen your purse strings a little, you’ll be surprised at the quality of their braised bamboo shoot with young kale, steamed whole sea bass with soy sauce and spicy seafood salad.

288 Soi 14, Phra Ram III Road, Thanon Tok, 2-2920175, www.baanklangnam.net; second outlet at 762/7 Bangkok Square, Jatujak Market, Rama III Road, Bang Pongpang, Yannawa, 2-6827180,  

Patara Fine Thai Cuisine Though slightly expensive by Thai standards, Patara is fairly affordable. Crisp-fried honey-marinated chicken breast in pandanus leaf, poached Atlantic salmon in black bean and fresh ginger crust, and their tender greens wok-fried with chilli paste sauce are extremely popular.

375 Soi Thonglor 19 Sukhumvit 55, Klongtonnua Vadhana, 2-1852960, www.patarathailand.com

Baan Khanitha A middle-level restaurant, it prides itself on serving home-style Thai food including a spicy pomelo salad with shrimps and chicken, and stir-fried river prawns with tamarind sauce.

69 South Sathorn Road, 2-6754200, www.baan-khanitha.com  

Tom Yum Kung Reasonably priced, TomYum Kung serves the most authentic Thai food in the Khaosan Road area. It is especially good for fish and seafood preparations and counts fried catfish with mango salad, green beef curry and chicken with cashewnut as its specialties.

9 Trokmayom, Khaosan Road, Phranakorn, 2-6292772, www.tomyumkungkhaosan.com              

Food courts

If you’d really like to sample Thai street food, but hesitate to buy it from the stalls on the streets, food courts are where you should head. Here’s a list of the malls with some of the better-known food courts:

MBK Food Court, Siam Paragon Food Hall, Siam Center, Central World Food Court, The Emporium, Empire Tower Food Centre, Fashion Island Shopping Mall, Seacon Square, Central Plaza Pinklao

Top Tip

Good Morning

This is one experience of Bangkok that’s not going away in a hurry. A friend insisted I give up the free breakfasts at my hotel and actually pay to have breakfast at The Mandarin Oriental. Now The Oriental is one of the oldest hotels in Asia and many well-known authors like Joseph Conrad, Graham Greene and Noel Coward have stayed there. So I took a boat along the riverside one early morning and reached The Verandah -- an all-day dining restaurant with a laidback feel and a superb view of the river. Here I spent the only 1000 baht I’ve ever spent on a breakfast. The Verandah has gourmet chefs competing with each other to give you the freshest fish you could imagine -- or offer you a wide array of breads, cereals, pink salmon… See www.mandarinoriental.com.


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