Praphaphan Suriyawan is heading an ongoing Thai food festival at The Leela

The aroma of spices and herbs hits me even before the maitre d’ leads me to my table at Tides, The Leela, Kovalam. I am at Tides to meet Praphaphan Suriyawan, the chef who is heading an ongoing Thai food festival at the restaurant. The petite chef, however, insists I dine on a couple of her dishes before I start the interview and with the aromas floating around me, I happily oblige.

Soon, plates of Satay, Tom Kha Kai and Phad Thai prawns appear on my table. The satays, strips of chicken marinated in a special Thai paste and then skewered and grilled on the barbecue, are succulent. The bites of galangal in the marinade adds to the flavour. The aromatic Tom Kha Kai whets my appetite and I polish off the creamy broth.

Although I don’t have the heart to cut into the pretty laced egg net, which covers the Phad Thai prawns, my waiter however, has no qualms as he plunges the spoon and serves me a portion of the dish. Perfectly seasoned, the noodle dish with plump prawns is a hit with me.

For dessert, Praphaphan puts two sweet dishes before me – Khao Niew Mamuang and Man Sumpalang Cheuam.

Khao Niew Mamuang is sweet sticky rice with slices of mango. It is the Thai equivalent of rice pudding, with a sweet, creamy and slightly salty flavour. Man Sumpalang Cheuam is candied tapioca with coconut cream. The tapioca root is cooked gently in sugar syrup until it is translucent. It is served with coconut cream which helps offset the sweetness from the tapioca.

Done with my meal, Praphaphan sits down and gladly answers questions.

Praphaphan, who hails from Bangkok, was taught the basics in cooking by her parents. The first dish she learnt to prepare was stir fried chicken with hot basil. “It is also one of my favourite dishes,” she says. She then went on to hone her culinary skills at Rajamangala Institute of Technology University, Thailand.

She quotes United States politician Hillary Clinton when she says: “Food isn’t traditionally thought of as a diplomatic tool, but sharing a meal can help people transcend boundaries and build bridges in a way that nothing else can.” And that is what Praphaphan hopes to do with her food – build bridges. And she is off to a good start. The head of the Thai section of The Restaurant, The Leela, Goa, Praphaphan has been introducing customers to the restaurant to the joys of Thai dining for the last two years.

“Thai food is ‘cook and serve’ and not ‘cook and keep’, so the food is made on order. Thai food isn’t about simplicity. It’s about the merging of different elements to create a harmonious finish, so you can experience a variety of flavours and tastes,” she says.

The chef who begins her day at The Restaurant at 11 a.m. is on her toes until 11 p.m. She has a small team whom she supervises and has managed to pick up a bit of Hindi. She goes home for a short break every year. “I don’t cook when I am at home. I let my parents do the cooking and stir fried chicken with hot basil is always on the menu,” she smiles.

Although Indian food is available in Thailand, it is not as tasty as the Indian food in India, says Praphaphan who finds chicken biriyanis “extremely delectable”.

The chef de sous who has been in the city for the last two weeks has not seen the city yet. “I have been busy updating the chefs at Tides and also been busy with the festival. I might go into the city for a day before I leave though.”

The Thai food festival will conclude on March 31.