Whether it is food from the streets or at restaurants, it gives you a whole new idea of Thai cuisine.
Thailand is the best destination for anyone who loves food. Thai restaurants in India do a good job of introducing us to their tradition, but being there is another story. For years, all I knew of Thai food was red and green curries, basil-chilli stir fries and pad thai.
Two weeks in a foreign country are nowhere near enough to go deep; that would be like expecting a foreigner to know Indian cuisine after eating at restaurants for a week each in Delhi and Goa. It’s actually hard to describe the food, which is made with a light touch and yet has deep and complex flavours. It’s easier to report that everything is squeaky clean and that prices are a relief.
The safer thing to do, then, is to describe two kinds of eating experiences: the street and the restaurant. On every street I walked, drove, or saw-from-skytrain, there were food carts. Some were selling prepared stuff, but many were cooking on the spot. Deep-fried creatures on skewers, cut fruit, pork ribs, boiled peanuts; all served with plastic gloves on. Eggs, fried rice, noodles, soup, stir-fries, fish fat fritters made on the spot.
One evening, when it was too early for dinner and I was the only one hungry, I walked from our hotel in Sukhumvit to a bunch of carts across the street. One, run by a mother and daughter, was making only fried rice. The daughter spoke English, and looked about 15. I asked why she wasn’t at school and she said she was at university and helped her mother in the evenings. Anyway so she asked what I wanted in my fried rice and I pointed. I sat at a plastic table and, within a minute, the rice arrived. It was pale, nutty brown, with that taste of light soya sauce; it had freshly scrambled eggs, some sautéed shrimps and crunchy spring onions. Chillies. Topped with crunchy long-tailed bean-sprouts.
At the table there were a few plastic bottles of the usual sauces, but what intrigued me was a plastic mug, the kind we bathe with in India, filled with a bunch of fresh green leaves. I saw others plucking and eating them, so they were obviously not decorative. They were basil leaves. Impressive, this attention to detail – the leaves taste much better fresh than cooked. And this at a roadside stall, with the stall owners wearing anti-pollution masks against the diesel fumes.
Another day we ate at a food court. The variety and hygiene were not unexpected. But what was amazing was the homely cooking style. We ordered a soup with noodles and shrimps, which was clear and fragrant, slightly sour but also more than a hint of sweetness. And stir-fried chicken with vegetables. The vegetables were different: long, deep green beans, tender and sweet, and a juicy spinach-like leaf. The flavour came from a spice paste that was made there and then by the girl behind the counter. She pounded it with a thick wooden pestle in an earthenware mortar, scraped it out and into the hot dish. She placed a wedge of kaffir lime in the plate, and we helped ourselves to raw bean-sprouts, pickled mustard greens and lemon basil leaves from the counter top. Could flavour be fresher?
Similar yet different
In many ways Thai food reminded me of closer home, Bengal. Though their rice is different, with a delicately sweet flavour – to my mind better for steaming than our Basmati. It is the perfect foil to curries. Some of the curries are quite thin, like a jhol, with assorted vegetables simmered along with the meat or fish. Green aubergines, apple aubergines, pea aubergines, morning glory, water spinach. Other, thicker curries, like the massaman, are denser, with coconut cream or peanut paste and can have potatoes or carrots cooked along with the meat. The sense I got, from my limited exposure, was that Thai food is similar to Indian in that ingredients are cooked in a spiced curry, as opposed to the West where meat and vegetables are cooked separately and then topped with a sauce. But it seemed that although Thai cooking uses some dry spices like star anise, mace, bay leaves and coriander and cumin seeds, it relies more on fresh, green ingredients like basil, lemongrass, kaffir lime and its rind and leaves, galangal, shallots, several varieties of chillies, coriander roots, raw turmeric and green peppercorns.
One restaurant that I’d like to eat at a few hundred times more is Suda, also walking distance from our hotel. It had the ambience of an Indian “sweet shop”, the kind that serves dosas, chana bhatura and chow mien on laminated tables. But Suda serves only Thai food. We ate extraordinary food here, including deep-fried parcels of chicken wrapped in banana leaves, which opened to reveal plump pieces of golden-brown chicken, slightly crisp on the outside and white and tender within. But the most memorable dish was the tom yum soup, like no other we’d ever eaten. It contained the essence of the best of Thai food, intense, fresh flavours and hot, sour and sweet tastes delicately balanced. They didn’t provide a recipe, but this is a close approximation.
Tom Yum Soup
5-6 cups vegetable or chicken stock
1-2 stalks lemongrass, chopped
3 whole kaffir lime leaves
1-2 red chillies, sliced,
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 thumb-size piece galangal or ginger, sliced into thin matchstick-like pieces
1 cup fresh mushroom, sliced
2 cups baby bok choy, leaves separated or chopped
1 tsp brown sugar
2 tbsp fish sauce
1tbsp lime juice
1-2 cups soft tofu, sliced into cubes
½ cup fresh basil
1/3 cup fresh coriander, roughly chopped
Method: Pour stock into a large, heavy pan and add the lemongrass, lime leaves, chilli, garlic, and galangal or ginger. Bring to a boil and continue boiling for five minutes, or until broth is very fragrant. Add the mushrooms, bok choy and cherry tomatoes. Gently simmer 1-2 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add sugar, fish sauce, and lime juice. Finally, add the tofu and gently stir. The soup should be hot and sour, so taste and add chillies, or fish sauce if necessary. Add sugar if too sour and lime juice if too salty or sweet. To serve, ladle soup into bowls with fresh basil and coriander sprinkled over.
Half a cup of coconut milk can be added to soften the taste. Shrimps or bite-sized pieces of chicken can be used instead of vegetables.
Vasundhara Chauhan is based in Delhi and works with Pratham's ASER (Annual Status of Education Report).