May 1999. It’s a muggy and oppressive morning in Bangkok. It is my first time in this city and I don’t particularly like it. We scraped, scrounged and managed a flight ticket and a freebie room in a five-star hotel. I am here for my consecration into Thai cuisine.
Mind you, I’ve never tasted Thai food before this. In my mind, Thai food is too “coconut-y” and devastatingly pungent. Something I am not looking forward to at all. We, my ex-girlfriend (or so I thought she was) and I, stepped out of a cool air-conditioned room into the heat and onto the Wat Chanyawat Express Boat Pier to take a boat to the City Centre. She kept jabbering about Pad Thai noodles for breakfast, which sounded ridiculous to me, my mind swimming with thoughts of sunny-side up.
We landed on the other bank, after having had my first glimpse of Wat Arun and the Palace. The boat docked at a rickety wooden pier. There was hardly any place to disembark, and the air was filled with the smells and the nebulosity of street food cooking. Through that haze, we found a table on the pier and ordered a Pad Thai with yellow curry on the side. Forget the girl, I fell in love with the food. The complex taste of herbs and spices, the fragrance and aromas and the smoky taste of the wok — it was the beginning of a lifelong romance with food from South East Asia.
Back home in Mumbai, there were thousands of Chinese restaurants and roadside stalls, but no one serving anything to the south of that.
Only Ananda Solomon at Taj President had started growing galangal, basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime on the terrace and had opened up The Thai Room. The food was marvelous but so were the prices. The Thai Room was then rechristened as the Thai Pavillion and saw its heyday. It still serves what’s perhaps the best Thai food in the city.
The next decade saw smaller, and much cheaper, restaurants like Thai Ban and Som Tam in Bandra break a coconut. Pan-Asian food, as we were calling it now, was becoming a rage. Today, Modern Pan-Asian food is a first choice at all start-up restaurants in the city.
Zorawar Kalra’s newly opened Pa Pa Ya is one such start-up that has hit the mark. Its ambience is of a modern Asian bistro and tapas bar. They’ve mixed culinary art with taste, a cocktail list, some sushi and done a good job with it. For my money, their must-haves are Grilled Chicken and Avocado Tacos, Singapore Chili Soft-shell Crab, served with buns, Pork Skewers and Hargoa Green Curry Prawn. And, finally their unbelievably fragrant Lamb Rendang.
O:h Cha, also in Lower Parel, started with some hiccups that led to a bad cough, after which it changed hands, and has now graduated into a satisfactory burp. The food, in the able hands of chef Rakesh Talwar, is robust and flavourful. I always try judging the food with their ability to make a simple Green Curry. It’s great and so is the Penang Curry. Start off with the Plah Koong (prawn salad) and some Koong Tempura, Poo Phad Phang Kari (stir-fried crab meat with curry powder) Jasmine rice and Pad Thai noodles.
I’ll remember May 1999 fondly. It’s the year when I lost a girlfriend, but found a cuisine that would give me pleasure for many years to come.
Author and TV show host Kunal Vijayakar is “always hungry”. Follow him on Twitter @kunalvijayakar