Kunal Vijayakar rekindles his romance with Thai food in Mumbai
I find that I eat more Thai food when I am abroad than here at home, and there are a couple of reasons for that. First, if I am travelling anywhere in the East, especially in Thailand, it infuriates me if someone offers me any food besides Thai. I have been dragged to an Italian restaurant, a German restaurant, a steakhouse and even a Burger King and I have mutinied emphatically. I’m sure the Italian restaurant was top-notch, and the German one highly awarded, but I really love Thai food and I will not eat a single non-Thai meal in Thailand.
Similarly, when I am travelling in Europe or elsewhere in the West, I will explore and seek out the best food that that region has to offer. Especially if I am in a pluralistic and worldly city like London, I will eat British food, haute cuisine, Note by Note cuisine, nouvelle cuisine, French, Peruvian, Italian, Mediterranean, Iranian, Hungarian, Michelin-starred and not so starred.
But I have to admit that by day five, my Indian palate is yearning for spice and curry. That’s when I hold myself back from seeking out an Indian restaurant and instead head to a Thai place.
I’ve eaten some of my best Thai food in London. From the small mom-and-pop outfit Two Point in Marylebone, to Tawana Thai at Westbourne Grove, to the unbelievably evolved Kiln in Soho, London serves you some of the best Thai food you can eat outside Siam — one more reason I end up eating Thai food outside the country rather than back at home.
Most restaurants that serve Thai food in Mumbai serve what I’d call a Ranveer Singh version — hugely over-enthusiastic, exhaustingly bold and very desi. I haven’t figured out what makes the Thai Green Curry in India so green, but whatever it is, I’m not a fan. The neon staring up at me from the curry bowl is blinding. And when I dip the spoon in to lift some onto my plate, it’s so bloody thick. What’s in it? Cornflour? Spinach? When I taste it, it’s over umami-ed. Before you can say Gaeng Keow Wan Gai, you can feel the lemongrass fumes in your nostrils and even your ears.
If you ask for a simple Som Tum Chae (Raw Papaya Salad), the grated papaya is often far too raw and the dish is overwhelmed by sourness and chilli, with no attempt at getting that perfectly rounded sweet-sour-spicy flavour with a hint of garlic, chilli and fish sauce. Most Som Tums here could easily just be sold as Vegetarian Asian Chaat.
I could go on and on… about how badly cooked rice does not a sticky rice make, or how a Tom Yum Goong (Spicy Shrimp Soup) is not a close cousin of a tangy and spicy rasam.
Thai food in Mumbai started with The Thai Room at the Taj President, with chef Ananda Solomon, who even started growing galangal, basil, lemongrass and kaffir lime on the terrace because these herbs were so hard to acquire then. He had spent months in Thailand, in local kitchens, learning how to cook the food, and even done a stint at the Grand Palace. The food was stunning here, but so were the prices. The Thai Room was then rechristened Thai Pavilion and had its heyday around the turn of the century.
It still serves probably the best Thai food in the city. But then the standalone restaurant scene took off, and smaller and much cheaper restaurants like Thai Ban in Bandra (now closed) and Tamnak Thai at Shivaji Park began to promote the cuisine.
Then came the big guys — Joss, India Jones, Busaba; and right behind them came a tidal wave of quick-and-dirty places that served fluorescent red and green curries. All of them named Nom, Tom, Pong or Som.
Then suddenly, a year ago, people in Bandra started talking about an unassuming 6- to 8-seater with an open kitchen that was cooking up some fabulous Thai food along with some fresh and wholesome sushi and sashimi. It was called The Blue and it soon became Bandra’s best-known secret.
Run by husband and wife Karan Bane and Seefah Ketchaiyo, it offered the kind of home-style Thai food you’d expect to eat in Bangkok. I went there a couple of times and emerged with my tastebuds blown. My joy turned to melancholy when I heard of The Blue shutting down for reasons unknown.
But Ketchaiyo and Bane have reinvented themselves at two places, Soi 69 at Breach Candy and Seefah on Hill Road. I’ve eaten at both and the food is equally good. But I met Karan and Seefah at their cheerful bright restaurant with a large terrace on Hill Road. The owner chefs were buzzing about and in and out of the kitchen, which always makes me feel good about the food. So I ordered.
The Grilled Tenderloin Salad was warm and homely. Pieces of grilled meat, tossed with shallots, onions, cilantro and tomato, were infused with the flavours of lemongrass, black pepper and fish sauce. Sour and spicy, the salad worked well as a starter but would also have been spectacular with some sticky rice.
I had reserved the rice for the main. I had to try the Gaeng Keow Wan Koong (Prawn Green Curry) and see what shade of green it’d turn out. It was perfect, a subtle yet spicy blend of lemongrass, galangal, lime leaves and chilli, cooked in mild coconut milk, with bamboo shoots, Thai basil, Thai eggplant and prawn. Nice and soupy to drown the rice in.
Next, the Pad Kra Pow Gai, a simple stir-fried chicken with holy basil. It had the fragrance and aromas of herbs and spices, and the smoky taste of the wok, and though the flavours were complex, it was also comforting.
Karan, an expert in Japanese cuisine, suggested I try his signature Eel Sashimi. The eel is given a teriyaki glaze and seasoned with Sansho pepper. As the story goes, Sansho Pepper creates a strange, tingling, sensation when eaten that is akin to a mild electrical current. What a way to complement the melt-in-the-mouth texture and natural sweetness of the eel.
My meal ended with Honey Toast — a thick slab of brioche, lightly toasted, drenched in honey and served with sesame ice-cream. What a glorious end to the meal.
I had begun my lifelong romance with South-East Asian food, with a special place in my heart for Thai food, many years ago, but I was getting a bit heartbroken. This food just mended my broken heart, and put a spark back into that romance.