Why can’t we make Thai food like the Thai do, asks Kunal Vijayakar
I’ve just had a gastronomically indulgent five days in Phuket and its nearby islands, so I have returned home with my senses numbed by the glory of nam pla, lemon grass, galangal and kaffir lime. The thing I like most about Thailand is that, wherever you go, whatever small city, town, island or beach resort, there is always an abundance of Thai food, and most of it is above-average.
We landed in Thailand, as usual, in the wrong season; it was pouring. Last year too, we had stormed into Hua Hin as the monsoon hit the beaches. This time Phuket was, to my glee, deserted. We had chosen to stay at Ban Tao Beach, a pristine white four-mile strip along azure waters. The northern tip is still an area where you can have the whole beach to yourself. Of course the fear always is that if you stay in some secluded Utopia, you’re stuck with whatever food your resort has on offer, and the objective of eating local remains quite unfulfilled, or at the least becomes a cumbersome trek.
Luckily for us, right outside the gates of our resort, we found a shack. It looked no grander than any shack you might find on Baga Beach in Goa — temporary, weather-beaten, with chunky wooden furniture and red-checkered tablecloths that flapped wildly in the monsoon winds. It was evening, and the sun was setting, a drink was beckoning, and how better to have a drink than with sand under your feet and salty spray on your face.
The shack was called Tony’s Seafood Restaurant. I quite expected the menu to be largely European, with the usual grilled fish, lobster butter garlic, fish ‘n’ chips, and steak. But they had a Thai menu, and we decided we ought to try it. Tony was a nickname for the owner, a certain Kanokpon Somrak, and Tony’s was indeed a proper, local Thai joint.
We started off with Yum Som-O (Pomello Salad) — large segments of fresh pomello tossed with tamarind paste, roasted palm sugar, fish sauce, coconut cream, shallots, chillies, chilli paste (nam phrik phao), roasted peanuts and small dried shrimp. Never before has a fruit tasted so good to my fructophobic palate. Tangy, salty, sweet, hot, creamy with crunchy fried garlic, Yum Som-O is indeed a jewel in the crown of Thai cooking.
The salad was followed by Deep-Fried Shrimp with Noodles. Golden and crispy, served like small nests or a bad Rastafarian hairdo, the prawns were served with Nam Jim, a classic sweet chilli sauce. The sun was setting, a breeze had cut into the hot humidity of the evening. Full Moon Phuket Lager, a golden, hoppy and citrusy local beer made of fragrant jasmine rice, was being consumed by the gallon, and our food was flying off the table in the sea gust.
Tom Kha Kai, a mild, fragrant, coconuty soup, was just what we needed. The Tom Kha is a pleasant change from the Tom Yum and does not battle with the fizz of the beer. Beer bellies growling, it was then time for some sting. Pork Phla Mu was a must. It’s a spicy salad of sliced grilled pork, with chunks of sliced lemongrass, mint and shallots, pounded garlic and bird’s eye chilli, doused in lime juice, sweet chilli paste and fish sauce. It’s pungent, sour, sweet and spicy all at the same time, the sourness and spice a barrage of flavour that permeate your molars first and go from those nerves to your forehead and then finally return to your tongue. It’s the finest form of salad ever created and I could eat it every day, for every meal.
What followed were the staple but exquisite Green Curry with Prawns, Red Curry with Beef and Yellow Curry with Crab, with Pad Thai on the side and really sticky rice. But real Thai food is on the streets and in the markets. So the next day we decided to head to a night market with food.
Naka Market is just outside Phuket City. Most of the clothes sold there look like they came from Fashion Street in Mumbai, or are headed there. But the far end is just full of food. There’s everything from fried rice to fried insects. The first thing I spotted was the Khao Moo Daeng, or red barbecued pork. This forms the daily grub of most Thais on the move. It’s simply a plate of rice topped with barbecued pork and a few slices of Chinese sausage, and covered in the omnipresent sweet red sauce. It’s simple, wholesome, easy to eat and available everywhere.
Then there was Kai Jeow, which is everywhere too. This is an omelette with a fluffy inside, crispy outside with fish sauce, chilli sauce and chillies. I like mine with prawns or oysters. An omelette with oysters is called Hoy Tod. I think. It’s served with rice and makes a great meal.
If you like sausages, try the Thai Sai Ooah. They’re made with a variety of aromatic ingredients, like lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and red chilli paste. The sausages are then skewered and grilled.
You find Thais grilling everywhere — small bits of meat on bamboo sticks, full of smokiness and flavour. My favourite is Khao Neow Moo Ping, skewers of grilled pork served with sticky rice, in a plastic bag. There’s also Moo Dat Diew (Dried and Fried Pork) — crunchy and smoky strips of pork, salted and dried in the sun, then deep-fried and served with sticky rice.
But my favourite Thai street food is Khao Kha Moo, which is stewed pork leg served with rice. You can tell a Khao Kha Moo seller by his huge pots, with stewing pigs’ legs inside. The pork is cooked in a heavenly mixture of soy sauce, sugar and spices. Salty, sweet and aromatic, the meat collapses off the bones. It is served with Chinese broccoli (avoidable), sticky rice and a hard-boiled egg on the side.
I returned from Thailand a few kilos heavier and a few degrees sadder. Sad not because I was missing the food, but sad because life, talent and circumstance will never allow Thai food served in India to be as good as or as authentic as it should be. Sad.