What’s good Thai food? This is a question that has many answers and many people will have different opinions. The first Thai dishes I ever had were Pad Thai, Chicken with Cashews, and Mango Salad. It was a chance encounter with Larb Gai (Chicken Salad) and Som Tam (Papaya Salad) that sparked our love for Thai cuisine and our pursuit of tasty Thai meals at home and prepared by others.
After 12 days exploring Thai food in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui, we feel that we have a better idea of what good Thai food is. The meals we ate from restaurants, street vendors, markets, malls, and prepared food products have all been good.While some have een better than others, we have not had any bad meals, other than the food on the airplane. As harash critics, this is a big surprise.
In November 2013, we spent 2 weeks exploring Thailand and Thai food in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Koh Samui. The meals we ate from restaurants, street vendors, markets, malls, and prepared food products have all been good. While some have been better than others, we did not have any bad meals, other than the food on the airplane (Sorry Thai Airways, your food is gross, even in Royal Silk Class; soggy sandwiches with mystery meat, overcooked fish, and greasy noodles just don’t cut it). As harsh critics, we were quite surprised and delighted about how satisfied we were with all our meals during our recent trip, considering we had so-so meals in Thailand in 2008 and 2010. So, what’s changed in the last few years?
In 2010, I travelled to Portland, Oregon and decided to try Pok Pok. The food was so good that I ate there 3 times during my stay, trying new dishes each time. Pok Pok’s menu deviates from the standard dishes you would find at Thai restaurants; it was my first time having Khao Soi, Chiang Mai Sausage, Boar collar, and their Papaya Salad was to die for. In 2011, my husband and I travelled to Portland, and I was very excited to take him to Pok Pok to see if he would like it just as much and he did. We ended up eating there 2 days in a row to sample as much as we can, and since then, we have been back a dozen times or so. As I read through Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok Cookbook, it is easy to see why the food is so tasty; he goes above and beyond to re-create and create flavours common Northern Thailand. Since our introduction to Thai food via Pok Pok, we are baptised and converted and it is now the standard by which we hold all Thai food.
I will highlight some of the things we ate and learned during our trip:Back in Vancouver, we tried the most renowned Thai restaurant, as it has Northern Thai items on the menu, and was recommended by a friend. We were quite disappointed with the meal and found the flavours to be bland, the execution of the dishes was poor, and the quantity and quality were not in-line with the prices charged. Bad night? Perhaps, but we will not be going back, considering I can make better at home.
1) Som Tam Nua: We spent some time walking around to find this place, but it was worth it! While it was a little dirty inside, mostly from the age of the building, we found the som tam and larb to be outstanding and very reasonably priced. We arrived just before the line-up started and when we tried to eat there again at Food Republic later, the wait was about 30 minutes.
2) Supanniga Eating Room: We had some unique dishes here, and they were all good for different reasons. With each dish, our taste buds were introduced and excited by the blending of unfamiliar and familiar flavours. As appetizers, we had the Ma Hor (Minced pork stir-fried with garlic and peanuts served
on tangerine). The Yum Cha Plu Sardine was one of our favourite dishes; it has sardines mixed with cha plu leaves, tomato sauce, herbs and spicy chili dressing. A recommended dish was the Ka Lum Tod Nam Pla (Fried Chinese cabbage gravied with premium fish sauce from Trad province) and it was definitely interesting and I would get it again. We also had a really tasty curry with pork but it is no longer on the menu and I do not remember what it is. I also credit this restaurant for the best curry I have ever eaten, Moo Cha Muang (spicy curry made with a tender cut of pork and cha muang leaves), which were told is very rare.
3) Nahm: We have been so excited to eat at Nahm for a long time. Our plan was to go for dinner, but you need to book about 1 month in advance to get a dinner reservation, so we opted for lunch. While it was a lot quieter, I think this was what led to a negative experience for us. While the food was tasty, and the blue swimmer crab and canapes were some of the best things we ate on the trip, the main dishes were confusing. The dishes arrive and you need to add the components to them yourself to bring out the flavours. Unfortunately, our waiter did not do a good job of explaining this to us and we didn’t know how to incorporate all the components to create the dishes, as it was intended.
4) I Din Klin Krog: We are not quite sure what this place is called as the name was in Thai so it was a little tricky to find. It is a small casual and modern restaurant away from Chiang Mai’s tourist section and old city. The Tom Sap, a spicy pork soup was awesome and very unique. While these were the smallest chicken wings we had, the flavours and dipping sauce were pretty good. The mistake we made here was to ask for the food “less spicy” due to how spicy they usually make it. The result was that they did not add any red chili. I recommend asking for 1 chili.
5) SP Chicken: SP Chicken is one of Andy Ricker’s recommendations for Chiang Mai and the inspiration for his roasted game hen. This small restaurant is very low-key, casual and very clean. We shared a roasted chicken and sticky rice. The chicken was moist, with hints of lemongrass and the charcoal which imparted flavour. It goes very well with a Singha.
6) Mae Hia Market: Our cooking class included a tour of the Mae Hia Market and this stands out as one of my favourite activities on the trip. This was the best Chiang Mai sausage I have ever had and while they have it at Pok Pok, it pales in comparison and is my least favourite dish. Heavy with lemongrass and chili, the sausage is bursts with flavours each bite. We also tried some Thai custard which is more gelatinous and has a nice coconut flavour without being overly sweet. We were really surprised and impressed by the freshness of the produce, the price, and the quality of the prepared products here. We were told people only go to large and indoor supermarkets for packaged goods, as the quality and price of these markets is better, i.e cilantro at the market costs 5 Thai Baht vs. 15 at the supermarket.
7) Pantawan Cooking School and Restaurant: We spent half a day learning to cook Thai food at Pantawan Cooking School and Restaurant, in the outskirts of Chiang Mai. I also learned a lot about Thai culture and about the food culture. Each dish we made showed us how easy Thai cooking is, and while the same components are used, how they are used will determine the taste and flavour of the dish. For example, in the Tom Kha Gai, the lemongrass is pounded and roughly chopped in large pieces to season the broth, while in the Grilled Pork Neck Salad, it is thinly sliced to add the flavour and texture to each bite.
8) Cafe 69: Never in my life would I have seeked out a place called Cafe 69 and its funky decor with silver sequins and disco appearance but it was the most highly reviewed place in Bophut, Koh Samui, on Trip Advisor. The owner, Vivian has put together an eclectic and fun Thai fusion menu at reasonable prices. His Som Tam is a unique twist on a classical dish and ensures you get all the flavours in each bite. Our other favourite was his mango and sticky rice; it was the best we had in Thailand.
9) Nirvana Restaurant: We ate here 3 times during our stay in Koh Samui as the quality and the taste of the food was outstanding, the setting by the ocean under a palm tree was spectacular, and the service was excellent. While the menu has western dishes, we stuck with the Thai food knowing we would be going home soon but I will go back one day to try his piri piri chicken. The owner and his wife came to Bophut about 1.5 years ago an opened up the restaurant in Fisherman’s Village. Each night, we ordered the som tam talay, as the seafood was so fresh and added a new dimension to our favourite dish, som tam. Our second favourite dish was this whole fish steamed with Thai herbs and spices. We also liked his Pad Krapow and the Massaman curry.
As you can see, we ate very well during our trip to Thailand, met some interesting and nice people, and learned a lot too. I do worry that Thai food culture is following the trends of the West, with more packaged foods being used to save time. The ritual and practice of making coconut milk and curry paste with the traditional tools is reserved for the old and the young are abandoning it to save time. Interestingly, there is no compromise when it comes to certain ingredients; Thai food needs Thai limes and the taste cannot be re-created using anything else. In Pok Pok The Cookbook, David Thompson praises Andy Ricker’s reverence of Thai ingredients and practices: “I admire the canny way he doctors his lime juice to approximate the taste of lime juice in Thailand, the resourceful way he finds and secures Thai produce, and his faithful adherence to Thai recipes, techniques, and tastes. “
By understanding and seeing the importance attached to certain key ingredients and their freshness, I feel better equipped to seek out and eat good Thai food and how I can improve the dishes I make.