Fresh, fragrant, sweet, salty and spicy all at the same time: it’s impossible not to fall in love with the flavours of Thai food. Katharine Jacobs counts down her favourite dishes from a recent trip to the land of smiles – aside from the famed peanut-and-lime punch of pad Thai.
Early one morning, before the heat has risen, we head out on a coffee mission in Chiang Mai. The city may be Thailand’s historical cultural centre, but between the ornate, glittering temples and the shabby, rustic restaurants we find hip coffee bars offering pour-overs, cold brews and menus listing the credentials of the beans. At a small Aeropress coffee bar, Samanmitr Cafe, we succumb to the charms of Thai iced coffee. Sitting on the café’s rooftop, looking out over the city roofs and birds’ nests of telephone and electricity lines, the icy, sweet coffee with condensed milk – and I suspect evaporated milk and sugar, too – kick starts our day.
Flavoured with tamarind, galangal (a spicy root with a unique, earthy gingery taste), lemongrass, kaffir lime, fish sauce and chilli, this fragrant, sweet, sour and spicy soup has an extra-special zing on its home soil. It’s also ready to eat in under two minutes – fast food with flavour.
In Thailand, salads are inherently full of flavour thanks to the balance of saltiness, sweetness, spice and umami. On hot days, we devour som tam, a spicy salad made with green papaya (more like cucumber or a savoury melon than our papaya) and flavoured with palm sugar, lemon or lime, fish sauce and peanuts. Pomelo salad – or dtam som oo – employs the same mix of sweetness, salt and spice to make a thoroughly refreshing meal from the sweet, grapefruit-like segments of the pomelo. There’s also bitter melon salad, made with an incredibly bitter Chinese fruit that’s balanced with the heat of a generous amount of chilli. It’s more of an acquired taste, but fascinating nonetheless.
The South of Thailand is all about seafood. In Railay I order seabass steamed with garlic, chilli and large quantities of lime juice. It arrives whole, almost entirely obscured by what I’d guess is a whole bulb of garlic. I strategically share it with my boyfriend so that he can’t complain about the pungent perfume I’ll be wearing for the next few days.
I’ve always looked askance at the packets of minced chicken in the supermarket. What are they for? In Bangkok, I discover their higher purpose: larb. Hailing originally from neighbouring Laos, this dish comprises spicy, stir-fried mince laced with cumin, cloves, pepper, star anise and cinnamon. It can be made with pork, but the revelation for me is the explosion of spice and citrus emanating from the chicken version. This is anything but a bland chicken dish.
Probably the country’s most popular dessert, this refreshing pud consists of a mango scored hedgehog-style and served with sticky rice and two kinds of coconut milk: a salty version flavoured with sesame seeds, and a sweet one with palm sugar and pandan leaf, a subtly fragrant leaf as synonymous with dessert in Thailand as vanilla is in the west. It’s all topped off with a sprinkle of roasted mung beans. The idea, according to our excellent teacher Garnet at the Thai Farm Cooking School in Chiang Mai, is to have something of everything in each mouthful: sweet mango, salty sesame, chewy rice, crunchy mung beans. We are instant disciples.
Possibly as a defence against my compulsive need to taste whatever he orders, my boyfriend develops a deep and profound love of banana rotis (or ‘rotees’) sold from ubiquitous roadside stalls. (I am a card-carrying bananaphobe). In addition to the relatively standard banana roti, which comes with honey and condensed milk, these stalls also offer rotis with eggs and jam, Milo and eggs, sweetcorn, and pineapple jam.
It’s just incredible. Even out of season, the mangos are magnificent, the pineapple sweet, fresh and fabulous. Fruit is for sale on every street corner, sliced elaborately, but my favourite manifestation is a fresh fruit slushie. Watermelon whizzed up with ice, or frozen coconut milk, slake my thirst like no other beverage can. There are also some amazing exotic fruits to try: while beautiful purple dragon fruit is somewhat bland, I find mangosteen gloriously sweet, with a wonderful round flavour to its litchi-like flesh. The sapodilla, meanwhile, has an oddly grainy texture but an almost chocolaty taste.
At Steve’s Restaurant on the river in Bangkok, the Thai owner (Steve is an English nickname) proudly tells us he’s known for the hottest seafood curry in Bangkok. We baulk at ordering it, opting instead for the second hottest dish he recommends, a chubby pork mince kebab on lemongrass stalks, the principle ingredient of which seems to be bird’s eye chillies flavoured delicately with pork. Despite the mindblowing heat, there’s incredible flavour in the dish, and we eat our way through about half of the skewers before admitting defeat.
Formerly holding the title of Best Restaurant in Asia, according to The World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s Asia list, Nahm dropped to number seven last year but still offers what many believe to be the best Thai food in Bangkok. Our meal includes a magnificent oxtail soup with coconut milk and red shallots, and a creamy coconut-and-turmeric curry with sweet, tender morsels of blue swimmer crab. The dish that wins my heart, though, is the Waygu beef: magnificent juicy morsels with such a punchy umami flavour that for the first time in my life I’m convinced that beef might be the king of all the proteins.