Dinner in Bangkok
Khao Soi (chicken coconut curry)
Khao Soi, a northern Thai specialty, is an underrepresented Thai curry relative to its more famous cousin, massaman. Originally khao soi was made with a clear broth and rice noodles (hence the name, which means “cut rice”) in northeast Myanmar by the Shan peoples. In the 15th and 16th century, Yunnanese Muslim traders from southern China came to dominate the trade routes between northern Myanmar, Thailand and Laos and subsequently introduced the use of spices, such as curry powder and egg noodles to the local populations. This intermingling of Muslim Chinese influences with traditional Thai ingredients forms the foundation of this creamy coconut curry. Still predominantly associated with the Muslim community in the region, Khao Soi is typically made with chicken and served with the classic accoutrements of fried noodles, lime, chili oil, shallots and most importantly pickled mustard greens. Contains shellfish; gluten free.
Khua Kling (fiery minced pork dry curry)
This dish is no joke, and by fiery we really mean melt-your-face-off, but in the best, most addictively satisfying way. In fact, Culture Trip named it the second spiciest food in all of Thailand. This dish is a specialty of southern Thailand, where the food with its Malay influences is much spicier than that of northern Thailand. The Malay peninsula, which comprises parts of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, is one of the most ethnically diverse regions in the entire world due to its central role in spice trading. The Arabs, Indians, Chinese, and eventually Europeans all laid stake to some part of the peninsula, but most important was the arrival of chilis from Brazil by the Portuguese. With the chili’s ability to preserve food, it’s no surprise that southern Thai cuisine immediately became very spicy. This dry curry uses no oil but instead relies on our homemade khua kling curry paste made of fresh and dry Thai chilis, turmeric and galangal. The dish is then finished with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves. Contains shellfish; gluten free.
Moo Nam Tok (pork collar fillet “salad”)
Moo Nam Tok literally translates to “waterfall pork” and as the story goes was named for the sound of sizzling meat - once the meat starts to release its juices when cooking, you know it’s done. The style of nam tok meat “salads” (in Thailand it would be inconceivable to have a salad without meat or fish) is originally from the Isan, a northeast region of Thailand. Influenced greatly by Laotian and Khmer cuisine, Isan foods are generally fairly spicy, salty, and / or pungent with fermented fish sauce being a primary ingredient in almost all dishes, like the popular larbs in most American Thai restaurants. Our version takes marinated pork collar fillets, slices them thinly, and serves them with mint, cilantro, and green onions, all topped with a roasted glutinous rice dressing. Contains shellfish; gluten free.
Moo Hong (soy braised pork shoulder)
To balance out the heat of the khua kling, this moo hong is a sweet and savory pork stew from the island of Phuket. Because of the island's reputation as a tourist trap, traditional dishes have increasingly fallen by the wayside. Unlike much of Thailand which was settled by Tai peoples moving south from overcrowded China, Phuket was inhabited around 5,000 BC by the Mon-Khmer people who had a long seafaring history. Over time it became a chief port of call for traders from Persia, Arabia, India, Malaysia, Java, and Portugal. But the biggest influence by far was that of the Hokkien Chinese. Moo Hong is a Phuket take on the Chinese dish moo palo except that it uses only cinnamon and star anise as opposed to Chinese 5 spice (which also traditionally has cloves, fennel, and Szechuan peppercorn). This unique soy sauce based stew is the furthest thing from Pad Thai. Contains soy, shellfish; gluten free.
Som Tum (papaya salad)
No Thai meal is complete without a papaya salad, with its refreshing and perfectly balanced crunch. Like moo nam tok this dish started out in the Isan region of Thailand and made its way down to Bangkok in the late 1800s with the opening of a new railway connecting the two regions. Shredded unripe papaya is pounded with garlic, peanuts, fish sauce, dried shrimp, chilis, lime, and cherry tomatoes. As this dish became more and more popular in Bangkok, it was toned down by traditional Thai values of balancing sweet, sour, and salt, thereby transforming this dish from its spicy and fishy origins to the perfect representation of classical Thai cuisine. Contains shellfish, peanuts; gluten free.
Jasmine Rice and Herbs
Rice is so important to Thais that the verb to eat, “kin khao” literally translates to “eat rice” and no meal is complete without it. With over 3,500 varieties, Thailand grows so much rice that it is known as the rice basket of Asia and is second only to India in worldwide export of rice. While different regions consume different types of rice, we’ve decided on Jasmine rice, the fragrant variety most eaten in Bangkok. It’s good, so good that Thai Jasmine rice has been voted best in the world 3 times in the last 6 years by the World Rice Conference. The rice along with herbs (mint, cilantro, green onions) make the perfect vessel for enjoying the three types of pork dishes. Vegan, gluten free.
Woon Mamuang (Coconut and mango jelly)
Perhaps the most famous Thai dessert is mango and coconut rice - ripe mangoes served with sweet coconut sticky rice are a delicious and refreshing cap to any Thai meal. But we figured you’ve had enough rice already. With agar agar powder (a vegetarian gelatin made from red algae) becoming more common around the world, there’s a lot of experimentation going on with new types of desserts, especially reinventing east Asian classics. This is a take on the national dessert of Thailand. We’ve created a jelly of both pureed and whole pieces of ripe mangoes and then topped them off with a layer of sweet coconut cream. Vegan, gluten free.
Available at Hua Xing
Beer is simply the best pairing for all the spicy, pungent, and herbaceous notes inherent to this food. While the history of beer in Thailand is relatively young, with the first brewery opening in 1933 by an ingenious businessman, it has taken the country by storm. Today there are many brewers but Singha and Chang are by far the two most famous. Since we can’t find Thai beer in the area, your best bet would be an Asian lager such as Tsingtao, Sapporo, Asahi, etc.
When I visited, did I do Bangkok justice? Truthfully, no, not really. As college seniors on spring break, we were just looking for the next bar and beach. Did we stray away from the tourist route? Also, no. Did we dive deep into the history and sites of the city? Negative. Did we eat some truly mind-blowing meals that still sizzle in memory? Yes, that we DID do. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, all I knew of Asian food was mediocre Chinese takeout. This was my first time experiencing the food of South East Asia, the first time indulging in a cuisine that intentionally balances spicy, sweet and sour into chords of pleasure. The spices, the chilies, the mouth-searing sauces - it was in Bangkok that I first fell in love with a cuisine that was foreign to me.
Of all the non-European countries in the world, Thailand is truly unique in that it is one of the handful of countries never colonized by Europeans. Ever. While it was originally inhabited by various small tribes and kingdoms, Thailand’s history begins when the Tai peoples left southern China and made their way into the Chao Phraya river delta. An important geopolitical location even at that time, the Thai kingdoms were continuously in contact with Indian, Chinese, and Arab traders. When the Europeans came, the ruling kings demonstrated shrewd political acumen in choosing alliances with European powers, first with the Portuguese, then the Dutch, French and English. All this to say that, unlike other countries never colonized by the Europeans, such as Japan or Ethiopia, Thailand was never insular - and that becomes beyond obvious when eating a Thai meal.
Broadly speaking, Thai food can be subdivided into three regions: north, northeast, and south. In the cooler north, the food is influenced by the Burmese and Yunnanese Muslims, as is evident in their mild, herbaceous soups and bitter / sour tastes. The northeast region, or Isan, shares many similarities with Laotian and Cambodian cuisines, focusing on very hot, very salty, or very pungent flavors including the copious usage of fermented fish sauce. In contrast, the south is a hodgepodge, a cacophony of flavors, influences and ingredients. The various curries are remnants of Persian and Indian influences, stir frys are Chinese, chilis came from Brazil via the Portuguese, and coriander came from Mexico. More so than almost anywhere else in the world, it seems like everyone has had a stake in the Malay Peninsula and every possible culture and ethnicity is represented. This leads to a uniquely Thai (and uniquely spicy) cuisine.
With the advent of the Thai railway system in the late 1900s people from all over the country migrated to Bangkok and brought their culinary traditions with them. But, as the seat of the imperial courts, Bangkok insisted that all these regional cuisines be “modernized” to fit the “classical” Thai model of harmony and balance between salty, sour, spicy and sweet and developed into what we know today. In no way is this more apparent than with pad thai, a dish created in the 1930s by the prime minister at the time to foster a sense of national cohesion and unity. While you can find almost all the dishes on our menu in the city of Bangkok, we’ve tried to remain true to their original regional form.
In New York, some of our regular, go-to restaurants were Thai, from the amazing Uncle Boon's to Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok NY which introduced us to regional northern Thai cuisine (both sadly shuttered due to COVID). The thing about Thai food is that it's so perfect, the flavors so balanced and unique, that it is always memorable. You remember exactly where and when and with whom you had each meal. We hope that our version, inspired by many delicious Thai meals, will be memorable to you as well.
Featured Recipe: Moo Nam Tok (pork collar fillet “salad”)
Makes 4 servings
1 tablespoon raw glutinous rice
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
14 oz pork collar fillet, sometimes called Scotch fillet (Sparrow's in Kerrytown normally has it)
¼ cup finely sliced shallots
½ cup mint
3 tablespoons cilantro
¼ cup sliced scallions
1 tablespoon fish sauce
½ teaspoon brown sugar
½ teaspoon black pepper
3 tablespoons fish sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons chili flakes
2 tablespoons lime juice
Toast the raw glutinous rice in a dry skillet until it is nicely browned. Use a mortar and pestle or a spice grinder to grind to a fine powder
Using a meat mallet, rolling pin, or heavy pot, pound the collar fillets into ½ thick pieces
Combine the marinade ingredients and pour over the pork. Let marinade for 10-30 minutes
While marinating, make the dressing. Combine all the dressing ingredients with the toasted rice powder
Heat the oil in a large skillet and cook the pork collar, 3-4 minutes per side until just cooked. Remove from the heat and let rest for 5 minutes. Then cut the steaks thinly against the grain
In a large bowl, mix the warm pork slices with the shallot and then add the dressing. Toss in the mint, cilantro, and scallions and enjoy!
Recipes Inspired By:
Marion Grasby (and her mother Noi) have a plethora of Thai food knowledge and some amazingly produced videos
One of Mark Wien's new projects, this new blog has some amazing recipes that are true and authentic. If the khua kling is too spicy, blame his mother in law!
A new find for us, Pai has some seriously good content across her cookbook, TV show, and YouTube channel
When COVID ends, go to Thailand and follow these recommendations