Sunday, April 15, 2007

A lot of Thai food

April 15

April 12-14 is Songkhran, the Thai new year. For reasons completely unrelated to that on Thursday the 12th I had dinner at Land Northeast Thai restaurant. That’s chef David Bank’s second restaurant (don’t let the name full you; David’s dad’s American, but his mother’s Thai, and so is his food).
I went with my friend Chandler Burr, who was in a minor state. He was distracted by the amount of work he had to do. He borrowed a sheet from my notebook and made a list. It was an impressive list, especially considering he’s in the process of getting his third book published (I’m reading the manuscript now, and it’s pretty terrific). But I assured him it was doable (it was), and tried to change the subject with amusing anecdotes (he didn’t find them amusing) and food.
I left the menu in David’s hands and he started with chicken laab lettuce wraps, which he’s clearly pushing as his signature appetizer of the new restaurant, along with a grilled beef salad and a green papaya salad.
Laab is a northeastern dish, and so is green papaya salad. Grilled beef salad is more universally Thai, but David added a sprig or two of dill to it, which is mostly absent in Thailand’s central plains but does appear in northeastern cooking: The Thai word for dill is phak chee Lao, or Lao cilantro (parsley is phak chee farang, or westerner’s cilantro), and Northeastern Thais are mostly ethnic Lao.
Then he sent out a soup that was like tom yam, but with beef.
I told Chandler I’d never had it before.
“So it’s not authentic?” he asked.
I shrugged. Just because I haven’t had something before doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist in Thailand.
I later learned that it was tom sap. I knew “sap,” pronounced like what flows through trees, was Lao for “delicious,” but David explained after Chandler left that it also meant hot-and-sour. Instead of using citrus for the sour notes, David used more subtle tamarind leaves.
He sent out a sea bass dish and I picked up a twig studded with green peppercorns.
I asked Chandler if he didn’t find that interesting.
“No,” he said, “I saw it in jungles in India, on elephant back, and plucked it and ate it raw.”
“Yes,” I said, “I know you’re worldly, and I could buy it in the market a block away from my apartment in Bangkok, but this is New York. It’s unusual here.”
We finished with more grilled beef and then Chandler, completely out of steam, left as I polished off a plate of mangoes and sticky rice.
“Is that just a touristy thing that Thais serve to foreigners?” asked Kenny Lao today. We had lunch at Bennie’s Thai Café, on Fulton St.
I assured him that it truly was something that Thais actually ate, with much gusto, in fact, as often as they could from mid-March to May, when the only mangoes deemed worthy of this preparation, Okhrong and Nam Dokmai, were in season. This gave him a truly inspired idea for a new menu item at his Rickshaw Dumpling Bar. He picked up his cell phone and called himself at home so he would remember. I’d give you more details, but he would probably actually kill me if I did.
Kenny and I had planned to go to Sripraphai, in Queens, today, but on Friday night I had yet another Thai meal. This one was actually a Songkhran celebration at the James Beard House prepared by Taweewat and Dejthana Hurapan, the father-son team at Hurapan Kitchen. Seated on my right were some mostly harmless people from Long Island, and on my left were two people from the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Teerasil Tapen and Sunida Thirasak. So naturally I asked them about Thai restaurants they liked and they waved off Sripraphai, much to my surprise. Chao Thai in Elmhurst was the place to go, they said, or, near their offices, Bennie’s.
They particularly praised Bennie’s rad na, a dish that the denizens of Bangkok absolutely adore and that I will never understand. It’s broad noodles covered with a bland, gloppy sauce that reminds me of snot.
It reminds Kenny of snot, too, so we didn’t order it. Besides, one doesn’t normally have noodles when eating a full Thai meal. Noodles are for light meals or snacks, not something to be had when rice is served.
But Kenny wanted noodles, so after the spring rolls and thod man pla (fish fritters) and yam gun chiang (a salad with sweet Chinese sausage) and pork with basil and chiles and chicken in a Thai curry sauce, we had phat seeiew — broad noodles with soy sauce — and then mangos and sticky rice.
We had considered going to Queens as planned, but going to a location more convenient to our homes seemed to be a logical first step. We can check out Chao Thai next time.

What I ate and drank at the Beard House:

Koong Krabok — Shrimp Parcels with Sweet Plum Dipping Sauce
Tao Hoo Tod 
Fried Tofu with Thai Peanut Sauce
Tod Man Pla 
Thai-Style Fish Cakes
Beef Satay Skewers
Vegetarian Summer Rolls
Zardetto Prosecco NV

Asian Pear and Crab Salad with Frisée, Micro-Mizuna, Yuca Ribbons, and Kaffir Lime–Mango Vinaigrette

Juvé y Camps Cava Brut Rosé NV

Goat Cheese Wonton with Roasted Peppers, Black Pearl Tapioca, and Wild Mushroom–Lemongrass Broth

Hiedler Löss Grüner Veltliner 2005

Seared Sea Bass with Sautéed Chanterelles, Baby Vegetables, and Ginger Soy Sauce

Rutherglen Estates The Alliance 2006

Pepper-Cured Pork Loin with Teardrop Tomatoes, Coconut-Infused Black Sticky Rice, and Caramelized Maui Onion Vinaigrette

Spice Route Flagship Pinotage 2004

Fuji Apple and Banana Spring Roll with Rum-Roasted Pineapple–Coconut Sorbet


Hamster said...

Don't know if you've seen this already but if not Yu might be interested in this website.
It's got about 30 recipes each one with a cooking video to go along
Good if you like to try cooking Thai food at home

Anonymous said...

A majority of the population in Northeastern Thailand are Lao ethnics. "Issan" cuisine is not really Thai cuisine, but Lao cuisine. Northeastern Thailand is heavily influenced by Laos. If you enjoy eating Lao cuisine (aka "Issan" cuisine) in Thailand, you should try the real deal in Laos. There's more options in the mother country.

Anyway, you're right that "sap" in Lao can mean either delicious or astringent depending on how you pronounce the tone.

Bret Thorn said...

Yes, I know, Anonymous, and I did enjoy the food when I was in Laos, but wouldn't you agree that the cultural divide between Lao and Thai people is a blurry one?

Anonymous said...

Cultural divide or political divide? The political divide is concrete. Those people in the Issan region are now Thai nationals. But as far as culturally, they still practice Lao culture and speak Lao language as well eat Lao foods. Just because the 20 million+ ethnic Laotians living in Issan region are now Thai nationals does not change the classification of their cuisine. Lao cuisine is the cuisine of the Lao ethnic group of Laos and Northeast Thailand (Isan). There are many people and websites that have more information about the popularity of Lao cuisine in Thailand. Here's some information about Thailand from the Britannica Enclopedia, which explains that since the 1980's Lao cuisine has become popular throughout Thailand.

Some Lao dishes are so common now that many people have mistakenly categorized traditional Lao dishes as "Thai" just because it's common to find those Lao dishes at Thai restaurants...i.e. Larb, Som Tum, Sticky Rice, and many more Lao dishes.

Bret Thorn said...

Yes, but the cultural divide is not concrete. Thai and Lao languages are similar, both people are mostly Therevada Buddhists, and historically (I think) both have been valley-dwelling rice growers, as have related groups like the Tai and the Shan. Finding the exact origins of dishes like som tam is difficult or impossible — although laab and som tam are acknowledged in Thailand as being Lao. Sticky rice is popular in the North, too, however, not just in Isaan.

Anonymous said...

I understand your point of view, but as far as sticky rice in the north is concerned, that part of Thailand used to belong to the Lao kingdom as well. I understand that sticky rice is used in other cuisines like Japanese and Chinese, but the rice is neither the same type of sticky rice nor is it cooked and eaten in the same manner. Northern Thai cuisine (Lanna) has influences from Burmese and Lao cuisine.

Bret Thorn said...

Right. All of the cuisines of Southeast Asia influence one another. That’s my point, really.