Saturday, August 04, 2007

Cili Padi satisfies authentic craving


WHAT would you do when you can’t find your favourite food in a city you visit frequently? If you were Azizan Ibrahim, a 48-year-old Malaysian, you would launch a Malay restaurant in Bangkok.

One difficulty Azizan faced when visiting his brother-in-law who works in the Thai capital was finding halal food to his liking. Yes, halal food can be found in the Lebanese, Egyptian and Indian restaurants in Bangkok’s famous Arab Street, which is around Soi Nana along Sukhumvit Road.

But Azizan’s taste buds are not used to non-Malaysian halal food. What he craves is typical Malay food – nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik.

I pointed out that nasi lemak, roti canai and teh tarik are available at a Malaysian/Thai restaurant called Kopitiam at Thonglor, which is a hip area in Bangkok. But Fahmi Sabri, Azizan’s 25-year-old nephew who lives in Bangkok, quickly remarked that the restaurant might not be 100% halal.

How about the restaurants owned by Thai Muslims? I asked.

I was curious as the hunt for halal food by my Malaysian/Muslim friends who are tourists in this city, where the most popular dishes are som tam (papaya salad) and moo yahng (grilled strip of pork), would usually end up in a fast food restaurant which provides food for thought as they question its “halal-ness”.

Azizan is not a fan of restaurants owned by Muslim Thais.

“Thai Muslim food is different from Malay food. It tastes like Thai food – sweet and spicy. The only similarity is it is halal,” he explains.

Last December, Azizan, Fahmi and their Malaysian and Thai partners decided to open a Malay restaurant. And three weeks ago, they launched Cili Padi – an authentic Malaysian restaurant serving affordable Malay dishes such as rendang daging (60 baht or RM6.90), kari ikan (50 baht or RM5.80) and sambal tumis udang (70 baht or RM8.10).

Cili Padi, which is the second restaurant in Bangkok serving Malaysian dishes, is tucked away on the ground floor of ITF Building, which is along the busy Silom-Narathiwas Road. The location was picked because of its proximity to two major roads – Sathorn, where several embassies including Malaysia’s are located, and Silom, where the world famous tourist destination Patpong is located.

One of the most important elements, according to Azizan, in operating an authentic Malaysian restaurant is the cook.

“We must have a Malaysian who can cook Malay food. If not it won’t be authentic,” he insists. And the cook, Noriza Mohd Tahir, who used to operate a cafe in Shah Alam, Selangor, is Azizan’s wife and Fahmi’s aunt.

“How do you make your food taste like the one back home?” I asked while scooping the nasi lemak (50 baht or RM5.80) that tasted like the one I usually buy on Sunday morning in USJ, Subang Jaya.

It was a valid question as Havinder Kaur – a Malaysian who owns Mrs Balbir, a popular north Indian restaurant in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit Soi 11 – had told me that in Thailand she could not cook nasi lemak as tastily as when she prepared it in Malaysia.

“The ikan bilis and cili padi sold in Bangkok taste different from those in Kuala Lumpur,” reasoned the 51-year-old television presenter who is a well-known personality in Bangkok, adding, “it has something to do with Mother Nature.”

Azizan agrees, saying “somehow Malaysian-made curry and Thai-made curry taste different.”

So what he does is board a train from Alor Star to travel for 20 hours to Bangkok to transport ingredients such as belacan (shrimp paste), asam jawa (tamarind) and curry powder.

Authentic or not, Fahmi acknowledges that Malay food is not popular with Thais.

“They find our food too spicy and tasteless,” he says. “For example, my wife who is a Thai hardly eats Malay food as she is used to food that is sweet.”

Cili Padi does not expect walk-in customers who are Thais. The bulk of its clientele will be Malaysians living in Bangkok and also busloads of Malaysian tourists brought in by in-bound tour operators.

So far the restaurant’s loyal customers include personnel from the Malaysian Embassy including the ambassador and a man called Peter, a 70-year-old Malaysian who lives in Bangkok with his Thai wife.

Since finding the restaurant, Peter, who claimed he has not eaten Malaysian food for 20 years, has patronised Cili Padi for breakfast, lunch and dinner in a single day.

(Published in The Star on August 4, 2007)