Saturday, May 31, 2008

There’s Thai food and then again there’s Thai food


WHAT’S the absolute must to pack for a first-time Malaysian visitor to Bangkok? Okay, besides a condom.

Based on a conversation I had with two Malaysians currently visiting the Thai capital, it is instant mee.

An overprotective mother from Sabah brought enough instant noodles to feed the survivors of Cylone Nargis because she’s apprehensive her beloved would not be able to stomach spicy food. A man from Johor was warned of the difficulty of obtaining halal food.

Harvinder Kaur, a 52-year-old Malaysian who conducts Thai and Indian cooking courses in Bangkok, agrees that Malaysians have a habit of packing instant noodles (especially curry laksa flavour) whenever they travel.

“This is because they have the misconception that Thai cuisine is too pedas (spicy),” notes the owner of Mrs Balbir, a popular north Indian restaurant along Sukhumvit Soi 11/1 in Bangkok.

“Thai food has four flavours – sweet, sour, spicy and salty. And even if a Thai cook uses cili padi, the dish is not over spicy as the spiciness is balanced by the other three flavours,” she explains.

In Bangkok, I’ve been stumbling over Malaysian tourists, as it is the school holidays back home.

The other day, I met a pakcik from Johor who looked lost and hungry. His vacationing family had been surviving on instant mee.

When I gave him the phone number of Fahmi Sabri, the 26-year-old co-owner of Cili Padi – the only Malay restaurant in the city – the pakcik was so grateful. It was as if he had been told the secret location of the crystal skull which Indiana Jones was seeking in Peru.

If you’re looking for halal Thai cuisine, Harvinder, who also offers courses in halal Thai food, suggests Sukhumvit Soi 3 or Arab Street. The restaurants in Soi 3 not only serve Lebanese or Egyptian food but also halal Thai food.

“What is there to eat?”

That, according to Harvinder, a Bangkok resident who has been hosting Malaysian guests for the past 30 years, is the favourite question of her countrymen.

“Many of them – even regular visitors to Thailand – complain that there's nothing to eat in Bangkok. And the only dish they know is tom yam,” she relates.

I agree. The first dish on the tongue of a Malaysian when ordering Thai cuisine is tom yam goong.

But there are the sophisticated Malaysian tourists who know Thai cuisine.

At the cafe in Jim Thompson House – a popular tourist attraction named for the man behind the global brand of Thai silk – I observed a 30-something Malaysian woman ordering Thai dishes for her parents.

“Do you want green curry or red curry? OK, we’ll have roast duck with red curry,” commanded the woman, who is probably a singleton.

“We should eat Phad Thai (stir fried noodle). Do you know that Phad Thai is a classic Thai dish?” she asked her parents.

The 50-something Thai tour guide sitting at the next table rolled his eyes. Later, I spoke to him and he declared that the food in the cafe was not authentic.

“If it was real Thai food she wouldn’t be able to eat it. It would be pet mak mak (Thai for very, very spicy),” he explained, beaming with national pride, and adding to the spicy stereotype of Thai food.

Harvinder is less harsh in her views.

“(Jim Thompson restaurants) serve Thai cuisine which is 70% authentic. But if you dine there you get an idea of the kind of Thai food tourists can accept easily,” explains the woman, who also has a website,

“Not many people can eat authentic Thai dishes such as som tam (papaya salad) with smelly river crab.”

Harvinder’s top five Thai dishes that she recommends to Malaysian tourists are: tom yum goong, crab fried rice, phad thai, chicken green curry and fish grilled in banana leaf. Every time she picks this menu, her guests will go “wah!”

Well, to stave off a pet mak mak dining experience, tell the waiter: mai pet (not spicy).

It is lighter than a dozen packets of instant noodle.

(Published in The Star on May 31, 2008)