May 2004

Why Thai? The takeover continues

What is it about Thai food? Wherever you go it's popping up in unexpected places from City pubs to village restaurants. It seems we can't get enough of the salty, hot, sweet, sour and aromatic flavours that combine so deliciously on the palate. And our traditional (sic) Chinese restaurants are suffering. Suddenly no one with any taste wants the Chinese special sweet and sour (concentrated orange juice) and the Chow Mein isn't moving like it used to. Of course it's not the fault of Chinese food - it's ours. We created 'Chinese' food and most Chinese people would not recognise or appreciate it as representing their cuisine. But outside of a few specialist restaurants, that's all there is.

But disillusion with Chinese can't entirely explain the inexorable rise of Thai food. Maybe we should thank the backpackers. Not for their interminable stories of how they negotiated a five course meal for 50p when in Thailand ( that piddling sum represented a great deal to the people cooking it. You should have paid more!), nor for their horrible dreadlocks, still less for their middle-class mysticism that revolved around getting stoned on a beach at midnight. The one thing they did bring back was a memory of the food along with the fading henna tattoos.

For many that's Tom Yam Kung, the famous, Thai spice-sour soup exported around the world. Almost all Thai food is cooked with fresh ingredients, including vegetable, poultry, pork and some beef. Plenty of herbs are used along with lime juice, lemon grass and fresh coriander to give the food its characteristically tangy taste. Fish sauce or shrimp paste may be added to make dishes taste salty. And throughout Thailand , rice is eaten with almost every meal although unlike in the north and northeast, where glutinous rice is popular, Thai folk in the central area prefer the plain, fragrant variety, most commonly steamed. In fact the cuisine changes greatly, depending on where you are.

Most northern dishes are milder than those of others regions with plenty of Burmese influence. Northern people like to eat Khao Nieo, a steamed glutinous rice which is kneaded into small balls and used to soak up sauces and dips. Kaeng Hang Le is a spicy pork curry that relies on ginger, tamarind, and turmeric. Khao Soi is a curry of egg noodles and meat originating in Burma, is heavily laced with coconut cream, and served with spring onions, pickled cabbage and slices of lime;

Nam Phrick Ong , is a northern-style chili-dip served with dried shredded pork and freshly cooked vegetables while Miang (tea leaves) is also Burmese and is eaten as an hors d' oeuvre. The exclusive method for serving northern food is on a Khan Toke (small circular table). It is normally set up in lavish surroundings. Diners sit on the floor around the table and help themselves to assorted dishes; perhaps a minced meat dish seasoned with chili, a salad, and numerous sauces.

So what makes Thai so very special? Some would say the finesse of the flavours. Chilli is in almost every dish, but its not the Indian restaurant, come-and-have-a- go-if-you-think you're-hard- enough type of chilli. The tiny birds-eye chilis favoured in Thailand are hot and yet the burn invigorates rather than stuns. Thai food also heavily features lime and coconut and the Thai version of ginger, galangal, is a more refined root altogether. Thai food also mixes elements of Chinese with Asian so that curries feature strongly on the menu, the ubiquitous red and green ones being just the tip of the curry iceberg.

Then there is the Thai reverence for food, the commitment culturally to pleasant smiling service is in contrast to many Chinese places where there is often an aggressive, hurry up and eat! attitude. It's also easier to manage. Thais traditionally use a fork and spoon, not chopsticks.

And as for why so many pubs are now serving Thai food, a Thai friend explained it to me. 'Publicans all go Thailand , marry bar girls, bring them back and they cook Thai food in pub', she said. And, as that's exactly how she came to be here, I'm inclined to believe her.

It's not always easy to get authentic Thai food, though. I've taken my friend to 'Thai' restaurants and she has not been impressed. The food hasn't met her domestic standards and a quick burst of Thai at the waiter has frequently revealed that the staff aren't all that authentic either


This time of year is a particularly good time to enjoy Thai fruit. Always spectacularly presented, Thai fruit comes into season now with mangoes, bananas and custard apples all at their best and all arrive regularly at Heathrow to feed the demand of Thai expats and the English alike. Even the Durian, that 'King of Fruits' that looks like a giant conker in its shell is freely available. This monster, with an aroma so pungent it's banned in many public places, is a bit of an acquired taste but well worth it. You can see it outside most oriental foodshops along with even more exotic offerings.

So where do we recommend? Here's a few.

The Mango Tree
This was our Restaurant of the Year in 2003 and it's still superb. The Australian chef turns out superlative Thai food in a modern airy environment. It's not cheap, but it's worth it.

The Blue Elephant
It's been there since Yul Bryner was the King. Still very good and not as expensive as it used to be, but the bill may still make your eyes water as much as the chilli does.

Cafe 209, Munster Road
Tiny, brightly coloured restaurant where the lady patron greets you as if you are a long lost friend. Amazing food, great prices, and an offlicense next door – what more could you wish for?

Fat Boy's Cafe W4
Thai/greasy spoon combo which has been so successful that it has developed into a chain. Deservedly so as the food is excellent. 

Cafe on the Hill Brixton
Reputed to be one of the first cafe/ restaurant transformers,this is the place for an inexpensive fryup or great Thai lunch. Some people drive from miles away. Very friendly and the people who work there soon get to know you if you're a regular.