In this case, Loving Thai neighbour is a bit of a tricky ask
“WOOOO HELLOOO, HANDSOME! ME LOVE YOU LONG TIME”, she hollered in my general direction.
It was one of the lines that stuck with me from my first ever trip to Bangkok many moons ago. As a slightly broke, uninformed, pimply and slightly uncouth teenager, let me assure you that getting that kind of attention was positively intoxicating.
Needless to say, I fell head over in heels in love. With the country, of course, not my would-be woo-woo-woo-er. My love for Thai food would follow much later when I grew into a slightly less broke, less uninformed and less uncouth adult.
I blame my lack of early trysts with Thai cuisine on the trepidation my friends had when approaching it. These are the same guys who will gladly pose with a Tiger that’s doped up more than Tyson Gay (hehe, gay), jump off cliffs with gay abandon and walk on the ocean floor with little more than Nemo, a helmet and an oxygen pipe for company.
But put a bunch of Thai food in front of them when they’re in the land of smiles and they’ll default to ordering food from KFC, Pizza Hut and (horror of horrors) Indian food all the time. True story.
And so, on a Saturday afternoon when my fellow GobbleGangers and I decided to descend upon Eat Thai for a meal (as we are often wont to do on weekends), I kept my excitement as muted as could be. However, I’m sure that at some level it was oozing out of me the way you might find sweat pouring off you on a muggy summer’s day in Bangkok without even realizing it.
Entering Eat Thai is to be witness to distress. Exposed industrial style brick walls, unpolished furniture, exposed ventilation ducts, heavy metal door and plain Jane chairs are a look that seem all too done-to-death. Distressed grunge as a look is beginning to wear a little thin, and Eat Thai takes it a little too far for me. A quick tilt of my head across all three walls I was staring at, and I could swear I saw a progression at play there. Each wall was progressively less worked on than the other, almost as if the budget for interior decoration was exhausted by the time they got to this wall.
This presumably led the team to say “Screw it, leave it as it is, we’ll say these exposed walls are part of a design theme”, before high fiving each other and celebrating their ingenuous inventiveness by downing bubble ice tea, realizing after the first sip that it’s a gimmicky drink that doesn’t quite work. But that’s just how my inner monologue imagines it playing out, your mileage may vary.
My reaction to much of the menu was similar to reaction of the Australians facing a battery of English bowlers on a fine Ashes morning. I gave it my best shot, but every time a question was asked of me, I found myself in knots and struggling to keep things together. It starts from the top down, with Chef Cham Hun Chakhap and the combination of more random vowels in names like Renong Pla Yang Thm Nalay. I swear, it’s as if the Thai just want to screw with everyone and throw random syllables and vowels together as they look to come up with a suitable name.
Nonetheless, we began with a nice Som Tom that combined the tanginess of papaya juice, the crunch of fresh vegetables and peanuts and mild spiciness of the dressing in a ménage à trois that seemed oddly familiar, which is when I had a bit of an epiphany. This was a distant cousin of Chinese Bhel, what with its mingling of textures, crunchiness and zingy flavours that are instantly familiar.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Pinky and the Brain. Arnab and Rahul. These are just memorable characters with a wonderful dichotomy of character that have made for an awesome twosome and stuck with me. Clearly, a common thread runs through all of these; one of the pair is quite unlike the other. Similarly, a strange duet played out on my plate over the next few dishes.
Like a kid with a one-track mind, I zeroed in on the Phak Bua Krob (that’s lotus root with scallions in tamarind sauce, you plebians) as I was hankering after it like a junkie with serious withdrawal symptoms ever since I wanted it at Fatty Bao. Tangy, crunchy and delightful in ways known and unknown, this was a revelation to me. I’m a teetotaller, but I’m dead certain this would make for a fantastic bar snack. As Safe Aly Khan said, no one can eat just one.
In comparison, the Pe Krob (crispy lamb) was a game of Where’s Waldo. I knew what I was looking for, but by the gods, I couldn’t find it. The lamb was nowhere to be seen or tasted and the batter was so thick and crispy as the render the flavor of the lamb invisible. It was like finding a needle in a haystack, if the lamb was a needle and the haystack was a piquant, slightly pungent batter fried covering. Put it this way; there’s no way I’d have guessed this was lamb if we played a game of 20 questions.
We realized we were in quite the soup and so ordered for some Tom Kha (a creamy, dreamy prawn soup) and some Tom Yum (spicy clear soup with vegetables). The former was like a breezy dream you couldn’t get enough, with herbs, spices, coconut milk and prawns coming together in the perfect storm. The latter was a tear-inducing nightmare you couldn’t escape from. The sheer spice and overwhelmingly powerful nature of the Tom Yum meant it was the Hyde to the smooth savviness of the Tom Kha.
Upon seeing the coolest hot sauce on the block offered up on the menu, we couldn’t NOT call for it. The Phad Pik Kai Sriracha should have been an explosion of awesomeness, with chicken wings marinated in the by now mainstream Sriracha sauce stuffed with mince. What could go wrong?
Clearly, I was mistaken.
The deep flavor of Sriracha was of course present in each mouthful, but completely missing was any sweetness to offset its spice. That this plateful had to do a carousel around the table and still didn’t find enough takers is a shame and tells a tale of its own when the table is occupied by a bunch of carniwhores.
The Renong Pla Yang Thm Nalay (Herbs and spice marinated grilled fish fillets) accompanied by a chilli tomato sauce had a similar tale to tell as the seasoning didn’t add much at all to the dish, much like my Econometrics professor at college.
The Knom Jeep Je (dimsums with wok tossed veggies with pakchoy and garlic) too were rather forgetful and cookie cutter in nature, while Arun’s Khao na (Jasmine rice with exotic veggies in a mushroom soya and oyster sauce) was anything but a dish that, like its name, implored me to dive in for seconds. More like Khao? Nah. Amirite guys?
I adore Thai food like I adore New York in Spring, like I adore the burble on the exhaust of a Jaguar F Type, like I adore the unadulterated joy a dog has upon seeing you after a long day’s work (yours, not the dog’s). I could go on elaborating the ways in which I love thou, Thai. While I’d return for the Tom Kha and Lotus Stem, in this case, it’s not easy for me to love Thai neighbor.