REMEMBER WHEN pad Thai was a dish that the waiter had to explain to you, before it became one of your favorite comfort foods? I have just returned from a month in Thailand. To my jet-lagged eyes, it seems that while I was gone, a Thai restaurant has opened up on every corner in the city. Has Thai become the new rage recently, or am I just fixated on the food and flavors of this crossroads culture? The current Zagat Survey lists 26 Thai restaurants in the Greater Boston area, but in Cambridge alone, where I live, there must be at least 26 Thai establishments within walking distance of each other. Many of them are so new that they are still waiting for their neon signs to be installed. I asked Chalee Kioechui, the owner of Baan Thai, in Waltham, why Thai food is suddenly so hot.
Chalee explained that Thailand is at the crossroads of India and China, and the Thai culture and cuisine are a blend of both. :Today, Thailand is 95 percent Buddhist. But the Buddha was born in Nepal, traveled in India, and the Buddhist monks brought Buddhism from China to Thailand," he says. "Over time, Thai food was influenced by both cultures. As a result, our food is better than theirs. It isn't greasy like Chinese food, and it isn't as spicy and likely to upset the stomach as Indian food." But he notes, it took a while for the world to find out that "Thailand's cooking is right up there with French, Italian, and Chinese food because Thai cooking was home cooking and street cooking." Only recently did the Thai open restaurants that appealed to both foreigners that "even in the '50s and '60s, when wealthy Thai wanted to eat well, they would jump on a plane and go to Hong Kong. Now, rich people from China come to Thailand for our food."
I too went to Thailand for the food, and while I was there, I visited cooking schools in an effort to figure out why I love this food so much. I know that I am not alone in my passion for Thai food. Thai people themselves seem to eat constantly (or maybe it is just that I envied every morsel I saw going into someone else's mouth). Fragrant sweet-and-sour soups with basil dished out from roadside carts; pad Thai noodles with shrimp the size of a five-year-old's fist; curries; sausages; and unidentifiable but delicious fried parts of pigs and chicken - these things all enchant me. Deep-fried, dark-green water beetles and crunchy silkworms, are typical Thai bar snacks (along with more-conventional cashews and peanuts). Congealed-chicken-blood cubes, tossed into a soup, are a homey delicacy. So are coconuts and chili peppers, limes and ginger, and an intoxicating tuber called galangal (it looks like a potato crossed with an onion and ginger root). This is comfort food, Thai-style. The Thai people eat well, and they eat all the time. In fact, walking down the street in Bangkok, it's hard to find anyone who isn't eating something. Miraculously however, the entire Thai nation shares one single ounce of body fat among its more than 60 million citizens.
Here's what i learned about Thai food: it is not about technique. And it is not about equipment. Whether the chef is cooking on a full-bore restaurant stove and wearing a toque, or using a butane-heated wok on a table made of a board balanced on plastic crates, the food can be equally delicious The secret of Thai food is the prep and fresh ingredients: spices, vegetables, fruits. It is also about heat. The Thai palate likes it hot. A Thai will keep adding pinches of chopped green and red chili peppers to his or her meal until it is hot enough to numb your upper lip for the rest of the afternoon. In Bangkok, where everyone is sweating all day long, the hot food tunes the inside of your body to the ambient heat and humidity.
When Chalee first came to Boston, "there were 500 to 600 indonesian kids studying in Boston, and they didn't have a place to eat." Although he had worked the management side of several major non-Thai boston restaurants, he wasn't a trained chef. But he did know how to make good Thai food. :"At first, until 1974, I had to figure out how to cook Thai food with Chinese ingredients, since initially I couldn't find Thai ingredients in Boston," he says. Chalee improvised, and at his first restaurant, Thai Basil, in Boston, he came up with food that made the Thai, Malaysian, and Indonesian kids less homesick. The first thing on his menu was an adaptation of an Indonesian-style rendang curry. Chalee made it more Thai by adding more lemon grass and cutting the meat into small pieces, as a Thai chef would, instead of serving the beef, chicken, or pork in big chunks. :The Indonesian kids loved our food, and our rad nah noodles [wide noodles], and Penang curry [red curry with coconut milk] made being away from home okay," he says. Over the next few years, the rest of us started to find out about Thai food, and take-out Thai began to rank right up there with Chinese and pizza for a casual dinner.
Thai food can certainly be hot, but the way Thai eat their food makes it not only tolerable, but also delectable for a farang ("foreigner"). When Thai put together a meal, they don't have a barrage of dishes with each hotter than the last. Thai cooks make curry sauces that blend sweet coconut milk with chili paste and fresh bird's-eye chilies (tiny, power-packing red and green chilies that are astronomic on the Scoville scale of heat), but they temper the fire with palm or cane sugar (the secret ingredient in most Thai dishes) and lemon grass. Also, they always serve the foods with a small tray of condiments so that each diner can add more fire, sweetness, or sourness to taste. When you order food at a restaurant in Thailand, the chef composes the menu to balance the hot, the sweet, the salty, and the sour - a hot-and-sour soup will be served with a mildly spicy noodle dish, and a green or red curry with a sweet hit of coconut, for example. They eat all the tastes at once, taking one bite from several dishes, so that one flavor or sensation never overwhelms the taste buds. So, unlike the way we order Thai food - as an appetizer or soup followed by a main dish they have everything on the table all at once and graze among the dishes, taking a bite here, a slurp there. Another revelation: the Thai hardly ever eat with chopsticks. They use a spoon and fork (there are no knives on the table). The fork helps mound the food on the spoon, which is the implement that goes into your mouth. Fingers also work, especially with sticky rice.
Chalee is surprised that so many of his customers - Baan Thai attracts mostly non-Thai Americans - now like their food hotter and hotter. They have learned Thai food can be hot without being so spicy that you can't taste the flavors. Americans who like Thai know a lot more about our cooking now than when I first began.: Chalee explains that when people who have never eaten Thai food come into Baan Thai, he asks them if they like Chinese food. If they say yes, he knows they will like Thai food, Then he asks them if they like Indian food. If they say yes to that, he knows that they like spicy food. "And then I ask them if they know the level of spicy they want: mild, hot, or 'Thai hot,'" he says. "Once I know the answer to that, I know exactly how to make a meal they will really enjoy."
We went for Thai food. Little did we know we'd also get a lesson in vegetable carving.
Several of the dishes at Tumrubthai (now known as BaanThai), a Thai restaurant and sushi bar, are adorned with elaborately shaped vegetables, like carrots whittled into little roses. Fascinated, one of my dining companions persuaded our waitress to give us a quick lesson in making this edible art.
Her good-natured willingness to indulge our curiosity captures the friendliness of this young place, which opened in December just off Moody Street in Waltham. The restaurant's playfulness extends to its dining room, which is painted in pretty pastels, and its menu, which includes the adorable (and adorably named) treasure bags ($5.50), bite-size dumplings stuffed with corn and minced chicken, and literally tied at the top like miniature satchels.
Also quite good is the steamed delight ($4.95), pork dumplings stuffed with cabbage, ginger, and scallions, seasoned with pepper and sesame oil, and served with an excellent spicy soy dipping sauce. The fresh rolls ($4.50), filled with shrimp, lettuce, basil, parsley, and rice noodles, come with a deliciously sweet plum-like sauce that jazzes up their bland crunchiness.
For the most part, Tumrubthai - which means "Thai recipe," and whose owner, Chalee Kioechui, previously owned Thai Basil on Newbury Street in Boston - offers a standard selection of Thai dishes. Beef ginger ($9.50) is redolent with the sweet spice and tossed with baby corn, onions, and mushrooms. Yellow sea ($13.95) brings a jumble of shrimp, scallops, white fish, and squid sauteed with snow peas, onions, peppers, pineapple, and peas in a yellow madras curry sauce.
Our entrees were very good, but out desserts were standouts. Black sticky rice topped with coconut milk ($3.50), is sweet and creamy, and it pairs well with ginger ice cream ($3.25), which adds even more creamy sweetness to each bite.
We almost literally stumbled upon Tumrubthai, a pretty and welcoming spot that's been open for just a few weeks. Our first restaurant choice hadn't panned out, it was freezing, we were starving, and we were ready to dive into the first decent-looking eatery we could find. That it happened to be the amusingly named Tumrubthai seemed like proof that the dining gods were smiling upon us: This was one of the best Thai places we've visited locally(and we've been to many).
Beef satay ($5.50) brings four skewers of beef in a tart yellow marinate, rich with coconut milk and still visibly clinging to the tender meat. Tom tum soup ($3.25 with shrimp, $2.75 with chicken) was loaded with mushrooms, and scallions, and had a well-balanced flavor, more sour-salty than spicy.
In a nod to the current trends, the restarant offers sushi in addition to Thai food. Eating sushi in a Thai restaurant doesn't necessarily strike us as a great idea, but the tuna maki ($3.95) and salmon nigiri ($3.75) were just fine. The fish was fresh and silky and, in the case of the salmon, not overly bulky, as it sometimes is.
To return to Thailand: Freen curry beef (9.50) was an excellant rendition of this dish. Thinly julienned bamboo shoots lent it a pleasing delicacy of texture, and the sauce tasted fresher, a bit spicier and more complex than the norm Peas, eggplant, bell peppers and chunks of beef rounded out the dish.
Chicken hot basil ($9.50), a bit less fiery here than elsewhere, was nonetheless nicely spiced, with accents of Thai basil and garlic in the slightly viscous chili sauce. Pad Thai ($8.50) was a standout, dryly sauteed rather than doused in gooey sauce, with a thinner noodle and hence a lighter texture than usual.
Tumrubthai's proprietor is the former owner of Thai Basil, on Newbury Street. In Waltham, the light room is done up in airy pastels, and service couldn't be friendlier. When we arrived, the room was disquietingly empty, but perhaps Tumrubthai, new as it is, already has been discovered by the neighborhood: it was nearly full by the time we left.