Invariably travel guides tell one that Thai food is the most interesting and spiciest of all Asian cuisines. According to world trend spotters, Thai’s time has come. Perhaps because it is free of wheat (the noodles are rice) and dairy (they use coconut milk instead). It certainly has a distinctive, even addictive, flavour.
I have victualled my way the length of Thailand, from a border café at Hat Yai to Chiang Mai’s open air food market, where you sit around a gigantic pool. Tennis court sized but only ankle deep, it crawls with crayfish, tiger prawns and crabs, fished out live by the waiters. Hundreds of noisy mynah birds roost in the trees above, enhancing the jungle atmosphere, and dropping their guano into the water for the marine comestibles below; a brave new ecology in restaurants.
After weeks of sipping coconut milk between dips in the Andaman Ocean, eating pad Thai with office workers on the streets of Bangkok, or gratefully devouring sticky rice in the rural villages of the opium triangle, I have never stopped craving that signature combination of garlic and fresh coriander leaves, hot chilli and acidic tamarind. I even miss that initially nauseating whiff of fish sauce as it hits a smoking-hot wok.
The first Thai restaurants opened in London in the early 1980s; in South Africa it took until 1995, though there was one in the late 80s in Hilbrow. The racial ideology of apartheid kept us isolated longer as Asians were personae non gratae. Apart from a handful of Taiwanese restaurants, there was little variety. Sushi had only just arrived. In one northern suburbs’ restaurant you could mix your own sweet and sour sauce using brown sugar and vinegar provided on the table!
Today our supermarkets have racks filled with shrimp paste, fish sauce, galangal, fresh lemongrass, even kaffir limes and cans of Tom Yum soup (which by the way aren’t half bad).
Yindees was the first local Thai kitchen, originally across the way from its current location.
Many other Thai establishments have since come and gone, but Yindees is tenacious if middling. I recommend their phad phed beef, a tasty curry made without coconut milk (R80.50) and the wild duck ped pha’ (R95.50), a deboned half duck, sliced and tossed in a sweet chilli sauce, a tad glutinous, which arrives sizzling on a hot, cast iron plate.
The second oldest surviving Thai restaurant and possibly the best value and most authentic in taste of all mentioned here, is the convivial Chai Yo. Their takeaway portions are rewardingly generous. A portion of red duck with plain noodles feeds two.
As for the big franchises, numerous re-brandings, takeovers and closures make keeping pace with who owns what a chore. Wang Thai has four remaining restaurants. They closed their Green Point and Camps Bay branches – unsurprisingly. The last time I ate there, the peanut sauce chicken satays were like biltong, while the stir-fried pad Thai (my benchmark dish for any Thai chef) was expensive, cold and soggy. The Simply Asia chain with some 20 outlets is the conveyor belt food version of Thai. At their Heritage Square branch, the pad Thai with prawns (R64) was far too sweet and gummy, and the spring rolls (R32) like old cardboard. Chef Pons, at least their Sawaddee branch, tries far harder.
All these are part of the dual trend to europeanise the taste and to offer a variety of Asian cuisines on one menu. At the top of this particular game is Kitima, offering Thai, dim sum, sushi, Korean beef and even duck a l’orange. There’s something delicious about them turning the old Cape Dutch manor house of the Kronendal Estate into a Thai restaurant. Similarly, the food is the international hotel styled Thai. Chilli is downplayed, even in the tom yum goong soup (R38), unless you ask for spice. However, upon request they did manage the closest approximation to the drier style, tofu phad Thai (R55) I so enjoyed in Thailand. Though shy with the chillies and ground peanuts, it is markedly better than the oily, wet, often cold mush served elsewhere.
Finally, a few words about etiquette. When in Thailand, always taste the rice first and compliment the host. Use the spoon or chopsticks; never eat directly off the fork; it is to be used as a knife.
Pick of the Thai’s:
Chai-Yo, 65 Durban Road, Mowbray. Tel: 021 689 6156.
Kitima, 140 Main Road, Hout Bay. Tel: 021 790 8004.
Yindees, 22 Camp Street, Cape Town. Tel: 021 422 1012.
Chef Pons Sawadee, Rheede Street, Gardens. Tel: 021 422 1633.
Orignally appeared in the Mail & Guardian October 2, http://www.mg.co.za/article/2009-10-02-spring-time-for-rolls