Kunal Vijayakar’s Romantic Encounter with Sour, Spicy, Fragrant Thai Food

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What The Fork

I like everything about the Thai people. They are friendly, they smile a lot, they are hardworking, passionate, welcoming and accepting of differences and cultures, creative, and they make great food. South East Asia has some of the best food the world can offer, especially the Thai food, with its frenzied aromas and spices, contrasting flavours and textures, sometimes subtle sometimes intense. A cuisine with the bounty of rice, meat, fish, seafood, fresh fruits and vegetables. Seasoned with herbs like fragrant earthy and citrusy lemongrass, woody, peppery, tarty galangal, robust and unique basil, and dynamite, fiery bird eye chillies. But like most Asian food, the Thai food you’ll find in Mumbai was atrocious. Yes, there was always Thai Pavilion at The Taj President, San-Qi at the Four Seasons and a couple of other good Thai restaurants in five-star hotels, but the rest of the fare was just too aggressive, exhaustingly enthusiastic and over flavoured. Neon green curries, as thick as porridge, lemongrass growing out of my nostrils and ears, a simple Som Tam Raw Papaya Salad, too raw, and overloaded with sourness and chilly with no attention to getting that perfectly rounded sweet-sour-spicy flavour with a hint of garlic, chillies and fish sauce. Stir Fries that taste like chaat and Tom Yum that tastes like ‘rassam’. Then, suddenly I discovered Seefah Ketchaiyo, one of India’s top emerging chefs, although I think she has already emerged long ago. She and her Chef husband Karan Bane after a stint at the Four Seasons started a small hugely successful Thai/Sushi place called ‘Blue’ and have since reinvented themselves at their own little Thai place named after Seefah herself. What is great about ‘Seefah’ and I mean the person as well as the place is that is herself.

The food is her. I ate there several times when they first opened and ordered in repeatedly. Then came the lockdown. In her own words, Seefah was locked down in her home with her mother who had flown in from Thailand. Stuck at home she started cooking her mother’s homemade food, along with her mum, and posting pictures on Facebook. The pictures drove me nuts. I begged her to deliver. Which she soon did. Roasted Pork Belly, Tom Sab Moo- (Spicy tamarind pork soup), Massaman Curry, Omlettes with seafood, the works. So the other day when I wanted to host a small dinner at my place I called her up and landed at her restaurant. Over a glass of chilled Thai Cold coffee, I told her that I wanted to her to cook me a meal, that she would eat at home. The kind her mother would cook.

We decided on some fish, pork and mussels. Mussels, one of my favourite seafood. I can sit on the streets of Paris and devour Moules Frites (Mussels and French fries) by the bucketful and Moules à la marinière (mussels cooked in a broth of dry white wine with garlic and shallots fried in butter) are so easy to make at home if only you could procure mussels in Mumbai. And Seefah knows exactly where to get them from. So, she made some giant imported mussels in Red Chilli paste. Juicy, podgy yellow mussels in a spicy homemade Nam Prik Pao. The mussels were stir fried in this flavourful paste of shallots, garlic and red chillies, garnished with large leaves of Thai basil and was just wonderful.

I had feasted on Thai style Pomelo Salad at a beachside shack at Pattaya. We’d go there and order it every day. I asked Seefah if she could make me some Yam Som O or Thai Pomelo Salad. It’s a tarty, spicy salad, full of peanuts. Lemon juice, chillies amongst other ingredients and my favourite ingredient — dry shrimp. It was a fruit salad like no other.

I also am insane about peanut sauce. Although mainly Malay, you get skewered tenderloin with peanut sauce on the streets of Bangkok and I know for a fact that Seefah makes some bloody good skewers and a fine peanut sauce. I had to add some on the menu. Seefah suggested that she made a mean Pork Belly. Just simply roasted. They were thinly sliced soft slivers of pork, smoky and sweet. With the starters and mussels done, we needed some fish and meat.

Fish is my family favourite, though I am more of a crustation eater. I wanted my table to be filled with a whole fish. Not cut, not sliced, not filleted. Whole. Seefah steamed a whole sea bass, (Pla Kapong Neung Manao) replete with fresh lime juice, garlic, and chilies, and Thai herb. It was marvelous; sour, spicy, garlicky, and full of the contrast and excitement of Thai flavors. Along with that a whole pot full of Pork knuckles stewed in a broth made with star anise, cinnamon, cumin, and sugar, soy sauce. Slow cooked till the sauce turned sticky and sweet. All this with some simple jasmine rice. No fuss. The evening was quite a hit, the food was the hero, and my romance with Thai food endured.

Kunal Vijayakar is a food writer based in Mumbai. He tweets @kunalvijayakar and can be followed on Instagram @kunalvijayakar. His YouTube channel is called Khaane Mein Kya Hai. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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