Nowadays you have to be ready to do some serious detective work to find a restaurant where standard Thai dishes are cooked in a way that discerning Thais of earlier generations won't shrug off.
A few places, including some high-art market stalls, continue to hold on _ committed foodies will know them _ but in general much restaurant cooking is generic and shortcut-ridden. The food offered in most of today's high-profile Thai restaurants is almost always good (misguided fusion experiments, the Devil's work, of course excepted), but when was the last time you were served a truly inspired and characterful interpretation of a traditional curry or nam phrik? A kaeng paa bai madan Ung-aang Talay tasted recently at Nahm certainly qualified, but in U-a T's case experiences of this kind are usually restricted to private homes and provincial restaurants with local clientele.
Balls of pounded fish meat stir-fried with chilli and long beans.
Over the past few weeks U-a T's food guru SS had been letting fall remarks about some very good food to be had at a certain restaurant called Iya Chiya Huad in Pathum Thani. A house version of pet phalo (Chinese aromatic stewed duck) seemed to be the big draw, along with some seafood dishes. So when SS suggested a lunchtime excursion to give the place a try last week, U-a T jumped at the chance.
Getting to Iya Chiya Huad involves some manoeuvring through small sois branching off the Pathum Thani-Sam Khok-Sena Highway (see map), but once you arrive it has the kind of old-fashioned appearance that alerts the tutored eye to the possibility of good things waiting inside. On the day of U-a T's visit, big bamboo trays of limes and chilli were drying in the sun out in front, and there was a kitchen garden that combined ornamental plants with herbs for cooking.
The dining room was decidedly unglamorous but spacious and airy, furnished with functional chairs and tables with plastic tablecloths and filled with the kind of clutter that can accumulate over the years in an old-fashioned restaurant that doesn't place its prime emphasis on decor. It faced out on to a narrow canal that was invisible under its covering of water hyacinths.
A sour-hot fish soup.
From the menu of primarily Thai-accented Chinese dishes U-a T's party of three chose the vouched-for pet phalo, phad khanaa plaa khem (Chinese broccoli stir-fried with salted fish), tom khloang plaa maa (a sour-hot fish soup), goong phat kraphrao krathiem thone (shrimp stir-fried with fresh basil, chilli and garlic) and luuk chin plaa kraai phad phrik lueang (balls of pounded fish stir-fried with chilli and long beans).
The duck was served first, and justified the recommendation. The meat was tender and flavoured nicely by the phalo sauce, which gave it an appetising fragrance but didn't overwhelm it and was not overly sweet and salty. There are those who like a more intensely flavoured phalo broth (one popular shop on Soi Suan Phlu used to bring in crowds with a more potent version), but U-a T prefers it made this way, so that the flavour of the duck dominates. The skin, too, was tender and had retained enough fat to keep it soft and tender without being greasy. An easy recommendation.
The tom khloang was generous with the grilled chilli that are one of the ingredients that distinguish this spicy soup from a tom yum, and also with fresh straw mushroom. The fish ingredient was plaa maa, a species bony enough to justify a warning _ U-a T approached it cautiously and still wound up with mouthfuls of splintery fragments _ but was fresh and tasty. The broth balanced sourness and spicy heat nicely, and was on the aggressive side. Nothing remarkable, but satisfying.
Iya Chiya Huad's luuk chin plaa kraai had a home-made look and taste. The fish meat had been pounded with a skilled hand that left enough coarseness to its texture for the fish to keep its taste and character. Since they were spared the rubbery solidity so often inflicted on luuk chin plaa kraai they were also able to absorb the spicy chilli sauce. The chilli heat was countered by sweet, crispy pieces of lightly cooked long beans and slivers of kaffir lime leaf placed on top as a garnish. This was a dish that looked ordinary enough printed on the menu, but offered a nice surprise with its harmony of flavours.
Shrimp stir-fried with fresh basil, chilli and garlic.
Best of all were the remaining two dishes. The garlic in the shrimp dish was krathiem thone, small, single-clove bulbs with a fine, strong taste and aroma. Here they had been fried just long enough to take away the harsh edge they have when raw but still kept their crunch. The shrimp were fresh and firm, flavoured but not eclipsed by the strong taste of the garlic, chilli and basil they had been stir-fried with.
The simplest dish on the table was the best of all. Iya Chiya Huad's phad khanaa plaa khem had been cooked in a way that revealed the presence of a highly skilled chef in the kitchen. Its time on the fire had been timed to the nanosecond to bring out its sweetness _ especially that of the broader, light-green parts of the stem _ while leaving them firm and juicy. The salted fish was in small, crunchy pieces with an almost blue cheese-like savour, and there was just enough chilli bite to give the dish a slight spicy accent. U-a T had never tasted this very basic dish in a more satisfying version.
All in all, simple food expertly prepared. Not a meal for the annals, perhaps, but a very good one with enough individual character to justify a trip out of town and not a carrot, bell pepper or other intrusive alien invader in sight. Prices were very reasonable _ under 700 baht for a meal for three _ and service was friendly and attentive.
Chinese broccoli stir-fried with salted
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About the author
- Writer: Ung-Aang Talay