Soul food from New Orleans
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Soul food from New Orleans

At Tina’s, chef David Cleland highlights the importance of traditional ingredients and cooking methods

Soul food from New Orleans

It is without doubt that some of the world’s best cuisines exist because of trade routes, colonisation and migration.

America’s Creole and Cajun cuisines are two such examples. As it is known, Creole the “urbanite” is native to New Orleans, while Creole comes from the countryside of Louisiana, with most ingredients coming from the bayous that the state is known for. For decades, Bangkok has enjoyed the delights of both cuisines at one restaurant. 

Here to shake and spice things up (pun intended) is Tina’s on Soi Suan Phlu, helmed by chef-patron David Cleland. Originally from Lafayette, Louisiana, chef Cleland was influenced by his mother Tina, a New Orleans native, and has brought their distinctive blend of culinary heritage to  Bangkok.

“I fell in love with Bangkok when I travelled here for the first time seven years ago. I also didn’t want to be in America anymore; it did not have the opportunity or lifestyle I was looking for. Then I decided to create something in Bangkok, something that was unique. It was a clear vision,” explains chef Cleland. 

Food is community to the chef, who decided on Soi Suan Phlu as a home for Tina’s because he already knew the neighbourhood and the chefs and restaurants around. “It is the same in New Orleans; the community is unlike anywhere else, which is why I wanted to be a mainstay in this particular neighbourhood. Tina’s is a place where one can come and have a simple meal. You can sit at the bar and have a bowl of gumbo, even though we consider ourselves fine dining based on our prices, our flavours and the general feel of things.”

While Tina’s may not be casual, it does deliver on the American-style portion sizes. Paired with the portions is the hospitality that the south of America is known for. While the menu is vast, it has all the staples of New Orleans and Louisiana. 

Begin with a Deviled egg, which is a contemporary take on the Easter classic, though in the American south it is more of a picnic classic. “I grew up eating deviled eggs at church picnics and my favourite thing to give as a wedding gift is a plate of deviled eggs because that is a homely tradition and I love the flavours,” says chef Cleland. At Tina’s, the eggs are filled with a spicy mousse and topped with Spanish white anchovy and crispy bacon.

Boudin or blood sausage is a dish you’ll find anywhere in the world that has French speakers. The Louisiana adaptation is different from the usual. All the ingredients are cooked and then stuffed into sausage casing. The rich pork sausage with garlic, herbs and spices, is breaded and fried crisp. It is served, minus the casing, with a sharp Creole mustard and atchara pickles. “Atchara pickles are from the Philippines, which may sound like a strange addition to the dish, but the Filipinos were some of the earliest naturalised citizens in the US through the Manila Galleon route. “There is a Filippino community in Louisiana going back to the 1800s,” says the chef.  

Who doesn’t love American-style biscuits, and at Tina’s the Buttermilk biscuit is fluffy and savoury, fresh out the oven, just how I like them. This dish is a staple of the South and eaten for breakfast, lunch and dinner. It is served with a sharp Creole pimento cheese, smoked and spiced along with a hot and sweet chili jam. Salivating yet? “Everything is made in-house, from our pimento cheese, pepper jelly, hot sauce to the buttermilk for the biscuits. And, everything is done the old fashioned way. I even make my own Worcestershire sauce,” emphasis chef Cleland.

Nola BBQ prawns is a dish that was made famous at Mr. B’s in the French Quarter. “The prawns are many things, but barbecued is not one of them,” laughs the chef. The prawns are sautéed in a sauce that delivers a BBQ flavour without having touched a grill or a smoker and are served with grilled French bread to soak up the sauce. “Barbeque shrimp is a New Orleans dish that dates back to the 1930s. My favourite place in the city is called Mrs B’s, which is a fascinating place. There you’ll see business men in suits tearing apart these prawns, that are served with the shells intact. At Tina’s, we serve them without the shell,” says the chef.

Oysters are served three ways: grilled, raw or fried. Just as in the many oyster houses of the French Quarter in New Orleans, the oysters are smothered in garlic butter and Parmesan, grilled until they are bubbling and golden, and brought to the table as is.

The heart and soul of Louisiana can be found in a bowl of gumbo. The rich stew brings together all the cuisines that have made their mark on the city. At Tina’s, it comes in two versions; the popular one is the Seafood okra. Tina’s version features shrimp, crab, oysters and grouper in a rich seafood broth with tomato, okra, herbs and spices. The Duck and andouille filé is deep, dark and complex, made with roast duck and andouille, which takes days to produce and almost 30 ingredients. Talk about a true labor of love. 

Though what makes gumbo gumbo is the filé powder or the ground leaf of the sassafras tree, which comes from the Choctaw Nation, a Native-American tribe, indigenous to Louisiana. “The roux, which comes from the French, is cooked into a stage no Frenchman would ever like, and then you have the andouille, which is Spanish, and the rice is a long-grained one,” explains chef Cleland of a dish he is deeply attached to. 

The Jambalaya may resemble the West African jollof or Spanish paella, but Tina’s version uses short grain rice, prawns, chicken, andouille, herbs, tomato and spices. Don’t leave without getting another classic — the  Shrimp and grits. This contemporary take features prawns sautéed with bacon and garlic before being finished with a sauce of butter and herbs, and is served with crispy Parmesan grit cakes. Yum, yum and then some! 

Pair the mains with another southern staple — Collard greens, which are braised with onion, garlic and bacon for hours until soft and tender. They are also eaten in the new year, like black-eyed peas, but instead of luck, they bring money. Let me know if money comes your way!

The cocktails are created in consultation with Danny Yeung and are “focused on the original representation of New Orleans-style of drinks. Think old classic cocktails. Some are slightly reinvented. But the focus is on what New Orleans is famous for, so we try and develop more of a unique local twist on these New Orleans classics,” he says. 

The official cocktail of New Orleans is the Sazerac, one of the oldest cocktails in the world. It was created in 1838 by Creole apothecary Antoine Peychaud in his shop at 437 Royal Street. “It uses a lot of herbs and spices, which is what makes it so special. At Tina’s, we incorporate more Thais herbs and flavourings, like earthy tones, woods, sparks and things from southern and northern Thailand, to create a Sazerac that not only showcases the original cocktail, but with flavours that are more recognised and representative of the country Tina’s is in,” explains Yeung.

At Tina’s, cocktails take a two-pronged direction. "One focuses on classics with a twist, tailoring more on the creative side, while the other will be more of the bar team’s take on specific cocktails,” adds Yeung. 

It would be a shame to leave Tina’s without the classic dessert from New Orleans — the Beignet. A New Orleans style doughnut, it is crunchy on the outside and fluffy on the inside, topped generously with powdered sugar and served with choice of chocolate, berry or vanilla sauce.

It is not without irony to note that immigrants propelled the evolution of Louisiana culinary fare, and here in Bangkok it is also being propelled by an immigrant. Visit Tina’s website.

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