A few months ago, my patience with Thai restaurants wore thin. I found myself out for dinner in another bamboo-and-buddha decorated establishment, surrounded by curries with no spice, cocktails with no kick and sweet chilli bloody everything. The final straw was when they asked if we wanted to order any – I shit you not – Thai TAPAS. Enough was enough, I thought; where had all the good Thai restaurants gone?
Sure, they exist. If you’ve ever had the larb gai at Kaosarn or the pomelo and chilli salad at Smoking Goat, you will know that good Thai food is out there when you know where to look. These seem to be the exception rather than the rule, as everywhere else seems hell-bent on churning out anglicised dishes, quite far from anything you would expect to see in Bangkok. Jungle curry for the masses.
Has it always been this bad? Or have I just been critiquing for too long? Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hark back to the days when you had to visit a backstreet boozer to get Thai food in London (although I did enjoy an occasional visit to the Hobgoblin in New Cross for this between lectures at Goldsmiths), but the food was generally half decent: largely home-cooked food, cooked by Thai chefs in a couple of woks in a pub kitchen. Before gastropubs became de rigeur for every London neighbourhood, this was what you expected when somebody suggested ‘dinner in the pub.’ It seems that as we embrace global cuisine more and more, and more great restaurants open; more bad ones come along with it.
The dumbed-down version of Thai food that is served up with regularity in Thai restaurants across the country, has come to be what we now think of as being Thai food. Supermarkets have quickly followed suit, offering a number of ready-cooked dishes along the same lines: soups and curries that taste of little more than coconut milk and breaded seafood slathered in that ubiquitous bright red, sugary sweet chilli sauce. You might wonder why I don’t just avoid these restaurants if I don’t like them, and you would be right that perhaps I should just do that instead of using a whole blog post to complain about it, but it’s the principle: we shouldn’t have to pay good money for shit food. Also, I don’t want to be the one who pulls a face next time I’m outside of London and somebody suggests going for Thai food.
But until things improve, I am that person. Or at least an optimistic version of that person who is seeking out hidden gems and badgering others for recommendations. I know that there are people out there for whom food is second to company when it comes to eating out, but I will never be somebody who can willingly go out for a bad dinner, even for my very best friends. So, for now, friends, if you want to eat Thai food with me and can’t face queuing at Smoking Goat, we’ll cook it in one of our kitchens and experiment until it is just how we want it. I have a bunch of really good cookbooks we can use. To start us off, here’s a pad Thai recipe. You bring the wine.
250g dried noodles
100ml fish sauce
100ml tamarind sauce
100g soft light brown sugar
½ tsp chilli powder
120ml vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
220g small cooked prawns
250g leftover roast chicken, shredded
2 eggs, beaten
4 spring onions, finely sliced
75g roasted peanuts or cashews
Finely chopped coriander, to serve.
Soak the noodles in cold water until they are plaible, drain and set aside.
In a small bowl, combine the fish sauce, tamarind, sugar and chilli powder. Stir until the sugar is dissolved and set aside.
Heat the oil in a wok over a high heat and add the garlic and stir fry for a few seconds before adding the noodles and a couple tablespoons of water. Stir fry until the water has evaporated and then add the sauce. Cook until the noodles are al dente.
Add the rest of the oil along with the prawns and chicken. Stir fry until both are cooked through and add the eggs and scramble through the noodles. Be careful not to overcook. Add the beansprouts, spring onions and nuts, then remove from the heat and garnish with the coriander.