By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
When Anna Leonowens (of “The King and I” fame) first arrived in Siam to serve as governess for the children of Rama Mongkut in 1862, she remarked that the food was so hot that she thought she could “scarcely tolerate it.”
Years later, when she looked back on her time in what is today Thailand, she said that one of the things she missed most about that golden kingdom was the “delicately fragrant flavors” of Siamese cooking.
Like Leonowens, anyone who has ever sampled the fiery fare of Thai cookery knows this gourmandize can be overwhelming spicy at first tasting, but those who have ventured further also acknowledge that Thai food is one of the most succulent and multifaceted gastronomies on Earth.
“We Thais take great pride in our spicy food,” Thai Ambassador Rommanee Kananurak told Pulse News Mexico during the opening of a Thai food festival inside the Café Urbano restaurant at Mexico City’s Presidente InterContinental Hotel in Colonia Polanco.
“Thai food is becoming very popular in the Western world, and now we want to introduce it to a larger Mexican audience.”
Apart from its fiery hot seasoning, what sets Thai cookery apart from other cuisines is its meticulous interplay of flavors.
“The seasonings in Thai cooking are carefully blended to create a master composition,” explained Vanda Asapahu, head chef of Ayara Thai restaurant in Los Angeles, who flew to Mexico to oversee the two-and-a-half-week “Delicias de Tailandia” festival at Café Urbano.
“A discerning palate can appreciate the subtle combinations of spices such as ginger, lemongrass, nutmeg, cloves, garlic, coriander and turmeric.”
Indeed, the pungently piquant flavors and delicate ambrosias of traditional Siamese cooking are a carefully composed work of art.
No other gastronomy can so adroitly transform the lotus flower into an aromatic, ruby-toned vision of finely aligned buds floating in a translucent broth of chicken and rice, or create a one-course meal out of a hot and spicy salad of squid marinated in a fermented fish and coriander sauce, or convert egg yolks and coconut milk into a sensuous vermicelli sweetmeat in a simmering sugar syrup.
Once you get past the preliminary assault of your tongue, you can begin to appreciate a subtle interplay and harmonizing of carefully balanced tastes.
The interchange of spices and flavorings – of sweet with sour and hot with cool – are sparked by the various nam priks (dipping sauces), studded with peanuts, breathy with lemongrass and incendiary with chillies, all infused with an aromatic blend of faint undertones that make enjoying a Thai meal an exercise in orchestral culinary symphonies.
Seasonings overlap and meld and each morsel has a primary essence, followed by a secondary taste that merges to form a progression of flavors.
Precut to bite-size morsels, most entrées include freshly steamed meat, chicken or seafood smothered in a heavy coconut-based sauce or stewed in bean curd, potatoes and carrots. Green, red and golden curries are composed of chicken or beef in fish sauce, coconut milk, fresh lemongrass and basil.
Asapahu, who was born in Thailand and is a second-generation owner and chef at the family-run Ayara Thai restaurant, said that the recipes she and her sister, Cathy Asapahu, create are faithful renditions of traditional Thai dishes, passed down from her grandparents.
“What most distinguishes our cooking is intense, bold flavors and our use of fresh ingredients,” she said.
“Naturally, we have to adapt to what is available, depending on the seasons and where we are, but here in Mexico we have been able to incorporate wonderfully fresh fruits, vegetables and seafoods into our recipes.”
But while modern Thai food has its roots in ancient Siamese cooking styles, it also reflects that nation’s long history as a crossroad of cultures and tradition, incorporating influences from China, India and other Southeast Asian cultures, as well as from Persia and Portugal.
The end product is gloriously Thai: deep-fried fish paste fritters assimilated from Western cooks but “nationalized” by dousing them in lemongrass and basil sauces; Chinese rice noodles metamorphosed into a Southeast Asian delicacy through simmering them in a kaffir lime and galingale root broth; tiny, new-born sparrows speared and barbecued whole in a delectable baste of saffron brought from the island of Ceylon.
The menu at Café Urbano, which is available for both lunch and dinner through June 30, includes a mixture of both internationally renowned and lesser-known home-style dishes.
“Practically all foreigners are familiar with phad thai (a zesty stir-fried rice noodle dish with shrimp, tofu, eggs, crushed peanuts, chives and lime),” Asapahu said, “but in Thailand, khao man gai (a Thai version of chicken rice with garlic and ginger) is much more common, so we have included both these options on the Café Urbano menu.”
For the unindoctrinated, an initial tasting of Thai food is extremely hot, and there is no denying that Siamese people have an uncanny fondness for chillies – especially the small, blistering ones – which were introduced to the Southeast Asian country by European traders during the early 16th century.
But Thai food is a lot more than sweltering curries and scorching peanut sauces, and the Presidente InterContinental festival offers as sampling of some of that nation’s finest delights.
The stuffed lemongrass with seasoned shrimp and battered chicken meatballs, for example, are a perfect appetizer to whet your palate for the orchestra of flavors that will follow without scorching your esophagus, as are the shrimp spring rolls wrapped in rice paper and served with peanut sauce.
But if you prefer a more blistering opening dish, try the northern Thai chillie and pork relish with sticky rice and steamed vegetables.
The marino hotpot, which serves two, is one of Asapahu’s specialties and well worth trying.
This delicious blend of spicy chillies, prawns, scallops, calamari, mussels, clams and red snapper fillet in a flaming pot of lemongrass and lime broth, is filling enough to be a main dish, although it is listed in the salads and soups column, but you will want to leave room for at least one entrée to share with the other people at your table.
The whole red snapper topped with sweet and sour chillie garlic sauce and crowned with green mango, ginger, cashew nuts, basil and kaffir lime leaves is Asapahu’s pièce de résistance and is not to be missed, and the tiger cry rib-eye steak with chillie-tamarind sauce is also a winner.
If you simply must have curry (which is practically synonymous with Thai food), try the duck breast with bok choy, pineapple and tomatoes in red curry sauce.
Be warned, though, all of these main dish options are on the spicy side, but you can tell your waiter to have the kitchen go easy on the chillies.
One of the advantages of Thai cooking is that all the dishes are made to order, and while you don’t want to remove the spicy nature of the cuisine completely, you can slowly build up a tolerance on the Scoville scale.
Allegedly influenced by the palates of Portuguese missionaries and traders who came to Siam in the 18th century, Thai sweets are almost always made of eggs and coconut milk, and the mango sticky rice is a classic way to wrap up a meal.
But Asapahu has also added an old family recipe for milo mousse cake and a panna cotta tea custard.
The restaurant is also offering a selection of Thai-style virgin and alcohol-based beverages, including a Mexico-meets-Thailand Butterfly Pea Mezcal drink with mezcal, pea flowers, fresh lime juice, ginger beer and cucumber.
The Delicias de Tailandia food festival at Café Urbano will run through, Saturday, June 30.
It is located on the mezzanine floor of the Presidente InterContinental hotel in Colonia Polanco, at Campos Eliseos 218 (tel: 5327-7700, ext. 5424).
Parking is available in the hotel and all major credit cards are accepted.