Something to Whet Your Appe-Thai

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Left: Nak, and his family.

When we think about Thai food, we think of fiery, strong-tasting dishes such as tom yam or kerabu. But Thai cuisine is much more diverse than that – from the boiled and grilled dishes in Isaan (north-eastern Thailand) to the diverse curries of central Thailand and spicy, piquant soups down south.

Malaysia’s northern states’ close proximity to Thailand means that their food has distinct Thai influences – from the types of herbs to the generous use of santan (coconut milk). It also means that northerners get to easily sample authentic Thai food.

Penang, on top of its myriad cuisines, has a wide array of Thai eateries, from restaurants to hole-in-the-wall establishments. While a lot of the dishes are distinctly southern Thai, here and there one finds gems that serve up mouth-watering, less familiar dishes.

Mr Nak

Opened a decade ago by Songkhla-born chef, Nak, Mr Nak Restaurant serves halal Thai cuisine from all the regions of Thailand. Some exquisite dishes, such as khao niaw mamuang (mango sticky rice), khanom cin (Thai laksa), kaeng som (sour curry) and khao phat kraphaw kai (Thai holy basil with minced chicken fried rice) are hugely popular.

Nak, who used to help his mother make and sell food when he was young, was prompted to relocate to Malaysia for its economy and higher exchange rate compared to Thailand. He chose Midlands Park as the location for his business because of its close proximity to the Royal Thai Consulate General.

According to Nak, there are five essential ingredients for creating delicious Thaidishes: lemongrass, chili, garlic, lime and kaffir lime leaves. These ingredients can be easily found at the market, while Nak orders other ingredients from Hatyai once a month.

Every business has its ups and downs – such as on rainy days, business slows down. Hygiene is of crucial importance: “We have to ensure the cleanliness of the cooking and dining areas to avoid paying a penalty when the authorities conduct spot checks or inspections,” says Nak.

Mervyn Wee (in gray) and folks at Thai Shop.

Wee's staff making moo ping (charcoal-grilled pork fillet skewers).

While many cuisines get adapted to local flavour, at Nak’s restaurant, a kitchen full of Thai chefs – which includes Nak, his wife and his daughter – ensure that authenticity is preserved.

Thai Shop

“You cannot say no to Thai street food,” says the owner of Thai Shop, Mervyn Wee.

Mervyn, who was based in KL for 36 years, ventured into Thai food about six and a half years ago at the capital. “The pace was different there – it was faster and more stressful,” he recalls. He returned to Penang and set up Thai Shop on Lebuh Kimberly in November 2016, relocating to Lorong Hutton last month. Currently, there are four Thai kitchen staff, including his wife, who are all from Isaan.

The dishes are a mixture of general Thai street food and home-cooked food. “We don’t use chefs – we use housewives,” says Wee, “because they cook for their family. When you cook for your family, you cook with love and passion.”

Khao kha moo (stewed pork leg rice) is one of their bestsellers. “It is actually quite Chinese-influenced, just like our lor tu kha (braised pig’s trotters). There is a big ethnic Chinese population in Thailand, particularly Teochews,” says Wee.

Also popular with customers is the som tum (green papaya salad). Thai Shop sells two variations of som tum: the Thai version and the Lao version, which uses pla ra, a kind of fish sauce made from fermented fish that has a very strong taste, not unlike budu or belacan. According to Wee, as Isaan is located in north-eastern Thailand bordering Laos, there is strong Laotian influence there.

Mr Nak's delicious dishes.

Other dishes hot in demand are moo ping (charcoal-grilled pork fillet skewers) and khao phad tom yum, which is a simple house recipe of Thai fried rice cooked with the famous Mae Pranom tom yum paste. Most ingredients are available locally, but as with Nak, Wee has to source for some products from Thailand.

“There is a similarity between Penang and Thai taste buds,” observes Wee. Evidently, some local foods, such as laksa and Hokkien mee, are very flavourful. “Penangites are able to savour strong tastes – that’s why we are more receptive of Thai food.”

At Thai Shop, the mortar and pestle is still employed. “I think the uniqueness of our business is that we do things the old-school way, keeping the authenticity of the food,” says Wee. “We have quite a steady number of Thai customers – we are probably one of a few in Penang that serve a variety of Thai street food under one roof, with an authentic setting by the roadside.”

WhatSaeb

“I think that the biggest missing link in terms of Thai food in Penang is the north-eastern cuisine,” says Adrian Lim Wei Quan of WhatSaeb Boat Noodles located at Lebuh Carnarvon. “There’s some in KL, but as far as I have noticed, not much of that is available here – we have more southern Thai cuisine,” says the Penangite. WhatSaeb was established in 2014.

Kuay teow gai (chicken noodles) served in a hot pot – one of the signature dishes at WhatSaeb.

Stir-fried suki.

Currently, there are two Siamese Malaysians and two Thais working in the kitchen. As the main chefs are from Isaan, the dishes served at WhatSaeb, such as boat noodles, are prepared in the north-eastern way. “‘Saeb’, in the north-eastern dialect, means ‘delicious’. So, the name of our shop, WhatSaeb, means ‘What’s delicious’.”

WhatSaeb serves more central and north-eastern Thai dishes, including boat noodles served in a hot pot. Kuay teow gai, or chicken noodles, is a boat noodle variation available at the restaurant, and is served together with raw vegetables, deep-fried dumplings, meat balls and a chicken drumstick. “The dish is flavourful as it is, but Thai customers will always ask for more condiments – chili flakes, fish sauce, vinegar and sugar. They normally mix everything together. We have Thai customers who visit us on a weekly basis,” says Lim, “they say it tastes like home for them.”

Adrian Lim.

Thai holy basil, pork bones, chicken bones, Thai rice noodles and fish sauce are the five most important ingredients at WhatSaeb. “Fish sauce is everything in Thai food – just like how we use soy sauce all the time in Penang. Thais love to use fish sauce for their food,” says Lim.

“As most of our ingredients come from Thailand, the most challenging part is bringing them here. Sometimes, getting these ingredients can be tricky,” Lim admits, citing pla ra, which they import all the way from north-eastern Thailand, as an example.

Even so, Lim does not sacrifice taste for convenience: “We have to get the ingredients from Thailand; otherwise, the taste will not be as authentic. We are trying to sell Thai food that Thais themselves love to eat, so we try our best to maintain the original taste – although we do try to adjust the spiciness and sweetness of our dishes. 

Johnson Lee Chong Fatt is a dedicated tutor who teaches Mandarin and Thai. He loves travelling and often leads tours to find inspiration.
Tan Lii Inn graduated with a Master’s Degree from Korea University. He is currently an analyst at Penang Institute.



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