Friday, January 22, 2010

Week #21 Southern Thai

Back in the fall I discovered Northern Thai cuisine, which is quite different from what you find in your average Thai restaurant. Now it's time to head south, to where the flavors are bolder and the peppers hotter. Southern Thai includes more seafood, which is natural, since so much of the southern reaches of the country are surrounded by water. In contrast, the north is landlocked and so serves up more beef, chicken and pork. But in both the north and the south, the balance of sweet, salty, sour, hot and bitter is still the guiding principle behind every dish.

Himself and I went to Rainbow Thai Cuisine in North Hollywood, which our pal Chef Jet Tila places high on his list of the Top Ten Thai Restaurants in Los Angeles. North Hollywood is sort of a "Thai Town North" these days, and it's loaded with Thai restaurants, groceries and bakeries. Since Thai is our favorite cuisine, we love it that our main problem at mealtime is deciding which Thai restaurant to go to. Oh, the sweet agony...!

We started with a fresh spring roll, Rainbow-Thai styled. Just because it has the word "roll" in its name, that doesn't mean you can just pick it up and pop it into your mouth with your fingers. This thing is shaggy and messy, but oh so good. If you order it all by yourself, you really don't need anything else but a glass of Thai iced tea or Thai iced coffee (it's difficult to pick one, so we got one of each to share). This version is actually rolled in a sheet of pastry, and it's topped with a wonderfully bright sweet-n-sour tamarind sauce, a few delicate shrimp and a handful of salad fixings. It looks like the chef got cute with the hot mustard--or perhaps he wanted us to be sure to remember the restaurant's name change.

The menu includes a few curious and evocatively named meals: The Three Friends Salad has chicken, pork and shrimp, and Four Kings Fried Rice contains pork, beef, shrimp and chicken. But we couldn't figure out why the grilled sirloin goes by the name of Crying Tiger, so we spent a portion of the meal coming up with silly explanations. (No, I won't tell you what any of them are--you'll just have to make up your own!)

Although this particular blog entry is Southern Thai, I just had to order Sai Oua, Thai sausage, a staple of the north, which is one of my most favorite foods in the world. Well, it's pork, so what's not to love? Not only that, but the flavor is superb--seasoned with galangal, lemongrass, lime, garlic, shallot and coriander, it is intensely flavored but not at all hot. You can add the type and degree of heat yourself with fresh ginger slivers, onions and green Thai chiles. Just below the chiles in this photo are some tiny bits of lime that you eat along with the sausage, peel and all. It adds a fresh burst that cuts through the richness of the sausage.
They gave us a generous portion of Hurricane Seafood Soup, which means plenty for lunch today AND tomorrow. The broth, laced with galangal, lemongrass, lime juice and chiles, would have been great all by itself, but it was loaded with fresh, fresh mussels, squid, shrimp and hunks of white fish, all of which were cooked perfectly--not a hunk of rubber anywhere!
I just love these dainty bites of squid--not just tasty, but looking like delicately carved little treasures.

Cha-Po is a trio steamed duck, barbecued pork and crispy, deep-fried pork belly served over rice with a sweet gravy. Once again, fresh veggies and cilantro leaves lightened the richness of this meat-heavy dish.

As if that weren't enough meat, we succumbed to the Waterfall Beef, which was grilled and tossed with onions, chiles, coriander and lime juice. There's a consistency to this dish that you also find with larb (see Week #3 Northern Thai) that comes from the addition of toasted and ground jasmine rice. It thickens the dish so that all those yummy juices don't just slide away. It carries a moderate amount of heat from the chilies, and a nice zing from the lime juice. That generous wedge of raw cabbage on the side provides a little refreshment and relief when your tongue decides it's had enough heat.

We waddled home positively drunk on the fragrances and flavors of this amazingly diverse cuisine, carrying enough to-go boxes to feed us through most of the following week. I stashed everything in the fridge and then curled up with an atlas and studied the map of Thailand. Then I checked out what Lonely Planet had to say about it: "To truly appreciate Thai culture you must understand and appreciate the food. If you become comfortable with both, perhaps you will become a kin jai (eat heart)... Finally you may come to understand what Thais mean when they say they are im jai (full heart), an expression that fuses culinary satisfaction with general contentment."

What a lovely idea!

*If your travels take you to Las Vegas, I recommend you stop in at Wazuzu at the Encore, where Jet serves as executive chef. He's a first rate Thai chef, but with a firm grounding in pan-Asian cuisine.

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