I've been thinking a lot about Thai flavors today. This is partially because we had dinner at a Thai restaurant last night. It was a lot of fun. We chose a casual restaurant because the priority was the company, not the food. The meal was better than expected with a generous smattering of heat and spice, contrasting textures, fresh herbs and many layered flavors. Oddly when we arrived home last night Iron Chef America was on featuring Ian Chalmerkittichai. It was quite interesting to see his Thai-inspired dishes and the juxtaposition of flavors. Then this afternoon I was cooking some broccoli rabe and searching the pantry for some heat, which would normally found in the form of crushed red pepper. Unfortunately this was sadly absent from our kitchen as we still need to restock the pantry. The solution was a Thai garlic and chili sauce that we had received for Christmas. It's flavors were sweet, spicy, savory and piquant. I seared my sliced onions, added the sauce to the hot pan to bring out it's flavors, then added the broccoli rabe and steamed it to a pleasant tender bite. The flavor pairing was surprisingly harmonious with the aromatic sugary, peppery, and garlicky characteristics of the Thai sauce creating a perfect counterpoint to the slightly bitter vegetable.
Thai food is not a cuisine that either of has explored in depth. I love the layered flavors, the fresh herbs, the spiciness and the crunchiness that you find in that cuisine. Growing up there was a plethora of Japanese and Chinese restaurants that we frequented but Thai and Vietnamese restaurants were scarce. The first Vietnamese restaurant I ever visited was actually in Boulder, Colorado. My roommate at the time was from Texas and she loved Vietnamese food. So when she found a restaurant nearby, she dragged me there immediately to try the food. It quickly became a favorite for an off-campus splurge. We were addicted to the Vietnamese spring rolls. These were served piping hot and crispy with cold rice noodles, lettuce leaves and a sweet dipping sauce. We wrapped the warm spring rolls in the cold lettuce leaves with the toothsome rice noodles and happily dipped and crunched our way through countless meals.
The first Thai food I ever ate was in high school a a small restaurant on Queens Boulevard. It was memorable mostly for the intense spiciness of the dishes and the plethora of mint and cilantro, neither of which I had developed a taste for at that tender age. We tried it once or twice more, I liked the glss noodles with minced pork and then it faded quietly from our consciousness. We visited one or two other neighborhood restaurants that popped up over the years but I couldn't help feeling as though there was something missing. The food was good but there didn't seem to be much to differentiate it from Chinese food than an inherent sweetness and the presence of lemon grass. I knew there had to be more to Thai food than what we were tasting but I had no idea where to find it.
Kittichai had actually been recommended to us last year but we went to Sripraphai instead. We wanted to try some great authentic Thai food (and we did, I can't vouch for it's authenticity but it was delicious) but neither of us was ready to commit to a high end Thai restaurant. There were simply too many other places on our list to visit. This is interesting to me because for the most part, the only truly high end Asian restaurants that we go to are Japanese. When I was younger I visited Shun Lee near Lincoln Center a few times, more for the experience than the food. The restaurant was beautiful and formal and the food was very good. The dish I remember most was a rack of lamb because it was not something I ever expected to eat in a Chinese restaurant. But I was never convinced that food was better than what you could find in some of the more relaxed places in Chinatown. This felt especially true because in spite of the lavish surroundings, Shun Lee had many of my favorites from the local Chinese places that delivered to our home.
I'm thinking that this year, in spite of a much tightened budget, we may have to take the plunge and visit Kittichai to see what the fuss is about. Sripraphai was fabulous but I'd like to move up to the next level. Thai food is definitely something that we need to explore further. The beauty of cooking is that there is always something new to pique our curiosity and stretch the brain a bit. I didn't expect dinner last night to send me down a new path of culinary exploration but here we are. Which just goes to show you that it doesn't have to best restaurant or the most expensive one to offer new inspirations. It just has to offer you a new perspective to explore.