My Thai Kitchen: A Worthy Authentic Contender

By on September 24, 2010

Some time before the year 1300, groups of tribal farmers from Yunnan in southwest China drifted down into the virgin untilled lands just east of Burma. They called themselves Thai and the land became Thailand. We were sitting in the tiny, cozy dining room of My Thai restaurant and I was trying to impress my friends by shooting off random facts about Thailand. In the late 19th century, two Thai kings, Mongkut and then his son Chulalungkorn, ruled the land. Cast in the mold of the greater Roman Emperors, they modernized Thailand, fought off the foreign invaders who colonized the rest of southeast Asia, and pushed the Thais into adopting the best of European culture. Deciding that Thais should eat in Western fashion, Mongkut had the British ambassador demonstrate English cutlery to his brother. His brother picked the fork and spoon, and so today that’s what Thais use. You hold the spoon in your right hand and push the food onto it with the fork. Mongkut, by the way, was the king in “The King and I”, a most unfair and unflattering portrait but a fun movie nonetheless. Despite the Westernization, Buddhism permeates the land. You can become a Buddhist monk for a short time in Thailand, six months or less, and most Thai men do just that as part of their education. Thais think it’s unholy to show anger or bad emotion, and it works. You don’t find a land of simmering tension, you find a land of smiles.

I spent many months in that golden land and I loved it. But I never tried the food! I’d been trekking the uncharted byways of Asia for years; I was so thrilled to find American style breakfasts in Bangkok that that was just about all I ate. That was a mistake. Thai cuisine is one of the greatest on Earth. I learned this years later when, on a narrow and forgotten side street in Queens, N.Y., I found a black door with Thai writing on it and entered to find a hidden restaurant filled with Thai families dining. And the food was a revelation. Each bite had fantastic, swirling flavors, spices I’d never tasted, sweet, salty, sour, hot, all in perfect balance. I ate at Sripraphai for years, never saw anyone who wasn’t Thai, and then the New York Times discovered it, and it was never the same.

The food at My Thai reminds me of that. Not as fine (and how could it be?) but still a worthy authentic contender. Let me quote that New York Times review, for it summarizes the ethos of Thai cuisine in one sentence: “The balance of sweet, sour, salty and hot is what is often praised about Thai cooking, which focuses on bold flavors in blissful harmony, on perfect proportion and perfect counterpoint, something tangy yielding to something soothing, a burst of cool mellowing a bit of fire.” Or, better yet, let me summarize all that in a photo.

On the menu, this is called “Steam Fish in Thai Herbs” ($12). It’s a fine juicy fish filet and the chef must have learned from the Chinese that steaming a fish is the best way to preserve its moistness and flavor. But it’s the Thai Herbs that take center stage and if you’ve never tried them, you’re in for a treat. The cast includes lemongrass, a bold lemon flavor; Kaffir lime (aka galangal), which yields another citrusy flavor; and Thai basil. Running throughout is a generous undertone of fish sauce. Fish sauce, used in a small amount, amplies other flavors, makes them better, provides that elusive taste known as umami. (I use it in spaghetti sauce.) They put quite a lot in here, and it yields a nice savory flavor.

I don’t want to neglect the rest of the meal. One of my friends, on my suggestion, ordered Chu Chee curry with chicken ($9), and this is what she got:

Or, to be more accurate, this is what she didn’t get, because by mistake the server gave that order to my other friend, who rather more timidly had ordered some sort of cashew chicken. That friend liked the Chu Chee so much that all I got was one taste. A fine rich curry flavor, made even more rich by coconut milk, with a nice nutty undertone.

A word about Thai curries. I love them! Usually it’s my favorite dish at any Thai restaurant (and at KEO, by the way). It is not like an Indian curry. It is called a curry in English only because the English people who named it thought, spicy dish made by Orientals, must be a curry. But it is nothing like an Indian curry, which is closer to a bowl of chili than to what is misleadingly called Thai curry. The Thais call it gaeng, which, I’m told, means “dish with a lot of liquid but not enough liquid for us to call it a soup.” And that’s as good a description as any. Usually the most popular gaengs are called, in English, red curry, green curry, and Masaman curry. Masaman curry, which is yellow, is an exception; it’s like an Indian curry and was brought to Thailand by Muslim traders. Order the green or red, they are both fine.

My Thai makes a fine red curry. I know because this was our second visit. We forgot the camera on the first visit. On that first visit, I ordered the daily special, shrimp and mussels and squid in a red curry ($11) and it was so good that my first taste convinced me to go back another time with my camera. We also ordered Panang Beef ($9.50), with the beef swimming in a wonderful broth redolent of peanuts and spices. (At most Thai restaurants, Panang has much less sauce than here.) Panang is, though, not spicy hot.

A few words about that notorious word “spicy”. Some Thai dishes can be incredibly spicy, by which I mean fiery hot from chili peppers. But the heat should blend with other flavors. Food that’s flaming hot, and the heat is all you taste, was probably made by a bad chef who masks his incompetence by throwing in a lot of chili. Most Thai restaurants, including My Thai, will ask you how spicy you want your food. In my opinion, this is a mistake; I want the amount of chili that blends best with the other tastes, and for me to say I want the food medium spicy would be like telling Picasso, I want a painting with a medium amount of red, and throw in a little blue but skip the yellow. But at My Thai, the food is rated one to three stars, with three being the hottest. I ordered three stars for the fish and for the seafood special. It was, to me, only mildly hot, though my friends thought it was very hot. My Thai will, on request, make it hotter, though they may be reluctant to do so for strangers. One of New York’s better restaurants had their waiters write the diner’s ethnicity on the order. Asians got their food spicy; Whites got it bland. They were amazed beyond belief when that tactic, which they truly thought was helping their customers, earned them a visit from detectives enforcing New York’s anti-discrimination laws.

For my spice-sensitive friends, I told the waiter to give them one star (the mildest possible). No heat at all, but all the other flavors were present, and it tasted it just fine. That cashew chicken … I ended up getting a lot of that, and it had no spice at all, and was not really Thai but more like Chinese takeout, but it was better than I expected, and I ate all I was given. So I’ll leave you with that.

My Thai Kitchen
3023 S Harvard Av
794-7093
Open from 11 AM to 2 PM and from 5 PM to 8:30 PM, closed Sunday. Often full by 6:30 at dinner.
Menu: http://static.ow.ly/docs/My%20Thai%20Kitchen%20Togo%20Menu_5wT.pdf

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Brian Schwartz:

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society.  www.theomegasociety.com

I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola.

“A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

Brian Schwartz

About Brian Schwartz

Born in NYC, age 0, on my birthday. College in Oxford at age 16. Law School in New Haven, Conn. 6 years travel in Africa and Asia. Haven’t done much lately. Still, I’m the only Tulsa member of the little-known Omega Society. www.theomegasociety.com I speak enough Chinese to order food not on any English menu. Spanish French Italian too (not fluently but food-ently) My favorite restaurant is Jean-Georges in New York. But those NYC chefs would sell their soul to get the produce available from the farms around Inola. “A writer writes alone. His words tumble forth from a magical inner void that is mysterious even to himself, and that no one else can enter.” And yet, the most important thing to me the writer is YOU. Without you to hear them, my words are worth less than silence.

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