Chicken and cashews

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The most decadent summer of my life was probably the summer of 1993. I was in university then and instead of doing the responsible thing and finding a serious summer internship, I accepted an offer to spend the summer working at a beach resort. The resort, then part of the Pacific Islands Club group, was in Bang Tao Bay in Phuket, Thailand. For ten fun-filled weeks, I taught windsurfing and sailing and worked on my tan. As a Clubmate (yup, seriously, that’s what the resort called its activities staff), I was also asked to participate in a range of other activities, many of them rather embarrassing. The Pacific Islands Clubs are inspired by Club Med. And just like at Club Meds, where the G.O.s (gentils organisateurs) perform in nightly shows for their guests, we Clubmates also put on some pretty God awful but amusing performances. Over the course of that summer, any inhibitions I had had about making a fool of myself in front of strangers were quickly shed.

Prancing around on stage like an idiot aside, the summer was a blast. I got to hang out on a gorgeous beach every day. I got to windsurf and sail as much as I wanted. I met some really interesting people who stayed with us at the resort. And I partied constantly. You have to understand that the Clubmates I worked with were a motley crew of good-looking, semi-athletic twenty-somethings who were, to paraphrase Thoreau, sucking the marrow out of life. We partied with the guests (well, the cool ones at least) and partied harder with each other.

On our nights off, we would inevitably drift to a bar in Phuket Town called The Timber Hut. The in-house band, fronted by a hyperkinetic ex-lawyer named Kurt, covered classic rock anthems. Our favourite was Hotel California. Whenever he played it, my colleagues (and me occasionally) would rush on stage and sing along, often changing the words from “Hotel California” to “Hotel P.I.C.” The bar was always rocking. It was party-central for the foreigners who worked on the island, and we were all regulars. Our drink of choice was Mehkong-Coke and the one dish we always ordered when we were hungry was chicken and cashews, served with rice. It was a satisfying, simple dish that was not only delicious but would fill us up quickly and give us the energy to keep going all night long.

Today, I’ve put my all-night partying days long behind me. I wouldn’t touch Mehkong whiskey even if you paid me to drink it. But I still love chicken and cashews. It is such an easy dish to make and it tastes so darned good. Best of all, when I eat it, I remember those carefree days of living large in the summer of ’93.

Stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts
Kai phat met mamuang himmapaan

300grams chicken breast, sliced thinly
½ cup fried or roasted cashew nuts
¼ cup crisp-fried dried red chillies, cut into 1-centimetre lengths
1 red chilli, sliced diagonally
1 small onion, sliced
½ cup spring onion cut into 2.5-centimetre lengths
2 tablespoons chopped garlic
1 ½ tablespoons fish sauce
1 tablespoon dark soy sauce
2 tablespoons cooking oil
Fresh coriander for garnish

In a large pan, heat the cooking oil over a medium-high fire. When hot, throw in your garlic and stir until fragrant; don’t let it burn. Add the chicken and stir. After a minute of two, or when the chicken pieces are all white, add the dried chillies, onion, spring onion, cashews, fish sauce, and dark soy. Cook, stirring, for an additional 3 to 4 minutes. Add more soy or fish sauce to taste. Serve over steamed rice and garnish with the sliced chilli and coriander.

Flava is fresh


Khao Tang Na Tang

Regular readers will remember that a few weeks ago, S and I spent a fantastic week attending the Four Seasons Hotel Bangkok’s 7th Annual World Gourmet Festival. Despite eating almost every single lunch and dinner that week in the hotel, S and I did manage to sneak out a couple times (although, if you’ve ever seen the Four Seasons Bangkok, you’d probably ask why would we ever want to leave the premises). One of the places we were able to visit is a restaurant called Flava, located in the swanky Dream Hotel. We had met a fantastic local food critc, Anantroj Thangsupanich, at Chef William Ledeuil’s dinner. His recommendation for an excellent Teochew braised goose stall was spot on, so when he told us we simply had to try Flava, we were more than happy to check it out.

The Dream Hotel is one of Bangkok’s newest boutique hotels. It was opened by 30-something Indian-American entrepreneur Vikram Chatwal (who one of my friends has described to me as the “male, Sikh Paris Hilton”). Chatwal had previously and famously opened another Dream Hotel and The Time hotel in New York City. Music fans might recognize the Dream as the location for Thai songstress Tata Young’s music video for “El Nin-Yo” (which in my opinion is a Godawful song).


Geang Kiew Wan Gai

Flava, located on the second floor of the hotel, was terrific. The food was both authentic and modern at the same time. This admirable feat was pulled off by Executive Chef David Hamilton and Executive Sous Chef Kunchit Srimuang. While keeping the flavours of their dishes as traditional and “real” as possible, the two long-time colleagues have also been able to present their dishes beautifully and elegantly. It’s no surprise that Flava has become a hit among locals and local food critics alike. Anantroj praised chefs Hamilton and Srimuang while also telling me that most of Bangkok’s most famous Thai restaurants are, sadly, only favored by expats. One of the most famous, in particular, he decried as “horrible” and said that no Thai would ever consider it a worthwhile place to dine in.

We sampled 6 dishes at Flava, all of them excellent. We started our meal with an order of Khao Tang Na Tang, one of my personal favourite Thai treats (pictured at the top of the post). This dish is essentially a dip, which can be made with pork or chicken or shrimp, served with home-made rice cakes. I have to say that I have rarely tasted a version as fresh and delicious as Flava’s, which Chef Srimuang made with shrimp. It was hard to resist ordering a second portion.


Yam thod man pla

After the sumptuous Khao Tang Na Tang, we had an order of Yam thod man pla (Thai fish cake & palm heart salad with yellow curry dressing). This was really nice and again tasted very fresh. We followed this with an order of Geang Kiew Wan Gai (green curry with chicken quenelles, apple eggplants and young coconut) and Pla Gao Raad prik (deep-fried grouper filets with chili paste and coconut). S and I both especially enjoyed the green curry. The ingredients were all supremely fresh. By shaping the chicken into quenelles, the chefs ensured that the meat would be consistently tender and very tasty–a nice contrast from the usual overcooked slices of chicken breast. The addition of a generous helping of young coconut flesh also lifted the dish beautifully.


coconut milk custard with pumpkin

Desserts at Flava are made daily. There is no menu, only what the chefs feel like making. The day we went, we tried a lovely coconut milk custard with stewed (chilled) pumpkin (pictured above) and a black sticky rice pudding (cake) with mango sorbet. Both dishes are riffs on traditional Thai dishes and are interestingly the most modern, or “fusion”, dishes coming out of chefs Hamilton’s and Srimuang’s kitchen. I really loved the custard with pumpkin. The light, sweet clean flavours were a great finish to a great meal. The dessert was also a wonderful palate-cleanser, wiping away any lingering hints of spice in my mouth.

Because I liked it so much, I asked Chef Srimuang for his Khao Tang Na Tang recipe, which I have transcribed below. Amazingly, it’s very simple. I guess how good this is depends entirely on how fresh your ingredients are. And, of course, the quality of your red curry paste (which you may or may not want to make yourself).

Khao Tang Na Tang with shrimp

50g red curry paste
100g fresh shrimp, cleaned and shelled
20g fresh sliced garlic
5ml fish sauce
5ml palm sugar
250ml coconut milk

Mince your shrimp. Set aside. Heat the vegetable oil in a saucepan and then add the red curry paste, stirring and cooking for 1-2 minutes. Lower your heat, then add the shrimp and sliced garlic. Add the fish sauce, palm sugar and coconut milk. Simmer for another minute, stirring slowly and season with salt to taste.

(If you want, you can also add some minced pork–50g or so–to the recipe. Add it when you add the shrimp.)

Serve with rice cakes, which you can buy or make yourself.

Rice cakes
(based on a recipe from David Thompson’s Thai Food)

3 cups jasmine rice
1/2 cup soaked white sticky rice (optional)
oil for deep-frying

You have to start working on these 2 days ahead. Mix the rice together and cook. allow to cool. Press the rice over a large, flat, clean and dry metal tray. Sprinkle with a little water. Press down until the rice is only a quarter of an inch thick. Dry the rice in a warm place overnight or for 2 nights. The rice must be completely dry. As the rice dries, it will crack into pieces. Store in an airtight container. When ready to serve, deep-fry the rice cakes in the oil until they have puffed to almost triple their original size and are just beginning to colour.

Flava
10 Sukhumvit Soi 15
Kloeng Toey Nua, Wattana
Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0) 2254 8500

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My favorite curry noodles


The Khao Soi Gai that I made at the Four Seasons Resort’s Cooking School

From my very first bite, I was hooked on Khao Soi. Usually served with chicken (“Gai”), this Northern Thai curry noodle dish, most famously served all over Chiang Mai, has become one of my all-time favorite foods. My wife S and I first tasted it a few years ago, while S was on an assignment in Chiang Mai. She was there to write a story for an American magazine on the best Northern Thai restaurants in the area; I was playing hopalong hubbie, tagging along and happily helping her consume the massive amounts of food she needed to try over a 4 day period. However, as soon as I tried my first Khao Soi Gai, my plans changed. I had a new agenda. I began, much to S’s chagrin, a mad quest to find the very best version in the city. Over those 4 days, I must have eaten at least a dozen versions, declaring–at the end of the trip–that the best Khao Soi Gai in Chiang Mai could be found at a quaint, modest, old and very famous restaurant called Huen Phen.


Khao Soi Gai from Samoe Jia

For the uninitiated, Khao Soi is a dish of egg noodles cooked in two different ways–deep fried and boiled–served with curry. The boiled noodles are placed in the bottom of a serving bowl and topped with some sawtooth coriander. Over this is ladled a coconut milk based, yellow curry with tender pieces of chicken. On top of this is placed the crispy, deep-fried noodles. This is then served with a variety of condiments, which you add to your own taste: fish sauce, sugar, chili oil, pickled mustard leaves, diced shallots, and some fresh lime wedges. It’s interesting to note that this is the only curry from the Chiang Mai region that uses coconut milk.

S and I are just back from another quick 4 day trip to Chiang Mai. This time, S was there to write a story, for the same magazine, on the coolest design and homeware shops in Chiang Mai. Once again, this chubby, hopalong hubby went with her and not only tasted several versions of Khao Soi, but also learnt how to make it at the stunning Four Seasons Resort’s Cooking School. The first one we tasted was at a streetside cafe called Samoe Jai Khao Sawy. Samoe Jia is very well-known for its Khao Soi. And while I have to agree that their Khao Soi is very good, it was a tad too spicy for my taste. I did like, though, that the dish was served with little winglets/drumsticks that were so tender I could literally suck the meat off the bones. Curiously, this version also had amost no coconut milk in it.


The Khao Soi Gai from Samoe Jia has almost no coconut milk

My second Khao Soi was at Modiva, a trendy restaurant off the equally trendy Nimanhaemin Road. The Khao Soi Gai here was good, but not outstanding. The curry was rich, with a good, healthy amount of coconut milk. This version was also served with little chicken drumsticks. My next Khao Soi was at the very new and very exciting D2 hotel. This hotel is the first in a hip new line extension of the Dusit group. The hotel itself was awesome, with modern and whimsical interiors and a very cute orange accent that ran across all of the hotel’s branding. Their restaurant, Moxie, had a nice menu of local and international dishes. I ordered a Khao Soi with pork meatballs. It was both excellent and beautifully presented. The curry was mild and flavorful. The pork meatballs made for a nice change from the usual chicken. I really enjoyed this one.


The Khao Soi with pork meatballs from D2 hotel

My last Khao Soi (not counting the one I cooked for myself in the cooking school) was the most unusual, a Khao Soi with Osso Buco. We had this at the gorgeous, classy and very romantic restaurant at the Rachamanka hotel. Of all the Khao Sois we ate, S liked this one the best, both because of the unusual meat choice but also because the noodles used with this version had soaked up the very mild and delicious curry. It was, because the curry was the lightest and most flavorful, and because of the surprising choice of meat, also my favorite.


S hard at work prepping condiments for her Khao Soi Gai

Another Khao Soi that I ate–as mentioned–was one that I learnt to prepare myself. S and I had enrolled in a half day “Best of Thai Curries” course at the Four Seasons Resort’s truly stunning cooking school. It was a fun course taught in one of the most beautiful settings imaginable. I’ve included below the recipe that the Four Seasons used to teach us how to make this delicious dish.

 

 


S presents her finished Khao Soi Gai

Chiva Som Part 3

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Over the weekend, my wife and I took a Thai Spa Cuisine cooking class at Chiva-Som. It was, for me, an important part of the research I needed to conduct in order to be able to contribute intelligently to the resort’s forthcoming Thai Spa Cuisine cookbook.

I won’t go too much into the details of the course, nor will I divulge most of the cooking techniques or any recipes here. (For that, you’ll have to buy the book when it hits the shelves in September 2005). But I will say that as someone going into the course a tad sceptical of making Thai food healthy, the course really was an eye-opener.

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The food we prepared was delicious, despite being made with close to no salt and sugar, and no oil. In fact, I found that there was a clarity in flavour that is often missing in the Thai cuisine you find in most restaurants.

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The one method that I found most interesting was the substitution of cooking oil with vegetable stock, a technique which sounded a little odd at first but worked beautifully with the various dishes we made (pictured throughout this post). We made a clear and spicy mushroom soup, a spicy pomelo salad with prawns, a fish dish (they called it simply fish with Thai sauce), and a beef with red curry.

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The only substitution that I am sure some purists would object to might be the swapping of coconut milk for a combination of young coconut juice and skim milk. I thought it worked well but I am sure a lot of others won’t find the taste fatty or authentic enough. Anyway, to make a long post short, the experience was really enlightening and ever since returning to Singapore, my wife and I have been experimenting with some of the techniques learnt at Chiva-Som in order to make our dinners a whole lot healthier. That, of course, doesn’t mean I won’t be indulging in some delicious sinful foods from time to time, just that I can feel less guilty about doing so.

Chiva Som Part 2 – Whole Grain Croissants?

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Before coming to Chiva-Som, I don’t think I would have ever considered eating a whole grain croissant. And not especially one made with as little butter as possible. The idea alone is off-putting. It sounds like something a peasant-skirted fem-hippy with unshaven legs and armpit hair would make (um… no offence intended to unshaven fem-hippy readers). It would be hard and tasteless, edible only when soaked in a bucket of wheatgrass juice or herbal tea.

Croissants are supposed to be rich, buttery, and airy. A batch of dough calling for, say, 4 cups of flour usually requires around 1.5 cups of butter. The flour is also important. It should be normal all-purpose flour, milled finely so that the dough comes out smooth. Croissants shouldn’t be made with flour studded with kernels. Who has ever enjoyed a lumpy, grainy croissant?

Amazingly, I can now say I have. Among the many healthy baked goods featured in Chiva-Som’s breakfast spread are these croissants, made with whole grain flour and with very little butter. They are also quite small, less than half the size of the normal croissant. Surprisingly though, they weren’t awful. Far from it. In fact, they were really good. So good I had two each morning, spread with a bit of organic honey and a bit of fruit compote. (The one pictured is with citrus honey and blueberry compote.) They were light and crisp and not a bit oily. And to tell the truth, I really got hooked on them.

Unfortunately, the recipe doesn’t appear in the current Chiva-Som cookbook and since the book I am contributing to is specifically on Thai food, I doubt it will be in there either. My wife is considering asking one of her baker friends to work with her to come up with a recipe for these. If they do, you can bet I’ll post it here. Of course, if any of you have recipes, feel free to email them to me.

Chiva-Som Part 1

Chiva-Som means “haven for life”, and for the well-heeled guests who frequent this gorgeous spa in order to relax, de-stress and detox, that description is perfectly apt. Chiva-Som, located in Hua Hin, Thailand, is one of the world’s most famous spas, and its range of treatments, physical, mental and spiritual are well-reputed. For people seeking to rejuvenate themselves and their bodies, it’s a great place. For a foodie, however, the idea of spending 4 days in a spa, eating “health food”, i.e. close to no salt, sugar, fat, etc, was a little terrifying. On the 2.5 hour car journey to Hua Hin from Bangkok, I kept asking my wife is she didn’t want to consider pulling over for one last greasy but delicious bowl of…well, whatever street food we could find on the way. Her favourite response was a swat with her hand, giving me no more attention than your average pest, which I think she was beginning to think I was.

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Chiva-Som’s grounds are beautiful. This picture is taken just past the well-guarded entrance. Further inside, past the villas, are the main facility areas—spa, gym, yoga pavilion, bathing pavilion, and more rooms. The hotel’s pool and Thai restaurant, Taste of Siam, sit closer to the rather attractive white-sand beach. All in all, a rather idyllic setting.

But what about the food, you ask?

Our first meal at Chiva-Som really scared me. Arriving just a bit late for lunch (past 2pm), we were quickly ushered into the Emerald Room, the hotel’s international restaurant, and presented with what has got to be the healthiest buffet spread I have ever seen. Lots of raw and grilled veggies, a few salads—Thai and Western—and some other food items that I am sure would look palatable to a rabbit but not to yours truly. I was really beginning to fear that the next few days, I’d be living on multi-grain muffins and self-pity. Fortunately, my wife asked if there was an a la carte menu. After a couple minutes of twisting our waiter’s arm, we found out that, in fact, lunch came with 2-3 hot dishes made upon request, but because we were late, they were hoping we wouldn’t order them. Of course, we did. And I am so very happy we did. After a few minutes, we were presented with a spinach-ricotta parcel wrapped in philo with a red pepper sauce and a plate of green curry with seafood and brown rice. And both, while incredibly light and healthy, were delicious!

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The green curry, especially, impressed me. No oil, no coconut milk, but a ton of flavour. My wife and I had arranged for a Thai Spa Cuisine cooking course the next day, and after tasting this dish, I couldn’t wait to take it and question the chefs on their techniques. (The class I’ll write about in Part 3 of these posts.)

“Work” Trip

I love it when work and pleasure come together. I’m off tomorrow to spend a few days in one of the world’s best spas, Chiva Som, in Hua Hin, Thailand. They’ve asked me to contribute to a cookbook they’re producing on their famous Thai Spa Cuisine. I’ll post substantially on the resort and the food next week.