BANGKOK (Reuters) - Ian Kittichai has come a long way from his humble roots pushing a food cart through his Bangkok neighborhood and now commands a vast restaurant empire stretching from New York to Mumbai.
Though Kittichai has done his part to educate diners outside Thailand about the repertoire of Thai cuisine that extends well beyond green chicken curry, he's gone the other way in Thailand with the country's first gastro pub, "Hyde & Seek", which he opened in 2010.
At his flagship establishment, the Issaya Siamese Club, a Bangkok lounge and restaurant set in a 1920s Thai house tucked behind Bangkok's business district, Kittichai casts his well-travelled eye on classical Thai dishes and reinvents them.
Kittichai spoke to Reuters at the launch of the Issaya Siamese Club's first cookbook, "Issaya Siamese Club Cookbook: Innovative Thai Cuisine by Chef Ian Kittichai".
Q: How would you describe Thai food to the uninitiated?
A: Refreshing and flavorful. You're never bored when eating Thai food because there are always ingredients that will surprise you, especially the herbs. Thai cuisine has so much character and each region has its own specialties. When you eat Thai food, you feel full, but usually light.
Q: Tell us about your new cookbook.
A: The recipes cover the length and breadth of the Issaya repertoire. There are also tips on food preparation that are unique to Thai cuisine. The cookbook tells a story about the Issaya Siamese Club and the history of Thai cooking and imparts knowledge about cooking techniques like the use of natural ingredients like limestone water to make food crispy.
Q: What's your favorite recipe from the book and why?
A: Miang Kham, a bite-sized mix of ingredients traditionally served in a leaf, but I serve it in a crispy, golden basket. When you bite into it the first bite is lime, the second is ginger, the third is coconut and then you taste the sweetness and spice. Eating Miang Kham is one long surprise.
Q: How have Thai palates changed since you first started in the business?
A: Thai palates have become more sophisticated. We used to eat deep fried fish, crispy to the bone. Not many people like that anymore. Today, they want their fish crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.
Q: What do you say to critics of high-end Thai restaurants?
A: I enjoy Thai street food, it's easy and quick, but people often forget how much MSG and other food additives street stalls use. In mid-range restaurants they might do a classic stir-fried crab rice dish, whereas I won't do that. At Issaya, I'm doing something completely different. I do a rice dish made with black rice that in Thai we call "Forget Husband" rice because when you eat it, you enjoy it so much that you forget about your husband.
Q: Is it true that Thai food is difficult to prepare?
A: That's a misconception, it's really easy to make at home. Thai cooking is about preparation but the cooking time is short. You can make a great curry in five minutes. A Western stew can take 2 to 3 hours, but with Thai food, you just throw a few ingredients in boiling water and within minutes you have a flavorful Thai soup like Tom Yam.
Q: Where do you see Thai cuisine going from here?
A: It's really hard to say where it's going to go from here. We're seeing more and more Thai restaurants open around the world, especially in places where Thai people are living. We'll have to wait and see where Thai food goes next.
Q: What are the next projects on your horizon?
A: I have a few projects in Phuket, I've been approached to do a restaurant in a new hotel. We're doing a street food festival in Singapore on May 31 and I'm bringing 10 Thai street food shops there. That's going to be at Marina Bay Sands on the ground floor where the F1 track runs.
"Yam Nua" Grilled Beef Salad (serves 4)
250 g cucumber (9 oz), thinly sliced lengthwise into 8 cm (3 inch) pieces
120 g (4 oz) cherry tomatoes, cut into halves
200 g (7 oz) beef, grilled and sliced
40 g (1.5 oz) onion, sliced
20 g (0.7 oz) celery leaves, separated
200 ml (0.8 cup) Red Seafood Dipping Sauce
25 g (0.8 oz) red bell peppers
25 g garlic
25 g coriander roots
25 g coriander leaves
25 g red finger chili peppers
22 g (0.7 oz) red bird's eye chili peppers
90 ml (6.1 tablespoons) fish sauce
110 ml (7.4 tablespoons) lime juice
20 g (0.7 oz) palm sugar
25 g pickled garlic
50 g (1.6 oz) juice from pickled garlic
Grill red bell peppers in the oven until charred on all sides. Put the peppers into a bowl and cover with plastic wrap for five minutes. Peel off the burnt skin and discard. In a blender, blend roasted peppers and remaining ingredients until smooth. Sauce can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 1 week.
To make salad: place cucumber pieces and tomato halves in a bowl and soak in Red Seafood Dipping Sauce for 30 minutes, then remove. On a plate, place cucumber pieces and tomato halves and top with grilled beef slices. Pour Red Seafood Dipping Sauce on top and decorate with onion and celery leaves.
Reporting by Amy Sawitta Lefevre, editing by Elaine Lies and Ron Popeski