"It's an old traditional Royal Thai Cuisine delicacy," says Vira Sanguanwong, the Celadon chef. "The fragrance of the leaves combines with the crunch and punch of the other ingredients and the sweetness of the sauce, helping to 'round up' the flavors."
A NICE TASTE
A week is not enough to understand the range of Thai cuisine styles, but it's sufficient to give you a taste and make you want to learn more. Here are more experiences:
The Lemon Grass restaurant, with its light, almost nouvelle style:
* Salad: Yan ma muang (green mango slaw with crispy fried squid, $3). The slaw is crunchy and salty with a creamy, mildly spicy dressing; fried squid are like pork rinds -- a nice contrast.
* Soup: Tomka Gai Sai Hua Plee Pao (Chicken and banana flower in coconut milk, $4.50.) This is absolutely wonderful. Exotic, perfumy; the banana flower is crunchy, aromatic, the chicken is tender, the coconut milk is rich and creamy, the spice is warm but not threatening.
This is the first restaurant I visit in Bangkok. It's a learning experience. First thing I notice is there's only a fork and spoon on the table. Guidebooks say the food always arrives in small enough pieces that you don't need a knife. Thai folk use the fork to push the food onto the spoon, which transports it to the mouth. Putting fork in mouth is considered gauche.
I look around for a demonstration of this, but every table seems to be full of foreigners. There's one being gauche. Tsk.
Thai slang for "foreigner," incidentally, is "farang," which also means "guava." Again, I suspect some hidden meaning. I never learn what.
Ban Chiang is an Isan restaurant, meaning it cooks in the northern Thai style: grilled pork ribs laced with slices of red pepper (you can find the farang by the pile of plucked-out peppers beside his plate); chewy, spicy, smoky, good - not particularly exotic. But the most wonderful drink: lemon-grass tea. Tart, tasting a bit like lemons, a bit like scallions, poured over crushed ice, it's the most refreshing drink possible after a steamy day in Bangkok.
The Bussaracum Restaurant is a glittery place. Modern, elegant gold-leaf wallpaper, high ceilings with subtly striped columns, curving metal staircase, floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking a Bird of Paradise garden. Tall, Chagall-like murals on the walls depicting flights of birds, schools of fish swimming through aquatic plants.
Everywhere stand pretty, slim, 20-ish young women watching customers -- outnumbering them, actually -- poised to cater to the slightest whim. Wages must be low; this place isn't that expensive. In fact, with a few exceptions, it's hard to spend more than $30 on a meal in Bangkok.
But aren't the waitresses eyeing me? It's a little uncomfortable, since I'm still self-conscious about using that fork and spoon. But here I see Thais using them in the proper way. Seems practical.
The star of this show is the Assorted Thai Fruits dessert. I order it knowing it's for several people, and thus far too much food for me alone. But I've got to see it.
It's worth it as an example of the Royal Thai style that, in times past, was prepared only in the Inner Palace, served only to royal and aristocratic families. Its trademark is artistic presentation, with vegetables and fruits carved into ornate designs.
Ornate it is: Eight small plates arrive, each with a different elaborately carved delicacy. Coconut flan in a teepee of banana leaves, fixed on a skewer. A whole, cored kiwi. Watermelon balls. Thai custard with pumpkin, carved into heart shapes. Sweet tofu paste fashioned into the shapes of church bells. Sweetened, shredded eggs spun into a Faberge-like nest. A chunk of pineapple carved in the shape of a pear.