I spent most of my time on the streets of Thailand, but I did venture into a few restaurants.
Lets start with Hua Hin. Lonely Planet told me the place to go for seafood and atmosphere was Chao Lay (ranked #2 on the list of things to do in Hua Hin though there are some differing opinions) but I was eventually taken there for a rather offbeat reason – MakeMyTrip (who was making our trip) organised the usual desi lunch at that place. Apparently one of their chefs – Portuguese parentage from Macau and has lived in Nepal - knew Indian (read Punjabi) food. I met him on the way out of the restaurant, trying to do my usual duck and hide lunch run when faced with Indian food; he convinced me that if I stayed he would make me real Thai from the restaurant’s usual menu. Thus my rendezvous with green lip mussels and the first tom yam of the trip.
The main reason for the popularity of Chao Lay is its location; its a wharfside restaurant with unending views of the sea. Few places in the world allow you to actually build on the beach, but Hua Hin has no such qualms. Rows of piers stretch their long fingers into the sand and sometimes beyond into the sea. It was raining, so the open deck was for pictures only but the views are amazing; a beer in hand and you’re willing to forgive all the nonsense in the world. And talking about freshness, at the pier ships are actually offloading catch.
The mussels, steamed with huge chunks of galangal and loads of basil and kaffir lime leaves were full or aromatic thai-herb smells mixed with the sea. The pork tom yam (I’m calling it tom yam by translating backwards, the menu called it “hot sour” and the waiters called it various unintelligible noises) was loaded with sour and bird chilli and fresh herbs and managed rather successfully to combine ecstasy palace with torture chamber. It was a fantastically tasty soup, but so loaded with chillies that even a Reddy would sweat. Unlike gimmicky hot sauces on TV (or that ridiculous phal in London) this one is not hot for its own sake. Its wonderfully flavourful – the hot and the sour doing an incredibly complicated tango with lemongrass, basil, kaffir lime, ginger, pork and a bunch of other stuff that I really have no idea about - all those bold flavours calling out for some kickass heat. I’m not exaggerating the spice levels – take it from someone who has chilli pickles neat – this one is up there.
My first sit-down Thai, even if surrounded by Indians having Indian food, was quite a pleasant experience.