Even as someone who’s visited Thailand many times, it wasn’t the kind of thing I was used to eating. There I was, relaxing in a roadside eatery at the edge of one of the most beautiful forests in the north of the country, when I was served a dish called Issan laap. This regional delicacy is made of minced meat, blood and bile and it was swiftly followed by a soup called dtom kom – literally, “bitter soup”. According to Num – a local chef and our guide for the past few days – the key ingredient in this is undigested grass taken from the top of a cow’s intestine.
It was, you’ll be pleased to hear, much nicer than it sounds. But the real education for me, as a chef myself, was how bitter the palate is up in Issan, the north-eastern region of Thailand. And that’s why I love Thai food. Not only is it full of delicious, insane creations humming with chilli and herbs, but it also never fails to surprise me, no matter how often I visit.
As someone who cooks Thai food for a living, I regularly come to Thailand to boost my knowledge. The Bangkok food scene has really started to heat up over the past 10 years, so it’s always an essential stop for me. But this time we were also headed to the north-east specifically to spend some time with Num, the founder-chef of Samuay & Sons in Udon Thani, a local restaurant developing a global reputation. I’d heard about him from food bloggers and chefs in Bangkok who are heading north in their droves right now just to eat at his place.
So, of course, we had to try it out for ourselves. Walking through the unlit back streets of Udon Thani with its corrugated iron buildings and stray dogs, we initially missed the restaurant, but that’s the joy of visiting somewhere like this. The sign looks just like every other shop front on the road and the forecourt is littered with plants. It’s not in the least bit pretentious. Just an easy-going, authentic restaurant.
Instead, Num lets his food do the talking. Having lived and cooked in some of San Francisco’s top kitchens before returning to Thailand to open his own place, you might have expected Num to head straight for Bangkok, but Saumay & Sons is all the better for its remote location. Because he’s from Udon Thani – in fact, the restaurant is in his family’s former tailor shop – Num has a genuine connection with the region, and that has enabled him to create a world-class dining experience using local ideas and ingredients from the surrounding forests.
We had the tasting menu and it was a revelation. Starting with ant eggs wrapped in mango leaf, we moved on to aged sai krok – a fermented beef sausage, slightly crispy on the outside with the texture of blood pudding and a pleasantly soured tang, alongside a snack of salted mackerel and pickled ginger wrapped in betel leaf. Then gaeng kii lek – a cassia leaf curry from the central plains normally served as a thick, rich, coconut cream-based curry with kii lek leaves and buds. Num had flipped it around and made a small wafer cup stained with squid ink which he filled with the base curry and alongside which he served slices of grilled, dry-aged beef.
This 12-plate feast also included a dish called Pollution, which was his response to the farming conglomerates and GM companies destroying local agriculture. There was a black sauce made from sugar cane and molasses, and another made from corn, splattered all over the plate, to look like a polluted sea. Then he served duck, sour soup with turmeric and pickled plums and chicken on top of it. Every dish was spectacular in its own way.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take things back to the beginning. My affair with Thailand and its food began when I’d just started training as a chef. David Thompson, a renowned Australian Thai chef, released a book called Thai Food, which has gone on to become something of a bible for anyone with aspirations to cook the cuisine seriously. I couldn’t believe the bold flavours in there – and I still haven’t stopped learning new tricks and techniques.
At the time, I was working at Spirit House, a Thai restaurant on the outskirts of Brisbane and travelling to Thailand on food tours. But it wasn’t until I worked at Nahm – David’s old restaurant at the Halkin Hotel in London – that I realised, this is how Thai food is supposed to taste.
David’s knowledge of Thai cuisine is encyclopaedic and his cooking is done the hard way – pounding pastes fresh, making coconut cream from scratch and cooking curries to order to ensure maximum freshness and vibrancy. It’s a masochist’s approach to cooking but it brings the best out of the food, which is why Nahm has inspired so many restaurants – and why his methods are those we have adopted at Som Saa.
The landscape of the Thai food scene in London has changed quite a bit since the first restaurants of the 1970s. As people travel more they become more adventurous eaters – allowing chefs to push boundaries and ask suppliers for lesser-known ingredients for certain dishes. There are so many regional cuisines in Thailand and, thanks to David, they’re all heading to London menus.
I met Andy Oliver, my partner at Som Saa, when we were working at Nahm and we’ve travelled to Thailand many times for inspiration since opening our restaurant together in London. The first time I went, I was 21 years old. I’m 34 this year, but I still remember a restaurant called Hemlock, which served a pungent guppy with lots of shrimp paste, lots of chilli. I thought, “I cook Thai food… How have I never tasted this before?”
Thailand’s history is an intricate tapestry of spice traders, migration and religion which has all influenced the cuisine and every trip is still a real education. This time around, before flying to meet Num, we stopped in Bangkok to have dinner at Bo.lan, an outstanding Thai restaurant run by Dylan Jones and Bo Songvisava – who also met working at Nahm. Over the last 10 years or so, Bangkok’s food scene has had a bit of an unplanned overhaul – more fine-dining concepts open, a new generation of ambitious chefs and restaurateurs seeking quality produce for innovative cooking, and Dylan and Bo, who recently won a Michelin star, are leading that movement. Places like 80/20, 100 Mahaseth and Gaa have a progressive approach to Thai food and ingredients – there’s a healthy future for the dining scene there.
After the meal, we stayed and chatted and they told me about a roadside stall outside Chiang Mai which only sells raw laap – a minced-meat salad, which is far more delicious than its description. It seemed worth breaking our journey for, so we headed into Chiang Mai, and ordered laap nua kwaii dip – buffalo meat, minced down by hand with machetes. As they chop the meat they tip in blood bit by bit, then add some bile, which gives an intensely bitter flavour. It’s eaten with masses of herbs and vegetables and seasoned with a complex spice mix called prik laab, which has around 20 numbing, warming and cooling spices all mixed into it.
After years of travelling to Thailand and cooking Thai food it was hugely refreshing to eat dishes in a new way that remained true to Thai techniques – and that’s one of the biggest lessons we learned from Num during our time in Udon Thani.
A key part of his approach is related to the ingredients he uses. The morning after the epic tasting menu, we drove to Sakon Nakhon, near one of the only two remaining virgin forests in Issan. People still forage there, and Num wanted to show us how much you can find in this natural larder. Along the way, we stopped for the bitter soup surprise, before arriving at a small township of 10 or so teak houses, with chickens running all over the place, buffaloes working the land and looms kept beneath the houses to weave rugs and clothes.
We met Num’s friend, who was to be our forest guide. He had a wide-brimmed straw hat and his face was full of deep wrinkles, the good kind caused by his large toothy smile and many years spent squinting in the Thai sun. He zigzagged around the forest with us in tow for hours – no compass, GPS nor maps. As we foraged, we came upon wild mangoes, fruit that tastes like chocolate, wild almonds and wood that smelled like turmeric and is used to make tea for stomach complaints. Num was inventing dishes as we went – thinking of combining the ant’s nest with a particular leaf that, he told us, tastes like plums.
To help us understand his key ingredients Num next took us to an eye-opener of a jungle market an hour-and-a-half out of Udon. People come from 100km away to sell there. The produce seemed otherworldly – indigenous herbs, beef placenta, egg yolk fruit and young tamarind that tasted like green apples. We kicked around there for a couple of hours while Num picked up his weird and wonderful ingredients for the restaurant then stopped off for som tam – a pounded green papaya salad. Num ordered us a som tam Issan – something we make pretty damn spicy in London, but this was steam-out-of-your-ears stuff. It was about as hot as you can make a dish without just serving a plate full of chillies – there were at least three chillies to every spoonful. Som tam is an Issan dish that’s now spread around the world, and this version was a papaya salad where anything goes – everyone interprets the dish in different ways. We also tried som tam bprung with noodles, pickled mustard greens, fruits and seeds.
Even for me it was an eye-opener. But Num saved the best till last. On our final night, he took us to the third floor of his place to reveal a room laid out like a mad scientist’s lab, lined with shelves cluttered with mysterious jars and earthenware crocks bubbling with soy bean slurries on their way to becoming soy sauce in a couple of years’ time. He hangs and cures his own meat here, too. This was his research and development room. It felt like the perfect end to the trip – Num in his lab, curing and curating, inventing and adapting and coming up with dishes that will soon be rocking the world.
We returned to London with a headful of ideas and inspiration – not just from dining on new and daring dishes but also from reinforcing the key foundations of Thai cuisine and discovering how varied it can be. Now I’m looking forward to bringing the best of Udon to the Som Saa menu – though perhaps not the bitter soup.