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Lime and lemongrass: talking Thai with Som Saa

Lime and lemongrass: talking Thai with som saa

by Tom Shingler 05 April 2016

As the successful Thai pop-up launches its permanent restaurant in Spitalfields, we catch up with the chefs to take a look at how the fragrant cuisine has evolved over the years.

Thai food used to be a bit of an anomaly in the UK. It gained a foothold through the traditional pubs of London in the 1980s, where – through luck more than anything else – the cuisine became a popular choice with landlords wanting to offer something more than the standard pie and chips in the evenings. Green and red curry, pad Thai and spring rolls were exotic enough to pique interest, and tapped into the already established taste the British had for spicy Asian cuisine.

Of course, that’s all changed. Thailand soon became a popular holiday destination, and returning tourists were keen to recapture the fresh, aromatic flavours of the country back on home soil. This, combined with easier access to ingredients and an overall increased interest in food, meant Thai grew out of pub kitchens and into refined restaurants and supermarkets shelves. Ingredients like kaffir lime leaves, palm sugar, fish sauce and galangal are now easy to find, while som tam, tom yum and kuay tiew are recognisable dish names.

One of the most exciting Thai restaurants to appear in the last few years is som saa, a pop-up that focuses on regional dishes from around the country. It becomes a permanent venue in April, offering fans of the cuisine the real, authentic flavours of Thailand. Started by chefs Andy Oliver and Mark Dobbie, with Tom George running front of house, the trio fell in love with Thai food whilst travelling. ‘The north of the country really inspired us as it's somewhere we all went early on in our travels,’ says Mark. ‘You can see straight away how different the food is up there; it really introduces you to the idea of regional food in Thailand.’ It soon becomes clear that their restaurant couldn’t be more different from the pubs of the 1980s.

Mark Andy Tom
Mark, Andy and Tom fell in love with Thai food on their travels to the country
Som Saa
The dishes at som saa highlight the regional cuisine of Thailand

Roaming the regions

som saa’s dishes move away from the ubiquitous red and green curries, focusing more on seafood and vegetables. There are still some familiar things on the menu, but the chefs are looking to serve ingredients and recipes that are rarely found outside of Thailand. ‘We've currently got a dish on the menu called long gapi,’ says Andy. ‘It's a shrimp paste and smoked fish relish made with fresh coconut cream and wild ginger. It's not the kind of thing you see outside of Thailand very much, and it showcases the creams and curry pastes we make in-house. Plus, you eat it with some lovely vegetables, herbs and sour fruit from both the UK and Thailand.’

It’s the British demand for far-flung, regional and exotic dishes that allowed Andy, Mark and Tom to crowdfund their restaurant, raising £700,000 to make som saa a permanent fixture. Quality Indian and Chinese restaurants tend to either specialise completely in one region of the country, or make it clear where a particular dish comes from – the same is happening with Thai. ‘The food in Thailand varies so much as you move from place to place, and lots of these regional dishes are real hidden gems,’ says Mark. ‘People are getting more and more knowledgeable about food and travelling more so we see that feeding through to the demand for this type of Thai food back in London. It’s perfect for us, because that’s what we love to cook and serve.’

That special something

For a relatively small country, Thailand’s cuisine has an incredibly unique flavour. The balanced layers of sweet, sour, salt and spice and influences from all over Asia (traders used to pass through the country all the time, bringing their own dishes and ingredients with them) has resulted in a truly iconic food culture. ‘There are three things that make Thai cuisine unique,’ says Tom. ‘Different regions, different ethnic Thai communities and an amazing culinary tradition make for a winning combo. Then there’s the layering of different tastes – in some dishes the number of flavours going on can be hard to comprehend! The Thai people are vital, too – their level of obsession and enjoyment of food is what drives the cuisine. They are easily as foodie as the French or Italians.’

It’s not just the ingredients that are unique, either. ‘Thai cooking techniques are just as distinctive as the produce, if not more so at times,’ says Mark. ‘Thai food has its own set of rules which don’t always abide by western ones – in fact, they often break them completely. It's techniques like using smoked dried fish and shrimp paste as seasonings or fermenting pork that makes the food so fascinating to cook.’

It goes without saying that the food at som saa will give fans of Thai food something to rave about. But what about those who want to start at home? Andy and Mark used to run all over London to get their ingredients (‘from Chinatown to Vietnamese shops in Hackney and even Indian grocers’), but say there are just five items you need to get off on the right foot at home: ‘Good palm sugar, good fish sauce, good shrimp paste, roasted chilli powder and good rice (jasmine and sticky).’

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Lime and lemongrass: talking Thai with som saa


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