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Spicy Thai spread

At the Isaan Food Festival, on at Benjarong, the Thai speciality fare seems to offer an endless supply of ideas for starters. Thai food, usually not served in a buffet, is heavily dependent on flavour and thus served hot.


THERE'S AN Isaan Food Festival on at Benjarong, the Thai speciality restaurant, on TTK Road. Some quick research on Isaan (the north-eastern part of Thailand) turns up the fact that it's known for its simple, spicy, peasant-type fare, hospitality and culture. But since it's one of the relatively poorer regions of Thailand, the people eat everything including snakes and insects. Chef and CEO, Regi Mathew, explains that Isaan is up-country Thailand and recipes use less coconut and seafood and ingredients are rather different from those used in other regions. As with most Thai food, the emphasis is on flavour and colour.

The waiters arrive and almost instantly the rather brown looking table seems to bloom. The large platter in the centre of the table is a mass of red, green, brown, beige, yellow — it's miankam or the Thai paan. Little cups with shrimp, raw onions, fried coconut, red chillies, lime, peanuts and a bright red-brown sauce sit around lettuce leaves. The ingredients are wrapped into the crisp lettuce leaf with the sauce on top, pretty much like the native paan, and the little package is a mishmash of tastes — crunchy, spicy, nutty and hot.

The Isaan cooks seem to have an endless supply of ideas for starters. They've turned bland broccoli into a sweet, crispy, interesting vegetable with brocolli tod nambhoy. And tohu hor bai toey is another starter that's quite remarkable. The tofu is marinated and wrapped with pandanus leaves and then deep-fried. You peel off the leaf to get to the tofu, which retains all the flavours of the sauce its been marinated in, as well as the original taste of the tofu. The non-vegetarian and original (the tofu is an adaptation) version is gai hor bai toey, where the tofu is replaced with chicken.

Pretty orange carrot roses and notched red cabbage leaves on a plate decorate the table. Mathew explains, a lot of importance is given to decoration of food in Thailand and accordingly, the table is piled high with colourful food. He adds that Thai has become rather an "in" cuisine, because of its healthy, low cholesterol and low fat content, as well as its spicy taste and elegant presentation. The salad, pla tod yum mamuoung is a delightful combination of raw mango with onion and other flavours. Salted fish that offsets the tangy taste of the raw mango is the non-vegetarian version, while rice crispies are for the vegetarians. But most of the time you just keep eating the delicately chopped strips of raw mango, forgetting that you're supposed to be "bringing out the real flavour" with the rice crispies, if you're eating the vegetarian version. But the salty fish covered with batter really completes the taste of the mango. Coconut cream soup with prawn or mushroom is served in a coconut shell making the whole thing look rather exotic.

The main course is usually rice, noodles and string hoppers that are accompanied by various side dishes. Apart from the usual delicious Thai red curry with cauliflower, there's the delectable fried bean curd topped with a tri-flavoured sauce and the speciality of the house, ped noy or perfectly browned duck served with spices and herbs.

The desserts are gorgeous — a combination of coconut, pumpkin, vanilla ice cream made with jaggery and floating in coconut milk tastes a lot like Kerala desserts. The one with stewed jackfruit with coconut milk and ice cream is for jackfruit fans. Mathew says that Thai food is usually not served in a buffet, because the food is heavily dependent on flavour for taste and hence has to be served hot. They use rice bran oil, which is low in cholesterol, and the amazing thing about Thai food is that you can put away large quantities of it and not feel like you're stuffed to bursting point.

The Isaan food festival is on till May 18 at Benjarong on TTK Road. Lunch is from 12.30 p.m to 3 p.m. while dinner is between 7 p.m. and 11.45 p.m.

SHALINI UMACHANDRAN

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