Sunday, March 8, 2009

Krua Apsorn: The Princess' chef cooks for us

with Prof. Thanet Makjamroen in Bangkok

First apologies for taking a week off without any postings. I was attending and chairing some sessions in the World Cargo Symposium, where 705 of the air cargo industry's decision makers were participating in the IATA organized event. As such, days tend to start early, and end late. However, I managed to find some time on Saturday to eat with my good friend Thanet.

Prof. Thanet is a gem of knowledge of Thai cooking, and it is always a great joy to dine with him. He has a special knack for little restaurants, which always turn out to be excellent. This time, it was no different. He took me to a almost non-descript looking restaurant...simple place, much like the thousands of air conditioned eating houses that dot Bangkok.

Krua Apsorn is a discrete looking place...simple, plastic tables and chairs, with plastic table coverings, bright florescent lighting. Located near the National Library, and far from the madding crowd. The walls were simply decorated with pictures of the chef and owner with the late Princess Galyani. The chef is Paa Daeng; Paa in Thai means aunt.

She first cooked for the Princess Mother Srinagarindra (mother of the current King Bhumipol Adulyadej) and her daughter, Princess Galayani Vadhana, was in 1969 when she worked at Irrigation Department. The princesses loved her food so much that Paa Daeng was asked to accompany the Princess Mother when she traveled to the provinces until her death in 1995, and after that with Princess Galayani until Paa Daeng retired and opened her own restaurant.

The appetizer was somewhat unusual. The dish was listed as Miang Kana.

Served in a white porcelain plate, with three leaf shaped protusions. At one end were kailan leaves (known in Thai as Kana. Interestingly in Teochew, the same vegetable is also known as kana). On another leaf was some diced young ginger, diced Thai lime with skin intact (this was the thin skinned variety), some Thai green mini-chilli..which packed some power! And some cubed onions. On the third leaf was some roasted peanuts, dried shrimps, and pork rind. And taking center stage was a sweet sauce.

The technique was to fold the leaf into a container, as shown by Prof. Thanet in the insert picture. The rest of the ingredients were piled into the leaf container and the whole ensemble popped into the mouth in one fell swoop.

The mix of tastes were interesting. Powerful (if you added the chilli), sweet, pungent, and savoury all exploded in the mouth.

Next, the grilled river prawns.

This was quite special as well. The prawns were huge, probably measuring at least 8 inches from tip of the head to the tail (with its feelers chopped off). Two prawns were presented, each half-ed and grilled on a charcoal fire.

A closeup to the prawns show the beautiful orange/crimson fat, which is stored in the head of the prawns. Prof told me that the river prawns can only survive in very clean waters, and cannot be farmed, as for some reason, farmed river prawns had the same huge head but without the fat, and had very tiny body resulting in no meat.

The fat was scooped and eaten with prik nam pla (sliced chilli in fish sauce), and tasted wonderful. Full of flavour, umami and provided excellent mouth feel...contrasted with the slightly tart nam pla and the pungent sting of the chilli.

I was surprised that prawns this huge were not tough, but the meat was very tender, sweet and had a nice clean palate. Very nice.

We had the gaeng luang lai bua - lotus stem yellow curry, and combined this with Thai omelette with crab meat.

The curry was sans coconut milk. The soup was made from prawn stock. This provided the base foundation with a distinct flavour and taste of prawns. But built over this was a soup which was astringent but with sour overtures coupled a pungent spiciness. The lotus stem was soft, but provided some resistance...a bit like asparagus spears cooked well done, though less fibrous.

Thai omelette is a speciality I am always amazed with. How can a dish so simple that anyone can do be elevated to an art that only a few can execute? A light, slightly crisp exterior gave way to a luscious, gorgeously fluffly, umami-rich interior as one cuts open the thick omelette. Whiffs of crab and egg...beautiful.

The astringent property of the soup goes very well with the rich, slightly greasy omelette and the rich taste of the crab meat within. Good touch.

Another speciality is the mussels. Called Hoy malangpoo pad cha, this was stir fried in fish sauce, with basil leaves and chilli.

Done with pork, it reminds me of a dish known as pad phet kapow moo - my absolute favourite Thai dish. However, the mussels pad cha is stir fried slightly differently from pad krapow. Pad cha uses krachai (lesser galanga (?)) and kafir lime leaves. Krachai is related to Kha (galanga), the ginger-like looking roots used in coconut soup with chicken in yet another Thai favourite tom kha kai. And done the Apsorn way, a twist with fresh green lipped mussels...this takes the dish to another level. The mussels were fat and succulent. The characteristic toughness one sometimes associate with mussels gave way to the expert cooking and resulted in mussel meat which just almost melt in your mouth.

The crab with Thai asparagus was also another speciality. Nuer poo pad prik luang was its Thai name...and it was essentially deshelled crab, fried with long beans and Thai yellow chilli.

The dish was rather milder than most Thai concoctions, but the magic of the ingredient mix, how each goes with the other, even in an unusual combination such as this testifies to the genius of the chef. Simple looking dish, but fantastic tasting.

Their char grilled stuffed chicken wings. This dish is so popular, that diners were advised to order a day in advance, because it often ran out during the day. When we arrived, Khun Thanet told the owner he wanted me to sample the wings...she said that they were sold out, but later managed to find 2 wings.

First off, the wings were enormous. Huge wings, cut open, de-boned, and stuffed with its own meat, minced with pork and other ingredients. And char grilled. It had such an amazing colour and texture. Absolutely delicious.

And finally dessert. In the tradition of Michelin starred chefs, the sorbet was made inhouse.

Called Coconut i-scream (sic...that's what the menu says), it is actually a sorbet made by freezing fresh coconut juice, mixed with the flesh of young coconut. The sweet, fresh taste of young coconut was present, and the sorbet was an excellent way to end a meal.

The fine owners:

From left to right, Paa Daeng, her daughter and her sister.

Ingredients are as fresh as it can be, I won't be surprised if the crab was live, and I am certain the river prawns were live. These simple, but super fresh ingredients, coupled by a control of the fire and spices only derived from years of experience and inspired cooking is able to elevate everyday dishes above the mundane. The balance of taste, flavours and fragrance was in perfect dynamic tension. No one flavour overpowers another...many Thai dishes are overpoweringly hot and spicy. None of Krua Apsorn's are. Harmony is perhaps the best word to describe them. Each dish is special, and finely balanced. Each, has its own twist, and each delicate and sublime.

Krua Apsorn
Samsen Road
(between Wat Rachathiwat and National Library, opposite Suan Suantha Institute)
GPS Latitude = 13°46'26.22"
GPS Longitude = 100°30'22.68"
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