To try Soul Food Mahanakorn's recipe for lamb grapow, a spicy Thai stir-fry made with holy basil, click here.
On a night when rain fell loudly in Bangkok, flooding the street outside, a stranger peered into my restaurant's dimly lit dining room. Though the restaurant was unfinished and closed, he took a step inside, and looked around with an unnerving smile. I walked across the room to cut him off before he sat at a table. "Get out of my way," he said coolly, and sat down.
The man was loose from drink. I was nervous, and confused about how to handle my first difficult customer. Bangkok has its fair share of disturbed expatriates, and I'd long before decided that they're best avoided. "I see what you're trying to do here," he said, offering his unsolicited opinion. "But Thai food, and cocktails, and wines, it will never work. No f—-ing way."
A wine dinner with Thai street food, my confused staff giggled. Imagine that.
He shook his head. I grinned at him like a dog does before it bites.
Then I started to tremble a little bit. From anger and the stress that weighed on me during that time, and from the obtuseness of the uninvited. The encounter became more surreal as the minutes passed. He was from Ireland, and had lived in Thailand for longer than he should have. He was bitter from his own financial failures, of which he only vaguely alluded to. Instead he chose to focus on the financial and emotional peril that I would face as soon as my doors flew open, as if we were the same person, destined to suffer the same fate.
"No one will pay anything for Thai food in Bangkok. Not in a place like this, anyway. And what is this room supposed to be? Japanese? Thai? And there's you, a farang, the face of it." He giggled. "Cocktails, and fancy wines, you must be kidding me. Thai food is cheap food. It's beer food, and you can get it right outside for nothing." He continued, "Then the staff will start to steal from you, and you'll lose control of the shop, and then that will be it. Poof." After 20 minutes of this, and after kindly asking him to leave, I simply walked up the stairs to my kitchen, leaving him with my burly bartender, who spoke not a word of English.
When I peeked around the corner of the stairwell 20 minutes later he was leaving. And then, in Joycean fashion, the mean-spirited, half-pissed Irishman wandered off into the night.
But I took his words to heart. I knew that I could and probably would fail, perhaps in the first few months. So I worked harder on this little restaurant than I've ever worked in my life. During the first few weeks we were open, the rain often fell hard, and at those times business slowed to a trickle. When the rain fell it reminded me of the stranger, and I waited for him to take a seat at my bar. He never returned.
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It seems like a cruel twist of fate to meet a miserable creature at such a critical time, but in retrospect I'm glad it happened. For now, for the first time, I feel confident enough to say that he just might have been wrong.
Because people are paying for our food. And they do drink the cocktails (with the food, too!). And a few weeks ago I held a dinner where we served Thai street food paired with wines from small European and Australian producers—and the room was full. So in the spirit of our inebriated contrarian, who thought Thai cuisine was suited only to watery Asian beer, I'll boldly disagree. Thai food and wine get along just fine.
On the evening in question, I partnered with a wine company here called FIN, which keeps a portfolio of wines made by small producers, many of them organic and biodynamic. I was nervous that night in a different way than I was when I met the Irishman; as a food journalist, I'd been to dozens of wine dinners and tastings. The kitchen can take many wrong turns when serving 25 or 30 expectant, educated guests. And the parings might not work. But, as I told my confused kitchen staff a week before, our dishes could and would work in this context. They laughed. A wine dinner with Thai street food, they giggled. Imagine that.
And my kitchen had, until three months ago, been cooking food on roadsides. My head chef had run a small shop serving duck larb (a Northeastern Thai salad). My wok cook worked in a late-night khao tom shop, serving greasy Chinese stir-fries with soupy rice (often to the boldly inebriated). My salad chef was a waitress in a nearby Italian restaurant. But over the months the disjointed crew had gotten really good. And this would be their greatest test.
That night we served crisp little Thai-style samosas, wrapped in spring roll dough, with a Frizzante Prosecco, whose bubbles fluttered on the tongue. Then came mieng kham, a lettuce wrap of slowly grilled pork jowl with fried garlic, fresh chilies, ginger, slivers of lime, and peanuts, with a tamarind jam. That, and a subtly spiced fish curry with lemongrass served over freshly made rice noodles called khanom jeen nahm ya. The tables fell silent as they ate and drank a crisp, acidic Pinot Grigio made by Riff, from high in the Italian Dolomites. I sat behind the bar, pouring, watching.
Then nine more courses—with unlikely pairings like a Laotian beef curry with dill (gaeng om) served with a Tempranillo/Malbec blend from Urban Uco in Argentina, and a fish grilled in a banana leaf with a smoky eggplant salad and a glass of Le Petiot Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire.
The final savory course was a strange cross-cultural experiment. One of my restaurant's bestselling dishes is grapow—a simple street-style stir-fry of chopped meat, tiny Thai garlic cloves, chili, and the pungent holy basil from which the dish gets its name—but made with lamb shoulder instead of the usual pork or chicken. I serve it with a traditional runny fried egg atop a pile of fluffy jasmine rice. That dish was served with a Shiraz called Baan (the Thai word for house) from McClaren Vale in Australia, made in the interest of pairing with Thai food. The richness of the lamb and oyster sauce stands up perfectly to a rich, overripe red, and I think a Zinfandel or a big Nero d'Avola would work brilliantly with the dish too. I ate it once with a Ridge Geyserville, which is a fine wine for heavier Thai food.
As the meal came to a close, the roomful of Thai wine writers, expatriate customers, industry folks, and friends broke out in applause as I paraded my humble cooks downstairs to see what they had done. It was so satisfying to watch them digest the pleasure of the diners.
And secretly I raised a glass to the mysterious man who made me want that moment to happen more than anything.
And I'm over it, now.