The Forgotten Backyard Found @ Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe!

Most of us have been to Bangkok, Pattaya, Phuket, Koh Samui and even Hua Hin but few can boast of their trip to Isan, the forgotten backyard of Siam!

For most travellers, and many Thais, the northeast is Thailand’s forgotten backyard. Isan (or ìsǎan), the collective name for the 19 provinces that make up the northeast, offers a glimpse of the Thailand of old: rice fields run to the horizon, water buffaloes wade in muddy ponds, silk weaving remains a cottage industry, peddle-rickshaw drivers pull passengers down city streets, and, even for those people who’ve had to seek work in the city, hearts and minds are still tied to the village. This colossal corner of the country continues to live life on its own terms: slowly, steadily, and with a profound respect for heritage and history.

If you spend even just a little time here you’ll start to find as many differences as similarities to the rest of the country. The language, food and culture are more Lao than Thai, with hearty helpings of Khmer and Vietnamese thrown into the melting pot.

And spend time here you should. Isan saves its finest surprises for those with the patience to come looking for them: Angkor temple ruins pepper the region, superb national parks protect some of the wildest corners of the country, sleepy villages host some of Thailand’s wildest celebrations and the scenery along parts of the Mekong is often nothing short of amazing. Thailand’s tourist trail is at its bumpiest here (English is rarely spoken), but the fantastic attractions and daily interactions could just end up being highlights of your trip. – Lonely Planet.

Unable to travel to Isan in the near future, the next best thing is to be able to eat their cuisine but how can I be assured I am getting the real deal?

Ron, the owner of Spicy Thai - Thai Cafe, and I. Ron started his flagship shop at Jalan Besar 5 years ago and branched out to Aljunied in 2013.

Ron, the owner of Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe, and I.Ron, the owner of Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe, and I.
Ron started his flagship shop at Jalan Besar 5 years ago and branched out to Aljunied in 2013.

Talking to unpretentious Ron Poh, the founder and owner of Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe, made me put my doubt to rest. Ron has traveled in and out of Thailand for about 20 odd years and finally decided to open a Thai restaurant that offers something extra apart from the usual Bangkok fare (the restaurant has some familiar Thai foods) most of us are accustomed to. With the success of his flagship shop in Jalan Besar adjacent to Yong Kee Seafood Restaurant, Ron branched out to Aljunied Ave 2 in 2013.

Coming out of the horse’s mouth (haha, pun intended for we are approaching the year of the Wood Horse), a number of Singaporeans complained about the taste being somewhat stronger. Ron explained that glutinous rice is the main staple instead of the famous Thai Jasmine grain for the majority of the village population. The farming folks needed something spicier (not necessarily related to heat-spicy) to make their simple meals tastier. Ron wouldn’t budge! He wants to stay true to Thailand’s northeastern cuisine and he understands that it will take some time for our local crowd to accept the kaleidoscopic flavours of 19 provinces.

Tonight, Sg Food On Foot, The Silver Chef and I were served a harmonious contrast of Thai ingredients and preparation methods. The dishes were served (almost all) at the same time, whipped up by Thai chefs talent-scouted by Ron, himself.

Can you spot Sg Food On Foot and The Silver Chef on the right? They are already at work with the food.

Can you spot Sg Food On Foot and The Silver Chef on the right?
They are already at work with the food.

Thai-style Crispy Morning Glory with Shrimp Salad known as Yum Pak Boong Krob.<br />The diced fresh shrimps were in the sauce. Deep-fried in Japanese tenpura-style batter, then topped with a spicy, sour and sweet sauce.

Thai-style Crispy Morning Glory with Shrimp Salad known as Yum Pak Boong Krob.
The diced fresh shrimps were in the sauce.
Deep-fried in Japanese tenpura-style batter, then topped with a spicy, sour and sweet sauce.

Deep-fried Sea Bass with Mango Salad Sauce. A common dish found all over Thailand.

Deep-fried Sea Bass with Mango Salad Sauce.
A common dish found all over Thailand.

Mango Salad Sauce.<br />Raw mango shreds, chilli peppers, coriander leaves, shallots, lime juice and seasonings were some of the ingredients.

Mango Salad Sauce.
Raw mango shreds, chilli peppers, coriander leaves, shallots, lime juice and seasonings were some of the ingredients.

Cha-om Omelet (Cha Om Pattie Omelet). Senegalia pennata (English: Climbing wattle) or Cha-om (in Thai) is the tender Acacia Pennata leaves or rather the young shoots.<br />In Northern Thai cuisine, Cha-om is also eaten raw with Thai salads, such as Tam Mamuang (mango salad) and it is one of the ingredients of the Kaeng Khae curry.<br />In Central Thailand and Isan it is usually boiled or fried.<br />Cha-om omelet bits are one of the usual ingredients of Nam Phrik Pla Thu and commonly used in Kaeng Som, a sour Thai curry.<br />Cha-om is a species of legume which is native to South and Southeast Asia. It is a shrub or small tropical tree which grows up to 5 metres in height. Its leaves are bipinnate with linear-oblong and glabrous pinnules. Its yellowish flowers are terminal panicles with globose heads. The pods are thin, flat and long with thick sutures.<br />Cha-om omelet is probably Burmese-influenced dish as Isan and Burma are very close in proximity.

Cha-om Omelet (Cha Om Pattie Omelet).
Senegalia pennata (English: Climbing wattle) or Cha-om (in Thai) is the tender Acacia Pennata leaves or rather the young shoots.
In Northern Thai cuisine, Cha-om is also eaten raw with Thai salads, such as Tam Mamuang (mango salad) and it is one of the ingredients of the Kaeng Khae curry.
In Central Thailand and Isan it is usually boiled or fried.
Cha-om omelet bits are one of the usual ingredients of Nam Phrik Pla Thu and commonly used in Kaeng Som, a sour Thai curry.
Cha-om is a species of legume which is native to South and Southeast Asia. It is a shrub or small tropical tree which grows up to 5 metres in height. Its leaves are bipinnate with linear-oblong and glabrous pinnules. Its yellowish flowers are terminal panicles with globose heads. The pods are thin, flat and long with thick sutures.
Cha-om omelet is probably Burmese-influenced dish as Isan and Burma are very close in proximity.

Pla Thu is usually fried and eaten with Nam Phrik Kapi  (shrimp paste dipping sauce), boiled and raw vegetables and leafy greens.

Pla Thu is usually fried and eaten with Nam Phrik Kapi  (shrimp paste dipping sauce), boiled and raw vegetables and leafy greens.

Pla Thu fish is nicknamed the "Sleeping Fish".<br />Ron elucidated to the effect that as in the traditional way of processing these short-bodied mackerels for preservation, their gills are removed and the heads of the fish are bent downwards forcefully towards the belly by breaking its backbone, which gives them their characteristic shape. This is done to allow three fishes to fit into a small open-work bamboo basket of a predetermined size. Once in the baskets, the fishes are boiled for a few minutes in large basins of sea-water with salt added at 1 kilogram of salt for every 4 litres of water. The result is a very tasty dish even when eaten on its own.

Pla Thu fish is nicknamed the “Sleeping Fish”.
Ron elucidated to the effect that as in the traditional way of processing these short-bodied mackerels for preservation, their gills are removed and the heads of the fish are bent downwards forcefully towards the belly by breaking its backbone, which gives them their characteristic shape. This is done to allow three fishes to fit into a small open-work bamboo basket of a predetermined size. Once in the baskets, the fishes are boiled for a few minutes in large basins of sea-water with salt added at 1 kilogram of salt for every 4 litres of water. The result is a very tasty dish even when eaten on its own.

The innards of this mackerel are one of the main ingredients of Tai Pla sauce.<br />Tai Pla sauce is used in the preparation of the well-known Kaeng Tai Pla curry.<br />The short-bodied mackerel is so popular in Thai culture that the Samut Songkhram Football Club has a Pla Thu in its emblem.

The innards of this mackerel are one of the main ingredients of Tai Pla sauce.
Tai Pla sauce is used in the preparation of the well-known Kaeng Tai Pla curry.
The short-bodied mackerel is so popular in Thai culture that the Samut Songkhram Football Club has a Pla Thu in its emblem.

Khanom Chin, Thai rice noodles (bee hoon), as well as pieces of Cha-om omelette (pictured above) also formed part of the filling.

Khanom Chin, Thai rice noodles (bee hoon), as well as pieces of Cha-om omelette (pictured above) also formed part of the filling.

Lad Na (pronounce as Lard Na) again a dish influenced by Thai's neighbouring countries.<br />Lad Na is a Lao-Chinese noodle dish covered in gravy that was made popular as a street food by Chinese living in Laos.<br />This dish is made with stir-fried wide rice noodles and either chicken, beef, pork, or tofu. The most common version includes vegetables such as Chinese kailan and straw mushrooms.

Lad Na (pronounce as Lard Na) again a dish influenced by Thai’s neighbouring countries.
Lad Na is a Lao-Chinese noodle dish covered in gravy that was made popular as a street food by Chinese living in Laos.
This dish is made with stir-fried wide rice noodles and either chicken, beef, pork, or tofu. The most common version includes vegetables such as Chinese kailan and straw mushrooms.

When Sg Food On Food told me this was Black Pepper Crab, I was skeptical. I've never seen anything like it. Taste was very awesome, too!

When Sg Food On Food told me this was Black Pepper Crab, I was skeptical.
I’ve never seen anything like it.
Taste was pretty awesome, too!

They didn't look like any black pepper crab I had before.<br />There's lots of fried Thai Basil (Queenette / Siam Queen / Anise Varieties), also known as Asian Sweet Basil or Purple Basil.<br />Their stems are purple with small purple/white flowers.<br />The leaves are narrower and darker than Italian Basil herbs and has antibacterial properties.<br />The scented leaves tasted sweet-spicy, like anise and licorice.

They didn’t look like any black pepper crab I had before.
There’s lots of fried Thai Basil (Queenette / Siam Queen / Anise Varieties), also known as Asian Sweet Basil or Purple Basil.
Their stems are purple with small purple/white flowers.
The leaves are narrower and darker than Italian Basil herbs and has antibacterial properties.
The scented leaves tasted sweet-spicy, like anise and licorice.

A brilliant innovation to the crab dish by Ron, introducing Isan spices and herbs to the crustacean but he needed some fats to bring out the flavour and thus employed pork belly.

A brilliant innovation to the crab dish by Ron, introducing Isan spices and herbs to the crustacean but he needed some fats to bring out the flavour and thus employed pork belly.

Sg Food On Foot and The Silver Chef having a conversation with Ron.

Sg Food On Foot and The Silver Chef having a conversation with Ron.

Kow Neuw Moon - Mango with Sticky Rice.

Kow Neuw Moon – Mango with Sticky Rice.

The mango was ripe but it wasn't sweet that night and the sticky rice lacked punch. Perhaps, it was because of the lack of coconut milk in it.<br />The coconut cream was served separately.<br />My two cents worth is to tweak this dessert to our local taste, hahaha...

The mango was ripe but it wasn’t sweet that night and the sticky rice lacked punch.
Perhaps, it was because of the lack of coconut milk in it.
The coconut cream was served separately.
My two cents worth is to tweak this dessert to our local taste, hahaha…

The surroundings:

While sipping on my Cha Yen (Thai iced tea) and then later ordering the Lemongrass drink (which I like), I enquired about the strength of Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe. Ron divulged that they import whatever they could from Thailand before sourcing locally. Grilling and keeping food warm are done the traditional way by using charcoals. The cost are higher but that’s the best way as charcoal distribute heat more evenly at consistent temperature without compromising tastes. Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe’s prices are also cheaper than most restaurants and medium sized eateries in the same cuisine category and is able to cater to large groups of dine-in customers. My roving eyes tell me there’s plenty of dishes I have yet to savour. Dishes like the Jim Jum, the walking catfish (hmmm…), tom yum soup, nam prik pow, Thai otak, and more.

Now let’s dissect the taste…

Crispy Fried Morning Glory (Kangkong/Water Convolvulus/Water Spinach)
The batter seemed like the diluted version of Japanese’s tenpura and managed to stay crisp almost till the end of our dinner. I liked that the batter was not thick yet did its job well. The accompanying “home-made” sauce was very appetising; sweet, tangy and savoury at the same time, evidenced with little chunks of prawns. It gave me a taste of pineapple or the like, citrusy and refreshing (but I think Ron said there’s no pineapple).

Deep-fried Sea Bass with Mango Salad Sauce
Now this is a dish almost everyone who has eaten at a Thai restaurant would be familiar with. The sea bass was meaty and crisp on the outside. Some places have an extra coating of oil and oyster sauce on the fish but this was plain-fried with the mango salad sauce on the side and it complemented the dish well.

Cha-om Omelet (Dill Pattie Omelet)
One of the best dish that night. Personally, I am an egg lover but this dish was not spoken out of latitude. It did get a tad oily when cooled so perhaps doilies under the dish might help. The dill wasn’t bitter. The texture of the herb was in between asparagus and pea shoots, but the semblance of mouthfeel was there. The omelet itself was fluffy, nicely golden on certain parts like a quilt work.

The Sleeping Fish Set (Pla Thu or Short-bodied Mackerel)
The flesh of the mackerel was much more flavoursome than sea bass. I ate this on its own without wrapping the fish meat with the vegetables and condiments (except for the green chilli dip ever so little) but The Silver Chef did. He said there was an implosion of very pleasant tastes.

Lad Na (Crispy Horfun)
On first sight, they looked like the spongey bladder, fried fish maw. When Chris told me this was horfun, I did a double flip and scrutinised the plate. The blistered flat rice noodles suggested skillful manipulation of wok hei. They were crisp but not burnt. I couldn’t make out if they were deep-fried or pan-fried but the broad flat, now curled up, rice noodles were al dente (not crispy) to the bite and the springy chew made them even more palatable. The one we had came with chicken but there are other variations i.e. seafood. The gravy was a little like our “sup kum” or wet beef horfun style. Best eaten whilst hot.

Basil Black Pepper Crab
The dish was tweaked to include something like Pat kra-prao moo sap kai daao or Thai minced pork with holy basil but pork belly and many other essential ingredients were used. Again I stress with my previous posts that I am not a fan of black pepper (BP) dishes like crabs, beef, venison blah blah blah but this did not reek BP at all. Ron recommended their white pepper (WP) crab so perhaps I should try that next time. I would like my children to try this dish as Ryan loves crabs and I bet he hasn’t tried this. Pleasant and unique to me, I would bring my friends for this dish definitely. A very different take on crab dish, distancing itself from the now seemingly mundane butter crab, salted egg yolk, kum heong and chilli crab.

Mango with Sticky Rice
In my Bangkok trip posts, I have already revealed that I am not a fan of durian nor mango but I will sample them nonetheless. This dessert was sort of an anti-climax after the scrumptious meal. The mango was ripe but not sweet. The rice lacked a certain fragrance or richness I cannot decide which. It seemed sweet enough for my liking yet it lacked something. I’ll try the red ruby next time.

All 3 of us had Thai Iced Tea without milk and the Lemongrass drink and I like both. I understand the tea leaves were imported from Thailand. My preference between the two is the lemongrass.

Thank you, Derrick, for extending the invitation to me for this tasting 🙂

Thank you, Ron, for hosting us 🙂

Northeastern Thai Cuisine found at Blk 115, Aljunied Ave 2. Click on photo to be redirected to their Facebook page.

Northeastern Thai Cuisine found at Blk 115, Aljunied Ave 2.
Click on photo to be redirected to their Facebook page.

Spicy Thai – Thai Cafe
Address: Blk 115, #01-35,
Aljunied Avenue 2.
Singapore 380115.

Tel: (+65) 67478558.

Operating hour: Daily
11am – 12 mn

Click here to see Sg Food On Foot’s review of other dishes from a previous visit.

If you are interested to travel to any or all of the 19 provinces that make up the northeastern part of Thailand, check out Lonely Planet’s recommendation by clicking here.

General information of food in this post is gathered from with thanks: Online resources and Wikipedia.

Information credit for Thai Basil: http://vietherbs.com/herb-directory/thai-basil/

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