I once asked David Thompson, the chef/patron of Nahm in Bangkok (the best restaurant in Asia, according to the judges of the World’s 50 Best), why Britain’s Thai restaurants are so timid in their spicing. Great Thai food finds harmony in hot, salty, sour, sweet and pungent. Take the hot and pungent away, and its flavours are hopelessly out of tune.
Thompson reckons it’s because Thai chefs in the UK are too polite; they cook what they think farangs want to eat. Hence the typical high-street Thai joint: pleasantly kitsch decor, charming service and utterly bland food.
Spice fiends, do not despair. London now has two shining exceptions to the rule. The first is Janetira in Soho, a café-style dining room with wooden tables, friendly service and excellent food. This is not an emasculated menu: one dish of deep-fried boiled eggs with tamarind is named “son-in-law balls”, to prove the point.
The mackerel curry, however, is only for the truly battle-hardened spice veteran. It is described on the menu as “challenging”; by its name are four chillies, and it deserves every one of them. My companion took one tentative mouthful and was unable to speak for several minutes. Even the classic antidote of warm rice hurt her tongue – as she eventually told me, tears streaming down her cheeks.
There is, though, plenty on the menu for more timid palates. Pork, marinated in coconut and lemongrass, threaded on skewers, grilled and partnered happily with a smoked chilli and tamarind relish; aromatic, slow-braised Massaman lamb curry; steamed sea bass with Thai herbs and a hot and sour lime dressing: vivid flavours and fresh ingredients.
The other place to find great Thai food is in Peckham. The smart bit, mind – you won’t find Del Boy at The Begging Bowl (pictured) queueing for a takeaway. I had a table outside on a sunny day and can’t imagine a better spot for lunch. Chef Jane Alty once worked for David Thompson, and the food is terrific, especially if you ask the kitchen not to stint on the spice.
I wanted to order everything, especially as the menu’s descriptions are so alluring. How about “a skein of rice noodles with green curry, poached Suffolk chicken, apple aubergines, pea aubergines and Thai basil, served with raw vegetables and herbs”? Beautiful, demonstrating how good Thai food can be when top-quality ingredients are cooked with knowledge and care.
Shin of free-range pork, slow-cooked with dark soy, cassia and star anise, was equally accomplished – sticky, fragrant and warmly spiced – as was a simple but deliciously vibrant salad of pomelo, cashews, chilli and lime. Rice is £1 for as much as you want. I have, I must admit, eaten in Bangkok more often than in Peckham; that is about to change.