Sim­ple style be­lies flavour

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Indulgence - Sally Dil­lon

PLOY Som Porn is giv­ing us an im­promptu les­son in mak­ing som tham, green pa­paya salad, whip­ping up the lo­cal spe­cialty from a cart out­side her Som Porn Noo­dle restau­rant in Chi­ang Mai’s old city quar­ter in north­ern Thai­land.

It is my favourite Thai dish and I’ve asked her how to make it. With a big smile, Ploy be­gins a run­ning com­men­tary as she throws a hand­ful of shred­ded green pa­paya into a wooden mor­tar: ‘‘ Chilli, gar­lic, some of this’’ — she holds up a tub of shrimp paste — ‘‘ shrimp, peanuts.’’

I scrib­ble rough guesses of the quan­ti­ties as a slosh of this and a spurt of that is thrown into the mor­tar. Un­like the ven­dors at the night mar­kets who make one dish for lo­cals and a wa­tered-down ver­sion for tourists, Ploy makes no al­lowances for West­ern taste­buds. The chilli goes in by the dol­lop and a whole crab is pounded into the mix, shell and all.

It is the best som tham I’ve eaten. ‘‘ You come back to my restau­rant. I teach you how to cook,’’ she prom­ises when we wave good­bye. And so when our stom­achs make the din­ner call, we wan­der back to Som Porn Noo­dle. Ploy recog­nises us as we place our or­der and beck­ons us to the back of the restau­rant. In a small besser-block kitchen, we meet Ne­ung, Ploy’s older brother, an en­gi­neer who’s grown tired of work­ing over­seas and has come home to open a fam­ily restau­rant. He lights the tiny gas burner and rum­mages for a piece of fish in a vo­lu­mi­nous Esky. His dish­washer darts around him and squats on the other side of the kitchen to wash plates in a plas­tic basin on the wet con­crete floor.

Into the siz­zling wok goes a ta­ble­spoon of red curry paste, a ladle­ful of chicken stock, and a hand­ful each of green pep­per­corns and sliced red chillis. Then ‘‘ a lit­tle of — what you call this — aji no moto?’’ Ah, that would be MSG.

Flavour en­hancer aside, the menu de­scrip­tion ‘‘ rice and fried fish with chilli sauce’’ does not do jus­tice to the pun­gent, fiery dish we carry to our laminex ta­ble. Eaten off pink and blue melamine plates, with a roll of toi­let pa­per for ta­ble nap­kins, it is sen­sa­tional.

We take a punt on an­other vaguely de­scribed dish: ‘‘ rice and pork Chi­nese broc­cori (sic) with oys­ter sauce’’, and go out the back for an­other les­son.

Ne­ung de­cides one pork dish isn’t enough and gives us a cook­ing demon­stra­tion of ‘‘ rice pork with ginger’’ as well.

‘‘ Watch, watch,’’ Ne­ung shouts as he puts on a show of mak­ing the flames leap high above the wok. I am­not sure how that trick would go in my home kitchen but it makes for a great night’s en­ter­tain­ment here.

Both dishes are mouth­wa­ter­ing and, our taste­buds tin­gling with white pep­per and ginger, we sit around on plas­tic stools to chat and meet the rest of the fam­ily as they pop in. Ploy plies us with fresh juices, and at the end of the night re­fuses to charge us more than the price of two meals, 45 baht, less than $2. ‘‘ You are my friends,’’ she says, and we feel we are. Som Porn Noo­dle is at 175/1 Thanon Ratchadam­noen, Chi­ang Mai; it’s within the old city, di­rectly down the road from Wat Phra Singh.

Wok magic: Ne­ung Som Porn

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