Simple style belies flavour
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