Visiting New York chef Hong Thaimee of Ngam in New York City is in Houston this week to promote her new cookbook, True Thai: Real Flavors for Every Table. In addition to an appearance on KHOU's Great Day Houston with Deborah Duncan yesterday, she has already hosted two sold-out pop-up dinners at Paper Co. Cafe using recipes from her cookbook.
Her nine-course, family-style popup featured dishes from the Chiang Mai section of her cookbook, significant because Thaimee was born and raised in Chiang Mai. When you cook something you know that's as close and dear as the food you grew up with, there’s an easiness about it. Thaimee was watchful throughout the nine-course meal, but very relaxed. Here’s how Monday evening’s dinner played out:
First up, a beautiful dish called miang kham. It's a betel leaf appetizer served in deconstructed format, and in her cookbook, Thaimee describes this as one of her grandmother's favorite snacks. Bright green leaves were fanned out on a rectangular serving dish next to small ramekins of umami-packed brown jam and a mishmash of ingredients — chopped peanuts, toasted coconut flakes, chopped shallot, chopped ginger, dried shrimp and Thai chile.
Because you assemble each bite like a lettuce wrap, no single bite tastes the same. One might be a bit spicier if you add more chile, one a bit more sweet and pungent if you add more jam. My first bite had more peanut, while my second had more ginger. All the flavors came together wonderfully, yet the dish was texturally complex. It was unusual and delicious, a great start to the meal.
Served in large round bowls, the second course of yum som oh, or pomelo salad, is deceivingly simple but utterly brilliant. The dish can be substituted with Texas Ruby Red grapefruit, but pomelo is ideal. It's larger than a grapefruit, with thicker skin and milder acidity, and its pulp breaks up easily into little pink droplets. A dressing that incorporates fish sauce, palm sugar and tamarind gives the dish depth, while toppings of fried shallot, chopped peanut, strips of kaffir lime, toasted coconut flake and lemongrass take the dish to another level.
Next up was a dish of sai ooa, or Chiang Mai sausage. House made, this pork sausage, made with garlic herbs and Thai chile, is a staple of northern Thai cuisine. Thaimee served it with cilantro. This would wash down well with a cold beer. In the cookbook, Thaimee says sai ooa would make a great hors d'oeuvre at a whisky party.
The most striking dish of the evening, the one that had me lapping up every last bit of sauce from the bottom of the urn it was served in, turned out to be a braised pork belly in a rich, redwood-brown curry sauce, called gaeng hung lay. The pork belly had been braised in a pressure cooker until the meat was so tender it practically melted on the tongue. Thaimee calls this recipe her "pot-of-love." She makes the curry paste with hung lay powder that she sources from Waroros Market in Chiang Mai. It was to die for.
Served as an accompaniment to the hung lay curry was this portion of banana leaf-wrapped khao nook nga, a slightly sweet, fragrant sticky rice dotted with black sesame. Enjoyable on its own, when doused with a generous splash of the braised pork curry sauce, it was delectable.
Pork laab, a type of Thai meat salad made with ground beef, was served with cucumber, tomato, mint and lettuce.
"This is my favorite," Thaimee could be heard saying as she sent this dish of ook gai, or braised chicken, out with the table runners. In the cookbook, she says it's her go-to dish when she wants something rustic and comforting, and recommends serving it with jasmine or sticky rice.
Peruvians in the Amazon have a whole fish dish wrapped in banana leaf called patarashca. In her book. Thaimee recalls her visits to the Lampoon province of northern Thailand for this grilled fish fillet, rubbed in spices and wrapped in banana leaf, known as ab pla. She says that the dish is typically made using fillets of small freshwater fish.
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It could be said that she saved the best for last. The final course of the night, served in individual bowls, was an egg noodle dish in a light coconut curry sauce, topped with thinner, crispy noodles. Known as khao soy gai, the broth was the perfect consistency — not too thick but not watered down in the least — full of flavor, and oh so wonderful.
"This cookbook is all about dreams. It's a love. It's a passion. It's a story of a girl that was born and raised in Chiang Mai — that's the food that we had tonight — and then transferred to Bangkok, then headed down south, then fighting to become a professional chef in a world-class city," Thaimee said in her closing remarks.
"Pursue your dreams. Be who you are, be true to yourself, and read and cook with True Thai. Dessert tonight is a smile from a Thai lady named Hong Thaimee."
True Thai, Real Flavors for Every Table, by Hong Thaimee, with a foreward by Cédric and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, is published by Rizzoli New York, retails for $35 U.S. and is available for purchase in bookstores such as Barnes and Noble, and specialty stores such Williams-Sonoma nationwide.