Not only is Ruen from Thailand, but she did her grad school thesis on her country and the history of Thai cooking. At the onset, we were presented with a printout of the set menu for the night and then while taking our seats, Ruen pulled out a map showing Thailand’s proximity to Burma, China, Indonesia and Malaysia which have had influence on it’s style of cooking.
As the dinner started, Ruen told us that the dishes at a Thai meal are traditionally eaten all at the same time. There are no appetizers and even soup is eaten with the meal. But because of limited table space, it was acceptable for us to eat in a slight sequence with some smaller items coming out first. She also confirmed the generally known fact that balance is an important part of a Thai meal, supported by the 5 tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and spicy.
With some of the bigger plates, out came packs of sticky rice. Ruen taught us to roll up the sticky rice into little balls then use it to dip and grab items like larb or sliced pork. On top of that, you can dip it in the accompanying sauces. It becomes a little open-faced hand-sandwich. This is the North Eastern Thai style. Central Thailand eaters would more likely place the food directly on top of jasmine rice on their plates to absorb the flavors and sauces.
Ruen said that, typically, iced coffee or Thai iced tea drinks are used as midday snacks, like you would have from Starbucks. She said that Thai people usually just drink water so they don’t interfere with the flavors. The Thai drinks are too sweet and overpowering to eat with a meal.
One of my favorite foods was a special of the day called Miang Kham or Miang Kana. This is traditionally street food, which consists of a long list of ingredients chopped up and then wrapped, by you, in a leaf and eaten. From online recipes and my own recollection, I believe it had toasted coconut, ginger, fresh bitter leaves, peanut, red onion, lime and red and green chillies. Ploy adds some fried pork to the mixture too. And the bits of lime even had the rind on it. That’s probably good for scrubbing your stomach. Biting into it, there is a big crunch, the textures are wild in there. Hard, soft, hot, cool. The mix is incredible. Usually the ingredients are all in separate bowls and you put them together yourself (like this), but here it was all chopped together and ready to fold into the leaves. Traditionally, a betel leaf or other Thai leaf is used for this dish, but since they are uncommon here (they are imported specially from Florida(you can get them at Sugar Club)), they use Chinese broccoli.
Nearing the end, people started to notice that nothing was too spicy, so we started asking Ruen if this was what she would normally order. “Oh no,” she smiled. She pointed to the fish, she wrinkled her face and indicated she probably wouldn’t order that. Then I told her that she has to be Selfish and order what she wants, how she wants – that is the principle of the Ambassador Program! She said this was better for us this way, but we managed to verbally wrestle her enough to order something spicy in her way.
One bowl of jungle curry came out to the table. After pictures were taken, small portions were doled out into our soup bowls with a few morsels of pork, papaya salad and the broth. At first taste, the dish certainly came alive with all the spices. It was brighter than everything else and eye opening. We were happy but then the heat started to hit the Americans. While none of us went for a crazy dash to the sink, the water pitchers were all of the sudden refilling us with greater frequency. This was extremely spicy. Laughter broke out. I believe all of us would have difficulty completing that dish ourselves.
And the end, the staff brought out a dessert of coconut sweetened sticky rice and mangoes. This edition had the consistency of mochi, but with mango and sweet syrup on top giving it 3 distinct flavors. This was eye-opening, excellent stuff.
I thought how interesting it was, that while most of us guests were reasonably versed in eating at Thai restaurants, I believe none of us knew some basic things like how to use sticky rice. No amount of NY restaurant experience could replace the function of having an ambassador; and for us to have Ruen Tira as ours – we were very fortunate.
Thank you, Ruen, for lending us your expertise for the day. Even for a group of NY foodies, it was an eye-opening experience. I could not imagine a greater experience. Thank you for taking us to Ploy and showing us around your culture. I hope you will continue to allow us your expertise and friendship in the future.
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Bonus: I spoke to the owner at length today about her history with Thai restaurants in Elmhurst. Chao Thai used to fill the Boon Chu space down the block where she and her husband were the chefs. Chao Thai then moved to their current location about 8 years ago. 3 years ago, she opened up Ploy Thai, while her husband is still the chef at Chao Thai.