Eat Thai, Love Thai

Soi: For authentic Thai flavors

TURO-TURO By Claude Tayag (The Philippine Star)

Two weeks ago, I was a guest panel speaker at the Lyceum of the Philippines University (LPU) Manila. To celebrate its 60th founding this year, it organized the first LPU Hospitality and Tourism Management Conference held at its in-house Department of Tourism four-star accredited hotel, The Bayleaf Intramuros, which serves as its own research and teaching hotel.

The university’s executive director for planning and development Ma. Christina G. Aquino chaired this year’s international conference, with the theme “Innovations and Diversity in Hospitality and Tourism.” Invited were delegates from various higher educational institutions in the country and from other Asian countries, Australia and the Pacific region.

Perfect start: Fried Thai spring rolls filled with sotanghon or glass noodles at Soi

Together with me in the panel “A Country’s Cuisine to the World, Making Philippine Cuisine Reach New Destinations,” were Philippe Bartholomi, Century Park Hotel GM, and Richard Masselin, Pan Pacific Manila GM. While I spoke from a Filipino chef’s perspective, the other two spoke from a foreigner’s point of view, whose familiarity with Filipino cuisine is born from being longtime Manila residents.

Bartholomi loves our sinigang and brags that he cooks a mean beef kaldereta (I was half expecting an invite to try it, ahem, ahem), while Masselin loves Batangas’ bulalo (boiled beef shank soup), which reminds him of his pot-au-feu, or the French boiled dinner of beef and vegetables. Anyway, ours turned out to be a lively discussion on the pitfalls and recommendations of how best to promote our cuisine abroad.

Seated next to me during lunch was Veera Pardpattanapanich, rector of Dusit Thani College in Bangkok (the same company as the Dusit Thani hotel chain). As we exchanged business cards, I noticed her school’s address was “1 Soi Kaenthong, Nongbon, Pravet, Bangkok.” Though I have been many times to Bangkok, my familiarity ends with the usual touristy shopping destinations like Pratunam, malls galore like MBK, Emporium, Siam Discovery, the prime shopping areas on Siam, Silom and Sukhumvit Roads, the mother of all weekend markets Chatuchak, and lastly but at the top of my list, the food haven Otokor Market.

I know soi means “street” in Thai, but nevertheless, I asked her what it means in English, having just eaten in a Thai restaurant in Greenhills called Soi the previous week.

“It actually means ‘lane,’” she answered. “It’s a side street perpendicular to a main road. It could also mean to mince or to chop into small pieces.”

“Oh, it’s no wonder that it’s in the soi where one would find most of the street food stalls Bangkok is famous for,” I said.

“That’s correct,” she replied.

“Which reminds me,” I said, “just a week ago I had a wonderful lunch at a Thai restaurant in Greenhills called Soi. It has all the authentic flavors that one would find in the food stalls around Bangkok. Well, it has Thai chefs, to begin with.”

With that, she gave a knowing smile that could only come with pride, being a veteran of Thailand’s enviable success story in making its cuisine known internationally.  Sitting next to her, I felt our country was like a toddler learning to walk the first step. She said it took them several decades of relentless campaigning to promote their food products and cuisine abroad, opening government-subsidized Thai restaurants and food stores in key cities worldwide.  These “culinary ambassadors” gave foreigners a sampling of what they’d expect in this “exotic” destination. And sure enough, once they were lured, they came in droves. But before sending out the ambassadors, she explained, there was a massive government campaign to brand the dishes, standardizing the recipes and styling its presentation, made by foreign chefs hired by the government, at that.

Going back to the Thai lunch at Soi Restaurant I had the previous week, it was the proverbial proof in the pudding. I found myself accompanying my darleng wife Mary Ann to the Greenhills Shopping Center, in the company of some 10 rambunctious high school batch mates of hers, plus my sister Doren Tayag and Mary Ann’s cousin Avita de la Cruz, who was visiting from the US. By noon, my feet were tired and I was famished. The panic-button alarm had gone off in my system, and as Mary Ann pronounced to the whole world in our CNN interview last month, don’t ever bring me to a restaurant very hungry — I will tend to over-order. “He can resist women but not this (pointing to the food),” exposing me to the whole world. Well, try giving me some spring chicken (wink, wink!).

By the time we got to Soi, most tables were taken. It was a good thing a table, a long one set for 14, had been reserved earlier for us. Soi’s owner Maritel Nievera Shani (of the Cabalen chain), another batch-mate of theirs, was to join us late. In the maze of the Greenhills Shopping Center, Soi is not easy to find. It is tucked inside the food court of the Greenhills Theatre Mall (best to enter through the theater section). You can just imagine the straits I was in as we sat ourselves in the cramped corner. Though the 12 were perhaps just as hungry as I was, they were chattering all at the same time about their latest finds. Amid the jumble of voices (in Pampango, at that) filling the joint, I was tasked to do the ordering, with the caveat that one didn’t eat anything spicy, one didn’t eat pork, one only fish, another without bagoong or shrimp paste, and one was allergic to crustaceans. With all these restrictions, aggravated by my belly’s panic button reaching critical level (I turn nastily masungit, into Mr. Hyde), I had to peruse the menu quickly. Saving the day for me was a seven-course Party Meal good for 10 persons (price ranging from P3,750 to P5,650), which I ordered pronto, to initially appease everybody.

As the dishes came one after the other, more a la carte orders were made. My favorites, which I’d go back for, were the phad Thai, that quintessential noodle dish presented with the scrambled egg formed as a net over the rice noodles; two vegan dishes, the Thai kangkong sautéed with black bean sauce and braised eggplant and tofu; crispy catfish with green mango salad; Sukhothai soup, a very rich flavorful clear yet hefty broth with fried tofu, fish and squid balls and bean sprouts, redolent of kaffir lime, lemongrass and cilantro leaves; and two kinds of roasted duck dishes, my all-time favorite fowl meat: minced roasted duck salad and roasted duck in curry sauce, both having authentic Thai flavors reinvented from the Chinese roasted duck.

Three desserts came in quick succession (where do women put it after a hefty meal like this?): a very refreshing do-it-yourself Thai halo-halo, ripe mango (Thai variety nam dok ma) with sticky rice, and sweet saba bananas with coconut milk. As they were being passed around, I got an eerie feeling that initially jarred my by-now-inured senses. Suddenly, all the chatter had ceased; there was peace and quiet in our corner. I was reminded of a line from Desiderata: “Go placidly amidst the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.”

The silence could only come from contentment. Everybody — from the vegan, pescatarian, carnivorous and the “totalitarian” (that’s me) — had our fill at Soi. As I write this column, all the Thai flavors are still lingering in my palate and I’m desperately craving the roast duck dishes. I wouldn’t mind going back there, all the noise and haste notwithstanding.

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Soi is at the lower level food court, Greenhills Theatre Mall, tel. 695-3919; ground level, Robinsons Place Manila, tel. 536-1189; and ground level, North Arcade, SM Mall of Asia, tel. 836-4177.

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