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A New Leaf

By Layla Schlack

new-leaf

ITALIAN FOOD MAY HAVE PUT BASIL on the map in the Western world (the Romans believed the plant could be used to ward off basilisk fire-breathing dragons), but the purple-stalked Thai version is the oldest type of basil plant and serves as much more than a garnish. Siam Queen—or, in Thailand, bai horapa—is known for its distinct anise taste. It has smaller leaves than Italian basil, and those leaves, along with the reddish-purple stalks and flowers, are often cooked together and served like a vegetable.

But Siam Queen is just common Thai basil. If you really want to up your foodie credentials, try bai kra-phao (Thai holy basil)—a small, spicy leaf often used as a main flavoring in stir fry, as well as in Ayurvedic health remedies—or bai maeng-lak (lemon basil), a key curry ingredient, with seeds that can be soaked in water and used in desserts and drinks, similar to tapioca pearls. Try all three, and you’ll wonder why they didn’t all get the “holy” moniker.

Thai Score

The best new restaurant in Bangkok is helmed by a brash australian import. // by Kirsten Matthew

WHEN AUSTRALIAN CHEF David Thompson opened Nahm in Bangkok last September, The New York Times reported that he was “on a mission to revive Thai cuisine.” Needless to say, this sparked an uproar. Local chefs did not appreciate the suggestion that they needed help with their own food—from a foreigner, no less. “I was misquoted,” the infamously candid Thompson says, standing in Nahm’s kitchen. “I can understand such umbrage, but thankfully it’s settling down now.”

That’s because Thompson, who is now a fixture in Thailand, knows his green curry from his pad Thai. He’s been cooking Thai food ever since he discovered it on his first trip to the country 30 years ago. His first restaurants in his hometown of Sydney were Darley St. Thai and Sailors Thai; in 2001 he opened the first Nahm in London. It earned the only Michelin star for a Thai restaurant in Europe, and Thompson, who is charming and self-deprecating as well as being brutally honest, was anointed an authority on Thai food.

He had planned to open a second London eatery, a seafood spot, but held off because of the flagging economy. Then an opportunity to open a restaurant in Bangkok came up. “My life is littered with accidents. I don’t plan very well,” he explains. “Here in Bangkok, the economy is booming, despite the political strife of the last several months.”

The new Nahm isn’t a facsimile of its English namesake, though Thompson runs it with a similar hands-on philosophy. “The menu items are not the same,” he says. “I let each restaurant evolve on its own.” The food is high-end, but the prices are low: A four-course meal costs just 1,500 baht ($50). The menu changes based on what’s fresh and might include minced pork simmered with fresh prawns in coconut milk and served with cabbage, rose apples and cured fish. Or frog. “We’re getting some nice frog at the moment. I stir- fry it with a ridiculous, insulting amount of chili. It’s really spicy, really delicious, really simple,” he says.

Misquotes aside, is Thompson indeed reviving the Thai food scene? At the very least, he’s injecting an infectious level of devotion and enthusiasm into it. He doesn’t eat Thai food outside of Thailand, and he never tires of the traditionally salty, sour, sweet and spicy dishes of his adopted country. “I could go on and on about the recipes, the fish sauce, the basil, the extra ingredients,” he says. “But the bottom line is it just tastes bloody good.”

New York–based writer KIRSTEN MATTHEW often eats Thai food outside of Thailand— specifically, in Astoria, Queens.

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