Hong Thaimee battled Bobby Flay awesomely on Food Network’s Iron Chef America. When she wrapped the competition, it was back to business at her East Village NYC restaurant, Ngam. There, she says, you will be treated to real Thai food – not the fast food frequently served to Americans – and enjoy treats from Thom Kha soup to a cooking class hosted by Ms. Thaimee herself!
How different is the food in each part of Thailand?
There is a significant difference between the foods from each part of Thailand. As a native Northerner, I find that Northern Thai food is very similar to the cuisine in Burma and Southern China. It’s very herbal, has a lot of spice, and we eat quite a lot of pork. This differs from cooking in the South where dishes are very seafood-centric, and base their flavors around these more delicate proteins. Central Thailand is the least spicy, the food is pretty mild, while the North Eastern dishes are very pungent and bold. Each region also has a very different specialty dish. For instance, at Ngam, I feature a signature dish from my hometown called “Hung Lay” Braised Pork Belly and Pork Shoulder, with “Hung Lay” powder, pickled ginger, and peanut. It showcases the pork and spice that we love from that region.
When you eat Thai food in America, what do you notice gets “dumbed down” for local tastes that makes you sad?
This is an interesting question, as I feel there is a misconception that Thai food is something cheap and fast to consume, and because of this, Thai restaurants at times are forced to cut costs by cooking with cheaper, and less quality ingredients to meet this expectation. At Ngam, we take the time to make everything from scratch, making our own curry pastes, and buying meats and vegetables from local farms. We invest in the quality of ingredients and you can therefore tell the flavors are richer and more authentic. Guests can taste this difference and see the value of what we are serving.
What is the mark of a good pad thai…and a terrible one?
A good Pad Thai should be well balanced and have equal parts sweet, sour, and salty, with a bit of spice on the back end. Proportion of noodles and ingredients is also important, as well as making sure the noodles are cooked to have a slight al dente quality. A bad Pad Thai to me are the ones that are overly sweet and salty, where there’s been too much sauce added and the noodles turn into a sticky ball of starch.
When you attended the 2014 World Cup and ate Brazilian food, what exactly was similar to Thai cooking you briefly mentioned in an article?
I was surprised to find very similar ingredients and flavor profiles in Brazilian foods that resembled those you see in Thailand. For instance, the Malagueta – a pickled chili – is an exact replica of the type of chili we use in Thailand. When I visited the fresh market, I also found we have a lot alike in ingredients – such as custard apple, banana (they have all kinds just like Thailand), and the usage of coconut.
Thai food has fantastic soups. Which are your top three favs? Can you switch out the ingredients for fish, chicken or vegetarian alike?
Tom Klong Soup – This is one of my all-time favorites and is a dish that I made when I competed on Iron Chef. The soup is made from tamarind chicken broth, lemongrass, kaffir lime leaf, galangal, Thai basil, and toasted chili. I like to give it something extra special and throw in crispy pork belly or bacon shrimp, which gives it an extra depth.
Yum Jin Gai – This is a rustic chicken soup from my hometown, which is very homey and aromatic. It’s the Thai version of a chicken noodle soup, great for the soul, with aromatic and comforting flavors, made with homemade chicken broth, mint, chili paste, and tomato chicken. Also beautiful as a vegetarian dish with mushrooms instead.
Tom Yum Kung Maprow – A Spicy & Sour Soup with Shrimp and Young Coconut. This is a sophisticated and aromatic soup, flavored with lemon grass, galangal, kaffir lime leaf, with young coconut, king oyster mushroom, and cherry tomatoes.
All these soups are beautifully aromatic and comforting, and work well with different proteins or also with a vegetable base.
What Thai dessert could you eat daily and never grow tired of?
Mango Sticky Rice! I never tire of it. Also a perfectly made Thai Iced Tea, which gives you the sweetness you crave and is refreshing at the same time.