Saturday, February 26, 2011

Lucky Charms & Sensational Bites: Port Elizabeth’s Narai Siam Thai Kitchen

Located in an unassuming converted house on a quiet, out of the way street in Newton Park, Narai Siam Thai Kitchen’s exterior seems ho-hum, a striking contrast to the inside, which makes you feel like you’ve been carried away by a crowd of Thai nationals in an Asian version of Carnival. Every table, wall and even the ceiling is adorned with authentic Thai tapestries in hot pink, yellow, green and blue. Shimmering mirrors reflect light like little disco balls, making the space feel larger than life. The feeling is festive, casual, and definitely fun – perfect for groups in a celebratory mood.

This is the vision of Colin Beelders and his partner, a Thai national. Over the years they have painstakingly sourced each element of the décor in Thailand and travelled with them back to South Africa. Apparently the décor does much to inspire the guests and some, the owners say, are simply overwhelmed by the temptation to tinker with the glittering ornaments, even slipping them into their handbags alongside extra dinner mints. Colin explains, “Unfortunately things are sometimes stolen or broken,” he shrugs, “sometimes we get them back.”

Colin continues, “The restaurant’s name is inspired by a Thai king whose temple in Lopburi is most famous for its annual Festival of Monkeys.” The temple has become a tourist attraction since 2,000 monkeys decided to take up residence. These crafty monkeys have a habit of sneaking up on unsuspecting tourists and pick-pocketing small items like car keys or snacks before scampering off. I can’t help but make the correlation between the monkey-thieves at the temple in Thailand and patrons in Port Elizabeth who would pause between bites to strip the walls of their ornaments.

Determined to leave things in their place, my friend and I are looking forward to our lunch out on an otherwise average day. We make small talk with our host who brings us order-by-number menus. There is something to be said for these – somehow I always fool myself into believing I don’t need the extra help but invariably realize after several mangled attempts at Thai that ordering by number isn’t so bad after all.

We start with easy-to-pronounce Tom Yum Soup, a house specialty, and order a bottle of Noble Hill Sauvignon Blanc – a perfect companion to Thai food because of its lemony, crisp finish. The soup is warming and has just enough spice to balance the sweetness. For the entrée we decide to share two of the restaurant’s signature dishes, my favourite, #13 (that’s Kang Keow Wan Gai – sweet green curry)with chicken, and #42 (Pad Nam Phrik Phao – stir fried and roasted chilli paste) with beef. In both dishes, the vegetables are perfectly cooked – seared but still crisp fresh. The rich coconut of the green curry is complemented by mild spice and lifted by the zing of lemongrass – the combination is a gentle dance in my mouth. The chili dish by contrast is feisty and full of kick, richness and depth of flavour. As the restaurant starts to fill with aromas from the kitchen and the energy of other patrons the space is transformed into a mid-day’s party. Just a few bites in and we are loving the food and the vibe.

When the coast is clear we sneak away to have a peek at the infamous men’s loo – where the interior is guaranteed to bring a laugh, if not a blush as red as sweet chili sauce due to the many phallic statues adorning the space. Obscene and hilarious to us westerners, it turns out we are missing the point entirely. These figures are lucky charms, known as Palad Khik, and have been highly regarded in Thai society since the 8th century AD for their powers to bring good luck, prosperity, protection against evil forces and last but not least – to increase one’s sex appeal. Quite the norm in Thailand, they are even worn as necklaces.

I don’t know about you, but I somehow doubt I could ever fall head over heels for a man wearing a giant phallic charm around his neck, but I suppose one never really knows until one is faced with the situation.

We return to the table giggling. We catch our breath and turn to high-five the table of ladies next to us – their turn is up. Still feeling flushed, we decide to cool down over Thai iced teas – brewed to perfection, they are sweet, authentically Thai and beautiful to look at – just like the restaurant, which seems to have made it to the end of lunch largely intact. Although I haven’t seen anyone slipping trinkets into their takeaway boxes it still feels like we’ve got up to a bit of mischief – sort of like those monkeys living in the famous temple in Lopburi. Something tells me King Narai would be proud.

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  1. Thai sounds good for dinner today ;-)

  2. Congratulations on the fine writing. Seems like some of these beliefs and practices are far out!