Relax… and Take a Bite

A green curry of sliced beef

As a child growing up in the northeastern province of Ubon Ratchathani, Khun Yenjit Ninpai remembered being a staple help in her mother’s home kitchen. One of the two daughters, Yenjit was the cooking one and naturally she inherited her mother’s various home recipes that she now uses to run her Thai restaurant adjoining her spa called Palm Herbal Retreat tucked away in Thong Lor 16.

“Palm Herbal Retreat has been our primary business, but then we faced the economic crisis back in 2008 with the airport closed down and our customers, mostly foreigners, couldn’t come in,” says Khun Yenjit. “We were in dire need to come up with a new business to lessen our dependence on international clients. Since I have always loved to cook, I thought cooking my mother’s home recipes would be a good way out of the situation, hence “Palm Cuisine” restaurant serving my mother’s delicacies I have been enjoying since my childhood.”

Young tamarind chili paste served with assorted fresh and steamed vegetables and deep-fried salid fish

Recalling her very first dish cooked and served for her clients was her home’s special ‘laab’ – Esan-style spicy pork salad, Khun Yenjit gradually expanded the restaurant’s menu to cover other Thai favorites such as green beef curry, gaeng lieng (vegetable soup), various kinds of chili paste (the wonderful tamarind chili paste above being my favorite so far), and many more including some regional dishes of her hometown and beyond. The restaurant is having a regional fare special menu (of popular Thai northern, esan, central and southern regions) this coming March where you can try her specialties such as somtam Esan style with fermented pla ra fish, gaeng kee lek (clear soup of local cassod tree, pork rind and fermented fish), as well as jiew bong (chili paste made from stir-fried fermented fish and herbs, served with fired fish and pork and assorted fresh vegetables, preferably with sticky, local style).

Stir-fried crab meat with egg and spring onion

When three of us were there for a lunch recently, we ordered a platter of hors d’oeuvre northern style that includes the classics of noom chili paste (made from char-grilled green chilies), preserved pork sausage, pork crackling, sun-dried pork neck and sai ua which is a northern-style herbal pork sausage. The chili paste is homemade, hence fragrant with the distinct aroma of the green chili. Known for its fierce spiciness, the chili paste is best enjoyed slowly and alternately with the provided meats. The sai-ua is grilled, hence not as greasy as those sold elsewhere.

I personally like their green beef curry. I love the fragrant homemade curry paste which is the crucial base of the dish. It is spicy, a tad salty, and just right to my liking. However, my hard-core-Thai-food-fanatic friends reckoned that instead of the sliced sirloin used in the dish, they would prefer the old-school style beef shank (or meat parts with fat on) cooked fresh (not frozen) in sliced chunks that will add to the necessary beef aroma to the curry. The green curry here is served with a plate of kanom cheen or rice vermicelli, but you can opt for a bowl of rice, too, if you are, like us, ordering so many things that need the rice accompaniment.

Northern-style hors d’oeuvre with pork cracklings, sausages, preserved and ‘noom’ chili paste

Having a Thai meal means sharing the dishes with whoever share our table and that’s a good thing when it comes to a place with a menu filled with too many tempting dishes like this place. We also ordered a plate of stir-fried crab meats with egg and spring onions. The crab meats were plumb and sweet and that all it takes for the dish to excel – for other ingredients are so basic – and leave us crave for more even when we took the last bite.

I always love any soup with lots of vegetables, and their gaeng lieng which is a peppery aromatic broth filled with assorted vegetables and shrimps just answers my craving. The broth is thickened by the aromatic hand-pound chili and herbal paste used to make the broth. Served in a copper bowl set on a candle, this dish is best left to boiled down when the vegetables release all its natural juice and the broth thickened with all the flavoursome ingredients.

Gaeng lieng of mixed vegetables and shrimps was a good vitamin-packed soup

We also tried Ubon-ratchathani-style mee krati which is made of flat rice noodle instead of vermicelli like its central-style counterpart. Served with a bowl of thick curry and assorted locally foraged vegetables, this platter can serve at least two starving people. The way to enjoy it is to mix a portion of the noodle with a handful of vegetables, ladled over with the curry sauce and topped with lime and toasted chili flakes! This is another of my favorite dish here and I would go back any hungry day just to savour it all.

Below is the house’s special called ‘Jiew Bong.’ Not on the regular menu, but we were there when they were prepping for the incoming regional fare fest this March, hence our sneak peek of a few star dishes. If you enjoy the flavour and fragrance of pla ra, you would enjoy this dish. Made mainly from the Esan’s staple, this chili paste can keep for months in a fridge waiting for its fresh accompaniments and some fried meats (like the platter below). Or even when you have nothing but rice, preferably sticky rice, this jiew bong can make for a full, hearty meal for those knowing how to make the best of everything.

Jiew Bong – Esan’s style chili paste served with vegetables and deep-fried salted fish and pork

And remember to leave some room for desserts. If you like bael fruit, which is an acquired taste for most, try their bael fruit cake served with hot bael tea. Bael fruit is one of Thailand’s oldest desserts and in Bangkok we even have a street named after it. Candied bael fruit, the main ingredient of the cake, is thoroughly mixed into the cake mixture, hence giving a full flavour that goes with nothing better than a cup of the matching tea. Or, if you, like me, always have a thing for ice cream, just order a bowl of coconut milk ice cream, made and served old style with candied palm seeds (look chid) and homemade sweet sticky rice. They also serve mango and sticky rice for those hard-core Thai food fanatics that consider skipping on this national dessert would be a total failure when it comes to a Thai food institution.

Palm Cuisine, adjoining Palm Herbal Retreat, offers scrumptious Thai fare

Palm Cuisine in Thong Lor 16 is open daily from 10.00-22.00, T: 02-391-3254. Parking is available. More pictures of Palm Cuisine foods are here

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