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River Kwai

There is a terrible man of my acquaintance called Bob the Food Snob. A few years back, I told you about the friendly food rivalry Bob and I enjoyed.  The bad news is, it continues.

Our competition still revolves around a teenage drive to be hipper-than-thou. We maintain a schoolyard race to be first at discovering anything delicious. Like a pair of enemy truffle pigs, our snouts are always down trying to unearth a treasure.   We get extra points for finding truly exotic cuisine. First there was the annoying Armenian Incident, followed by the intense southern African mêlée and the too-close-to-call Afghan dispute. Damn you, Bob, I found that pilaf first. Now, the battle lines have been drawn over Burma.

The race is on to find the best Burmese food in Melbourne, and although I have three more places yet to visit, I’m feeling fairly smug about striking a vein of the good stuff at my first outing.

I approached River Kwai Thai & Burmese restaurant expecting to find a cheap Asian suburban eatery; a busy hive packed with students from neighbouring Monash. Not so. From the plush carpeting, warm red walls and quality fittings to the friendly and gracious welcome, River Kwai makes a great, non-studenty first impression.

River Kwai Tofu

Here, Thai dishes dominate the entrees and soups. Partner and I opted to start with one of the items from the vegetarian section of the menu, River Kwai Tofu. Deep fried and served with tamarind sauce, it points to Burma’s proximity to China. The sour punch of the tamarind relocates the compass to South-east Asia.  It’s this sort of spinning, I will later tell Bob, that we can expect from Burmese cuisine.  Thanks to history and geography, the food of the nation has been heavily influenced by Chinese, Indian and Thai technique.

Nonetheless, the menu delineates clearly between Thai and Burmese curries. We order the Burmese Kyak Thar Arloo Hin, a chicken curry. With a tip of the hat to India, ground coriander and cumin make their way into the mix. The overall flavour is more akin to Malaysian curries and the comparison is buoyed by the inclusion of potato. It has a sweet, slightly sour and persistent full flavour without too much heat. We’re not in Thailand anymore.

Kyak Thar Arloo Hin

I resist a sending a smug SMS to Bob and get stuck into the next dish.

Nir Gratiem takes us back in the direction of the Thai border. But, we travel by way of China. This stir fry is extraordinary.  The beef has the silkiness often found in good Chinese cooking; probably the result of some chemical treatment and definitely a secret no cook will divulge to me no matter how I beg. The meat is dressed with garlic and pickled peppercorns and carries a clinging gravy based on oyster sauce, fish sauce and palm sugar.

Nir Gratiem

Actually, it tastes like a South East Asian peace treaty.  So, I ordered extra and dropped it off to Bob. I think he’s annoyed that I found it first; he’s declared a cease fire in order to regroup.

River Kwai

3/1310 Centre Road, Clayton South P: 9545 5688

Open Monday-Sunday 5.30pm-10pm

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DT 1

David Thompson inspects the produce in Springvale

‘Please, please have him back by 2pm.”

Martin Boetz, executive chef at Longrain, sounds exactly like a troubled father. He looks at me like I’m a bikie about to take his wayward 16-year-old out on a date.

Not a problem, I assure him. We’ll be back by two.

“He has a tendency to wander,” says Boetz, unconvinced and with genuine fear in his eyes. I wonder exactly how much wandering havoc a chef with a Michelin star can wreak.

A couple of years back, as part of the Melbourne Food and Wine Festival, David Thompson presented a series of dinners at Boetz’s Longrain restaurant. For devotees of Thai cuisine, it was an obligatory event.

Thompson is acclaimed as an authority on Thai culinary technique. His book on the subject, Thai Food, is regarded as a Bible by cooks eager to dish up something more genuine than a tepid green curry.

Since leaving Australia and opening Nahm at London’s Halkin Hotel in July 2001, he has become the world’s sole purveyor of Thai food to win a Michelin star.

I was slavering at the thought of Thompson’s salted chicken wafers with longans and Thai basil, Murray cod with apple eggplants and, most of all, his taste for authenticity.

First, though, I was taking David Thompson shopping.

After an elaborate exchange of emails and promises, I had a tentative “yes”. Chef would join me for an afternoon of shopping and eating in Melbourne’s little Thailand, Springvale.

Thompson darts around Springvale’s produce markets like a fastidious bee. Amid the glorious hodgepodge, he never settles on one ingredient for long and he covers every inch. He’s full of culinary counsel and I’m paying careful attention. “Lemongrass must be thin and young,” Thompson says, hovering near some thick, dried-out stalks. “Galangal must be pink and vibrant.” I’m taking it all down. I nod.

“Fish sauce isn’t simply fish sauce,” he says, before launching into a sermon on the lesser brands.

“Bad fish sauce tastes like a decomposed cat has fallen into a vat,” he says. While my palate has never detected anything cat-like, I have often felt disappointed by the quality of this salty elixir. Thompson recommends Squid brand as a dependable and widely available cat-less stand-by.

I nod. I buy some Squid.

Thompson, as his protege Boetz will affirm, is an eager teacher. Ask a question and he will respond with warm, encyclopedic force. Ask him about fusion cuisine, however, and he turns hotter than a habanero.

“I hate fusion food. Hate it with a passion,” he has been quoted as saying. For Thompson, the marriage of, for example, teriyaki with chilli shows a poverty of skill and imagination.

This chef is not a fusionista. Nor is he inclined to tag along with food trends. The popularity of molecular gastronomy among young chefs has him a little concerned. “It was interesting, and the understanding of chemistry was helpful, but I fear it’s gone too far,” he says of kitchens conjuring airs and foams.

Thompson prefers authenticity to fusion and fashion. This was evident in the presentation and flavours of his astonishing food at Longrain. I’d never devoured his creations before and had, perhaps, expected gravity-defying stacks of Thai by way of France, by way of a science lab.

Instead, each dish was an accomplished but earthy conversation of sweet, salty, hot and sour. Served in communal bowls, harmonising dishes are eaten together for the full score to emerge.

Although critics of Nahm have been aghast at this style, Thompson is resolute in maintaining the presentation. He is also a determined student of traditional Thai techniques.

Trained as a chef in Sydney, Thompson went to Thailand in 1986 and fell immediately in love. “I went for a holiday and was seduced by the place,” he says. Some years later, he emerged from his lemongrass haze, returning to Sydney to open his first restaurant, the acclaimed Darley Street Thai “in the back of a bloodbath of a hotel” in St Peters.

It was in Thailand that he encountered “an old woman who cooked the most delectable of foods. A depth of palate, seasoning, and textures that was just fantastic. Her cooking transformed my understanding of what Thai food was, from being quite pleasant, photographically delightful street food into something else”.

With partner Tanongsak Yordwai, whom he met on that first trip to Thailand, Thompson has collected and translated a substantial assortment of Thai “memorial books”. It is the custom in Thailand to publish a booklet when someone dies. It documents the deceased’s life; their habits, hobbies and often their favourite recipes. Some in Thompson’s collection are more than a century old. He calls this collection of about 600 books “a delicious treasure trove” and uses many of the recipes on his menu at Nahm.

With the spectre of 2pm looming, I whisk Thompson and Yordwai into Pa Wan for lunch. They pore over the menu, which offers arresting departures from the standard Australian neighbourhood Thai joint, and point out that many of the dishes are Cambodian or Laotian.

Thai restaurants in the West are commonly a mishmash, they tell me. Natives of neighbouring countries frequently man the stoves at your local takeaway.

It’s something of a modern miracle that Thailand remains almost singularly unconquered, its cuisine untempered by foreign influence and its citizens blase about defection to the West.

“There are no Thai refugees,” says Yordwai. Consequently, an undiluted version of Thai cuisine can be hard to find.

At Pa Wan, we select sai oung, a northern Thai pork sausage made with curry paste, coriander and lime leaves; nam kra khoa phod, pork ribs deep fried then cured in garlic and sticky rice; yum nhun plar grob, a crisp fish-skin salad; larb gai, the minced chicken salad popular on Australian Thai menus; and gang pa moo, a “jungle-style” curry of pork, baby eggplants, and bamboo.

Each dish inspired a lesson from the master of Thai cuisine. Each market stop was an education.

It was easy to lose my way in this afternoon of higher learning. I may have been a little lost in the extraordinary world of David Thompson but he didn’t go missing for a moment.

In fact, I had him back to Longrain and a grateful Martin Boetz by 10 minutes after two.

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Yim Yam, Yarraville

Yim Yam offers an interesting combination of dishes from Thailand and Laos.

We arrived on a Friday night at 7:45pm with no booking. There was no table space available, so we agreed to a 30 minute wait and went to the pub on the corner for a beer. This is definitely how to approch this place. Go to Yim Yam, put your name down, and then go have an aperitif.

Space was reserved for us at one of the two communal tables when we returned. All good.

It’s small, but definitely cheerful and warm on this winter night. 60s Thai Pop prints are french-hung on one wall, and counter seating runs along the inside length of the front window.

The menu has some items typical of Thai joints all over town: satay, green curry chicken, tom yum, etc. But the real draw for me was a goodly proportion of dishes that you don’t see everywhere, like som tum thai (here called simply papaya salad) and crispy fish salad. We ordered both.

The som tum thai was ok, it was a little too sweet and peanuty, almost like there was a spidge of satay sauce stirred through it. It is served in a little wooden mortar, which is cute. Overall it wasn’t bad, but it lacked the sour and hot notes and the fish sauce punch I want with my papaya salad.

Good mix of papaya, bean, carrot and tomato

Good mix of papaya, bean, carrot and tomato

The crispy fish salad was a chewy, crispy, salty and sour adventure. It’s a powerful dish, extremely tasty in small amounts.

Extremely flavouful but not at all spicy

Extremely flavourful but not at all spicy

We also tried the toasted rice and coconut salad. The coconut flavour was intense, and nicely balanced by mint and chili. The toasted rice was crispy in patches, and I would have liked more crunchy bits.

 

Lots of flavour, not enough crunch

Lots of flavour, not enough crunch

The beef and Thai basil stirfry was one of the better I’ve had, with straws of crunchy bamboo shoot and a salty smoky aftertaste. This is the dish I will dream about and need to return for.

A cracker dish with plenty of mouth feel

A cracker dish with plenty of mouth feel

Overall, Yim Yam is a pretty good place for Thai in Melbourne. It wasn’t knock-you-head off spicy, but extremely satisfying nonetheless.

$48 for two eating the above, plus one sticky rice and one coke.

Yim Yam is BYO.

40 Ballarat Street , Yarraville,   Tel: 03 9687 8585

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