Hot, spicy, sweet, sour.
Fresh fruits, fried fritters, fragrant soups, grilled meats.
The sizzle. The smoke. The people. The noise.
And the omni-present aroma of lemongrass, dried shrimp, marinated meats and roasted peanuts hanging thickly in the air.
A walk through the lanes and by-lanes of Thailand, lined with food stalls with a mind-boggling array of food products and ingredients, offers all these experiences of taste, smell, sound and sight, packed into one punchy, eye-popping experience. I remember my first trip there as a teenager, getting completely overwhelmed, if not a bit frightened, by the whole circus of food-noise-people, and actual jugglery acts with guavas and papayas, one of which landed on my head with a thump! But, that didn’t take away from my immense enjoyment of a different world of food. After all, almost every Asian Chef worth his/her salt will tell you that the real Thai cuisine is in the streets of Bangkok!
So when I walked into Spices at J W Marriott, I was reliving all those images and gearing up for a sensual overdrive. But what was on offer at the Thai Street Food Festival here was very different. The spacious forecourt was laid out as a buffet, but unlike any other buffet experience, it was broken up into stalls and islands and stations, a lot like the eat-streets of Bangkok, only prettier and saner! Here was a Salad Station, mixing up spicy, crunchy salads with raw mango, papaya and Kafir lime. There stood a Broth Cart stirring up aromatic Tom Yums and Tom Khas from large simmering pots. A Thai Curry Stall ladled out beautiful Red, Yellow and Green Thai Curries. One corner housed a huge Pad Thai and BBQ Grill – one end had a stocky chef serving up Smoky Grilled Meats and Seafood, while the other had a young chef stirring up flavorful portions of Pad Thai noodles with your choice of veggies and meat, topped with a handful of crushed peanuts… and plenty of flair! And to complete the Thai street experience, Whole Roasted Chickens and Pork Belly cuts hung from hooks in one corner, glistening invitingly like the typical shop displays.
The whole place was alive and pulsing with vibrant colours and aromas from the various food stalls and carts. There were baskets of bird-eye red chillies, tall bunches of lemongrass and spurts of verdant banana and pandan leaves everywhere. Huge pumpkins and melons carved into beautiful and giant flowers decorated every station. Chef Suriya, a shy guy who let’s his food do all the talking, himself does all the fruit carvings. He just picks up a large fruit and within minutes converts it into an elaborate and breathtaking centerpiece, says a half-envious Executive Chef Himanshu, who goes on to tell us how a germ of an idea developed into a street-style presentation for a food festival, and how this first successful stint would return every year, with a few of the specials featured here soon to find their way into the standard Spices menu.
Thai food is a complex combination of various robust flavours, textures and ingredients, but at the base of it all, it is the simplicity and freshness of the dishes that win your heart. As did Chef Suriya, with his shy smile… and his secret recipe for the Ruam Mith!