Thai restaurants turn up heat for festivalKoreans may like peppers, but it took a while for Thai restaurants to find a following in Seoul.
Now, Siamese food is hot -- literally and figuratively -- with numerous restaurants operating in the capital.
Five of the city's Thai restaurateurs have banded together to present a 2002 Thai Food Festival to demonstrate the breadth of their cuisine. The promotion runs through the end of this month, with each participant offering discounts or free wine.
The five restaurants are the Thai Orchid (02-792-8836), Silk Spice (02-2005-1007), Marriott Cafe (02-6282-6731), Chiang Mai (02-541-2446) and Chiang Mai Finance Center (02-3783-0770). Each eatery is also offering diners a chance to win a three-day trip to Thailand in mid-October.
Thai food was generally considered too exotic for Seoul residents' tastes when the first restaurant opened in 1996. It took time for people to embrace such tropical ingredients as coconut milk, lime and the herbal richness of cumin, lemongrass, coriander and basil.
But well-traveled local epicures and trained tastes from abroad have spread the word. People are learning that the best Thai food runs a gamut of flavors -- sweet, salty, sour, spicy and bitter -- and that the majority of the dishes are not five-alarm curries.
Seoul residents' latter-day addiction to Thai food can be explained by its Pan-Asian influence; the food reflects Chinese, Japanese, Malaysian and Indian cuisine.
Like many Chinese dishes, Thai food often is stir-fried in a wok. Like Japanese food, it makes liberal use of fresh fish and vegetables, and is extremely light. Like Malaysian food, its curries can be sweet and creamy, using such tropical ingredients as coconut and pineapple. Like Indian food, it's all about spices, in different colors and tastes. Like almost any Asian cuisine, a meal is not complete without steamed rice and soup, not to mention dipping sauces on the side.
Thai food is a visually pleasing cuisine, and the best chefs often prepare dishes with hand-carved fruits and vegetables.
Thai ingredients are not always available in Korea, so many restaurants substitute lemons for limes and Korean peppers for the tiny Thai peppers. Nevertheless, they produce a fairly authentic selection of foods, including traditional tom yam kung (spicy prawn soup with lemongrass), pad thai (fried rice noodles) and curry dishes.
For more information, e-mail the Tourism Authority of Thailand, Seoul Office at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The correct way to order, eat and enjoy Thai food
-- Thai food is prepared bite-sized and is meant to be eaten with a spoon and fork. The fork is used for pushing the food onto the spoon, and then the spoon is inserted into the mouth. Chopsticks are rarely used except for noodle dishes.
-- All the meat and vegetable dishes are served at once. A typical Thai meal includes a soup, a steamed dish, a fried dish, a hot salad and various dipping sauces. These are followed by sweet desserts or fresh tropical fruits such as mangoes, durian, jackfruit, papaya, grapes, melon and mangosteen.
-- Eating Thai food is a communal affair involving two or more people so more dishes can be ordered. Generally, two diners order three dishes and share them with plenty of rice.
-- For lighter meals, or if eating alone, a good choice is simply soup and rice, or a single dish such as pad thai or a rice stir fry.
-- The ideal Thai meal is a harmonious balance of spicy, sweet, sour, salty and bitter. Many Seoul restaurants use a "chili indicator" which gives diners some indication as to the "temperature" of the food: hot, hotter, hottest. Several Thai foods are chili-free; mild and savory dishes should be ordered with hot dishes to provide a variety of tastes.
-- If possible, look for Thai food made with kaffir lime -- a pear-shaped, wrinkly fruit -- or ordinary lime and the popular capsicum or a variety of Thai peppers. The best Thai rice is called jasmine rice, and it has a rich, perfumed aroma when freshly cooked.
-- Sweetened lime juice is a scarcity in Korea, but try Thai ice tea -- an herbal tea usually served with sweetened condensed milk. The tea should have a mild fragrance and taste both sweet and bitter. Wine lovers can try white or rose wine to complement Thai dishes.
by Inēs Cho