Written by Asaree Thaitrakulpanich
The Innovation Issue, 2024
When I close my eyes, I can still remember the little rice paddy crab shell, upturned and cooked in its tomalley juices, and served with egg yolk and pla raa. It’s been three years, but I can still recall vividly untwisting a roll of banana leaves for some coconut milk-steamed sticky rice to dip into the little crab bowl. Rice paddy crab is one of Chef Sujira “Aom” Pongmorn’s signature dishes that has followed her from Saawaan, where she won her one Michelin star, to her new restaurant, Khaan.
“I know the value of Thai food, and I want to serve it to everyone,” says the cheerful 37-year-old chef. “I want to tell the stories behind these dishes, but above all, I just want people to leave here happy.”
In her repertoire, she’s known for adapting common street food as well as lesser-known Thai dishes and ingredients to the fine dining plate. She was inspired to make the aforementioned dish after observing farmers in rural Thailand cooking crab tomalley and eating it with sticky rice on their work breaks in the field.
Born and raised in Bangkok, Aom began cooking at the age of six, starting with Thai-style omelettes. After high school, she enrolled in the Mandarin Oriental’s apprenticeship programme and then began working at awards-studded restaurants such as Lord Jim’s, Sra Bua by Kiin Kiin, and Issaya Siamese Club. She even tried her hand at crafting tea varieties at TWG. In 2016, she launched Baan Phadthai, which earned a Bib Gourmand in the Michelin Guide 2018 and is today a visitor favourite. Her first fine dining restaurant was Saawaan, which won and maintained a Michelin star from 2019 to 2022. The chef-patron also won the Michelin Guide Young Chef Award in 2021.
According to Aom, however, her latest project is the most intimate manifestation of her culinary vision thus far. In Thai, “khaan” carries a dual significance. It denotes “tiger”, which aligns with Chef Aom’s zodiac year, and also alludes to speaking, singing, and proclaiming. As such, Khaan’s 11-course tasting menu is a proclamation of the chef’s pride in her Thai culture. Compared to her previous ventures, she defines her creations here as more minimal in presentation but more complex—and spicier—in taste.
The amuse-bouche sets the tone for the journey ahead with the four bites representing Thailand’s distinct regional flavours. We start with a Southern roasted curry with crab meat and steamed egg, which pinches you awake with its medley of spices. East and Central regions follow with a crispy cracker version of a Rayong pork curry and a cupcake version of miang bua that is filled with pureed lotus. This is wrapped up by a pineapple compote in pomegranate and passionfruit—a salute to how Thais end meals with fruit.
The appetiser then begins with Hokkaido scallops as an adaptation of a northern type of larb with a green mussel sauce that gets its heat from regional makwaen pepper. Heavy on the personality, the amuse-bouche and scallop are paired with Pet Nat Hajszan-Neumann 2021, a sparkling citrus biodynamic natural wine.
Then comes the already-iconic rice paddy crab, rich in its tomalley to calm down the lighter, spicier tastes. Lightest of the entire meal is the vegetarian khao pan pak, a dish from Uttaradit which usually consists of vegetables wrapped in a sheet made of fermented rice, like a stuffed crepe. Here, Chef Aom has reimagined it as delicate slices of radish, jicama, purple potato, and taro with her homemade peanut butter and fermented rice sheet. The fresh-tasting Kamptal Grüner Veltliner 2022 brings out the crunch and fermented flavour of the light salad.
The following soup dish is a modernised, deconstructed tom khaa. Instead of chicken, a buttery Belong oyster from Brittany and foam made from a Surat Thani Tropical oyster take centre stage. The tangy, fermented mushroom soup also highlights little columns of crunchy banana blossoms with chilli paste and coriander puree. Perfectly contrasting with the creamy coconut milk is the juicy, tropical, and acidic sweet wine Brauneberger Juffer Riesling 2021. Then came a palate cleanser based on nam phrik ong but envisioned as a Thai salsa: tomato granita with honey and lime on top of a bite of herby tomatoes, sprayed with Thai vodka.
The first main course is a charcoal-grilled seasonal catch of redspot emperor fish. With this dish, Khaan supports the local fishermen who use environmental fishing methods rather than trawler fishing. In addition, Chef stays away from groupers or sea bass—two fish often seen in Thai restaurants—to make use of less popular species. “Some of these fish, I haven’t even eaten or cooked before, so it’s a challenge for myself, too,” she explains. Dry-aged, smoked, and cooked in a collagen sauce of its own bones, the fish is delightful, especially served as two pieces sandwiching a mousse of the same fish and with a little bouquet of local Isaan greens. Lending the light dish a dip of cooling darkness was the Pinot Noir from Württemberg 2020.
The final main course is Bumbai curry, served with basmati rice and lamb shank. The lore behind this dish is that King Rama V was so impressed with Indian food on his visit to India that he asked palace cooks to recreate Indian curry from Thai massaman. The result was Bumbai curry. Using a “lost recipe”, Chef Aom says she to scour sources for authenticity, including a Pahurat spice shop.
“I went to a spice shop in Pahurat, and they were so pleased that a Thai person was so interested in cooking Indian curry that they imparted all of their knowledge to me,” she said.
A refreshing pre-dessert of Phuket pineapple curd with kumquat and basil oil cleanses the palate for the final leg of the meal, which begins with a celebration of Thai pumpkin. A cart is wheeled out, upon which a pumpkin compote is flambeéd in front of your eyes with Thai spirits. Pumpkin sponge cake, pumpkin crumble, pumpkin puree, and pumpkin ice cream dusted with dehydrated pumpkin peel powder join the delightful squash party.
Closing out the meal are petit fours that reflect, once again like the amuse bouches, different regions of Thailand. For the North, you have a crispy sesame roll filled with black sesame paste and sticky rice, similar to a tong muan crispy roll, while the South is represented by a marshmallow version of khanom duang (ladyfinger dumpling) with dala flower syrup (also known as the torch flower). Bangkokians are sure to be charmed with the Central rep, lod chong tang Thai (cendol with muskmelon) but condensed into a riceberry crispy tart and topped with pandan cream.
Finally, close it all off with some Eastern dark chocolate, sourced from Rayong. The sweet wine pairing of MR Mountain Vino Dulce 2021 is a lovely muscat to wash it down with, and diners are left feeling the roar of Chef Aom’s spicy tiger and her return to Bangkok’s culinary scene!
The 11-course tasting menu is priced at 3,850++ baht. The wine pairing of four glasses is 1,950++ baht, while the six-glass is 2,450++ baht. A non-alcoholic tea pairing option is also available at 690++ baht. Khaan is nestled on Sri Somkid, behind Central Chidlom, and is open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday (closed Sunday and Monday).
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