Som Saa – restaurant review

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I am not going to beat around the bush. If you love spice and heat – and let me just stress the latter, HEAT – then stop what you are doing right now, make an excuse that you have to leave whatever you are doing and get yourself down to Spitalfields  – 43A Commercial Road to be precise. At this address you will find a little white sign with black writing on it with the words Som Saa. Go in and if you find yourself there at lunch time, you might just be lucky enough not to have a wait before being shown to your table.

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This Thai restaurant, opened earlier this year by ex Masterchef 2009 finalist Andy Oliver, Mark Dobbie, chef from now closed Michelin starred Nahm restaurant in Knightsbridge and Pok Pok in New York and front of house, Tom George, will more than knock your socks off. I had gone with really high expectations after hearing all the hype and had half expected them to be crushed after my visit. It’s normally the case when a play/book/film/restaurant get’s over hyped you feel a real crushing blow that it really wasn’t that good, but with Som Saa it is a whole different story.

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The seed for Som Saa was planted a couple of years back when they ran a pop-up (of the same name) at Climpson’s Arch in London Fields. This ran for a year and began to get so much of a cult following that leveraging into a permeant bricks and mortar site was an obvious transition. They had had the chance to try out a range of dishes on punters and had leaned valuable lessons on what worked and what needed to be fine tuned. They raised their capital through crowdfunding raising a staggering £700k in 4 days.

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They wanted their new residence to have the same feeling and vibe of the old Climpson’s Arch and although I did not get to experience it, looking at the architecture it has the exposed brick arches, rustic, tables chairs and flooring that I can only imagine is not too far removed from their pop-up days. There is a small window looking onto the kitchen itself, with incredible smells wafting it’s way around the restaurant.

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Similar to another recent great find – Gunpowder – Som Saa’s lunchtime menu is short but perfectly formed. I much prefer short menus as the offering is always far superior and the food far fresher. My companion and I opted for the following:

gung golae – grilled prawns in a southern style coconut marinade

som tam thai – Bangkok style green papaya salad with snake beans, dried shrimp, peanuts and cherry tomatoes (they can make this vegetarian if you wish)

gaeng hung lay – Burmese style curry of pork belly and shoulder with pickled garlic and fresh ginger

gaeng baa pla – jungle curry with family fish, thai aubergines, holy basil and wild ginger

khao hom mali – jasmine rice

It’s no exaggeration that every dish was punch-the-air fabulous. Seriously they did not even slip up on one dish. Papaya salad is always a good indicator of whether the restaurant will be any good and even that was delicately balanced with the necessary zing and heat.

I loved the look of all the menu, but felt that this was more than enough for a midweek lunch. Apparently the evening offering offers a few extra dishes, but I would go back in a heart beat and eat the same again and perhaps alternate with a new dish on every visit. I skipped dessert, as I invariably do, but I have been reprimanded by one of my instagram followers who insist I am missing out and that I must ‘give them a try’. I also didn’t take advantage of the interesting cocktails – ‘day by the pool (yes please ;o) – prosecco, jasmine tea, gin, creme de violate, lemongrass cordial, but with school runs to rush too I really couldn’t.

Som Saa is a rare Thai citrus fruit that has, apparently, an incredible flavour and can be found in old Thai recipes. Thompson describes it as a “metaphor for the restaurant” in that he wants to “introduce diners to new tastes”. It is time to move on from the dumb down version of Thai food that we have all grown up with and to experience a more authentic Thai experience.

Som Saa

43A Commercial Street

Spitalfields

London

E1 6BD

lunch: tue-fri: 12-2.30pm

dinner: mon-sun: 5-late (last orders 10.30pm and 10pm on Sunday)


Pork Larb – the national dish of Lao

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Larb originates from Lao but is also eaten in North Eastern Thailand where many of the Thai people are of Laotian decent. It is, put simply, a meat mince salad (pork, chicken, turkey or duck) that is placed in a lettuce ‘cup’ and then eaten in a couple of delicious bites. They have a similar lettuce wrap recipe in Korea known as ‘Ssambap’ – ssam meaning ‘wrap’ and bap meaning ‘rice’.

 

 

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My version has replaced the rice, (which is traditionally toasted then roughly ground (Khao Khua) and sprinkled on the top of the mince when serving to help soak up any of the juices) with roughly ground shelled and oven roasted unsalted peanuts. I like the crunch and taste of the nut combining with the minced meat and fresh herbs. If you want to stay true to the original recipe then just add ground toasted rice in place of peanuts. Try both and see which works for you.

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The combination of fresh crunchy salad leaves, fragrantly spiced mince meat and fresh mint and thai basil (or coriander, but I had run out otherwise I would have thrown that in too) is satisfyingly tasty that one, or three in fact, is never quite enough. It is perfect as a canapé, or as a starter whereby guests can put together their own wraps before popping them in their mouths. Personally I love eating with my hands so any excuse to get everyone to throw themselves into this enjoyable pursuit gets the thumbs up in my books.

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If you tone done on the chilli this dish is also a hit with kids (although my 8 yr old has it as is) as it is a little bit different, packed full of flavours and quite simply good fun to eat, which bottom line is what food and eating should all be about. My dish is more Laotian in style and substance, minus the rice sprinkle. The north east Thailand variety varies again omitting fish sauce and lime juice and instead uses a wide range of spices including cinnamon, star anise, long pepper, cumin, cloves amongst others. I’ll post this version in the future.

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Throw yourself into it, try something different. I can assure you that you one wrap is never enough. This will become a firm family favourite I can guarantee.

Pork Larb 

Serves 15 as a canapé or 6-8 as a starter

2 tbsp sunflower oil (or peanut oil if you have it)

2 banana shallots, finely sliced

1 tsp grated ginger

1 tsp grated garlic

1 tsp lemongrass paste

2 small red chillies, finely chopped (take the seeds out if you like it less hot)

1 kg pork mince

2 limes, juice only

5 tbsp fish sauce

1 tbsp light soy sauce

2 tbsp caster

1/2 tsp red chilli flakes

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30g shelled and oven roasted unsalted peanuts, roughly chopped

5 little gem lettuces or similar lettuce

handful of fresh thai basil

handful of fresh mint leaves

handful of coriander leaves

limes wedges to serve

1. In a large pan heat the oil on a medium heat and then add the shallots and fry gently. (Equally 1 large red onion also works well if you cannot get hold of shallots).

2. When the shallots have softened add the garlic, ginger, lemongrass and fresh red chilli and stir together gently.

3. Add the pork mince and move around the pan until all the pink meat has become brown. This will take around 8-10 minutes.

4. Add the fish sauce, light soy sauce, lime juice, caster sugar and red chilli flakes and stir into the mince. Leave to cook on a low heat for a further 5 minutes. Just before serving throw in a few fresh herbs and give a good stir.

5. To serve place a tablespoonful of the mince onto the lettuce cup followed by a couple of mint, Thai basil and coriander leaves and a sprinkling of peanuts (or rice if you want to stay totally traditional). Add a splash of lime juice as required.

It can be eaten at room temperature or slightly warm.

* If your mince has juice, cook it for a little longer with the lid off the pan. That should do the trick. If there continues to be some juice, it is best to strain the mince as it is easier to eat on the lettuce cups if there is no juice. 

you can replace the pork mince, with chicken, turkey, duck or I reckon even tofu would work well.


Red Thai Tofu, Aubergine and Egg Curry

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Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been cooking loads of Indian food – recipe testing mainly. I  had been sent a fabulous hamper from Natco foods as part of the Curry4Change competition that I’m taking part in –  details on this will follow in June as YOU too can get involved.

I am now craving food from a different region and a rather delicious vegetarian Thai dish caught my attention recently, cooked by John Torode as part of one of the invention tests in the 2014 Masterchef series. I find the series completely addictive and a pleasure to watch. The invention test in particular is always rather exciting as it really demonstrates how much flair and knowledge of cooking the contestant really has. Basically the contestants get two boxes to chose from, one savoury and the other sweet – no prizes for guessing which I would always choose! After electing a box they have to create a dish using some of the ingredients within the box as well as a few staple ingredients that they are all given. Before the contestants dive in John has a go at choosing one of the boxes (away from the contestants), typically he too always chooses the savoury box. This time he created a red Thai aubergine, tofu, egg curry, which I thought looked delicious, spicy and relatively light – a dish that was beckoning me to cook.

Here is my version of the dish inspired from the John Tororde’s creation. I have a feeling that John may have included red peppers in his paste but I opted to not put them in – I leave it to you to decide.

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Red Thai Tofu, Aubergine and Egg Curry

The proportions below will allow you to cook this dish a few times – freeze the paste left over.

To make the paste

5cm fresh galangal

5cm fresh ginger

3 cloves of garlic

13 small shallots (half that if they are larger in size)

3 small piece kaffir lime peel

4 large dried red chilli, soak for 10 mins in warm water to soften

2 fresh small red chillies

2 lemongrass sticks

1 tsp shrimp paste

1. If you have a gas hob, simply place all the ingredients, aside for the shrimp paste, on a rack and place over the flame so that the ingredients char slightly. This will give the paste a lovely smokey flavour. I did exactly the same thing when I was in Vietnam and made Pho – see here.

2. If you do not have a gas hob, simply place them into a pan (do not add oil) and let them heat and char this way.

3. Once the ingredients have charred and cooled, place into a blender and add the shrimp paste. Blend until you can get it as smooth as you can.

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To make the curry itself

Serves 4

5 tbsp vegetable oil

800g firm tofu, cut into 3 cm cubes

4 tsp homemade curry paste

300g aubergine – if using baby aubergines cut into quarters, otherwise cut into 7x2cm matchsticks

400ml creamy coconut milk (1 tin)

4 eggs

1 tbsp caster sugar

1 tsp salt

3 pak choi

100ml water

1/2 lime, juice only

1. Firstly make sure the tofu is completely dry as it will then fry a lot better. I usually take the tofu out its packet a couple of hours before using and then place on kitchen roll so that it soaks up all the excess water.

2. Using a non-stick pan place a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil into the pan and when it is hot carefully add the tofu cubes. Fry on a low heat so that the tofu bronzes delicately. This should not take much more than 10 minutes.

3. Meanwhile on a low heat, in a wok or karahi, add a couple more tablespoons of vegetable oil and add the thai paste. Stir around in the oil and add the aubergine and coat in the paste. You may find you need to add another tablespoon of oil at this stage as the aubergines do need quite a bit to cook.

4. As the aubergines begin to soften add the creamy coconut milk and the eggs in their shells. They will become hard boiled from cooking gently in the coconut milk.

5. Add the caste sugar and salt to taste.

6. Add the lime juice and then five minutes before serving add the pak choi and a little extra water. Remove the shells from the eggs and cut in half.

7. Serve in a bowl with a small bowl of rice on the side. John added roasted sesame seeds in his, which is a nice touch.

NB: My local Thai grocers said that they do not use fresh chillies in their red thai paste, but I decided to add a couple of help with the heat and colour.

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PS: I realise I’ve been cooking rather a lot of  dishes that include aubergine/eggplant lately. I do apologise if you can’t stand the vegetable. I don’t actively come up with recipes that include it but realise this is the third recipe that includes aubergines that I’ve cooked in the last month or so.  I promise there will be no aubergines for a while as you are probably being polite and are actually really sick of them ;o).