I’m in Washington DC this week, tagging along on my husband’s business trip. He’s attending an enormous international conference of scientists, focused on gene therapy, and while he’s listening and taking notes in big rooms, I’ve set up my office in our beautiful hotel room by day, and enjoyed visiting with friends over wonderful food in the evenings. Last night we drove out to Chantilly, Virginia, about 45 minutes away from our hotel, in the vicinity of Dulles Airport. Destination: Thai Basil Restaurant in Chantilly, VA, where my friend Nongkran Daks is chef and owner. (Get her latest cookbook: Nong’s Thai Kitchen: 84 Classic Recipes That Are Quick, Healthy and Delicious.
We visited with Nong and her husband Larry Daks, who like me is a returned Peace Corps volunteer — he and Nong met during his Peace Corps service in Southern Thailand. After a career in the Foreign Service, he and Nong settled with their family in Northern Virginia and opened Thai Basil, an excellent and delightful Thai restaurant which I wish I could visit every week. First we savored tod mun plah, Thai fish cakes with a bright, tangy cucumber salad. Seasoned with red curry paste and threads of wild lime leaves, they are a perfect starter to a Thai feast.
Next came kao tahng nah tahng, an old-school treat of rich, tangy meat sauce spread on crisp-fried sticky rice cakes. Fantastic, and a rare treat at Thai restaurants in my area of North Carolina.
Next was this incomparable Thai finger food, miang kum, which is modestly named ‘little bites’ or ‘leaf bites’, giving no clue as to the spectacularly delicious explosion of flavors and textures you have in store for the effort of saucing and folding up one of these circles of deliciousness. Traditionally made with soft, heart shaped leaves known as bai cha plu, this quintessentially Thai snack works brilliantly with Nong’s choice of fresh collard leaves, cut into circles and portioned with the confetti of ingredients: toasted coconut, chunks of lime including a bit of peel for bitterness, peanuts, fresh ginger, shallots, and shrimp. The sauce is tangy-sweet, a piquant counterpoint to the merry-go-round of flavors and textures in The Bite. And such is the secret to enjoying this Thai classic.
Enjoy it in One Bite. Go big or go home. Do not bite it in two — you will not only shower the ingredients onto your shirt front, but you will miss the essential joy and point of the dish: To provide all the flavors and textures, contrasting and harmonizing, in one, long, slow, silent, and spectacular mouthful. Take your time — don’t talk. This is about eating one big bountiful bite. It’s incomparably fine.
Next came kao soi, the classic Northern Thai noodle dish in which a luscious coconut-milk curry of beef or chicken naps a tangle of wide curly egg noodles, and is accented with a tangle of crisp-fried noodles, pickled mustard greens, shallots, and cilantro, with a chunk of lime to squeeze on just before you eat. This dish has Burmese origins, and is a hearty meal in a bowl — except obviously I could not go with one dish when Nong’s entire menu was before us. Her yellow curry is brilliantly and robustly spiced — an extraordinary dish.
Rice and curry made for the perfect finale to our savory meal — red curry roast duck with cherry tomatoes and pineapple and Thai eggplant. Sparkling flavors, hot and sweet and rich and complex.
Two traditional Thai desserts ended our culinary marathon. First was sticky rice seasoned with sweet and salty coconut cream, as you may have enjoyed with ripe mangoes, topped with classic Thai-style custard, made with coconut milk, eggs, and palm sugar. Steaming gives it a silken texture; Chef Nong uses aromatic and delicately flavored pandan leaves to add lovely color, scent, and flavor to her exquisite version of this heirloom sweet treat.
Perfect nightcap: kluay buat chee, “bananas ordained as nuns”! Though the pleasure of eating this sweet treat borders on the spiritual, it’s not a religious dish but rather a pun on its colors. Within Thai Buddhist tradition, nuns wear white robes, so these bananas enrobed in sweet/salty coconut cream could remind you of nuns. Sesame seeds add texture and delight, and it’s served warm. Wonderful ending to an extraordinary meal in a wonderful restaurant owned by a brilliant, creative, and insightful chef, a master of Thai culinary traditions and cooking brilliant Thai food.
The company matched the food — wonderful and memorable. I’m so glad it was late enough in the evening that Nong and Larry could sit and visit with us as we devoured every bite to a semi-embarassing level. They offered to order more food as they were concerned that we were eating every bite and must still be hungry. Not at all — we over-served ourselves, because the opportunity was then and there. We didn’t need another bite, but we couldn’t leave a bite behind either. If you love Thai food and want to cook it at home, seek out Nong’s latest book, as well as her prior ones. It’s Nong’s Thai Kitchen: 84 Classic Recipes That Are Quick, Healthy and Delicious. You can order it through IndieBound HERE, or at your favorite indie bookshop, or on Amazon HERE or wherever books are sold. Nong offers classes at the restaurant also, so if you’re in the area, go eat and go learn if you can. Worth the time, worth the drive.