Monday, July 23, 2012

Sunday at Sap's: Pad Gaprao


A bowl of rose blooms situated at the restaurant entrance...

Stopped off at Sap's Sunday on the way home for a quick platter of Pud Ped Gaprao Moo....Spicy Pork with Holy Basil and Fish Sauce. Here's all you ever needed to know about the dish:

Americans  might think of pud ped gaprao as the Thai equivalent of hamburger helper, meaning that it is very simple to prepare and cooks in seconds, using a short list of ingredients that are usually on-hand. It’s the kind of dish that almost anyone or any restaurant can quickly throw together, and is also one of the favorite comfort food dishes of the Thai people. If it is not on the restaurant menu, odds are the kitchen can make it, and it is often available at fast-food, curry-rice shops (rahn kao gkaeng). It can be cooked with pretty much any minced meat (chicken, turkey, pork, or beef), sliced squid, whole shrimp, shellfish (mussels, whelks, razor clams, clams, etc.), mixed seafood (crab, scallops, firm-fleshed fish, mussels, shrimps, etc.), or even tofu if necessary. The smaller the protein item is chopped or minced, the greater the surface area there will be that is coated with the flavors of the aromatic herbs and sauce, and the bigger the flavor the stir-fry has. 

It is basically a simple stir fry; one of those many dishes that originated in Chinese cuisine, and got morphed into the Thai culinary realm as its own creation. It is seasoned with lots of garlic, Thai chiles, and holy basil, with secondary flavor coming from shallot and fish sauce, a splash of rich stock, and from here, recipes diverge. Some substitute Thai basil for holy basil, but that is not the traditional preparation. After all, “gaprao” is the Thai word for holy basil.

Holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum) has a purplish pigment to the leaf and the leaf bract. There is also a variety of holy basil that is light green (O. sanctum), without the purplish pigment. Holy basil is always added during the cooking process, but towards the end of the cooking, so that it gets wilted and completely flavors the dish, especially in stir fries; it is never eaten raw. Using holy basil will accentuate the spiciness of chiles and aromatics used in the dish. There are three variants: ‘red’ (actually purple), ‘white’ (actually light green), and a hybrid.  

Some chefs add very finely minced Thai lime leaf; again, not traditional, but excellent. Some add a small amount of sweet black soy sauce or Golden Mountain sauce and a dab of white sugar, while the old traditional recipe adds ½ teaspoon or so of palm sugar instead, with no sweet black soy. It is all a matter of preference. Ideally the flavor balance will be heavy on the holy basil, with assertive fish sauce, and the spicy heat of the chiles nestling in just below those two; it is a spicy dish, but the heat can easily be moderated to assuage the lightweights. 

Pud ped gaprao is always served with (or over) jasmine rice, normally with some sliced cucumber on the side of the plate. Depending on how spicily the kitchen prepared it, a Thai would sprinkle on some roasted chile paste (phrik pad), dried powdered bird chile (phrik pom), or even better, some fish sauce loaded with sliced chiles (naam plaa phrik). Sap’s takes the dish further still, adding sliced mushrooms to the mix, which contrasts nicely with the minced meat texture. Ideally the dish comes topped with a kai dao, or crispy-fried sunny-side-up egg, with a crispy edge and a runny yolk that spreads out over the meat when broken, adding additional richness; at Sap’s you need only tell the waiter to add one.

We have the Chinese to thank for this dish: 1. they brought domesticated pigs, 2. they brought woks, 3. they knew how to get lard from aforementioned pigs, to stir fry with, 4. they introduced the use of chicken eggs. Before the Chinese arrived in force, eggs were a lot more valuable as future chickens than they were as a food source.

Anyway, had me an order of pud ped gaprao, with a fried egg on top, and side of nam plah phrik and it was delightful. Pure comfort food. I topped it off with a scoop of coconut ice cream resting on a warm mound of sweet-salty sticky rice topped with thick coconut cream. What a brilliant combination...I'm glad Sap suggested it.

Right before I was going to leave, old chums Cliff and Saki, and Daeng came in, so I stayed a bit and caught up on gossip, getting the intricacies of the expat life in Thailand from Cliff.

Mick Vann ©

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