Monday, May 4, 2015

Sap's on Burnet...A Walk on the Mild Side of Thai

Thai yellow or golden chiles (photo from eBay)

On Sunday, April the 12th, R and I went by Sap’s on Burnet Road. I needed to drop off some Thai chile seedlings I was growing for him: yellow-fruited, and orange-fruited. I had found the seeds from a rare seed dealer and couldn't resist ordering some, figuring that if I spread the plants around, folks could harvest dried seeds from mature fruit, and we’d all have plenty of seeds for the foreseeable future. The orange gets a little larger than the yellow, and both of them are excellent in Thai cooking, and are especially delectable when made into Thai sriracha sauce (vastly superior to that crass, unrefined Rooster brand crap). Aside from the seed delivery, I had a hankering to stuff myself on some authentic Thai food, and Sap’s is my favorite spot for that.

Thai orange chiles (photo from etsy)

R is a bit of a wuss when it comes to eating really hot food, so when we dine together, I tend to moderate my chile intake somewhat, spicing my plate to taste. She knew she wanted “that green bean dish”, which could have been the green bean salad I love so much, but more likely, S-P31, Amazing Green Beans, which I like to get with ground pork. It is essentially a hybrid Thai-Chinese stir fry, with garlic and shallot, chunky pieces of jalapeƱo chile, crunchy green beans (or long beans in Thailand), and a protein of choice. The sauce gets some chicken stock and fish sauce, and is anchored by fermented bean paste, which gives it an umami boost. The mixture gets some Thai basil right towards the end to add some herbal punch. It’s one of my favorite dishes at Sap’s.

Amazing green beans with ground pork

The main attraction of the meal was S-P50, or Sap’s Special Massaman Curry with Beef. Depending on who you believe, massaman (or mussaman) curry originated in the 1600s in the court of Ayutthaya, with the original curry developing from a Thai adaptation of a dish introduced by Persian merchant Sheik Ahmad Qomi. Another theory has the dish being introduced into Southern Thailand from Malaysia, by way of India, and that its name derives from the Malay word masam, which means “sour” (although the dish in its present manifestation is not a sour curry by any stretch of the imagination). There is little doubt that the dish was Muslim in origin, and the ingredients that form the curry paste are not typical Thai curry spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, clove, star anise, cumin, bay, nutmeg, and mace. These combinations of flavors were brought to the Malay Peninsula by Muslim traders from the Middle East, India, and the Indonesian archipelago. Later on, Dutch, Portuguese, and French East Indian traders imported the spices. As it slipped across the southern Thai-Malaysian border heading north, the Thais combined that spice profile with dried chile peppers, white peppercorns, coriander, lemongrass, galangal, shallot, garlic, shrimp paste, and sometimes turmeric to develop the flavors of the curry paste. This paste gets fried with the separated oil from coconut cream until fragrant, and then the meat is added. Thais typically cook the dish with beef, since pork is forbidden (haram) for Muslims. It can also be made with chicken, duck, mutton, or goat. Once the meat has braised with the paste to develop flavor, potatoes, onions, fish sauce, tamarind, palm sugar, coconut milk, and peanuts (or cashews) are added. It is a dish eaten with rice or with roti (a crepe-like South Asian flatbread made from wheat flour), and a bowl of massaman tastes best eaten the next day, once the potatoes have absorbed the flavors of the curry.

Sap's Special Massaman with beef

Sap's Special Massaman Curry is made with slowly braised chuck steak that's so tender that it melts in your mouth (I cut mine with my spoon), and instead of using white potatoes, he substitutes Yukon Gold potatoes. The overall flavor is sweet and tangy, with many complex layers of spice and an assertively piquant background, and whole roasted peanuts providing a pleasant crunchy texture and nutty taste. Sap's Special massaman has deeper flavor than most of the typical versions, and is flat-out delicious. A highly recommended menu item.

REAL sweet and sour, with shrimp and tofu

When most folks think of sweet and sour sauce, they instantly get a mental image of a psychedelic orange, ketchup-based, gloppy, thick, sauce that’s way more sweet than sour. It’s the classic Americanized Chinese restaurant menu mainstay, and the safe thing to order for your kids, especially if it comes on fried chicken nuggets. True, the dish did originate in China, but as with all Chinese dish imports into Thailand, the Thai version adopts that special Thai culinary finesse, and avoids the pitfalls of Americanization. We ordered S-P28 with shrimp, and added tofu, and it came out aromatic and steaming, with green beans, Asian eggplant, onion, garlic, fresh pineapple, tomato, and cloud ear mushrooms. The sauce has a mildly spicy edge, and is savory and sour, with just a hint of sweetness from palm sugar. This is the sweet and sour stir fry that you always hoped you would get at a Chinese restaurant, but made so much better here, Thai-style.

Stir fried bean sprouts

Another mild dish at Sap’s is one that slips under the menu radar for most non-natives, S-P34. It is simple and light, but packed with flavor from fish sauce, garlic, scallion, barely stir- fried, nutty tasting mung bean sprouts, and whatever protein you selected (we went for chicken). This is a classic homestyle Thai dish, that’s more subtle than the typical Thai flavor profile, but just as delicious. We ordered Thai brown jasmine rice to go with the entrees, and it is so much better tasting (and healthier) than the average polished white jasmine rice. If you’ve never had it, you’re missing out.

Once again, we had a really delicious meal at Sap’s, and one that even R could handle spice-wise. It’s proof that not all Thai dishes are spicy, and you don’t need to fry your taste buds to enjoy a fantastic Thai meal.

Mick Vann ©

for some background on Sriracha sauce, see here:

Naam jiim Siracha: Siracha (Sriracha) sauce is a bottled table condiment originally made in Si Racha, a coastal town just north of Pattaya (down the coast, south of Bangkok). It's a reddish-orange sauce made from pureed and aged-fermented ripe chiles, salt, vinegar, garlic, and sugar, which is used especially with egg and noodle dishes. Thai brands are preferred, since they have the true Thai taste, which balances sweet and sour with the heat (and there are some Thai brands that also offer a mild version if you prefer less heat). "Vietnamese" brands, such as the common Huy Fong (‘Rooster Brand') are spicier, with more garlic, vinegar, and little sugar. Huy Fong, by the way, is made in Los Angeles, from ripe jalapeƱos and garlic powder. ‘Sriracha Factory Brand', ‘Grand Mountain', 'Shark Brand', and ‘Golden Mountain' (Sriraja Panich) are all good Thai labels of a proper Thai Siracha sauce.

Originally Siracha (Sriracha, Sriraja, Siraja) sauce was made with Thai yellow chiles (prik daeng), which many feel results in a richer, deeper-flavored sauce. ‘Golden Mountain' brand still produces a version made with these yellow chiles (which can range in color from bright yellow to medium orange), although it is hard to find. Impossible to find in the States. You'll recognize the lighter color of the sauce inside the bottle, and if you ever find any on the shelf in your local market, you'd be wise to stock-up. Siracha sauce is used especially for omelets (kai jaew), for general-purpose spiciness with noodles, and grilled and deep-fried items, and, only in the East, with lard na.

A scene from a sauce factory near Chonburi, not too far north of Si Racha. These cases hold oyster sauce. They wouldn't let me take pictures of the sriracha sauce being made.