What is “ancient” Thai food and where to try it in London

Right from the get go I have to openly admit that I have a very specific interest in Thai Food and “ancient “is my description of it it’s not a fact. 

I have been interested in good old fashioned Thai home cooking and street food for thirty years and as and when I could I have journeyed back and forwards to Bangkok to learn to cook and eat Thai food at its source.

Now you’re asking what do I mean by “ancient “ Thai food – let me explain.

I am interested in how food used to be made – the old recipes – the ancient pastes – the real coconut milk etc. If you compare it to English food it’s like people making their own butter or cheese – everyone used to do it but nowadays few go that extra mile.

Sadly nowadays both at home and in restaurants Thai food has modernised just as all food cultures have done and now your typical Thai restaurant often boils down to what I think of practically a ready meal – factory made pastes and tinned coconut milk with many Chinese items thrown in for ease of cooking and to suit what is thought of as British taste.

Even prettily presented in beautiful surroundings this does not represent traditional Thai food in all it’s glory.

Let me give you an example of this – very few restaurants in the UK make their own pastes which are usually based on coriander root. I believe that the root is the heart and soul of Thai cooking.

It is the foundation upon which many dishes are built. It not only adds taste, texture and depth but it enables the user to create the foundation pastes that give Thai food its unique flavour.

Sadly this unique flavour is very quickly being lost. Both in the UK and indeed in Thailand the use of pre-made pastes is becoming widespread and making curry paste is only scratching the surface of the role of coriander root.

Basically coriander root is as fundamental to Thai food as the onion is to British food.

Just imagine the limits to your cooking without this British staple!

There are many dishes based around what I call “magic paste”. That is coriander root pounded in a pestle and mortar with some coarse salt, whole white peppercorns and garlic. These four essentials are the foundation of many a magical dish.

The range of Thai food you can cook without it is severely restricted.

The great news is that there is currently a revolution happening quietly but stealthily in the Thai food world in London. 

A huge percentage for this is down to a chef and food historian called David Thompson who brought out an amazing book in 2002 called Thai Food and at that time he had a restaurant in London called Nahm, which is now closed but he has since been working on many projects around the world and produced another beautiful book called Street Food.

His influence in training (even indirectly) has produced a crop of young chefs now running their own venues and they are producing some exciting results.

So here are my brief recommendations of “ancient” Thai restaurants that I really rate right now.

Singburi – This is a unique place – not at all run by a disciple of David’s but a Thai family run cafe in Leytonstone that is turning out Thai food like momma used to make – that is if your momma was a fantastic Thai cook! 

No strangers to coriander root they make home made pastes including a traditional Thai chilli jam which they turn into dishes like pomelo salad and stir fried pork and beans. 

They don’t kowtow to British tastes and their dishes have the punch and accents true to Thai traditions.

Their specials board is a wonder to behold and the prices are really reasonable – plus they have a BYO policy which I consider to be an added bonus.

Rather pleasingly they make Sai Eur Sausage a northern dish (I recently put a recipe for this on Foodtribe for this if you want to try it at home).

A dish that really stood  out for me was the beef rib in green curry which just fell of the bone and was meltingly soft and absolutely yummy.

Their whole steamed seabass with ginger and shiitake mushrooms for only £14 was knockout. 

You will have to be quick to sample all these delights though as they are closing on the 22nd December and won’t pop up again until March so get your skates on.

But if you run out of time – other places currently producing sublime food and leading the Thai food revolution in London are  Som Saa, Kiln Soho – (where everything is cooked in front of you on Thai BBQ’s) , The smoking Goat, The Begging Bowl (Thai Tapas) and last but not least Farang. 

Carole Mason

Freelance food writer - Author of Mae's Ancient Thai Food

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Carole Mason

If you would like to work with me or try my food please get in touch with me at carole@carolemason.co.uk