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House of Siam
At San Jose’s House of Siam, a father explains the joy of Thai food to his children
by Sarah Suksiri on Aug 05, 2010
MY DAD had to give up a few things when he moved from Bangkok to Barstow at the age of 12. Some were bearable sacrifices, like giving up the kind of intense humidity that makes the air more drinkable than breathable.
But some were not so good, like realizing one day, 40 years later, that his three half-Thai adult children knew more about tortellini than they did about tom yam.
So, in a recent attempt to right some of those wrongs in our culinary upbringing, my dad took us to dinner at his local favorite, San Jose’s House of Siam, and promised an authentic Thai dinner—one without pad thai, for example, which is basically the equivalent of a PB&J sandwich—or at least as authentic as possible, given the options on the menu.
Thai restaurants in the South Bay tend to blur after awhile, with little differentiation between menus except in the spelling, but over the course of the meal I learned a few pointers to make me seem a little more like my father’s daughter the next time I order.
For starters, there are no hard-and-fast rules to Thai food, but there are some guiding principles. The first is that the meal, as well as each dish, should balance contrasting elements, creating harmony among spicy, sweet, salty and sour flavors as well as blending wet and dry textures in what could essentially be called the ultimate cooking matrix.
Secondly, the art of ordering dinner means selecting a soup, a curry, a fried dish, a steamed dish, a “yam” dish (a hard-to-translate characteristic generally associated with a fresh, bright flavor, as in tom yam) and enough rice for everyone. There should also be plenty of prik nam pla, a garlic-lime-chile-fish-sauce condiment that helps to enhance the flavor of any dish at any meal but which many restaurants don’t provide unless asked.
Representing “yam” for us that night was mieng-kum ($8.95), a salad from northern Thailand that’s eaten with the hands. For this, Dad instructed us to choose a palm-size lettuce leaf and add toasted coconut, dried shrimp, sliced ginger, red onion, peanuts, lime pieces, tamarind sauce and Thai chiles (affectionately known as “kee noo,” or “mouse droppings”) to taste.
For our fried dish, we ordered tod mun pla ($8.95), a type of fish cake. “It’s like the Thai version of meatloaf,” my dad said. Considered a poor man’s dish, fish cake traditionally combines leftover fish and spices in a fried patty and has the same comfort-food appeal that American meatloaf does (or used to, anyway).
Dad selected two soups off the menu that together created the ideal flavor balance. Tom kha gai ($14.95) is significant for spotlighting the distinctly Thai kha root, more commonly known as galangal, which is similar to ginger in appearance but more citrusy and less biting in flavor. This coconut-based soup is rich and slightly sweet, unlike the gang-jued woonsen soup ($13.95) that we paired it with, which is a light, springy, silver-noodled soup loaded with greens, chicken and prawns.
A good regional pick for curry is mussaman ($12.95), a southern dish that embodies the Thai-Muslim flavor and is popular on Thai family tables across the country. Besides egg rolls, this is the only dish that I vividly remember my Thai grandmother making. Mussaman has less heat than most Thai food and is more closely related to Chinese flavors because it features the anise, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and fennel found in Chinese five-spice powder.
If my dad could only pick one dish on the menu, it would be haw mok ($14.95). A central Thai cross between curry and custard, this dish traditionally steams prawns, calamari, catfish and egg in a banana leaf. It also spotlights the Thai superstar ingredient that my father forages for in friends’ yards: kaffir lime leaves. He used to send me to school with a little Tupperware full of them, just in case.
He also likes to make me sticky rice and mango (in very large, enviable quantities, I might add) whenever I’m home. While this dish may seem a little hackneyed to those frequenting Thai restaurants, there’s a reason why it’s everywhere: Thai people love it.
In fact, the quality of a restaurant’s sticky rice and mango is one of the best indicators of a good Thai restaurant. By the time we reached dessert at House of Siam, however, they were out of mangos, which, though disappointing, is a good sign that they are particular about the kind of mangos they use.
Other basic signs to look for: Do they serve jasmine rice? Are they generous with fresh herbs and flavorings such as kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass and galangal? Do they know how to make prik nam pla when it’s requested? Are the chopsticks conspicuously missing from the table setting?
If the restaurant is able to answer all of these questions like House of Siam did—with a strong “yes”—then you know you’re in good hands.
But the real secret to an authentic Thai dinner is not what to order but how to eat it. Thai food should most of all be eaten with a sense of adventure and a willingness to get burned. Literally.
Restaurants have two spice categories: one for Thai people, and one for non-Thai people. My dad typically sweats through the entire meal, pausing between forkfuls of curry to wipe his brow, but I imagine the heat makes him feel more at home, as if he were in Thailand again, and we were all there with him.
House of Siam
151 S. Second St., San Jose
by Sarah Suksiri on Aug 05, 2010
FROM CURRY TO CUSTARD: The haw mok at House of Siam features steamed prawns.