In recent years we've started to enjoy excellent Thai food in London, with the arrival of restaurants like The Heron, Smoking Goat, and the soon to be permanent Som Saa. However, when David Thompson closed Nahm in 2012 to return to Bangkok and focus on its sister restaurant, he said that EU regulations had made it impossible to source decent Thai ingredients in London. Have things changed?
Our supermarkets have hugely expanded their Thai ranges of late, but still only offer ready-made sauces, meal kits and the most basic ingredients like jasmine rice. Too often fresh produce is found over-trimmed and wilting in small grocery stores. It was with some trepidation, then, that we accompanied Sujet Saenkham — one of Australia's top Thai chefs and author of Spice I Am — here on a whistle-stop tour of London — to check out the quality of Thai ingredients around the capital.
Good Thai food demands a balance of sour, sweet and salt that imparts a rich complexity of flavours to stand up well to the spiciness of chillies and hot herbs. Would it be possible to create authentic, fresh-tasting Thai dishes from the ingredients we found? Would we find that David Thompson had a point?
Thank goodness, no. “I'm very impressed with the ingredients available,” says Sujet, “and I'm very proud of what's on offer here from Thailand.”
Here are the three emporia we visited with Sujet that really impressed him:
The Spice Shop
The tiny frontage of this Notting Hill shop, immediately eye-catching with its bright yellow awning, hides a treasure-trove. Not a huge choice of fresh produce, but what there was in the display outside the shop was zinging with life. Sujet's eyes lit up when he saw the turmeric. “That's very good,” he said. “Some of the freshest I've seen for sale.”
Inside it's packed with packets and tins of seasonings. Run by Birgit Erath, it started as a stall in Portobello Market, then morphed into a shop in 1995 and now offers over 2,500 products. One huge bonus is that you can order goods online.
The Spice Shop, 1 Blenheim Crescent, W11 1NN
New Loon Moon
Gerrard Street sees strong opinions divided over the merits of New Loon Moon and Loon Fung opposite. The narrow aisles can also become clogged with tourists wide-eyed with wonder at the ranks of exotic ingredients. Outside you might catch a whiff of the pungent Durian fruit from the display outside. The range of fresh fruit and veg continues inside, where there's also a huge range of tinned and packaged goods. “The Pigeon brand,” said Sujet, pointing to a tin of fermented vegetables, “is a good one.”
New Loon Moon, 9 Gerrard Street, W1D 5QG
Tawana Oriental Supermarket
Established for 25 years, Tawana offers a guarantee that it has everything for your perfect Thai meal on its shelves, and it's easy to believe that the moment you take a tour of the TARDIS-like interior. The veg shelves are packed with fresh ingredients, mostly direct from Thailand, with everything from Thai pumpkin (sweeter and nuttier than ours) to Kow Choi (the ever-popular Chinese chives). “We can open a restaurant here,” nodded Sujet.
Packaged goods include quality brands Aroy-D, Choa Koh and Raitip. “Buy UHT coconut milk,” said Sujet, pointing to the Aroy-D carton. “It has less chemicals than tinned milk.” However, if your recipe calls for coconut cream, you'll need to buy this separately as, unlike tinned coconut milk, the UHT version is homogenised and there'll be no layer of coconut cream at the top."
Make a trip to Tawana about more than shopping. You can buy home-made dishes to eat on the premises from the front of the shop.
Tawana, 18 Chepstow Road, London W2 5BD
Article by Helen Gazeley