Thai restaurant Chachawan will serve Isaan's extra-hot dishes
Chef Adam Cliff's new restaurant focuses on the fiery cuisine of Thailand's northeast. He tells Mischa Moselle why he likes to keep it simple
Adam Cliff says the food at his new restaurant, Chachawan-Isaan Thai and Bar, will be "very spicy". And this is a chef who knows his spices, having worked at some highly successful Thai restaurants. Most recently, Cliff reopened Kha in Singapore, having worked at the contemporary and innovative Bo.lan in Bangkok before that.
Cliff also cooked for David Thompson, arguably the world's most highly rated Thai cuisine chef, and a chronicler of the cuisine. He worked at Thompson's Sailors Thai in Sydney, and the London and Bangkok branches of Nahm. Now, aged 26, he's moving to Hong Kong to launch Chachawan for restaurateur Yenn Wong.
It's not a bad track record for someone who started cooking on a whim. After leaving school at 16, Cliff found himself walking past a restaurant advertising for staff, so he went in and applied for a job. A week's trial at the establishment started his professional cooking career.
Later, he decided to specialise in Thai food, as he had fallen in love with the cuisine while on holiday in Thailand.
At Chachawan he will be serving the food of northeastern Thailand, or Isaan. The cuisine, according to Thompson's classic book, Thai Food, is not one of great complexity or diverse flavours, "but it is distinctive. Northeastern food is hot, very hot." It's also quite salty, and uses little or no coconut milk.
Isaan is a region bounded by mountains and split by river systems. As the rivers flow towards the borders with Laos, Cambodia and southern Vietnam, the inhabitants have more in common with those countries than with the Thais of the Central Plains area around Bangkok.
The flood-prone plateau has salty soil and is not good agricultural country, producing just enough rice for the population. That places another limit on a simpler diet and way of life that's caused by isolation.
It's more common to eat sticky rice in Isaan, rather than the steamed rice commonly found across the country. Cliff plans to serve both forms of rice to accompany his simple dishes. "The food is what it should be," he says, explaining that his aim is not to overpower the key ingredients with heavy sauces.
Isaan cooking uses uncomplicated techniques, and is often focused on salads and grilled meat and fish. The signature dishes reflect this.
"Waterfall beef", for example, is a salad made of wagyu beef grilled to medium rare, and finished with a dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, chilli and a little white sugar. The dressing completes the cooking process, as a kind of cure. Sugar is added simply to balance the chilli rather than add sweetness, while the chilli itself balances the smokiness from the grill.
The salad takes its name from the fat dripping onto the charcoal grill. This dish is sometimes confused with the street food dish crying tiger, which is grilled beef served with a very hot dipping sauce. While some say the name of that dish comes from the heat of the dip being potent enough to make a tiger weep, Cliff says the meat used should be really tough, so as to make a tiger weep from the exertion of chewing it.
Cliff will also be serving charcoal-grilled fish, although not Isaan river fish. Sea bass comes in a salt crust, to prevent it burning, and is stuffed with lemon grass, galangal and Thai basil stalks. The role of the aromatics is to counteract the muddiness sometimes associated with the fish.
The menu also includes a grilled chicken that is marinated in a garlic and coriander paste, palm sugar, fish sauce, dark soy and a little bit of turmeric. "The turmeric adds earthiness to the dish and a little bit of colour, one drop of dark soy sauce deepens the colour," he says.
Also typically Isaan is papaya salad, a dish that originates across the border in Laos, but has been appropriated by the Thais. "They've made it their own," says Cliff, adding that the Thai version doesn't contain the pungent fermented fish that the Lao like.
Most salads will be simple, using only mint, coriander and long leaf or bucksaw coriander as their herbs. Simple flavourings were noted by a 19th-century French traveller, who wrote the Isaan "consider seasoning superfluous and are satisfied with roasting the animals on a fire".
While Cliff will be roasting the animals on a fire, these will not be the "snakes, lizards, bats, rats and whole frogs" listed by Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix in his 1854 book The Description of the Thai Kingdom of Siam.
Cliff isn't shy of what might be considered exotic foods. He has eaten some strange "delicacies" in Thailand and reports that the bugs, which range from ants and their eggs to spiders and scorpions, can mostly be compared to McDonalds' French fries, being fried, crispy and salty.
"Ant eggs can also be prepared into an omelette. Scorpions and locusts, I feel, are more about the wow factor - look I'm eating a spider! They can be slightly fatty and salty, but are nothing special."
Cliff is more generous about locusts than his former boss Thompson, who writes that while he was able to overcome the idea that many exotic Thai ingredients were repugnant, this was not the case with deep-fried locust, "perhaps because while the exterior was crunchy, the insides were not."
Chachawan's spicy food will be matched with Thai, Japanese and US beers, Thai whiskies and rums, and lao kao, the rice-based distilled hooch from Isaan itself. "They're like cowboys, they like to drink, party and have fun," says Cliff.
The young Australian seems to like simplicity. When he worked at Bo.Lan in Bangkok, he spent his spare time exploring lesser-known parts of Thailand. A favourite location is the hill country around the town of Pai, north of Chiang Mai.
"Even seven or eight years ago there was no electricity or running water. A little truck came by once a week for you to buy supplies. It was a humble, nice, pleasant place to be." Unlike Bangkok, this was the sort of place where foreigners would still get a funny look in the street. "Not a look of negativity but curiosity," says Cliff.
Top chef Adam Cliff's favourite Bangkok eateries:
Cliff recommends his old employers Nahm and Bo.Lan, the capital's ubiquitous street food ("There's an old lady on every corner serving papaya salad or grilled chicken") and Chinatown as good standbys. He also suggests visiting:
Soi Polo Chicken
An Isaan staple of the Bangkok food scene.
3 Soi Polo, Wireless Rd, Lumpini, Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0) 22 51 2772
This district is known for Isaan style food and bars ("not girlie bars"), just "nice cheap food at all hours".
Western food from a Thai chef. The barbecue is outside on the street but seating is inside. The wine selection is on a table in the corner and customers help themselves. "The quality's not bad."
279/2 Soi Suanplu 8 Bangkok,
Tel: +66 (0) 81 373 3865
Chachawan - Isaan Thai and Bar is scheduled to open next week and takes no reservations.
G/F, 206 Hollywood Road, Sheung Wan. Tel: 2549 0020 http://scorpions