Chef Ian Kittichai wants to broaden Hongkongers’ Thai tastes

Bangkok chef brings his own take on less-famous Thai dishes to Causeway Bay

PUBLISHED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 1:42pm
UPDATED : Friday, 04 September, 2015, 10:29pm

It’s not easy to find high-quality Thai food in Hong Kong. Sure, there are places that deliver the staples in a perfectly acceptable, straightforward manner, although too often, the flavours are watered down to suit local tastes.  If you know where to look, there are (often unlicensed) “upstairs cafes” where you can pick from an array of prepared dishes, ready to be ladled over rice, and where the workers and most of the diners are conversing in Thai. These – especially the latter – can be satisfying, but there’s a new kid on the block that’s raised the bar.

Thailand has long been a destination for serious food lovers who know that great dishes can be found from street vendors as well as in high-end restaurants. At the Asia’s 50 Best Restaurants ceremony earlier this year, five on the list were from Bangkok, including Ian Kittichai’s Issaya Siamese Club, which came in at number 39.

Kittichai opened a branch of the acclaimed restaurant just last week in Causeway Bay, where he hopes to broaden diners’ palates so they realise there’s a lot more to Thai food than just pad thai.

“I really encourage our staff to explain the culture of Thailand and explain that it’s not just those dishes that everyone knows already and there’s much more if you’re willing to explore. Sometimes people can be intimidated when it comes to trying new things because they’re not sure what to expect,” the chef says.

“We have to keep educating people and helping them become more knowledgeable. You can sell pad thai and tom yung goong every day, just to survive. But that’s probably not going to appeal to chefs. Been there and done that. They want something more memorable, more creative, to do something that people haven’t had before.”

Kittichai’s version of Thai cuisine emphasises flavour, freshness and authenticity, combined with a colourful, interactive approach to presentation.

The salads, for example, are seasoned and mixed tableside. There’s the signature kor moo yang, a pork shoulder salad using sawtooth coriander and chilli in a toasted jasmine rice dressing. Alternatively, the yum som-o is a trendier, more progressive choice, combining the tartness of pomelo with wok-fried baby shrimp, hard boiled egg and peanuts in a red chilli dressing.

I really encourage our staff to explain the culture of Thailand and explain that it’s not just those dishes that everyone knows already and there’s much more if you’re willing to explore
Ian Kittichai

Kittichai draws inspiration from little-known Thai dishes. He revamps them and presents them in a way that is more accessible. The goi nua, for example, is a traditional beef dish from the Isaan region in Thailand’s northeast. Like many traditional Isaan dishes, it’s not for the faint-hearted – raw beef, seasoned with chilli and fish sauce and then served in cow’s blood. Knowing that diners outside the region are unlikely to be able to stomach a fully authentic goi nua, Kittichai has adapted it into a more palatable version.

“We make it more like a steak tartare,” he explains. “It’s more friendly, adding a Chiang Mai spice and toasted chillies afterwards, as well as condiments to go with that.”

Issaya may be best known for the colourful dishes and Kittichai’s inimitable approach to presentation but the desserts are also standouts. The kanom tung taek, or “broken bucket”, is created tableside, with coconut cream, peanut crumble, passion fruit and mulberry foam laid out  on a banana leaf. Then, for the grand finale, a thin chocolate casing – the bucket – is dropped square in the middle of the platter, shattering and allowing the coconut soufflé to spill out. It’s a guaranteed crowd-pleaser to end the meal.

As for Kittichai, the move to Hong Kong has been in the pipeline for a while. He nearly set up shop here in 2008 but decided he already had enough on his plate. Now, though, he looks forward to bringing his brand of Thai food to an appreciative new audience.

“It’s phenomenal that we’re here now, that we’ve had the opportunity to open in Hong Kong,” he says.

“For everyone from Hong Kong, Singapore and other parts of Asia who travels to Bangkok, Issaya is probably well known already. So hopefully we’ll get a real mix of people – people who have just finished work or people who are just walking around, shopping in Causeway Bay. I want people to feel like they are dining with me in my home.”

Issaya Siamese Club, 25/F Soundwill Plaza II – Midtown, 1 Tang Lung Street, Causeway Bay, tel: 2154 3048