We [Mark Dobbie and Andy Oliver] wanted to cook the kind of stuff we learned when working at various Thai restaurants like Nahm in London, Pok Pok in New York and Bo.lan in Bangkok, plus through travelling and eating our way around Thailand.
I worked at various Thai places, starting at Nahm London (David Thompson’s amazing Thai restaurant which used to be on Hyde Park corner), which is where Mark and I met. I then went on to Bo.lan in Bangkok and when I came back to the UK I did some work for Alan Yau and spent over a year at The Begging Bowl in Peckham. Since then it has all been under the som saa name, starting from pop ups—like our residency at Climpson’s Arch last summer—all the way to where we are now with our own space on Commercial Street.
Thai food has been a moving beast of different ethnic and cultural influences for hundreds of years. Much of what we know as classic Thai food today has been heavily influenced by techniques or ingredients with their origins in countries like India, China or even Europe.
Thai cuisine pre-1600s was based around things like shrimp paste, sea or river fish and lots of vegetables and aromatic herbs. The chilli, without which Thai cuisine seems unimaginable, actually came to the region from South America in the 17th Century, apparently by Portuguese missionaries.
Nowadays Thai food has absorbed elements, techniques, ingredients and even whole dishes from Burma, Lao, Vietnam, and the West. And on the whole it is better and richer for it (although there is a few pretty dubious East-West items, which can be found at certain street stalls and 7-elevens). Thai food is still one of the world’s great cuisines, but even in Thailand you have to look harder to find the really good stuff these days.
Thai food is full of flavour – hot, sour, sweet and salty, but an element of bitterness is a very important part. Other defining characteristics include lots of aromatics like lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime, herbal flavours, the taste of fresh coconut cream and all manner of fermented fish products like fish sauce, shrimp paste and the pungent fermented fish sauce (nahm pla raa). And that’s without even mentioning all the Indian influenced dried spice and the hundreds of ingredients and flavours that come from Chinese cuisine.
The Thai community in the UK is relatively small too, and so Thais opening Thai restaurants have always had to open them to feed British palates. What went on menus (understandably) was the sweet, rich and crunchy stuff. But that’s changing, I think British people are getting a taste for Thai food like you find it in Thailand; everyone is now well travelled and people are much more knowledgeable. The UK is also a much more open place for new or unusual foods now. People want proper Indian, good Middle Eastern, actual Sichaun food, and real Thai.
Andy Oliver is head chef at som saa in east London.