One of the most memorable, cheapest and spiciest dishes I’ve ever had was also the first bite I ate in Thailand. It was a few years back, on an island south of Bangkok. We had just arrived at our hotel and bolted to the beach. A cook had a cart set up (it was more or less a wok) on the sand and the aroma was more distracting than the myriad bodies dumped beside the sea. I had a papaya salad. It nearly blew my head off, but man alive, what a welcome to Thailand.
At Baan Suki, papaya salad was the first order of the night, but it didn’t come right away: The kitchen, our waitress informed us, was waiting on ingredients. The promise alone kept me in situ for nearly three hours.
I like my spicy food spicy — the more pepper icons on the menu, the better. With spices, it’s about the anticipation as much as the punch. I relish the intensity and individuality of spices: Some are sweetly deceptive, while others have atomic powers. At Baan Suki I was eating with a friend who has been to Thailand often; his addendum to every order was a request to make it spicy.
We started with pad pak bung (stir-fried morning glory), well known in Japan, where it has long been cultivated. Thai cooking favors a type of water spinach that comes off crunchy when quickly fried; the stalks are cut short and the leaves shredded. It comes in a sweet pool infused with oil, garlic and pepper.
Next up was a Thai favorite: stir-fried soft shell crab in black pepper sauce. So far, so Thai, but it felt like the kitchen was cruising along.
I was still holding out for the papaya salad, but there was no word from our waitress — it was a case of no news is not good news. Baan Suki has perhaps a dozen tables, but two or three copies of the menu at most. The waitress spent as much time taking orders as shuffling between tables in search of the menus. A plastic mat covers each table, so that when you lift a plate the tablecloth comes with you. It reminded me of … Thailand.
They served (or we ordered) the best dish last: pla neung manao, which is steamed sea bream buried beneath an array of spices. This is a big dish, with a considerable waiting time, but it was triumphant with its layers of spices and herbs. The bream was splayed open and served on an elevated platter covered in medallions of lemon, lemon grass, peppers, coriander and garlic. The creature might as well have been a Viking warrior in a funeral procession. Alas, we showed no reverence, and fought until the fish was just skin, scales and bone. It hit all the right flavor and spice notes and compensated for that papaya salad, which never came. I’ll be back, though.
1F First N Bldg., 3-17 Tsuruno-cho, Kita-ku, Osaka; 06-6371-7757; www.baansukithai.com; open 11:30 a.m.-2:30 p.m., 5:30 p.m.-2 a.m. (LO 11:30 p.m.); nearest stations Osaka, Umeda, Nakazakicho; smoking OK; dinner around ¥4,000; Japanese, Thai and English menu; Japanese and Thai spoken. J.J. O’Donoghue is an Irish writer living in Kyoto.
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