As an insouciant teenager, I spent six months in south-east Asia, uprooting myself from my native terroir for a gleeful gambol around a few hot, aromatic nations with glorious scenery, cheap hostels and superb food, and rounding off by cycling through Malaysia to the Thai border , in an era when a categorical parental negative was guaranteed to arrive too late to spoil any plans.
The only sad aspect of this odyssey was that it left me little time to see, or taste, Thailand. I’ve been trying to remedy this ever since. I love the fierce combination of flavours and tongue-baffling textures that this cuisine does so beautifully. I have eaten Thai food in London, Bangkok, Melbourne and Malaysia, but nowhere have I solved the problem of what to drink with it.
Asian beers such as Thailand’s own Singha work, but are as light on interest as they are on flavour; aromatic, off-dry white wines such as Gewürztraminer or certain Rieslings can withstand much spice and sourness, but it’s a rare Thai restaurant that knows its Polish Hill from its J J Prüm. Furthermore, Buddhism has had such a lamentable influence on Thais’ drinking habits that many of them live, as a 17th-century Frenchman noted, “in the most frugal style: ordinary people drink only pure water”. Chinese immigrants did introduce distillation, and Thais still make a great deal of arak, a white spirit, and Mekhong, a bastardised whiskey, but both are unexportable and quite possibly, past the age of 20, unsurvivable.
Nonetheless, good cocktails work well with this abstemious nation’s cuisine. Partly, this is because both consist of strong flavours, artfully blended. “The most important ingredient,” as one Thai chef told me, “is everything.” Then there is the matter of the miangs – small, intensely delicious snacks served on a betel leaf. Miang kham, which incorporates ginger, lime and coriander, is pretty much a cocktail with a prawn instead of a vodka shot. At Som Saa near Spitalfields in London, it makes for a bar snack so magnificent that depriving it of alcoholic accompaniment verges on criminal negligence. The restaurant has evolved from a hugely successful pop-up by two Thai-obsessed Westerners. One reason for the adulation is their tireless sourcing of fresh ingredients, some of which they reserve for the drinks.
Christina the bartender infuses pisco with betel leaf for To Ada, her homage to the Savoy bartender Ada Coleman’s much-loved Hanky Panky. This works with a range of miangs, especially miang Lao: pork rind, chillies, peanuts, fried garlic and a sneaky hit of palm sugar, all wrapped in home-pickled mustard greens. Try wine-matching that.
With naem, a moistly smoky blend of fermented pork and garlic, came Kathoey’s Kiss, a girlishly pink, frothy beverage with a green chilli balanced on the rim. The name was a hint never to judge by appearances: kathoey means “ladyboy”, and this clever take on the Tequila Slammer, with Salty Kiss beer, lime and agave, kicked like a Muay Thai champion in stilettos but made a great match for one of the finest stomach-liners I’ve ever eaten.
Not all ingredients are Thai: fusion, done well, is the best of all worlds, and the aim is a gastronomic journey, not some brain-twisting equivalent of Willy Wonka’s magic whole-dinner-in-a-bubblegum. So Christina’s version of the Singapore Sling includes vodka and a French aperitif called Byrrh Grand Quinquina, but replaces the cherry liqueur and grenadine with cherry-blossom tea and wild rose petals. The resulting Siam Sling is less cloying, more aromatic than the original: it tastes of somewhere you’d like to explore.
Essentially, the Som Saa staff are on a long, crazy trip across an unknown land, as I was so long ago; the vital difference being that they are taking us all along for the ride.
Next week: John Burnside on nature
This article appears in the 13 Jul 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit PM