When I was first asked if I was going to be attending an upcoming Songkran event, I nodded, tried to look jaded, and said in as noncommittal a voice as I could, "Yeah, I'm thinking about it but I'm kinda on the fence." And as soon as I was sure nobody was looking, I Googled "Songkran." I soon found out that Songkran is the Thai New Year, and the event was a Songkran celebration and dinner that's part of LuckyRice, the five-year-old festival devoted to Asian food and drink.
Even after I was clued in to the whys and wherefores of the event -- which is taking place at the James Beard House in Manhattan this Friday -- I still wasn't sure my bona fides qualified me to comment on it. I mean, I love a good Pad Thai or Massaman curry as much as the next non-gourmand, but as far as the finer points of Thai cooking... well, I'm ashamed to say that I was in the dark.
And then I figured, hey, what better way to learn more about Thai cuisine, besides eating it of course, than talking to an expert? The expert in this case being Hong Thaimee, one of the three celeb-chefs preparing the Songkran Thai New Year Celebration Dinner and owner of Ngam, one of NYC's most acclaimed Thai restaurants. She describes Songkran thusly:
"Songkran is like Christmas in the Western world minus gift giving and Santa. Thai will find time to come home and be with their families. Songkran is a big holiday in Thailand especially in Chiang Mai [where Hong is from]. It's time to celebrate. It's time to rejuvenate. One of the traditions is to pay respect to family elders and ask them for blessings. My parents always organize for me and my brother to cleanse my grandma's hands with aromatic water."
As for signature Songkran dishes, she says, "We don't have food that associated with Songkran per se but we do cook food that's considered celebratory such as braised pork shoulder in Hung lay curry. It has all the superstar qualities. It is complex in the flavors -- subtly sweet, a hint of tanginess from tamarind, a heat in the back with curry paste and aromatic from hung lay powder and ginger, served alongside sticky rice. Every time when I serve this to Westerners, they have always fallen in love with the dish."
Speaking of Westerners, does she feel she has to dumb down her authentic Thai cooking for people like... well, like me? "No. I am honest and being true to who I am when I cook. My job is to share what I know and love. I know for the fact that I love Thai food. I was born and raised in Thailand and I know what quality Thai dishes are." She adds, "I am very impressed with my customers' knowledge and sense of respect of Thai cuisine. It's very rare that they will ask for a peanut sauce as a condiment to go on a top of everything, which we don't have at Ngam anyway." I am very proud to say that at least I've never done that.
Since I mainly write about booze, and since the dinner (and the whole LuckyRice Festival) is sponsored by Bombay Sapphire East -- a gin with Asian botanicals like black peppercorn and lemongrass added -- I had to ask Hong how involved she is with the cocktail menu both at Ngam and at the Songkran dinner. "When I prepare my drinks," she said, "I'd like to think, 1. How can I make my customer happy? 2. What would pair well with the food? I pair a lot of Thai herbs in the syrups or infused in spirits. With Bombay Sapphire East gin, since there are Thai lemongrass notes infused within the spirit, it really helps bring out the complex flavors of the dishes I will be preparing."
Tickets are still available for Friday's Songkran dinner, but if you miss it you'll still have a chance to catch some of Hong Thaimee's creations at LuckyRice's Grand Feast, which will be held on May 2nd and will feature food and cocktails from Thailand and the rest of Asia. And if you miss both those events, there's always a night out at Ngam.