About seven or so years ago, I met up with a friend of mine, Erik Hill, at Yum Thai in Forest Park. Eric is a Thai food enthusiast; he learned the Thai language because he loves Thai food, he cooks it all the time, and when he goes out to eat Thai, he wants to be able to order intelligently from the “secret” menu that is sometimes kept behind the counter at some Thai places.
A number of Chicagoland Thai restaurants have traditionally kept two sets of menus: an “American” menu of usually less aggressively flavored plates, and a “secret” Thai menu of presumably more authentic items with somewhat more unusual ingredients and flavors.
Years ago at Yum Thai, the secret Thai menu was written in the Thai language and so was usually used only by Thai folks who wanted a true taste of their homeland.
Hill translated the secret Thai menu at Yum Thai into English, and it’s still available for those who want to push their understanding of this incredibly complex and delicious culinary tradition.
Last week we ordered:
* Banana Blossom Salad: this is a classic salad in the Thai tradition, with tender, sweet sheets of banana blossom, soft and slightly rubbery, similar to artichoke leaves, mixed with chicken and shrimp. The lime and fish sauce dressing makes it a tongue-perking starter.
* Nissan Sausage: made of fermented rice, this sausage, which may traditionally include some internal organs, usually packs a mouthful of funky flavors. I’ve had much more powerful versions than the one served at Yum Thai, but if you haven’t had it before, Yum Thai’s rendition of this Southeast Asian wiener is a good “beginner’s model.” It was served beautifully browned, lightly caramelized, with the sweetness played off the slight heat.
* Duck Curry: there was a lot going on in this bowl, with much dimension provided by the fatty duck, sweet pineapple, and slightly bitter kaffir lime leaves. We asked for it “Thai hot,” but I think they went easy on us, unfortunately. Still, this dish epitomizes the Thai taste quadrivium of sweet, salty, sour and hot.
* Exploded Catfish: this is one of my favorite Thai dishes. The fish is fried crunchy, very delicate. If you’ve always been afraid to eat this bottom-feeder, this is a dish that will make you change your mind about catfish.
At Yum Thai, we’ve eaten from both the American and Thai menus, but if you’re interested in food that is probably a little closer to downhome Siamese cooking, the “secret” Thai menu is the one you want.