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Monday, March 9, 2009

It’s all in the food

IF ONE is looking for a fancy Thai restaurant, one might give Khuntai Restaurant a miss. But, do not be deceived by its plain looks, as the food is a different story altogether.

Tucked away at the corner of Petaling Garden, the restaurant has garnered a loyal following since it started operations four years ago.

Despite its unpretentious environment, it regularly draws a good crowd, and customers would even queue up, especially during dinner time.

Apart from its name “Khuntai” (which means ‘Thai people), there is little indication that the outlet is a Thai restaurant.

“We do not have the space to put up decorations like we do in our main restaurant in Butterworth.

“Here, we prefer to let the food do the talking,” said restaurant owner Yem Chen Leong.

Something different: The Thai green curry.

Yem said the restaurant served only authentic Thai food, prepared by chefs from the Land of Smiles.

To ensure the authenticity of the dishes, Yem brings in most of the ingredients, including fresh produce and the spices, from Thailand, although some of them are available locally.

He maintains that it is always best to obtain the ingredients from the original source, as the locally-made version might not give the same flavour.

Among such ingredients are belacan (shrimp paste) and sugar paste.

During a recent food tasting, Yem introduced us to several dishes that are popular among his regular customers.

Our meal started with meang kam, a do-it-yourself appetiser.

The meang kam leaf (daun kadok) is served in a platter with an array of condiments – fried coconut, peanut, bits of lime complete with zest, diced ginger and finely-chopped chilli. The diner places a bit of each condiment on a leaf, along with a special sweet-salty sauce, and wraps it into a package, much like one would prepare the traditional sirih (betel leaf and lime).

When the meang kam is popped into the mouth and chewed, the various ingredients combine to provide a taste sensation – the rich favours of crunchy roasted coconut and peanut, tanginess of lime, and the pungent burst of diced ginger and chillies. Perhaps the best part about making the meang kam parcels oneself is that one can vary the amount of the various ingedients and sauce to one’s liking.

Not too spicy: The belacan chicken.

Next came the steamed lemon fish, which Leong said was a must-try.

As its name suggests, the fish is cooked with lemon juice instead of the usual assam, as well as two types of chilli, one of which is an imported Thai chilli.

The outlet uses the white sea bass instead of the more common variety that has a dark stripe along its back. According to Yem, the white sea bass does not have a fishy smell.

The combination of lemon juice, chilli, garlic and sauces imparts sour, hot and sweet flavours to the steamed fish. The lemon juice also neutralises the fishy odour.

Another authentic Thai dish served at the restaurant is the chicken green curry, which comes with plenty of chicken and vegetables, including eggplant. Unlike the Indian curry, the Thai green curry uses fresh ingredients – mainly green chilli, galangal and kaffir lime leaves – which are ground together with shrimp paste and cooked in coconut milk. There is no potato in a green curry; eggplant is used instead.

No Thai meal is complete without tom yam, and, according to Yem, there are two types of tom yam – the clear broth tom yam and the red version.

We were served the red tom yam, which derives its fiery hue from chilli and tomato. Our seafood tom yam contained chunks of squid, fish and prawns.

We also savoured the belacan chicken and belacan fried rice.

Complete meal: The belacan fried rice comes with fried chicken, cucumber, shredded raw mango and egg.

And, for a vegetable dish, we had the stir-fried pak liang.

“I do not know what this leaf is called here, and I cannot find it locally.

“It is best simply stir-fried,” said Leong.

The pak liang we had was cooked with egg, which enhanced the flavour of the green vegetable, which was crunchy and had a nutty flavour.

The dishes were not too spicy, but diners who prefer more spicy fare can request for more chilli.

Interestingly, the restaurant uses charcoal instead of tealights to keep the food warm.

Besides giving a special taste to the dishes, Yem said the charcoal kept the food warm for a longer period.

“Charcoal bricks provide even heat and keep the dish warm longer.

“Candles burn too fast and do not provide heat consistently,” he said.

KHUNTAI RESTAURANT, No. 6, Jalan 5/44, Petaling Garden, off Jalan Gasing, Petaling Jaya (Tel: 03-7781 7523). Business hours: 11am-3pm (lunch) and 5pm-11pm (dinner).


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