Ringing in the Thai New Year

April 9, 2010 8:44:30 PM PDT
Food is an important element in the Thai new year, called 'songkran,' and rather than focus on Bangkok, as most local restaurants do, I'm getting a lesson in northeastern-style Thai food from a man who definitely knows the difference between a satay skewer and a fish cake.

There are dozens of Thai restaurants in Chicago, but few focus on regional specialties. The Thai consul general was up for a taste of home, so he brought me to Ravenswood, home of Aroy Thai on North Damen.

"This kind of meal is very popular and very prevalent everywhere in Thailand, especially in Bankok because it's very tasty, very yummy and very convenient to eat," said Narong Sasitorn, the Thai consul general.

Sasitorn loves that they prepare dishes from the Northeast, such as larb, ground, cooked chicken, combined with toasted rice and chili powders, plus fish sauce and lime juice. There's a significant kick, but he says that's what the vegetables are for.

"Fresh or steamed vegetables, it goes with the larb to cool you off if the food is too spicy to you," Sasitorn said.

Sasitorn says Thais eat family-style, so there are no apps and entrees. Another Northeastern favorite: som tom - a bracing papaya salad that's pounded together via mortar and pestle. Embedded with crushed peanuts, tomatoes, tiny dried shrimp and chilies, fish sauce, sugar and lime juice add a salty-tart-sweet edge . Oddly enough, it comes with fried chicken wings and a mound of sticky rice.

Dolinsky: "So tell me about the sticky rice. You use your hands, right?
Sasitorn: Yes. With your hands, your finger. And normally you can make it into a small bite, round shape.
Dolinsky: I'm going to make mine a little larger. Ok, then what do I do?
Sasitorn: Then maybe you have this food first, and then follow with the rice. Or what I prefer is to dip the rice into this condiment."

Dolinsky: "I noticed no chopsticks in Thai restaurants, right? You use spoon and fork?
Sasitorn: Spoon and fork, exactly.
Dolinsky: "So when you see chopsticks in a Thai restaurant that's not a good sign.
Sasitorn: No."

There is also a fabulous marinated, grilled pork dish, and within minutes, we've devoured most of our afternoon snack.

Dolinsky:"So how would you say this is delicious?
Sasitorn: Aroy.
Dolinsky: Aroy?
Sasitorn: Aroy.
Dolinsky:That's perfect, because that's where we are.
Sasitorn: Exactly. This is Aroy Thai.
Dolinsky:And this was very aroy. Well thank you so much for coming and showing me how to eat Thai food. Sasitorn: It's always a pleasure and very yummy to see you eat."

As for dessert, one of my all-time favorites in any culture is fresh mango with coconut cream-laced sticky rice. If your local Thai restaurant has it, get it.

Songkran begins Tuesday, April 13.

Aroy Thai
4654 North Damen Ave.
(773) 275-8360