Royal Thai Food Festival, Benjarong

The promotions of the Royal Thai Festival are all over the place and for someone who loves Thai food, I was rueing missing the showcase a day before the festival began, but Benjarong called me over to have a chat with their celebrity chef and resident chefs last night for dinner and so here is how it went.

I was greeted by Chef Ram, the brand chef at Benjarong and was shown to the table where a friend joined me sometime later. Before he came, I was aquatinted to their celebrity chef, Ms Tharee Charupas and we got chatting.

'So are you a writer?' she asked

'Not really, but aspiring to be. I am a physician by profession but with lots of passion for food and so I got into an area of medicine which plays around a lot with food' I said

' I was a nurse before the passion for food brought me into this profession. Looks like healthcare and food are very closely related' she said.

'Oh yes, so madam, do you have a restaurant in Thailand?' I asked

'Oh no no. I can cook good food, but I cannot manage the people. So I run a cooking school and am professor of authentic Thai cooking. I teach small batches of chefs and have trained many people who are head chefs' she said.

'Thats nice, so is this what you serve the king?' I asked.

'No no. This festival in Thailand is one where we make food and present it like it was to be served for the king. Everyone makes it at home and they take extra care to present it well and take special efforts to make it taste great. So it is not something we give the king, but something we make with so much care as if it was meant for the king' she said.

And the starters arrived. Chef Ram rattled out the Thai names, Tung tong (crispy fried golden pouches stuffed with vegetables and water chestnuts served with sweet chilli sauce) Khao tang naa tung (crispy rice crackers served with peanut sauce) Goong sarong (crispy Thai prawn spring rolls wrapped with wonton sheet, served with plum sauce) Sakoo sai gai (Steamed sago dumpling with a chicken filling). Madam corrected him everytime saying, 'Goong saroooooooooooonnnnnnngggggg' and so we had a lesson in Thai language as well.

'The Goong sarong, is prawn wrapped around by wanton sheet, just like how the Thai girls wrap their sarong. Have you been to Thailand?'

'Oh yeah, I have been there'. 'Me too' said my friend.

'So you like Thai girls no? How they beautifully wrap their sarong. The dish also tastes very good' she said and laughed. Both of laughed and did not bring back that topic again. Thankfully.

And then came the soup called Kaeng liang goong (Sour leaf soup with prawns). I am sure you always have the Tom Yum soup, so I wanted to serve you something different said Chef Ram.

'I don't like how it is served' she gestured the waitress to bring something and in a minute, we had some sticky rice.

'You want to eat like Thai or you want to eat like western people?' she asked.

Both of us said that we would like to have it the local way and so she spread some rice on our side plate. 'Thai people eat soup with rice. We don't eat starter, first course or second course, but we keep it all together and and eat everything with rice' she said.

'Just like our Thali. Rasam is the soup, and others are like curd, sambar, paruppu and the side dishes all kept in one plate' quipped Chef Ram.

And then she exclaimed. 'You had your entire soup with rice, so you like it no?' she said. Indeed, we had our soup with rice, just like rasam sadham and it was indeed nice. So next time, I have Thai soup, it's going to be with rice.

'Ok, you can bring main course' she gestured to Chef Ram and he disappeared to get our stuff.

'So madam, what do you think about the Thai food here?' I asked

'It is very good, but it is not fully authentic. It is almost authentic, but now I have trained them to make it fully authentic. And looks like no one is complaining' she pointed to the packed restaurant. 'But I wish I can serve the people food like how Thai people eat, without separate courses, but that will take a long time. I hope you can write about it' she said

And the main course arrived. Mee kati (Rice vermicelli cooked in rich coconut milk gravy with prawns), which turned out to the best dish of the evening, it was like juicy noodles, and you did not need any sauce or anything to eat it with, it was like a meal of its own, with vermicelli, prawns, lot of veggies and just about the perfect dish. Khao hom mali (Jasmine rice) Gai yang pahd cha (stir fried grilled chicken in red curry paste with ginger and tender peppercorns) and a mango salad. The grilled chicken was super yummy and she made us have more rice with vermicelli, yes, she did it and we were not complaining. And then we had the rice with the peanut sauce that was served with the starters, which is easily the best peanut sauce I have had in India.

'So how do you make jasmine rice?'

'Ha ha. First of all there is no jasmine. It is called jasmine rice because it is soft life jasmine and it is white, so it looks and feels like jasmine' said Chef Ram and that cleared all my doubts about why I could not taste jasmine, there was none.

We finished off with my favorite Thai dessert, the water chestnut in coconut milk, which I insisted on having, while she served us her specialty, a sago pudding with coconut milk and cream, and she was right, it was a much better dish than the chestnut.

So having completed the formalities, and having learnt a thing or two about Thai cuisine and culture and having out stomachs and heart full but light, we headed home.

Benjarong is a great place to eat, there is no doubt about it and you do not need a festival for the food to be good, but if you are planning to go there anytime, now is a great time. She will be more than happy to sit and talk to you and tell you a few things about food and culture. The festival is on for two weeks.

And yeah, my pure vegetarian friend who was supposed to have joined me but bailed because it was 'too non veg' was brought up and both the chefs were quick to respond. "Please tell your friend that everything can be made pure vegetarian here. In fact, we are getting a lot of pure vegetarian people who specifically ask us about ingredients and we are more than happy to help" said Chef Ram. "Who said Thai food cannot be vegetarian?" quipped the celebrity chef.  I rest my case!

Food 9/10
Ambiance 8.5/10
Price 8/10

Benjarong is on TTK road, on the same side as the exit gate of Park Sheraton.

Things to not miss

1. The rice vermicelli with prawns
2. The prawns wrapped in sarong.
3. Mango salad
4. Tom Yum or Sour leaf soup.

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