Tharit Charungvat, Thailand’s ambassador to South Africa, once told the editor of the Mail & Guardian that if you wanted authentic Thai cuisine, it was advisable to visit the kitchen and instruct the chef to cook “real Thai-style”.
I tried this in the narrow kitchen — rather like the galley of a ship — at Sai Thai in Cyrildene and was swiftly hustled out as Dennis Tiu was busy preparing a large order.
This is an unpretentious “neighbourhood” restaurant — there’s wood panelling and a converted veranda — in a suburb consisting entirely of Chinese restaurants. Tiu was taught to cook by his wife, Micky Liu. That afternoon she was tending to the couple’s Thai massage business, but despite her absence she seemed to be everywhere.
There were at least a dozen portraits of her posing with well-known people (among them gastronome Victor Strugo) and a framed picture of the Thai king and queen.
I ordered the mar khuar phad tao huu, or spicy eggplant stir-fried with deep-fried tofu, shiitake mushrooms, bean paste, carrots, “veg nuggets”, garlic, basil and oyster sauce. It arrived on a rectangular plate, the vegetables cooked in a thin sauce that was perfect to soak up the steamed rice.
The Thais are a friend of chillies, more specifically, prik kee nuu or “mouse-dropping chilli”. There are chilli icons scattered throughout the menu, like danger signs, but you’ll be asked how hot you like it. The mar khuar phad tao huu had whole red chillies and they cut through me like a laser.
The restaurant does not have a liquor licence but the waiter will point you in the direction of a shebeen around the corner.
The menu runs to 16 pages and every dish, including the phad thai, green curries and cashew chicken, has fans, such as the Italian couple who came for the spicy “mother-in-law” clams.
14 Derrick Avenue, Cyrildene.
Tel: 011 615 1339