Tastes of Thailand

A cook from New Thai Food's station at Tastes of Thailand prepares spicy papaya salad (Som Tam) with her pestle and mortar. Easy for her; searing pleasure/pain for this one.

Living in downtown Toronto, we know it happens every year. The prettiest weekend of the summer, when everyone should be outside on deck or patio or puttering about the backyard, is blighted and spoiled. A persistent noise fills the warm, aestival air, pitched somewhere between a buzz and a whine, like hornets swarming in the eaves or the ceaseless chorus of 10,000 soprano vuvuzelas – the Honda Indy. It’s amazing how far the sound travels. When we lived in the Annex, north of Bloor, it would wake us at 8:00 am on the Sunday in question, as if our neighbours were renovating their basement with a jig saw. These days we live farther south and the sound of the racing cars ceaselessly chasing each other around their walled circuit is even more obtrusive, driving us indoors and making the cat nervous and bad-tempered.

In the great scheme of things, however, all this is more than balanced by the treats that accumulate for the downtown urbanite – interesting events within easy walking distance – from burning police cars to fez-headed Shriners on the march to maniacal Spanish soccer fans to this weekend’s other gathering, the Tastes of Thailand in Nathan Phillips Square. Okay, it isn’t a major festival. The GTA’s tiny Thai community seems to have no budget for advertising and the word-of-mouth head of steam that seemed to be building a few years ago has since dissipated. I only heard about it through my son, who works in a Thai restaurant on the Danforth. So, yesterday, down we went for a pleasant hour to listen to Thai music from performers on the scaffold stage instead of Danika Patrick’s transmission.

It was all very low-key (the energy, not the music). There are booths where one can buy a few minutes of Thai massage – a particular style in which the victim’s limbs are twisted into knots. There are stalls selling trinkets and scarves and one tent where a woman is patiently and skillfully carving fruit into spectacular floral sculptures. It’s one of the most ephemeral art forms imaginable but taken very seriously in Thailand, where the king himself employs a royal fruit carver to provide decorative centrepieces for his dinner table.

As for food, there are half a dozen restaurants represented at Tastes of Thailand, each offering a buffet selection of dishes for a few bucks. The cooks in question are aware that most of their audience this weekend will be Thai so the treats have a pleasing authenticity in terms of flavour intensity. We didn’t try everything but several items stood out. At Pi-Tom’s stall, we tasted beautifully fluffy moist tilapia fried in a crisp batter and dressed with a tart tamarind sauce. At the Thai Senses booth I was most impressed by very tender, grilled baby octopus on a stick and by plump, heavy pork sausages also impaled on bamboo. They are sweetish and garlicky with a soft, fine texture and my son told me they taste exactly like Toronto’s finest Thai sausages, the ones that are made in her home by P’ Tum, a familiar member of the community who supplies several high-quality restaurants and is also a fortune teller.

Best of all was a spicy papaya salad, freshly made to order at the stall operated by New Thai Food, a restaurant at 2450 Lakeshore Road West in Oakville (www.thaisenses.ca). Two years of staff meals at Mong Kut Thai have given my son a taste for lethal chili heat so he asked for the salad to be made properly spicy. We watched as the cook began by crushing a handful of scarlet chilies in a huge black mortar, wielding the pestle like a hefty muddler. She added chewy dried shrimp and a good quantity of grated white papaya, then roasted peanuts, crunchy green beans snapped into one-inch lengths, and a ladleful of a dressing made with lime juice, tamarind juice, sugar and garlic. My son and I carried the dish away to a table and tucked in, relishing the variety of textures, the fresh flavours, the swift onset of delectably agonizing pain as the chili oil attacked the inside of our mouths. “In Thailand,” my son told me, “children start eating raw chilies when they’re about five years old.”

Two minutes later I was back at the New Thai Food stall to buy ice-cold drinks, much to the amusement of the young women manning the concession. But that salad needed the chili heat. Thai food is all about the balance of extremes – sweetness, acidity, saltiness, chili heat. Diminish one or two of those components – as so many Thai restaurants do in deference to Western palates – and the whole thing is suddenly out of whack, too sweet, too bland and generally unsatisfactory. It’s good to taste the real thing from time to time.

Tastes of Thailand runs again today at Nathan Phillips Square. A fine place to escape the Indy buzz.

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