BANGKOK, July 16 — Recipes from grandmothers are the epitome of comfort food the world over. Even in Bangkok, where locals and tourists alike are often exposed to Thai staples for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
But there is more to Thai cuisine than som tum (spicy raw papaya salad), pad Thai (stir-fried rice noodles with prawns) and khao neow mamuang (mango sticky rice).
Every province has its own particular cuisine and none more so than the vibrant Isan region in the north-east, where seafood is a key ingredient and sticky rice, rather than typical long-grain rice, is eaten with every meal.
Where does one get authentic Isan cuisine in the capital though? We’ve asked around and everyone points us to Supanniga Eating Room by Thanaruek “Eh” Laoraowirodge, the co-owner of the popular diner Somtum Der.
Born in Khon Kaen, a major city in Isan, Laoraowirodge started Supanniga as a loving homage to his late khun yai (grandmother); a way of bringing back secret family recipes before they got lost for good.
Located in a refurbished three-story shophouse, Suppaniga’s down-to-earth palette of earth tones punctuated with sunny hits of yellow will perk up any diner upon entering. The judicious use of yellow here is a nod to the vivid colour of the supanniga flowers from which the restaurant takes its name.
Delicate china plates are laid out at every table. The brushed concrete walls are adorned with framed pieces of woven Thai silk, in particular mut-mee silk from Isan.
The silk threads are tie-dyed to create fine geometric patterns. Small touches like these reflect a sense of place, of Trat by the east coast where Laoraowirodge’s khun yai originally hailed from. We’re not simply having a meal here; we’re immersing ourselves in a culture, and in someone’s treasured heritage.
While waiting for the food to arrive in a restaurant in Thailand, fresh coconut water or iced Thai tea is usually the default drink option.
Supanniga offers a more sophisticated alternative in their Signature Virgins, blends of freshly squeezed juices such as lemongrass and pineapple, passion fruit and apple, or the very green pairing of Japanese green tea and kiwi fruit.
We decide to follow the scent of the river with their Mekhong Thai Sabai, a punchy cocktail of Mekhong liqueur, fresh lime juice, Thai sweet basil leaves and a splash of soda. This, and a bottle or two of Singha beer, and we’re ready to dig into our trio of must-try Isan appetisers.
Sweet and tangy ma hor — minced pork stir-fried with garlic and peanuts served on tangerine slices — readies the palate with a citrus hit. The beautifully wrapped mieng yong — dried shredded pork, peanuts and roasted coconut wrapped in cha plu leaves — is a fun mouthful. And kids who can handle their heat (most Thai children, really) will love the khao tung namprik pao kak moo or rice crackers with chilli pork crackling dip.
Isan has a communal food culture: many dishes are served on small plates for sharing. Many items, especially these appetisers, are best savoured with fingers. And while Supanniga is far from a grungy stall hidden in a tiny soi, it isn’t a fussy fine dining establishment either. Dining is meant to be a casual, relaxed affair here.
As with Cantonese cuisine, soups are an ever-present feature of every meal here. It’s not unusual for a table to share several bowls of different soups.
In Rome, do as the Romans do, so we try their tom kloang pla nue aon krob, a spicy soup of Thai herbs made more piquant with smoke-dried and deep-fried Nue Aon fish.
For something lighter, we balance it with a bowl of pla muek yud sai, a clear broth of baby squids stuffed with seasoned ground pork. Very moreish. We can’t help but order some tomyum goong like any good tourist would but these have the benefit of jumbo-sized prawns. Sour and spicy, sweet and salty — this was some seriously good tomyum, not the watered down stuff one gets at many other restaurants.
Ingredients are key. Trat’s proximity to Thailand’s east coast means high quality seafood, both fresh and preserved, are a feature. From superior fish sauce from Trat to salted sala fish from Laem Ngop, nothing run-of-the-mill is used.
Even something as simple as seasoning pork and crabmeat requires pure, refined pepper from Chantaburi.
The result is beautiful, distinctly home-cooked dishes that are hardly found anywhere else these days. Take Supanniga’s hor mok for example: huge chunks of juicy crab meat from Surat Thani are steamed to perfection with curry paste in aromatic banana-leaf cups.
Even something as basic as spicy petai prawns — called pad namprik sa-taw goong sod in Thailand — is elevated with the use of southern wild beans and premium shrimp paste from Koh Chang.
No Thai meal would be complete without something sweet for a sweet day or evening ahead. The traditional but not very common dessert of bua loy kai kem waan — salty-sweet rice flour dumplings and a single salted egg yolk in warm coconut cream — is simple in execution but deeply satisfying.
Fusion’s not a bad word here though, as evidenced by the delicate Thai tea panna cotta. Fresh seasonal fruits hit the spot too, always.
After a long, unhurried meal, guests are welcome to linger. Some relax by grabbing a smoke on the verandah outside, like a scene from a village in Isan. Others indulge in some strong martinis such as the house signature Supanniga Martini, a refreshing if intoxicating mix of dark rum, gin, vodka, lime juice, brown sugar and mint leaves.
Local fruits also make an appearance, such as in their Fresh Mangosteen Martini and Rambutan Martini.
Dining at Supanniga reminds us of dinner at a friend’s home, with all the best flavours, textures and aromas of provincial Thai cuisine — heat and smokiness from spices fresh and dried, pungency and umami, crunchiness and velvety smoothness, subtle sweetness and a deep savouriness, citrus tang and green bitterness — cooked and served to friends with a grandmother’s love.
Supanniga Eating Room
160/11, Sukhumvit Soi 55 (Thonglor), Bangkok, Thailand
Open daily 11:30am-2:30pm & 5:30-11pm
Tel: +66 2 714 7508