BANGKOK (THE NATION/ASIA NEWS NETWORK) - For most Thais, paying more than Bt100 (S$4) for a bowl of khao tom pla (boiled rice soup with fish) is totally unacceptable. So why, one wonders, are the tables at Khao Tom Pla by Usanee packed every night from opening to closing when the bowls of rice soup go for anywhere between Bt150 to Bt400? The answer, of course, lies in the taste.
Occupying a small shophouse on Plabplachai Road, next to Wat Thepsirin, the eatery is known for its top-class street food made to original recipes. A glance at the sidewalk display of the ingredients and cooking station out front underlines the freshness. The dining area, however, is air-conditioned, allowing customers to eat the piping hot soup in comfort even in the hottest weather.
A bowl of rice soup with pla kapong (sea bass) will cost you from Bt150 to Bt200 while the more luxurious option, pla tao toey (deep-sea pomfret), goes for Bt400 and is considerably more rare –only six servings are available each day. The seawater fish come in generous boneless fillets, not thin slices, with well-cooked rice and an aromatic and tasty broth.
Other options, also of premium quality, include shrimp, oyster, pork bladder and kidney, fresh fish maw and fish kidney and cost Bt150 to Bt200 a bowl. Chopped celery and fried chopped garlic are sprinkled on each dish just before serving and delivered to the table with three kinds of dipping sauce – tao chiew (salted soy bean), tao chiew with ground chilli, and Thai-style spicy seafood sauce.
Usanee Likhityangyuen’s grandfather was the founder of the popular khao tom pla shop in the Saphan Lueng area on Rama IV Road and it was here that she learned how to cook. She helped run the family business for more than 50 years before opening her own shop with her children at the current location three years ago. The shop at Saphan Lueng area is still in the family and today is run by her relatives.
“Ten years ago, I shifted to the garment business but the prices were simply too competitive,” explains Usanee, who is in her 60s.
“Then I met some former patrons of my grandfather’s khao tom pla shop and they more or less ordered me to go into catering! Word spread and they encouraged me to open my own shop based on original recipes. At that time, my son was also eager to have his own business, so the timing was right.”
A graduate in information and communication technology of Mahidol University, Usanee’s son Pheeraphong prefers to slave over a hot stove than a cool computer. A talented cook, he has learned his skills from his mother and is more than capable of taking her place in the kitchen.
“Working in an office is not my thing,” says the 29-year-old. “Our family has many recipes for khao tom pla and we shouldn’t ignore their priceless value. From a business point of view, it makes sense too as we have lots of loyal customers. And it’s healthy food too, although the young generation sometimes regard it as a dish for the elderly or sick.”
Unlike other street-side shops that use steamed rice in the hot broth for speedy service, Usanee makes her soup from scratch. The rice grains are slowly cooked until fairly soft while the flavourful broth is also slowly simmered with pork ribs. She goes to the market every morning to make sure that her fish is always the freshest. A sea bass weighing 10 to 12 kg, she says, is chosen as it has plump and sweet flesh. Only one deep-sea pomfret is used each day due to its high cost – Bt1,300 to Bt1,400/kg.
“To get rid of fishy smell, the fish fillets must be cleaned with sea salt before being vacuumed packed in plastic bags and kept in a container filled with ice. We don’t store the fish in a refrigerator – the freezer is too frosty and the general compartment’s temperature is too low,” Usanee explains.
Each bowl of boiled rice soup is seasoned with bateng – small cubes of pork that are slowly stir-fried in soy sauce and pepper – to add flavour, and a basic bowl of boiled rice soup with bateng costs Bt100. Deep-fried crispy tofu sheet (Bt20) eaten as a side dish adds a crunch.
Other menu options include khao tom pla haeng, fish boiled rice without the soup and luak jim – lightly boiled pieces of fish fillets, fish maw and kidney, shrimp to oyster, pork bladder and kidney sprinkled with fried garlic and blanched Chinese cabbage. The ingredients can also ordered as yum or salad with spicy dressing.
WHERE: Khao Tom Pla by Usanee is next to Wat Thepsirin, on Plabplachai Road.
OPEN: 5pm to 11pm.
INFORMATION: Call (097) 276 5244 or (081) 868 5323. Catering sevice is also available.