In Malaysia, few Thai restaurants have found quite the fame and success that Erawan has. The restaurant has accolades aplenty – last year, it was named one of Kuala Lumpur’s best restaurants by CNN Travel and was also awarded the Thai Select Premium (which indicates 5-star excellence or higher) seal of approval from Thailand’s Ministry of Commerce, the only Thai restaurant in Malaysia to be honoured with this recognition.
Much of the restaurant’s success is linked to the culinary prowess of chef Trakool Yodsuk, better known as Korn. Chef Korn is a Thai native who learnt how to cook authentic Thai food in his own home where talent was aplenty – his grandmother even cooked for King Rama VII!
“I thought everyone in Thailand knew how to cook. Which is why I felt like I was nothing special! It’s only later that I realised that a lot of people don’t cook,” he says.
Korn’s tutelage happened organically. He learnt how to identify many basic Thai ingredients from their taste and texture, or as he puts it – “My mum would say, ‘Korn, go and get holy basil!’ And I would say ‘Which one is that, mum?’ And she would say ‘Go and smell lah!’ So I would go and smell the leaves,” he says, laughing at the recollection.
Over the years, Korn has refined both his olfactory capabilities as well as his palate and continues to be committed to producing high-quality meals. He is fastidious about every component being done to perfection at Erawan.
“When I cook for customers, I need to make sure everything is alright – I need to be hands-on with everything,” he says.
Which also explains why many things at Erawan are made from scratch – from the green and red curry pastes to the roasted nuts and chilli flakes. “It’s a lot of work and a lot of preparation but good food must come from scratch, you cannot cheat customers,” he says earnestly.
This sincerity is reflected in the food at Erawan – the green curry with Kobe beef, for instance is revelatory. Korn lightly sears the beef before incorporating it into the curry, which is rich, aromatic and bursting with flavour. The beef is a star in its own right – silken soft and petal-tender.
Korn is also particular about the need to balance flavours perfectly in his dishes. So you’ll find a nimble juggling of sweet, sour, spicy and fresh flavours in the restaurant’s seafood salad which is bolstered by fresh lemongrass, shallots, mint leaves and coriander.
“The salad is very light and refreshing, because we don’t like flavours overpowering the ingredients, we want the taste of the original ingredient like prawns and squid to be present. So everything else cannot be too sour or salty,” he says.
Interestingly, although Korn is meticulous about everything that goes into the meals at Erawan, his approach to home-cooking is incredibly laidback. He even advocates using ingredients like tinned sardine (sure to induce gasps of horror from regular patrons of Erawan!).
“A lot of people want to know what I’m eating at home. And I say, ‘Don’t expect me to be eating very fancy food – only my customers have the benefit of that,’” he says.
Korn also emphasises that like most chefs, he is exhausted after a day of cooking in the restaurant and the last thing he wants to do is cook another elaborate meal at home.
“After a heavy day of work, where got mood to cook? I’m very tired, that’s why I cook very cincai and very simple. I want to rest more than I want to cook. Sometimes I just open a can of sardines and eat that,” he says.
As Korn is currently on a diet, his go-to recipes are classic Thai staples that are light and low-calorie.
“When I go out, I tend to eat oily food, so when I have a chance to cook, I need to cook healthy things for myself. Also I get people telling me, ‘You put on weight ah.’ And I’ll think ‘Ah, time to go on a diet,’” he says, laughing.
Korn’s pon plaa tu (mackerel dip) represents his ideal vision of a light, healthy meal. Essentially a sumptuous fish-tinged dip that can be eaten as an accompaniment to vegetables, spread on bread or even smeared on salad leaves and folded into a wrap, pon plaa tu is also incredibly easy to make.
“This is at the root of Thai home cooking. Every Thai house must have dip and vegetables. And it’s quick and simple to put together,” he says.
Another meal that Korn has been making a lot of is geang som (clear and sour red curry), a light broth that has a lovely mixture of spicy-sour flavours.
“This one is low-fat – it doesn’t even have any coconut milk in it. You can dump all your favourite vegetables in it or add some seafood. And it keeps for days!” he says.
Given Korn’s passionate love for Thai food (both at home and in the restaurant) it isn’t surprising to learn that he wants to open a Thai cooking school in KL soon, where he will share all the recipes he has learnt over the years.
“I want to share in a real, good way. I am very happy to have people learn from me and go out and have the skills to make original Thai food, not learn one month here, one month there and call themselves experts on Thai food!” he says.
GEANG SOM (CLEAR AND SOUR RED CURRY)
For the red curry paste
10 to 15 large dried chillies, de-seeded and soaked until soft
1 tsp salt
8 shallots, chopped
2 tsp shrimp paste
200g fish of your choice, cut into pieces (prawns, squid or even canned sardine can be used too)
oil, for deep-frying
3 cups water
500g mixed vegetables (lotus root, radish, long bean, carrot, cabbage, broccoli)
3 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp brown sugar
1/2 cup tamarind juice
To make the red curry paste
In a pestle and mortar, pound chilli and salt together until fine. Add chopped shallots and shrimp paste, combine well and set aside.
In a pan, heat up enough oil for deep-frying and deep-fry fish until crispy. Set aside.
In a pot, bring water to boil over medium heat until boiling. Add red curry paste, stir well and let it boil again. Add vegetables one at a time, starting with the vegetables that take longer to cook and ending with quick-cook vegetables.
Season with fish sauce, sugar and tamarind juice then add in the fish. Continue to cook for 1 minute, then remove from the heat and serve hot.
PON PLAA TU (MACKEREL DIP)
10 to 15 green chillies, roasted
5 garlic cloves, roasted
3 shallots, roasted
2 boneless mackerel fish, grilled
1/4 cup clean water (filtered or boiled)
1 to 2 tbsp fish sauce
3 to 4 tbsp lime juice
1 tsp sugar
1/4 cup chopped sawtooth herb
Combine green chilli, garlic and shallots in a pestle and mortar and pound till you get a paste. Add the grilled mackerel and continue to pound until the mixture becomes fine. Add water and season with fish sauce, lime juice and sugar and stir well. If the mixture is too dry, add more water.
Sprinkle with chopped herbs just before serving and mix mixture well. Serve with cooked assorted vegetables of your choice like pumpkin, cucumber, carrot, broccoli and long beans.