SINGAPORE: When it comes to comfort food for the Thais, not many dishes come close to spicy pork with basil.
Pad kraprao, as it is known locally, is easily one of Thailand’s most popular dishes, members of the Thai community in Singapore told Channel NewsAsia at the Golden Mile Complex on Thursday (Jul 12). The dish is cheap, tasty, readily available and easy to eat.
In a more local context, a Singaporean who accompanied his Thai wife as she bought lunch summed it up: “It’s like our chicken rice.”
So when four young boys from Thailand – stranded in the flooded Tham Luang caves for more than two weeks – first got out, it came as no surprise that they asked for spicy pork with basil for their first meal.
But back at Golden Mile, the Thais said the dish could not have hit much closer to home for the boys.
Diandin Leluk Thai Restaurant manager Saw Mi, 42, said pad kraprao would have reminded them of their mum’s cooking. “They would have been eating it at home since they were young,” she said.
On the second floor, Noodle Beer Thai House owner Bank Chomprach, 36, said it would have brought back childhood memories. “My mother’s dish had its own taste,” he said. “I like it salty and spicy, so I asked her to add more spices.”
Nakhon Udon Thai Kitchen supervisor Pornchai Jaroenthin, 22, said the boys would have bonded over the dish at a favourite restaurant. “They are a football team, so maybe after training they would go and eat it together,” he said.
On a gastronomical level, the Thais said the boys would have gone for pad kraprao simply because it is delicious and wholesome. The dish is usually served with white rice topped with a fried egg or omelette.
If paired with sticky rice, another Thai staple, the dish would make a hearty meal, Ms Mi said, pointing out that a small serving of sticky rice is enough to fill.
The basil also goes well with fragrant rice, said Mr Liam Seng Chang, the Singaporean owner of Nong Khai Restaurant. “The basil tastes hot, but not spicy,” the 38-year-old said. “It heats up the body.”
The basil leaves are so commonplace that most households in Thailand grow them, Mr Chomprach said. “If they have nothing else but pork or chicken, they just pluck the leaves and cook,” he said. “If people can’t decide what to eat, they will go for it.”
This means that pad kraprao is available in every big city and small village in Thailand, Mr Jaroenthin said. “All Thai people know this dish,” he added. “It is easy to cook – easier than Tom Yum.”
However, waitress Lynn Jattirai, 33, rated the dish only “so-so”. “I’m from the North, where people eat different food,” she said. “I don’t like oily food, and Thai basil pork is fried in oil.”
Ms Jattirai pointed out that a more Northern variation of the dish would be sticky rice with pork. “But Thai basil pork for people in the cities is very fast to eat, very fast to buy and very fast for people who work,” she added.
It is no wonder then pad kraprao is popular in Singapore too. Thida Cuisine Corner waitress Cat Srikham, 50, said it is one of the most popular dishes at her restaurant. “My chef eats it every day,” she said, laughing.
But perhaps the clearest indication of how pad kraprao holds a special place in Thai hearts, including those of the boys now recovering in hospital, lies in its homeliness.
“I think their mothers always cooked it for them,” Ms Srikham said. “Because they just came out of the cave, and they want to eat it.”
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