When it comes to food from this part of the Orient, it just doesn’t get any better than this
About 10 years ago, funny things started to happen in Chinese restaurants around Belfast. You’d be running through the list idly on a Friday night, take-away menu in one hand, phone in the other, and once you had gone through the spring roll, salt and chilli squid and spiced rib starters, the chicken chow mein, prawn dishes and Peking Duck and were about to dial for a delivery, you noticed Thai Specials. Chicken green curry, prawn red curry, Thai noodles? Where did these come from? Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, Chinese take-aways were reprinting their menus and were now offering Thai options.
It must have had something to do with a new export drive by Thailand following the Asian financial crash of the late ’90s because, soon after noticing the new culinary offerings, I received an invitation from a motor manufacturer to go to Thailand for a week to test drive a new car.
While I suspected they had picked the wrong guy and thought I was somebody else I immediately set about proposing a programme idea to the BBC (before anyone had time to try to withdraw the invite): Northern Ireland was now gripped by an addiction to Thai green curry. I proposed going to Thailand to find the perfect green curry and report back on whether or not the ones available to us bore any resemblance to the real McCoy.
The manufacturer had agreed for me to bring a cameraman. I told the BBC there were no costs to them so I immediately secured a commission, two first-class returns to Bangkok and a week’s worth of five-star accommodation at various locations including the Thai capital, Chiang Mai in the north and somewhere else near the Burmese border. The Hunt for Green Curry was on.
First stop after luxuriating for 13 hours in the Thai Airlines 747’s bubble top was the Four Seasons Hotel (then known as the Regent). The big attraction was its famous ground-floor restaurant the Spice Market, still there today.
Here the food was exemplary as well as a revelation. Neither the cameraman nor I had ever been exposed to pukka Thai food and, as far as all the critics were concerned, Spice Market was your man. The green curry was light and aromatic with a little spicy chilli coming through and some overtones of fish. It was such a delight I can still remember it 10 years on.
In the end, we couldn’t decide where the best one was made – they were all so different. But there is a corner of Belfast whose Thai food would easily have passed muster then.
Bo Tree, Belfast’s recent response to Thai food, is actually the result of what the English do so well which is to mix up a few people, a few bits and pieces and create something which is authentic on the one hand, but adapted to suit a particular market. Here the chef is from Chiang Mai, the owner is a charming English woman (Helen O’Malley) who has close links to Thailand and one of the servers we met is from Taiwan and studying for a Masters in Education at Queen’s. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, thankfully, nothing went wrong. The calmness and serenity of Bo Tree is instantly tangible. Simple light wooden furniture with plenty of space between tables, bright big windows bathing the creamy and brown interior in the evening light and discreet Thai ornamentation, wood carvings and statues immediately create a temple-like hush.
The choice in Bo Tree’s menu is daunting but thankfully, if you only got as far as the beginner’s course in Thai food, the difficult choice can be lifted from your shoulders and an intelligent guess will be made as to which starters and mains you might like. Precautionary questions to do with any possible allergies — there are lots of peanuts, satay sauce and other possible hazards, seemingly — help determine what will be brought out.
This is the marvellous thing about Thai food. It has a global appeal possibly because it focuses on the balance between different flavours, striking a fine harmony to incorporate the sweet, salty, sour and spicy. Clearly, western taste buds adore Thai food. Famous chefs from the west spend weeks in Thailand learning from the masters. Helen O’Malley is no exception and her operation creates a very nearly perfect trip to Thailand. The choices brought to us included delicate chicken wings, stuffed with little minced balls of pork and prawns; the most tender and flaky chicken ever and soft lamb cubes on skewers brushed with a little chilli oil and served with a satay sauce with kick; prawns in breadcrumbs with chilli jams and little cos leaves packed with peanuts and milled chicken. These were all delicate yet robust, spicy yet light and bursting with all the flavours your mouth can register.
The mains were even more spectacular. Noodles infused with satay, sticky rice, the floral and aromatic curry and the incredibly hot beef salad worked wonderfully well together as the four of us mixed and matched and ended up settling for favourites, each person picking a different dish. It was food as joyful and celebrational as the country of its origins.
The only very mild disappointment was no fruit for dessert. Thai fruit is unparalleled. Bright red rambutans, mangosteens and longans are so alien to us yet so deliciously sweet, pungent and powerful, I can understand they may not appeal to all (and they are probably difficult to import).
Still, other Thai fruit such as pineapple, papaya, watermelon and mango are easily available. But Bo Tree had another trick up its sleeve. It might not have fruit but have you tried saug kaya, I was asked. In the name of duty I agreed to go for this coconut and egg custard pudding but nothing prepared me for the steamed wonder which was brought out. As light as air with a hint of a crème caramel, the saug kaya easily made up for the lack of fruit. Fabulous not only for its sheer unexpectedness but also as a well executed piece of cooking, I surrendered to its charms.
Bo Tree is a wonder. All the more so that it hasn’t really featured in the food guides. Nonetheless this doesn’t stop the three-storey restaurant from having built up a great business since it opened three years ago.
We were all sorry to see a previously good little Thai place, Sawanna, go. But, thankfully, Helen O’Malley and her team have stepped in with something even better. A virtual trip to Thailand.
Chicken sateh: £6.90
Chicken on leaves: £6.95
Yum Neua: £8.95
(Spicy grilled beef salad with lemon grass, mint, shallots and chillis)
Gaeng Keo Wan: £8.90
(Green curry with baby aubergines, lime leaves, sweet Thai basil and coconut milk)
Kung Pad Prik Pao: £9.55
(Sweet chilli prawns with tamarind, chillis, cashew nuts, lime leaves and spring onions)
Khao Suay: £11.20
(Plain steamed jasmine rice — £2.80 per portion)
Saug Kaya: £5.20
(Steamed coconut and pumpkin custard)
Singha beers x4: £15.20
Tea x 3: £7.50