Times are changing for ‘lifestyle restaurant’ and global brand Mango Tree. Matt Hodges visits the mothership in Bangkok as the company gets ready to open on the Chinese mainland.
Thai dishes used to be considered too spicy for some markets, so the global Thai brand Mango Tree has for two decades been toning down its flavors outside its home country.
"Now we are telling our chefs to add one or two chilies to their dishes in most places because world palates are changing," says CEO Phithaya Phanphensoph on ahead of the franchise’s mainland debut later this month in Shandong province’s Qingdao.
Chinese tourists have been flocking to The Land of Smiles, which introduced a visa-on-arrival waiver scheme last September, to enjoy its temples, island beaches, rock-climbing and hedonistic nightlife. More than 4.7 million visited in 2014 alone.
Dining and shopping are key parts of the traditional itinerary, and few countries offer better street food than Thailand. It is famous for its green and red curries, pad thai (stir-fried rice noodles with shrimp, tofu, egg, garlic and fish sauce), papaya salad and spicy tom yam soup. Red Bull and vodka buckets are optional.
Mango Tree keeps those staples but adds a creative, contemporary twist with dishes like lobster pad thai, steamed seafood with chili mousse in banana cup, and stir-fried barbecue duck with garlic and pepper (instead of pancakes and sweet black sauce).
For dessert, why not try a warm taro dumpling with quail egg in sweet coconut milk, or water chestnut "rubies" in chilled coconut syrup? The ambience is expanded with everything from DJs playing house music to cooking tips and cocktail-making classes.
Mango Tree has adopted the same blueprint at its newly opened Washington, DC branch, where Phithaya plans to introduce the "world’s greatest crab cakes" from South Carolina. The chain also works with Louis Vuitt on in Hong Kong, where it has two outlets.
"It is destination dining," says managing director David MacKenzie." We like spots like we have on the river in Bangkok. We are always looking for that ‘wow’ factor."
"You don’t just come to eat. You come to hang out and have fun with your friends," says Phithaya, adding that 70 percent of the clientele is female.
Thai food is now considered the world’s No 5 cuisine, at least according to a recent poll of users of Ranking.com. Italian is No 1 and Chinese No 4.
Dishes vary among the country’s four regions, reflecting cultural influences from China, Myanmar, India and Malaysia. Thai curries are marked by their use of coconut milk and freshing redients rather than the powdered spices used in Indian curries.
Northern dishes are mild, those in the midlands contain more small fish and river fare, while southern dishes show Arabic influences and are sweeter with more lamb. Yet many are still garnished with garlic, sugar, fish oil or spicy chilies.
The old spice and silk routes are now in the process of being resurrected after President Xi Jinping announced his vision in 2013 to restore centuries-old land and shipping lanes from South China through Southeast Asia via East Africa to Europe.
Meanwhile, Thailand gave the green light to a $23-billion deal last summer for two high speed rail links with China to be built by 2021, and Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha endorsed the restoration of a 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and economic belt this February. That same month, the World Maritime News reported that a new $20-billion canal in South Thailand that China may be financing, called the Kra Canal, could be included in the plan.
Such bolstered trade routes should make the shipping of lemon grass, kaffir limes and other ingredients that much easier. At Mango Tree, the emphasis on fresh ingredients could hardly be stronger, as Phithaya demonstrated during a lobster pad thai class.
"The pad thai profile is sour, sweet and saltiness," says Phithaya, the hands-on CEO and self-effacing author of I’m Nota Chef but I Sure Am a Good Cook!" You add the salt and sugar last so as not to lose the flavor, and always use palm oil, not olive oil."
As he conjures up a salsa, green chili sauce and chili paste using ginger, shallots, limes and garlic, no powders or blenders are called into play. The pestle and mortar never had a stauncher champion. Use them to squeeze out the oil for more flavor. Use salt to draw out excess moisture.
One of the sauces looked a little like Bolognese.
"I think we may have borrowed that from Italy," he quips while attacking a lobster with scissors.
Most chefs live on a diet of stress and screaming at subordinates. Phithaya prefers pop music, politeness and champagne. He likes the simplicity of Jamie Oliver’s cooking but is nota fan of Gordon Ramsay’s colorful vocab.
With Thai cooking, you are not eating a lot of complex car-bo-hydrates or processed food. Some of the herbs help your immune system and some of the ingredients – garlic, chili – area phrodisiacs," he says.