Fresh, fragrant fare from inviting Land of Smiles

Natti Simmons of Natti’s Thai Kitchen in Park Lane, Port Elizabeth. Pictures: Salvelio Meyer

The Global Table spent an afternoon with Natti Simmons of Natti’s Thai Kitchen, a landmark Port Elizabeth restaurant where many locals surely got their very first taste of Thai food when the restaurant opened in 1997.

For the uninitiated, the cuisine of Bangkok, and all of Thailand, can be a glorious revelation as the Land of Smiles is known for its fantastic use of fresh ingredients, many of which are unfamiliar to westerners.

Natti grew up in a part of Bangkok right next to the Grand Palace, but left the city in her early 20s after completing her studies in horticulture. She met her husband, Mark, at a kibbutz in Israel. The two moved back to his home city of PE, where they set up their delightful little restaurant which is now in Park Lane.

“We have two boys and the youngest, Chaim, 19, shares my love of cooking and has just qualified as a chef,” says Natti.

Thai food does not usually involve hours of cooking, stir-frying being a popular method. But there can be quite a lot of prepping, for instance by slicing meat and veggies. Fresh herbs like coriander, lemongrass, basil and mint are a cornerstone of the cuisine and Natti grows many of these in her kitchen garden.

Other common flavours are ginger, garlic, galangal, tamarind, turmeric, soya sauce, lime leaves and, of course, chillies. Dishes are often spicy, and my husband and Global Table partner Salvelio and I spluttered a bit after sampling Natti’s marvellous beef salad (scroll down for the recipe below). But you can use less of the hot stuff if you prefer!

Natti also showed us how to make fresh spring rolls (as opposed to fried spring rolls) using rice paper as a wrapper; that recipe is also on the blog today.

Thai food is often served with a variety of sauces and condiments, for instance one consisting of fish sauce, lime juice, chopped chillies and garlic. Everybody knows sweet chilli sauce; you could also have sliced chillies in rice vinegar, or chillies in various other guises. Natti makes a lovely condiment from pickled radish which she buys vacuum packed from the Vegetarian Centre in Newton Park, which also stocks many other Thai and Asian ingredients.

Natti’s Thai beef salad – a lovely, substantial salad.

Recipe: Thai beef salad

200g beef rump; 1 medium onion, thinly sliced; handful of button mushrooms, halved; pinch of salt; 1 tsp sugar; lettuce leaves (iceberg fine); fresh mint leaves; fresh basil or rocket; tomatoes, quartered; 1 tsp lemon juice; 1 tsp soya sauce; fresh red chilli to taste; sesame seeds for garnishing

Grill the steak on both sides; it must still be very rare inside. Slice thinly.
Sprinkle salt and sugar over onion, mix through and add to grilled beef.
Assemble the salad using lettuce as the bottom layer, then mushrooms, mint, basil or rocket and tomatoes (de-seed if preferred) sprinkled over. Put beef/onion mix on top.
Make a dressing from the lemon juice, soya and finely sliced chillies (if using). Pour over the salad. Garnish with sesame seeds.

Natti’s gorgeous spring rolls that are made with rice paper rather than being deep-fried.

 Recipe: Fresh spring rolls

Ingredients for the spring rolls

Rice Paper – soak in cold water for a few minutes till soft, but not falling apart. Set them aside between some moist tea towels until needed. Allow 2 sheets for every spring roll you want to make.
Vermicelli noodles – soak in hot water to soften. Allow a small handful for each spring roll, or use about a quarter of a 500g pack for four people.
Raw vegetables like fresh carrot and cucumber, sliced very thinly. A mandolin is useful for this, otherwise use your potato peeler.
Pickled radish, very finely diced (you can also use gherkin).
Fresh mint leaves to taste.
Fresh rocket and/or watercress to taste.
Cooked chicken breast strips – stir-fry with a bit of chopped garlic; cool. And allow about a third of a breast for each spring roll.

Method for the spring rolls

Assemble by putting the noodles, vegetables, chicken and mint in the centre of one layer of rice paper; sprinkle with pickled radish or gherkin.

Roll up and tuck in the sides of the rice paper as you go along. Set aside.

Place a rocket leaf and/or sprig of watercress on a second sheet of rice paper, place your rolled-up spring roll onto this sheet and roll it up again, as before. The idea of the double layer is so the filling doesn’t burst out uncontrollably when you bite into it.

Repeat for as many spring rolls as you would like to make. Cut each spring roll into four, garnish with finely sliced carrot and cucumber strips and some sesame seeds and serve with a dipping sauce on the side (recipe below).

Ingredients and method for the dipping sauce

Mix together: 2 Tbsp lemon juice; a pinch of salt; 1 tsp sugar; some finely chopped garlic to taste; crushed lemon grass and some pickled radish or gherkin. Place in a small sauce bowl and serve alongside the springrolls.

Louise in the restaurant kitchen with Natti.

Inspired by our visit to Natti? Get the Weekend Post on Saturday September 8 for a full travel feature on “48 Hours in Bangkok”. Three locals – ceramicist Donve Branch, photographer Donna Watson and Algoa FM finance head Kevin Reed also share their favourite parts of this bustling city!

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