Thai flavors in the heart of the Old Port
Just as America, in all of its wonderful and problematic complexity, will ultimately be remembered for having invented freedom and bestowed it upon the world, so Thai culture (host to, among other things, a particularly beautiful manifestation of Buddhism and a style of massage very popular in certain circles) will be best remembered for having thought to put curry paste together with coconut milk. If we are honest with ourselves we will admit that Thai curry tastes better than freedom feels. One knows what to do with a Thai curry — freedom, less so.
CURRYING FAVOR: Love the coconut milk.
These thoughts occurred to me as I took in our president’s speech last week while I enjoyed a red curry with chicken. This was possible because of Chiang Mai, a very affordable Thai place that opened last year in the Old Port. Humble and pretty good (especially if you stick to the curry dishes), Chiang Mai is the first Thai place in this part of town really appropriate to take out. Siam is a little pricey and for the extra money you want to stay and take advantage of its elegant atmosphere. I think South Portland favorites Thai Taste and Pom’s Thai might deliver up here, but if they hate driving through South Portland even half as much as I do, it seems uncaring to make them do it. Chiang Mai you can swing by yourself, and noting how the too-bright light shows off the exposed ventilation, pay the modest tab and feel fine about taking it on home.
Thai food in general should be appreciated because it has a tanginess (thanks to lemongrass, lime juice, galanga, and tamarind) that is mostly missing from American food. But Thai curry is especially good because it is rich without the cloyingness of butter and that richness allows it to hold such depth of flavor. This is true at Chiang Mai, where the curries, just $5.95 for a generous serving at lunch, $7.95 at dinner, are the best thing on the menu. The red curry is actually a pleasing orange, with darker specks of oil and pepper. Ample pieces of chicken and large, slightly tender, pieces of carrot, green bean, red and green pepper, and eggplant tasted terrific in this sweet curry with a satisfying heat.
The green curry was even better. A muted, yellowish-brownish green, the broth is earthier and more vegetal. What makes green curry so very good? The menu indicates the dish contains baby marrow, though I saw no sign of the zucchini that chefs call by that name. Is it possible that they actually harvest the soft interior from the bones of infants in order to achieve this flavor? Probably not — but if so, it might be worth it. The Panaeng curry was much like the red, but with the distinct taste of peanut and a slightly pastier sauce that left a peanut-buttery feeling on the tongue. It seemed possible that this dish was made by actually stirring peanut butter into the red curry broth, and if so there is no shame in that.
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