First comes the spicy jolt of hot chili peppers. Then, the salty, pungent lick of fish sauce, bumping up against the sour tang of tamarind and lime. Bringing balance is a touch of sweetness from palm sugar. All this in a single sip of tom yum shrimp soup.
With its seductive dance of sweet, sour, salty and spicy, Thai food can set your heart to pumping.
That's what it does for Thai food enthusiast John Mamus of Northport, who notes that the Thai restaurant scene on Long Island has "grown exponentially" over the past few years. What leads him to comb Nassau and Suffolk counties is the cuisine's complexity of flavors. "And it's something you probably wouldn't make at home," he says.
The local popularity of Thai food came through in the 2011/2012 Zagat Long Island Restaurant Survey, which accorded Siam Lotus of Bay Shore the second-highest food rating among all Long Island restaurants. Newsday also gives the restaurant high accolades.
Chef Michael Ginor, of Lola in Great Neck, names Thai the one cuisine in the world he'd choose to eat all the time. As it turns out, in 2008, Ginor cooked for the king of Thailand, where the pilot for his PBS show "Runaway Chef" was filmed. "There's a brightness of flavor that just explodes," Ginor said, adding that the variety inherent in Thai cuisine is "incredible -- not only from region to region but within the cuisine."
What region a chef comes from might not be apparent to those without roots in Thailand, but to Boonsee Koophongsakorn of East Northport, origins are easy to taste, even on a multiregional menu. Koophongsakorn, a retired physician active at the Vajiradhammapadip Temple in Centereach, grew up in southern Thailand, on the island of Phuket.
"It's more spicy in the south," said Koophongsakorn. "And there's more seafood." She points to an influence from nearby Indonesia and Malaysia, apparent in the area's Massaman curry, which has "more sting" than curry from the central Bangkok region.
That's the region Jintana Lauchalermsuk, chef and co-owner of Frankly Thai in Franklin Square, hails from. "In the middle part of Thailand," she said, "the food is a little sweet. The northern part isn't sweet at all, only spicy. And the northeastern part is sour and spicy."
This year, Lauchalermsuk and her husband, Frankie Perrone, closed their restaurant for a month and took the entire crew with them to Thailand, where they dined on multiregional fare and culled the popular street food vendors for ideas. (Last year, they brought back from the food stalls the Thai version of zeppole. This year, it was coconut noodles with lime juice.) Perrone also sampled the fiery cuisine of Isan, in the northeast. "It can make your hair stand up."
Don't expect to see diners looking like the bride of Frankenstein at most American restaurants, though, since Thai chefs usually tone down the food to suit what they perceive as the local palate.
Amphai Holmquist, chef-owner of Thai House in Smithtown, comes from the northeastern region, where the spicing is bold. She said, however, she usually makes a dish medium-hot on a first-time request, since so many people can't handle the fire. As she gets to know a customer, she will turn up the heat accordingly.
Ginor, who often gets the fiery Isan-style green papaya salad at SriPraPhai in Williston Park, said he will let a restaurant know he wants the kind of authenticity accorded a native Thai by using the phrase no farang (often pronounced "falang"), meaning, "Don't cook for me like you would for a foreigner."
Interpreting the menu
Although Long Island Thai menus are written in clear English, it helps to understand the components of each dish. Here are some of the primary ingredients, as well as an explanation of what makes a Thai curry:
Galanga From the ginger family, but more earthy and peppery in flavor.
Thai basil There are two types, holy basil and sweet basil, each distinct and different from the Italian variety.
Lemongrass A stalk with a lemony, perfumey flavor
Fish sauce (nam pla) A liquid condiment made from purified fermented fish
Thai curry A mixture of dry and wet ingredients made into a paste using mortar and pestle. Many, but not all, curries are finished with coconut milk and include a protein and vegetables.
Green curry Derives its color from coriander, cumin seed and green chilies
Red curry Gets its color from red chilies; also made with coriander seeds and peppercorns
Massamun curry A brown curry served in southern Thailand, with influences from the Middle East. Made with potatoes, peanuts, cardamom, cinnamon, turmeric, cumin and coconut milk.