From Phuket to Mexico City, a Thai chef puts down roots
The dumplings arrive underneath wisps of scallion and cucumber, their opaque skins crimped like carnation flowers and tinted butterfly pea blue. Called chor muang, this style of dumpling has historically been made for Thai royalty, but here they are on a menu in Mexico City, at the Thai restaurant Galangal, for anyone who orders them.
“My cooks want to kill me!” exclaimed chef Somsri Raksamran, giggling, explaining how each petal is pressed into place with a tweezer made for the job. In a country where the populace is unfamiliar with rote Thai dishes like green curry and pad thai, Raksamran in unafraid to fill her menus at Galangal (and the recently opened Kiin Thai-Viet Eatery) with the uncommon.
The story of how she arrived at the role of chef-owner of two popular Mexico City restaurants is equally unusual. Born in the province of Phang Nga in southern Thailand in 1984, she absorbed recipes from her mother and aunties when she was young and later studied hospitality in Bangkok. After learning massage and physical therapy, she was contracted as a masseuse by the Banyan Tree luxury hotel and resort group in Bangkok. When the company asked if she would be willing to transfer to another branch, they sent her almost 10,000 miles away to Acapulco, Mexico. “I had to look it up on a map,” she said.
At the resort, she met Eleazar Ángeles, a young restaurant professional from Mexico City who was managing the Banyan Tree Cabo Marques’ restaurants. Before landing in Acapulco, Ángeles had worked with luminaries Enrique Olvera and Jorge Vallejo before they moved on to open Pujol and Quintonil, respectively. At the resort, Raksamran and her Thai colleagues would throw dinner parties for their friends, cooking simple Thai dishes. It was there that Ángeles first tasted Raksamran’s cooking. They dated, fell in love and decided to get married.
In 2011 Ángeles moved back to Mexico City to manage Máximo Bistrot, for owners Gabriela Lopez and chef Eduardo García. Raksamran found work as a private masseuse, giving massages to Lopez and other exhausted restaurant workers, thinking that one day she would open her own spa. During the day, she would cook for Ángeles, sending elaborate dishes and desserts with him to the restaurant. “I was fanatic about Somsri’s massages,” said Lopez, “and then I tasted her cooking. She has a tremendous gift to give pleasure to others.” With encouragement from Lopez and García, the idea for their own operation gestated: Ángeles would manage. Raksamran would cook.
They opened Galangal in 2015 on a one-way street in Roma Norte, a rapidly gentrifying borough stippled with bars and restaurants. The idea was to serve elegant but accessible Thai dishes in a comfortable setting. There was even space for a small spa upstairs. In the first year, Raksamran would work the hot line in the kitchen and then run upstairs to give massages. They were able to source most ingredients through conventional growers, but for their curry pastes, which were dependent on galangal, a root similar to ginger, and makrut lime, they had Raksamran’s family ship them monthly packages.
Raksamran says she found familiarlity in Mexican cuisine. “Both Mexican and Thai cooking use lots of lime, they share tamarind, chiles, cilantro,” she said. “They make food that is both sour and spicy.”
The meditative repetition of kitchen work, with bursts of creative energy, suited her. She knew that most Mexicans were relatively unfamiliar with Thai dishes, so she put entry-level spring rolls and textbook pad Thai on the menu, but also tish plaga pong deang song kruang, a red snapper and curried egg souffle steamed in a banana leaf, green papaya salad made with soft-shell crab, and kabobs of grilled squid, their tentacles curled and charred.
“I cannot take the green curry or the pad Thai off the menu. Ever,” Raksamran said. “It’s the entry point for most Mexicans. It’s what they have heard of.” Her massaman curry, a deep russet slurry accented with nutmeg, cardamom and chile de arbol, often gets tagged as mole; it is very popular. The other dishes, heavy on fish sauce and bird’s-eye chiles, are as much for Raksamran’s personal conjuring of home as they are for the minuscule Thai community — the embassy diplomats, the few restaurant workers. “There are very few Thai here,” she said, “and I know them all! They come to eat.”
The pair have put down even deeper roots for their restaurants in the rocky outcrops on Ángeles’ family’s land in Metzquititlán, Hidalgo, where his family has farmed for three generations.
Today, 70 makrut lime trees grow alongside his family’s pulque-producing maguey plants. Angeles grafted makrut lime branches, sprouted from a smuggled seed, onto Mexican lime trees. After many failed attempts, they are now producing almost enough to meet their two restaurants’ demands. In the city, from a few pots on the restaurant’s roof and in the sidewalk margins out on the street, Angeles cultivates pandan leaf, bird’s-eye chiles, galangal, Thai basil, lemongrass and Thai eggplant.
His parents were skeptical at first. “What an ugly lime,” Angeles’ father told him after they harvested their first crop of the hard, wrinkled fruit. “Are you sure about this?” When Angeles told him the import price, he was convinced. Imported makrut lime goes for 2,500 pesos a kilo (about $125).
Last year, Raksamran’s sister, Pui Radchaporn Raksamran, immigrated to Mexico City to steer the Galangal kitchen while the couple focused on their second restaurant, Kiin Thai-Viet Eatery, nine blocks away. In the coming year, they plan to bring over a cousin from Phuket to cook and most likely Raksamran’s mother, intent on strengthening the transnational connection to the source of Raksamran’s craft. And they will do so locally, as well, in the new crop of galangal they are planting at home in the hills of Hidalgo.
Although the overlap in cuisines allows Raksamran to translate her singular taste of home, there are limits. “Sometimes I crave really homely cooking or really fermenty fish dishes,” she said. Angeles nodded in affirmation, “If she and her Thai friends get together to cook and eat things that they miss from Thailand, I know that I will not be able to eat the food. It will be too spicy and too fishy for me.”
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