American food writer-turned-restaurateur Jarrett Wrisley, owner of one of Bangkok’s most popular restaurants, brings his passion for Thai food to Hong Kong.
*Featured in Crave’s November 2016 issue
Text by Cherrie Yu, food photos by Joe Kwong
American journalist Jarrett Wrisley spent 15 years eating his way around Asia and writing about his experiences, starting in Shanghai and Sichuan. A keen home cook, he moved to Thailand in the mid-2000s and fell in love with the cuisine’s diverse flavour profiles. In 2010, he took the plunge and opened his own restaurant in Bangkok. Soul Food Mahanakorn serves the country’s famed street food in a comfortable bar setting, accompanied by “serious drinks”.
The concept proved so popular that Wrisley has partnered with Black Sheep Restaurants to bring it to Hong Kong, first as a pop-up in the summer and now as a restaurant, Soul Food Hong Kong, which opened recently in SoHo.
Unlike most Thai restaurants around the world, Soul Food Hong Kong’s dishes do not all come from central Thailand. Instead, Wrisley has curated a menu of his favourite food from all around the country, particularly Isaan cuisine from the northeast.
“Thai food is deeply regional, kind of like Chinese,” Wrisley says. So the menu features Issan dishes such as tum saab ped, a sour and spicy clear soup, and smoked duck and shiitake mushroom larb. For this Laos-influenced dish, Wrisley smokes local duck over coal and mixes it with fresh duck, but instead of sticky rice, he serves it with chips.
Wrisley refuses to take any short cuts; his curry paste alone takes two days to make.
“If you do Thai food the right way, it is time-consuming,” he says. “Since it is so time-consuming and labour-intensive, instead of buying two limes to make fresh dishes, many Thai street food vendors use the same cost to buy fake lime juice. This is the prevailing situation, but I want to preserve [the authentic dishes].”
One of his favourite dishes is fish sauce wings, a common street snack of deep-fried chicken wings. Wrisley serves his with cashew nuts and lemongrass.
“I really like the flavour profiles [of Thai ingredients],” he says. “There’s a certain roundness to it: a little bit sweet, sour, spicy, and herbal. It’s about bouncing different components and making it into one cohesive thing. With Italian food, it’s about purity and bringing out one flavour; in Thai food, you’re bringing out a whole range of flavours.”
1. Yam Makrua Yao
Wrisley chars long Thai eggplants over charcoal, then skins it and tops with a slew of fragrant ingredients: smoky bacon, crisp shallots, mint, coriander and fish sauce. Instead of the usual squash-like texture, the Thai eggplants have light and creamy flesh with a deliciously mild sweetness. The addition of soft-boiled duck eggs gives a good dose of saltiness to balance the dish.
2. Pad Thai Soft-shell
Thai comfort food at its best, springy noodles are served with soft-shell crab. The stir-fied noodles were nice and smoky with great wok hei. It came in a generous portion and were cooked just right, while the soft-shell crab and aromatic crushed peanuts added a wonderful texture to the dish. The tastiest part was the flavourful crabmeat – soft with a fresh umami taste.
3. Tum Yam Talay
Easily our favourite dish of the evening, this is a lighter, cleaner version of tom yum soup, which Wrisley says is usually much creamier thanks to the addition of evaporated milk. Wrisley’s rendition is a flavourful soup that fully brings out the umami flavours of the wild school shrimps, mushrooms and squid. It is herbaceous and delicious. We especially liked the aromatic, slightly oral, minty aftertaste from the galangal, a Thai root vegetable.
4. Stir-fried Squid and Garlic Chives
A Bangkok staple of a stuffed snack served in soup. The squid is steamed before being stir-fried to make it even more aromatic. The squid had a nice bite, while the minced pork added an interesting texture. We also liked the chilli jam that gave the dish a good kick of spiciness.
5. Penang Curry
Instead of the usual pork or beef, Wrisley imports tender beef tongue and cheek from Australia for this dish. The braised tongue and cheek were extremely soft, and almost melted in the mouth. We loved the light curry sauce, and the slight smokiness from the peanuts and burnt pineapple. Delicious.
Soul Food Hong Kong
26-30 Elgin Street, SoHo
Tel: 2177 3544