I’m going to start with a confession:
I am not a fan of Thai food! Controversial, I know. But I had to be honest. My first experience of Thai cuisine just didn’t do it for me. Every bite was laced with a hefty portion of lemongrass, which overpowered the other elements of the dish. It just wasn’t my cup of tea. 🙁
Now, last Christmas, I was lucky enough to spend the holidays in Thailand. Unluckily, I was extremely unwell throughout most of the trip. The only dish I could stomach was a very mild pad thai, which I couldn’t taste for all the medication I was on, and watermelon. Lots of cool, refreshing, easily-digestible watermelon.
Why, you say? Well, I truly love food and I wasn’t about to back down and write off an entire cuisine without a fight. I was determined to give Thai another shot and with Busaba’s reputation, where better to take on the challenge?
Cooking with Hesh
Admittedly, I expected a lot of the morning to be about observing, note-taking and of course, tasting. As did most of the other bloggers that were on the experience day.
Exec Chef Hesh had other plans. There were three dishes that needed to be cooked and we were tasked with cooking them all.
Chef jackets on; hands washed; tour of the kitchen; quick photo op; and we were ready to go!
First up, Som Tam.
Before getting down to creating the dish, Hesh talked us through each ingredient. If they were unusual, he explained why they were used and where to source them. If they were not so unusual, I still inspected them, lifting each individual bowl up for a smell (and in some cases a quick taste). Step-by-step, we bashed each of them with our very large Thai-style mortars and pestles (which have now been added to the must-have kitchen equipment list), each hit causing an explosion of aromas that even, at 11am, were starting to make me drool.
Final touches, a quick trick on plating up and it was ready to eat. Chopsticks engaged and hello flavour perfection! Hesh had explained the beauty of Som Tam was the balance in saltiness, sourness and sweetness, a fact I truly appreciated whilst tasting. Every portion of this papaya salad is pounded fresh to order, fitting with the literal meaning of Som Tam – ‘Hot Smash’. I would urge everyone to give it a try, it’s a good way to warm up those taste buds, and if you’re making it at home, a great workout for those arms.
Next on the agenda: time to get our hands dirty with Thai fishcakes.
Again we were presented with a tray full of fresh ingredients, some I knew, some such as ‘wild ginger’ looked very foreign. I was first up with the mixing bowl (that’s what happens when you stand next to the chef). Man, that fish was cold! But there’s something extremely satisfying about physically using hands to mix food. I suppose it’s a good way of taking out aggression, no? Well, it felt like a good form of stress relief to me.
After playing be-the-blender, Hesh taught us how to form the perfect fishcake shape, ready to be dunked in the deep fryer later.
Finally, it was time. Pad Thai time.
Cooking on a wok is all about timing, so before attempting this infamous dish ourselves, we started with a demonstration from the master. Hesh worked the wok like it was an extension of his arm. So hypnotised by the way he skilfully created it, I have to admit I didn’t pay full attention to the method.
Thankfully, he was always on hand to advise. One after the other, we banged the ingredients in, mixing and shaking when necessary, working the (quite heavy) wok over the very hot (very large) flames.
Voila! My finished Pad Thai, topped with what Hesh described as a ‘perfect’ egg. Oh boy was I proud! Having a professional chef call any part of my dish perfect was a great feeling. Even if it was just the egg bit (now, before you think I’m making a fuss about nothing, we all know it is an important part of the dish!).
The vibe at Busaba
For me, dining out is never just about the food (Again, controversial I know but I’m sticking with this honesty malarkey). The interiors always have to pull their weight for the ultimate experience. No problem for Busaba. As an Alan Yau venture, I knew there was no way this place was going to fall short on design. Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed.
The Kingston branch is dimly lit (like every good restaurant should be) with subtle Thai references; dark wooden furniture and beams, shimmering touches of shiny gold accessories and just the right number of Buddhas. I’m not a big fan of incense in my own home, but here the snakeing of smoke was not overpowering. It was just enough to invoke the feeling of being in an exotic place, taking me back to some of the markets we visited in Koh Samui over Christmas.
I’m a big fan of open kitchens, it’s such a great way to connect the chefs and the customers without them having to meet. I’m instantly reassured knowing that I can see my food being prepared and it gives utter transparency for those visiting who have not been on the cooking experience, to still see the skill and expertise that go into cooking meals.
Stand out feature of the Kingston branch – it is riverside! Earlier that morning, I had walked along the banks in the rain, but it didn’t seem to bother me or anyone else that much. There were still dog walkers, rowers, swan feeders (don’t worry Kingston, no pigeon feeders on my watch) and many others, simply enjoying the fresh air. There is something truly special about being beside water, it always makes me feel like I’m on holiday. I can only imagine how nice it must be to eat outside in the summer months.
I have a new confession to make
(One that will please my husband very much indeed): I am now a big fan of Thai food. If the three dishes we cooked weren’t enough to sway me, then the Busaba Calamari would have tipped it.
What. A. Dish.
Unfortunately I wasn’t able to snap a great picture of it, as the second Hesh brought it to the table, I couldn’t help but dive in. After all, It would have been rude not to eat the squid when it was hot and fresh…
What should you order? Obviously everything I’ve mentioned above, I would choose them all again. Hesh also recommended any of the duck and beef dishes (sorry fellow Muslims, I know that’s no help – Busaba is not halal). With my new found respect for Thai food, I’m excited to return and sample other areas of the menu.
Should you sign up for a cooking experience? Absolutely!! It’s all very well eating out a nice restaurant, but being able to experience the food from start to finish, and in such an intimate set-up, takes going out for a meal to a new level. You may be putting in the work to cook but at least you don’t have to wash the dishes after.
There was no unnecessary waiting around, ingredients were all pre-measured, we utilised different parts of the restaurant and kitchen, and the floor was open for questions throughout. Hesh spoke to us like friends, not just as students. Sharing stories of his past and discussing some of the issues and difficulties chefs are faced with when cooking specialist cuisines such as Thai i.e. sourcing ingredients, how much to tame dishes, commerciality etc.
All in all, it was a thoroughly enjoyable morning. Great company, smashing experience and finished off with some damn good food.
Very special thanks to the team at Busaba and Kingston First for hosting a wonderful experience day as part of #Traverse15. This was my first visit to Kingston and I will be posting up a few more write-ups about this trip over the next few weeks.
For those of us that aren’t based down South, fear not! Busaba is on its way to the fabulous City of Manchester. Summer twenty fifteen… it’s going to be a good one.
Busaba Eathai: 4 Riverside Walk, Kingston-Upon-Thames, London, KT1 1QN
Nearest Station: Kingston (SW Trains), Hampton Wick (SW Trains)
Tel 020 8481 6788 // firstname.lastname@example.org
Monday–Thursday 12 noon–11.00pm // Friday 12 noon–11.30pm
Saturday 11.30am-11.30pm // Sunday 11.30am–10.00pm