Celebrating new beginnings makes a heck of a lot more sense in the spring—when a rainbow of carrots, beets and chard fill the markets and jasmine wafts on the Houston breeze—rather than in the dead of winter when everything is, well, dead. That’s probably why I was thrilled to hear that the Thai New Year, following the Buddhist calendar, falls in April, starting today, actually.
I also learned that it's the vibrant, water-drenched Thai New Year festival, Songkran, that lends Songkran Thai Kitchen and Songkran Thai Grill their names. “For Thai, the festival is all about colorful, new beginnings,” says Bangkok-born executive chef Junnajet “Jett” Hurapan, who is hosting celebrations today through Friday at both Songkran locations in Uptown and Sugar Land.
Traditionally during Songkran, which translates to “the passing of,” water ceremonies are performed to symbolize the cleansing away of the old year. These days during the festival, Thailand is awash in full-on deluges in the streets, as participants douse each other with water often tinted with colorful powders, not unlike a wet version of Hindu Holi.
Chef Jett’s favorite part of this holiday, however, is the food. “People stop working, return to their hometown and cook good food,” he says. This is the aspect of his heritage he wants to share with Houston and that he misses the most about Thailand. “I have one agenda on my list,” he says. “I say to myself, I have to let the people know what is Thai food. That’s my job.”
To attain this true flavor enlightenment, Hurapan strives to honor authentic Thai flavors with key elements of earthiness, spice, kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass. Without these elements, he says, it changes the dish. Swapping Genovese basil for Thai basil or ginger for galangal might get you a tasty dish, but it won’t be the same.
Hurapan’s wife conducts research during visits to see family in Bangkok, bringing back ingredients and secrets. Until dishes achieve that authentic profile, they don’t make the menu. “We have a lot of Thai customers, so if Thai people won’t eat my food, we have a problem,” he says.
This week, Songkran is celebrating the new year with two dishes that live up to Chef Jett’s standards. The E-Sarn Platter features customary Thai street food, including green papaya salad “exactly the way you’d get in Thailand” with dried shrimp, peanut, Thai chili and lime, accompanied by “curbside” beef satay with chile-tamarind dipping sauce and sticky rice. Just let them know how hot you want it, and they’ll pile on the Thai bird chiles.
Another classic dish, guay-teaw ped, represents the strong Chinese influence in Thailand and features Yaowaraj (Bangkok Chinatown) braised duck served with rice noodles, Asian veggies, Thai herb broth and chile-garlic vinegar.
But while food is central to the celebration, it's not all there is. On Friday, diners who stick around at Songkran Thai Kitchen in Uptown will be rewarded with a performance by Thai dancers from Wat Buddhavas of Houston temple, accompanied by traditional Thai music, from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Add a bottle of Chang beer, glass of Thai tea or one of Songkran’s Thai-inspired cocktails, and guests have got themselves a very happy Songkran—at Songkran.