Sassy strolls through Little Thailand as Chef Noom discovers tasty gems
One of the best parts about living in Hong Kong is the accessibility to all the amazing international food. So when we found out one of our favourite chefs was headed to Little Thailand to shop for ingredients for her menu, we had to tag along! We sat down to find out more about Chef Noom, what inspires her and how she creates the menu for Soul Food Thai. Be sure to check out our video of the little gems she finds (hint: insects may or may not be part of the equation!)
Tell us a little about yourself. (Where are you from?)
I’m Noom and I’m the head chef at Soul Food Thai. I’m originally from Issan, which is the Northeastern province of Thailand. It’s an agricultural part of the country with a lot of rice fields. Growing up, when we cooked we could get most of the things we needed from the garden. We even made our own coconut milk from our coconut trees.
How did you become a chef?
I’ve always liked cooking but I didn’t realise I wanted to be a chef until I was in Sydney studying. I took a part-time job working in the kitchen of a Thai restaurant and worked my way up. By the end of my degree I realised it was my job rather than my studies I was really passionate about.
How long have you lived in Hong Kong, and what do you like about living here?
I’m still quite new to Hong Kong; I’ve lived here for about four months now. At first I was really overwhelmed and I wasn’t sure if I was cut out to live somewhere so different to what I was used to. But every time I got anxious Chris (co-founder of Black Sheep Restaurants) just kept saying, “It just takes time, stop worrying.” He was right. I love the energy of Hong Kong. You can get almost any type of food here, kitchens are small but the range of options for eating out is really amazing.
What are the challenges being a chef here?
Hong Kong is actually a great place to be a chef. In Thailand, chefs aren’t really considered important, and everyone cooks at home, so in their minds you aren’t doing anything they can’t do themselves. But I think the challenge of being a chef here is that because there are so many restaurants in this city, it can be hard to keep people’s attention. Everyone wants the newest thing.
We’re big fans of Soul Food Thai. What makes your menu different from other Thai restaurants in Hong Kong?
Thank you! Firstly, at Soul Food Thai we make everything from scratch – we don’t buy any pre-made pastes. Secondly, we try and introduce some regional dishes to the menu that guests might not have tried before. We’re hoping to broaden people’s understanding of Thai food, but mostly we just want people to have fun.
How often do you head to Little Thailand to shop for produce?
We’re there a couple of times a week at least. It’s fun for me to go – there are a lot of snacks that remind me of home!
What can you find there that you can’t get anywhere else in HK?
Thai eggplants, Thai garlic, Thai mangoes, banana flowers… Maybe you can find them in some other Thai shops but for the amount of variety you can get on one street you can’t beat Southwall Road. It’s well worth a visit if you are interested in Thai food.
What are your favourite shops there? (Some have names only in Chinese and Thai, so how can we find them?)
If you find the Lemon Shop, 43 Southwall Road (which is on the north end of the street closer to the park) and walk south staying on the same side of the street, you’ll pass all the shops that we visit in the video. It’s not a very long stretch of road.
Do you really cook with crickets? And ant eggs?
Not at Soul Food Thai, but at home, yes! Ant eggs we sometimes use in Thai cooking instead of lime as they are sour and the larger insects you see in the jar on the video are often crushed and used in sauce more for their smell than their taste.
What other non-traditional ingredients do you use?
All the ingredients we use are actually very traditional in Thai cooking but the banana flowers a lot of people are very curious about. We use these in a salad at Soul Food Thai. If you cut the flower open you can actually see the tiny bananas inside.
Do you use coconut (in any form) for anything other than cooking?
I do actually take one teaspoon of cold pressed virgin coconut oil every morning as a health tonic – sometimes I just mix it into my coffee.
What have you learned being a chef that helps you in everyday life?
That there are no shortcuts! I make all of our curry pastes from scratch, no pre-made pastes or spice mixes. And, although I follow a rough recipe, you need to pay attention. Taste and smell often, as the balance will change depending on how spicy the chilli you are using is, or how fresh the spices are. It’s hard work, and sometimes you wonder if people can taste the difference, but I know to be happy with myself and my work I need to put 100% into whatever I am doing, I try and use that in all aspects of my life.
What do you do for fun?
Like all chefs I’m a bit of a sneakerhead so I love going to Mong Kok to shop for sneakers and eat street food, the street food there is a bit like Thai street food.