“HERE, add some of this homemade sauce on the chicken. It will add more flavour,” advises a smiling lad sporting a pair of dark-rimmed Harry Potter-like glasses. Without waiting for an answer, he drizzles a small amount of the light green sauce onto the chicken roulade (a rolled up boneless chicken poached till tender that sits atop a round of pan-seared rice replicating the crunchy claypot rice bits).
Clad in a simple T-shirt, knee-length shorts and minus his usual toque blanche (the traditional chef’s hat), the petite Nikom Uatthong can easily pass off as a young customer. However, to loyal patrons, he’s the executive chef and director of K2 Asian Fusion Cuisine restaurant — a cosy neighbourhood dining outlet located at Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur.
The dish he just served isn’t anything like your usual Thai dish. But as you bite into the chicken, an instant explosion of flavours gives away its unmistakable Thai roots. It’s true what they say about Thai cuisine being intricate in flavour yet pleasing to the palate. The delicate balancing of all five flavours — sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy — bears testament to Uatthong’s prowess in the kitchen.
Together with Desmond Wong, his trusty business partner, the pair has garnered a steady following of loyal customers with their simple philosophy: to serve up the best of Thai-inspired elements in a multitude of beautiful and delicious dishes.
“Kom (Uatthong) has 1,001 recipes in his head and each time a dish is served, it’s bound to be delicious!” confides Wong, who reveals that he’s often the guinea pig to taste the affable chef’s new creations. What’s interesting to note is that no matter how he presents his dishes, they will always contain the strong, inimitable influence of his homeland — a heritage he’s always proud of.
BALANCE OF FLAVOURS
With influences from China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Myanmar coupled with a stellar royal culinary tradition, Thai food features the best of many worlds and is undoubtedly one of the world’s greatest cuisines. CNN Travel World’s 50 Best Foods had people voting in for at least seven Thai dishes, which subsequently won spots in the top 50 list.
It’s also said that a bowl of tom yam can easily be found anywhere across the globe and even more so in our country. We don’t only share borders with Thailand but we also seem to share a lot of Thai influences where food is concerned. There’s something about the heady explosion of flavours coupled with aromatic spices that bring in enthusiastic foodies like moths to a flame.
True Thai cuisine can be divided into five types which correspond to the five main regions of the country. There’s the metropolitan Bangkok region famed for their Teochew and Portuguese influence, while the central Thai region is heavily dictated by their rice farming culture.
There’s also the northeastern Thai region bordering Laos which shares many similarities with the Khmer culture. The northern and southern cuisines are heavily inspired by the natural resources around them, with the north featuring mostly highland dishes that’s warm and spicy, and served with lots of meat, while the south serves up tropical island delights laden with fresh seafood.
Being a native of Chiang Rai, a province located in the northern part of Thailand, Uatthong explains: “We’re very near to Myanmar, Laos and also China. So, we use a lot of spices that’s quite similar to these other nations such as Szechuan peppers, which are popularly used in China, to add spiciness and warmth to dishes. It’s also one way for us to keep warm during the colder seasons.
While terrain, climate, flora, fauna and religion have influenced traditional cuisines, individual cultures also develop unique preferences and aversions within these confines. As such, Thai dishes that we’ve come to love have long been adapted to suit our local taste buds. Some may argue that it’s been influenced to a point where these dishes have been heavily diluted and no longer resemble their original form or taste.
“It’s true that food will change to suit local taste and since we are so close to each other, it’s unsurprising that we influence each other,” explains Uatthong, continuing: “Like how Southern Thailand shares a lot of food in common with Kelantan such as nasi dagang and rendang. Ours isn’t crispy either (jokingly alluding to the recent crispy rendang controversy), but it’s sweeter than the Malaysian version — just how we like it.”
Even though we do pride ourselves on our shared influences, he does admit that not all Thai dishes served in restaurants throughout the country are as authentic as those you’d be able to find in Thailand — a case in point would be the red tom yam that many of us love.
Chipping in, Wong says: “We (Malaysians) typically like our food gao (rich in flavour and taste). The red tom yam is not only flavourful but the colour also hints to its spiciness and that attracts us. However, the original tom yam is a clear broth and has a more natural and fresh taste.”
This is why, the clear tom yam was featured on the menu by Uatthong and Wong when they opened Kompassion —their first restaurant located at Damansara Kim, Selangor. It was then replicated and made available in their other two dining outlets: K2 and the newly opened Kom’s at The Starling Mall in Petaling Jaya.
For over 13 years, Uatthong has found his place in the heat of the kitchen, here in our country, which he now calls home. His satisfaction, he says, is derived from seeing the happy faces of those who enjoy his cooking.
A middle child to parents who are farmers, Uatthong recalls having been forced to cook at the tender age of 8 for his siblings. “My parents were usually away the whole day working in the farm and there was only me to cook as my brother was only a year old. My only sister didn’t enjoy slaving in the kitchen!” he confides with a chuckle, continuing: “I’ve come to love cooking and found myself wanting to cook new dishes by following my favourite chefs on TV.”
What’s your go-to dish at home? I ask curiously. “My very first dish was an omelette! In Thailand, omelette coupled with hot rice make for homely comfort food,” he enthuses, adding: “Besides, our omelette is very different from what you get here. There’s a technique to make it fluffy in the middle yet crunchy on the sides. So far my customers love it.”
He has certainly come a long way since his growing-up years in a small village. In 2015, Uatthong enrolled himself at the prestigious culinary school, Le Cordon Bleu. His biggest challenge now, he confides, is to find that delicate balance between the heavy tantalising Thai flavours and refined French cooking techniques.
“In French cuisine, there are only three important ingredients — butter, salt and pepper,” explains Uatthong. “Just three ingredients are used to bring out the flavours. So, I’ve began to infuse that into my cooking as well.”
FUSION FOOD FOR THE MASSES
In K2, the only pork-free restaurant under the Kompassion brand name, Uatthong and Wong serve an eclectic range of fusion Asian cuisine.
“We were pioneers in Thai fusion at our first dining outlet. So we wanted to further replicate as well as widen our repertoire here in K2,” explains Wong. The menu showcases some familiar names such as the evergreen tom yam that comes in three levels of spiciness as well as other fascinating dishes such as the paku pakis salad and the poached fish fillet with chilli and lime.
In addition to the usual menu, the pair have decided to present a special degustation menu they call the Chef’s Table. “Kom will be preparing about eight to 10 dishes and 10 lucky loyal customers can reserve their places to try these new dishes every month,” reveals Wong.
Uatthong adds: “I don’t believe in serving expensive ingredients. So for this special dining experience, I will see what’s seasonally available in the market. This is one way to let you enjoy the experience without emptying your wallet!”
Looking at my watch and noting the time, I sheepishly apologise for taking up so much of their time. But before I can end my conversation and take my leave, the chef quickly stops me and says: “You can’t leave without first trying my special ice-cream with soya sauce!”
Intrigued, I sit back down and wait eagerly for this strange combo to be served. The intrepid chef doesn’t disappoint. The dessert features a single scoop of vanilla ice-cream with cendol-like jelly strands. Soya sauce is then generously drizzled a la cendol style but minus the Gula Melaka sauce we sweet-toothed Malaysians would usually expect. My first tentative taste has me savouring the contrasting salty and sweet flavours that really work well together.
“You know why we named our restaurants Kompassion?” Wong asks rhetorically. Without waiting for an answer, he continues with a smile: “When I first met Kom about five years ago, I jokingly commented that I’ll never be able to do what he does. And all Kom replied was, ‘Cooking is my passion so I’m more than happy to do it every day.’ So, what we serve in our restaurants are essentially from his heart.”
QUICK TIPS BY CHEF NIKOM UATTHONG
Make sure your ingredients are fresh and only add them in when the soup is boiling. You can also cook the chicken broth first and let it boil before adding in the herbs and your ingredients of choice. This will ensure that all flavours are extracted into the soup. Most importantly, do not stir the soup until just before serving.
If you want more flavours, you can fry herbs such as serai, garlic and onions first before putting them into the soup.
The trick is to have a generous amount of oil in a pan and very well-beaten eggs. Heat the oil until it’s hot and then trickle the eggs in from a height so that it forms little eggy florets in the oil before pouring the rest in as normal. You may even put in a bit of lime for added zing! Pair it with Sriracha sauce and hot rice.
K2 ASIAN FUSION CUISINE RESTAURANT
WHERE 15, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL.