At new Philly restaurant, Thai chef serves flavors of her Bangkok roots

Offering salty, sweet, and spicy tastes — "a whole spectrum of everything that you can imagine in one bowl" — pork shank is a specialty at Philly’s newest Thai restaurant.

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Chatayee Venus Kapugthong at her restaurant Chatayee Thai in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Chatayee Venus Kapugthong at her restaurant Chatayee Thai in Center City. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

This time of year, many Asian countries mark the start of the rice-growing season with Ploughing Festivals.

They include prosperity rituals, thought to help bring about an abundant crop of what’s at the heart of most Asian cuisine.

Philadelphia executive chef Chatayee Venus Kapugthong grew up in Bangkok, Thailand, where in the spring she and her family prayed for protection of the crops. She now shares rice-based dishes and other Thai delicacies of her childhood at her namesake restaurant at 12th and Walnut streets. It’s called Chatayee Thai. WHYY’s Morning Edition host Jennifer Lynn met up with her there to talk about the food she loves.

Lynn asked Kapugthong about a typical day for foodies in Thailand.

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Oh my God! At the moment you open your eyes in the morning, that’s when it starts. Wake up, eat the early dawn meal, and then you get into breakfast. After breakfast, you get into a little snack, and then you get to brunch. After brunch, then you get to lunch. After lunch, then you get to like a small sauteed noodle dish, and then you have afternoon tea and have a snack and then dinner. Late night, if you go out or whatever, it’s food everywhere for supper. Different type of rice soup or different type of noodles or pan-fry or seafood. So it’s like 24/7 constantly eating.

You don’t have time to do any other work. Your work is finding your next meal.

Yes, definitely.

The story of Thai food, as you and your family seem to know it, is a story of a depth — the layers to a dish, the days out before something is just right and ready to serve days later. Tell us about that.

Oh my God! It starts from picking the ingredients. Let’s say palm sugar. We eat a lot palm sugar in Thai cooking rather than processing white sugar. Palm sugar is 100% organic and comes from the palm tree, and then it’s reduced until it becomes congealed sweet goodies. In a different part of Thailand, the palm sugar tastes different. The best palm sugar to me is from the Province Phet Buri, located between the saltwater and the freshwater. So the soil has both. It’s sweet. It comes very subtle, and it makes the food really delicious.

What is the nature of the food from Bangkok? Is it earthy? Is it a spicy flavor?

Bangkok is more classic with a sweet touch to it. Whether sweet from sugar, sweet from the vegetable, sweet from fruit, even sweet from protein. So it has a hint of sweetness to it rather than the South, the East, the West, or the North. The East can be more salty. The North will be more earthy. The South will be more spicy, but Central stays classic. It’s classical Thai.

What foods did you come up with that you must have on your menu?

I really suggest the pork shank inspired by old school. The pork shank is stewed for a long period of time. And then we lightly deep fry it and top it with my signature yam sauce, which is fresh lime, palm sugar, Thai chili pepper, and all kinds of herbs and spice. And a little sweet, a little sour, a little salty. It’d have every color palette of the taste in one dressing. So you got the stew and then you got crispy outside and you got to salt on the top and have all kind of vegetables in it. So this is a whole spectrum of everything that you can imagine in one bowl.

Rice is such a staple of course. How do you go about honoring rice in any given dish?

That’s a really good question because Thai people won’t be Thai people if they’re not eating rice. Is somebody tells you they’re Thai and ‘no I don’t eat rice,’ they lie to you. They’re not Thai. People eat the meal, 70 percent will be rice. The 30 percent will be whatever entree or salad that you eat with the rice. So, of course, that is the deep culture and deep root in Thai people to respect rice. So, therefore, before they grow the rice, they have to give respect and do some sort of mantra and celebration to different gods. Definitely, one is the god of rice that all the farmers must celebrate throughout the years. They have to respect her.

Do you eat what you make in the kitchen, or are you nibbling on a bowl of cereal somewhere because you’re so all over the place.

I make new food every day. I want to try it because we are such a new restaurant. I’m worried about gaining weight. I’m eating a lot because I try the food. The only way that you know your food, you have to try it.

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