My favourite Thai restaurant in London – though of course I’m willing to undertake further research on this question – is Esarn Kheaw in Shepherd’s Bush. It’s a bit of a schlep for me if I’m not going to see a show at the Empire but if I’m anywhere vaguely nearby I’ll make a detour for their num prik pla sod, or fermented fish dip. This week I found myself in Baron’s Court (at the talented Thrifty Gal‘s new play) and despite her very reasonable warning that I’d end up going home on the drunk train if I started messing about on the tube after a play, I couldn’t resist the siren song of fermented fish.
Esarn Kheaw specialises in Northeastern Thai food from Issan (hence the name), and although the menu also offers a full complement of standard British Thai menu classics, it’s the northern dishes that really sing. The first thing I ever ate there was their homemade Issan sausage, a dish that really doesn’t mess around. Homemade sausages are always a treat, and these come with giant slabs of ginger, peanuts, and whole red chilies. The flavours are amazing. However, for me it’s the fermented fish dip that’s the real star. Num prik pla sod is the quintessential ‘white people don’t order that’ dish, and as expected, the waiter asked us very politely if we knew what we were ordering. Yes, we assured him, we’ve had it before. He looked a bit skeptical and said that it’s too hot for him and he’s Thai. In fact, it’s not all that hot. I mean, yes, it is quite spicy and probably a bad idea if you don’t like hot food, but if you do, it’s more of a slow burn. It’s also delicious, a with the roasty flavour of grilled vegetables, the deep tang of fermented fish and a heat that burns just ever so slightly in the mouth. It comes with raw cucumber, carrot and longbean for dipping.
We also had the pork larb with pork skin, which was fresh and toothsome. The textural mix of crunchy peanuts and shallots, soft pork and chewy skin was very pleasing, although Mr Lemur had rather been hoping for pork crackling of the kind we had at Nahm. This was more like the strips of ear you sometimed get in carnitas.
We decided to offset these spicy dishes with something sweeter and saucier, and ordered beef noodles with oyster sauce. It was ok, but a bit on the gloopy side. Step away from the Issan dishes and I think Esarn Kheaw moves back toward standard Anglicised Thai fare. Issan food is actually known for being less spicy than Southern Thai cuisine, but the difference here is not so much chilli levels as boldness of flavour. I can’t blame them: many of their customers probably don’t order these regional dishes and it makes sense to cover all your bases. If you’re there for the spectacular Issan flavours, though, it pays to order carefully.
Esarn Khaew, 314 Uxbridge Road, Shepherd’s Bush, London W12 7LJ