Soft-spoken and gentle with delicate mannerisms and the sweetest smile imaginable, Rungtiwa Homchan is not the sort of person you would imagine to head a restaurant kitchen. But looks can be deceiving because that’s exactly what she’s doing at Baan Rao, a restaurant in Taman Bukit Mayang Emas, Petaling Jaya, started by her husband and his childhood friends to showcase her culinary skills.
Rungtiwa grew up in a poor family in Ayutthaya, Thailand, and learnt how to cook partially from her parents and partially by trial and error as she often had to make meals for her siblings.
“Actually, I never studied or learnt how to cook at all. Basically I taste things and remember the taste. And then I try making it and keep trying until it becomes my recipe,” she says.
As a young adult, she came to Malaysia for a job opportunity and it was while she was working as a cashier in a restaurant that she met her husband, although their initial encounters were nothing short of comical.
“The first time I met him, I only knew words like ‘Yes’ and ‘No’. I didn’t know what he was saying, I just said, ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ to everything he said. He taught me how to speak in English, but it’s really hard to learn, so he had to learn Thai,” she says, laughing fondly at the memory.
When her husband’s friends first savoured her food and realised just how good it was, they got to thinking that perhaps they should set up a food venture of some sort. They started out with a corner stall in the Taman Bukit Mayang Emas area, and Rungtiwa got to work, cooking up a panoply of Thai dishes. The stall worked as a testing ground for ideas and recipes, and the team took in all the feedback they received and acted on it.
After a year, when they felt a little more confident and when an opportunity to buy up an existing shoplot in the area came up, they took it and that is how Baan Rao was born in October 2016.
Rungtiwa heads a seven-person all-Thai kitchen team, many of whom she handpicked from her village in Ayutthaya. The menu is filled with recipes she gleaned from her father and mother, as well as others that represent adaptations of existing dishes. Home-style Thai cooking or “kampung food” as Rungtiwa calls it, represents the nexus of what Baan Rao offers.
Before you begin your meal at Baan Rao, make sure to tell the staff if you have any dietary restrictions or if would like your meal spicier or less spicy. At the moment, all meals are pre-set to what Rungtiwa terms “normal spicy” (but is actually quite fiery if you’re not a chilli fiend).
Start your meal with a selection of appetisers, like the raw prawns with special spicy sauce (RM28). This an excellent opener to what Baan Rao is capable of, with plump, soft-as-petal prawns taking centre stage in this production. The prawns are accentuated by a deliciously pungent sauce that boasts the advertised spiciness and is likely to have you sticking your tongue out, begging for something cold (forewarned is forearmed!).
The deep-fried chicken skin (RM10) is just that – curled up rolls of crispy chicken skin that are so addictive, you’ll quickly throw caution to the wind and ditch that new year’s resolution to “eat healthy”.
From the grilled selections on offer, try the grilled pork fillet (RM12; see main image above). The pork fillets are sourced from a factory in Thailand that specialises in this, and are sticky-sweet, tenderly succulent and just so lip-smacking that you’ll find yourself swatting off the hands of trespassing dinner companions angling for a taste.
Then there is the salt-grilled tilapia (RM45), which embodies the spirit of the words “simply good”, because it baffles the mind how something so simple could taste soooo good. The restaurant has a tank full of live tilapia, so once you place your order, the fish is killed and grilled. As a result, freshness is the catch (phrase) of the day here, and you’ll discover soft, perfectly flaky fish nestled under skin that is slightly crispy and coated in a delicately salty crust.
Perhaps the best thing at Baan Rao at the moment is the pineapple curry with seafood (RM33), which is an heirloom recipe Rungtiwa inherited from her father, whose own mother taught him how to make it.
This curry is revelatory – a thick, creamy, pool of pure perfection, suffused with sweet pineapple pieces and generous portions of seafood. In every mouthful, you’ll get pearls of plump pineapple, some squid and prawns juxtaposed against this intensely rich curry that is so intoxicating, you won’t be able to get enough of it. Rest assured, this bewitching, unforgettable temptress will have you so thoroughly under its spell that you’ll likely make repeated visits for more.
It’s a little disappointing to come off such a high, but the tom yam nam khun (RM43) takes you back to earth with a thud. The soup – a staple in most Thai restaurants – isn’t quite up to scratch and is lacklustre and far too sweet.
Thankfully, the dry curry pork (RM26) offers a hot heaping of redemption. Akin to a rendang, the pieces of pork are coated in a rich, delicious gravy that forms a second skin over the meat. Some of the fat hasn’t been rendered as well as it could have been, but flavour triumphs over these little blips.
From the vegetable selection, have a go at the stir-fried kailan with crispy pork belly (RM22). The vegetables are crunchy and well-cooked and the crispy pork belly adds a much-welcome meaty distraction to this green offering.
The menu is very food-focused and rightly so, as Rungtiwa says they want to make sure they get that right. But from the drinks menu, there are also some worthy contenders. Like the coconut shake (RM7.90), which is a refreshingly dense drink filled to the brim with coconut bits. A sip of this offers a shot of escapism, as your mind whisks you away to a tropical destination far, far away.
Although Rungtiwa has learnt a lot and come a long way in the year that Baan Rao has been open, one of the things she still finds difficult to alter in her recipes is the spice level. Because Rungtiwa likes things REALLY spicy, and you can tell from the slight wilt of her mouth that she’s a little disappointed that she’s had to make milder meals to suit local palates.
“If my father and mother ate the food here, they would say, ‘Not spicy enough’ but if my customers eat like me, they would die!” she says.
Although she’s modified the recipes, you’ll still need to be prepared for a spicy selection at Baan Rao. But equally, be prepared for Thai food cooked with Rungtiwa’s signature stamp of love and care. Because that’s something you don’t find easily anywhere.
10, Jalan BM1/2
Taman Bukit Mayang Emas
47301 Petaling Jaya
Tel: 03-7886 0016
Open Monday to Sunday: Noon to 2.30pm; 6pm to 10.30pm (closed on the 2nd and 4th Mondays of each month)