Anyone who has lived overseas and had intense cravings for food from home can quite easily understand what led Thai native Nirunchala Puntong to open Malai Thai Cuisine. Nirunchala is a lovely lady who loves the food of her homeland. When she came to Malaysia, she longed for a taste of home but found that none of the food at the Thai restaurants she tried matched the real deal.
“I tried many Thai restaurants but when I ate the food, I felt disappointed with the taste, because I love to eat and I know what is good and what is bad. So when I ate Thai food here, I felt, ‘This is not Thai, it’s not authentic,’” she says.
Having grown up in Thailand, Nirunchala is extremely familiar with Thai flavours. She is a good home cook herself, and often whips up curries like green curry, massaman and panaeng in her own kitchen. Over time, she realised that since most Malaysians have been to Thailand, they too must feel let down by the quality of food at local Thai restaurants.
“I’m sure Malaysians know what Thai food is like, so I feel sorry for how Thai food is represented here,” she says.
So with the help of her businessman boyfriend, Nirunchala set about opening an authentic Thai restaurant herself, launching Malai Thai Cuisine a few months ago.
To ensure total commitment to authenticity, she employed four Thai cooks and got them to make Thai dishes based on her exacting standards. In fact, she personally tastes everything before it goes out to diners to ensure all the flavour components are accurate.
“I make sure that every dish that I serve to my guests, the taste is correct. I approve everything that we serve,” she says, adding that doing all the taste tests has resulted in her gaining weight!
Many of the sauces, pastes and powders are also imported from Thailand to ensure the flavour profiles are the same and this level of authenticity extends to the décor, tableware and cutlery, all of which are from Thailand. Even the staff have been trained to greet customers according to Thai hospitality standards.
“I train all the staff to serve guests well and to show how Thai people are, because Thai people love to smile and give people warm welcomes, they are nice and kind to guests,” she says.
In many ways, this has come to fruition beautifully. As soon as you walk into the restaurant, smiles are aplenty. The restaurant has a distinctly Thai feel to it, with a colour scheme devised of yellow and purple and elephant motifs in abundance.
From the menu, there is plenty to tempt the palate, but go slow and work your way up from appetisers to dessert (trust me, you’ll want to have it all). Start with the por pieer tod (RM21), which is essentially long cylindrical deep-fried spring rolls. The spring rolls are crisp and have a lovely crackle when you bite into them. The interior is filled with glass noodles and vegetables and the entire concoction is given a sweet lift with the sweet chilli sauce served on the side. It’s a pleasant opener to what lies ahead.
As a follow-up, the yum plak duk foo (RM25) outclasses its predecessor in every way. It’s a crispy catfish paired with a zesty, slightly spicy young mango salad in what proves to be an explosive marriage of flavours and textures, one that is bound to leave you with serious withdrawal symptoms (until you can get your next fix, that is).
It is an indisputable fact that Thai food is synonymous with tom yum. In fact, Nirunchala says that before she opened the restaurant, she asked every Malaysian she met what their favourite Thai food was, and the near unanimous answer was tom yum!
Which is why she has put extra effort into Malai’s tom yum with river prawns (RM54), which is a true delight. The flavours are incredibly well-balanced – the light soup is aromatic, with a gentle sour note running through, and a spicy undercurrent that is present but not provocative enough to punch you in the gut. Interestingly, most of Malai’s meals are not that spicy, probably to appease a wide range of diners. But if you like things hot, you can tell the wait staff to kick the spice levels up a notch or two.
Up next is another familiar staple: Thai green curry with chicken (RM24). This is an incredibly yummy offering – the curry is not too thick, with nuanced flavours and a spicy underbelly that doesn’t overwhelm. The chicken is tender and well-cooked and the little baby eggplant pods pop effortlessly in the mouth. This is as good a green curry as you’re going to find anywhere.
The pu pad pong karee (RM62) or stir-fried crab in yellow curry might be the only chink in Malai’s seemingly impenetrable armour. While there is nothing wrong with the curry, which is more like a thick gravy, there is also nothing very memorable about it. It is very, very mild and as you eat it, you’ll get the distinct feeling that something is missing, a certain oomph that would make it complete, although the crab itself is cooked really well.
Thankfully, there is redemption in the form of the pla kla pong nung manow (RM47) which is steamed white snapper in a lemon sauce. The fish is plump and fresh, and is accentuated by the sauce, which sparkles with garlic, chilli and tangy, citrusy flavours.
End the savoury part of your meal with another crowd favourite: the kao pad sub pa rod (RM24) or pineapple fried rice. The fluffy, fragrant rice arrives in a hollowed out pineapple and is topped with salty tufts of chicken floss. It’s comfort food of the highest order.
Thai desserts are traditionally not-to-be-missed affairs. Malai’s coconut ice cream (RM16) has pronounced tropical flavours and is soft as satin, really light and very, very addictive. You can top the ice cream with your choice of condiments, like nuts and other bits and bobs to enhance the textural experience.
Ultimately, Nirunchala says her long-term motivation is to ensure that all her customers leave feeling totally and utterly satisfied with their experience at Malai, something that is extremely important to her.
“My goal is to make sure all the guests who come in are happy and they all want to come back,” she says, smiling.
MALAI THAI CUISINE
10, Jalan Perak
50450 Kuala Lumpur
Tel: 03-2181 2505
Open daily: Noon to 10pm