My Favourite Dish: Sai Deethwa
Sai Deethwa speaks to Tony Naylor about her Thai street-food brand Buddha Belly
We celebrate the world’s best comfort food by asking chefs and food writers from diverse backgrounds about the dishes they love. Here, founder of Thai street-food brand Buddha Belly and former MasterChef contestant Sai Deethwa shares her recipe for a classic Thai noodle hot-pot.
See her suki recipe.
Sai Deethwa's Favourite Dish
In 2012, then-social worker Sai Deethwa arrived at a watershed moment. Increasingly feeling that her future lay in food, she competed in that year’s MasterChef, which only intensified the urge: "I thought about food all the time. I read cookbooks and menus in bed. Do I sit at my desk thinking about the meal I’m going to cook tonight? No. It needed to become my life because, in my head, it already was." The result was Thai street-food brand Buddha Belly, a much-loved feature of the West Midlands’ food scene, Digbeth Dining Club events and markets across the north. Its reputation has been hard-won. "Street food’s not for the faint-hearted," says Sai. But, she knew what she was taking on.
Sai’s mum, Niang, ran street stalls in Thailand and later launched Niang’s Thai Snacks at Stroud farmers’ market. "I had an office job, qualifications – my Thai aunt, who has a diner in her house, was like, 'She can’t leave!'," Sai recalls. "But mum was excited. She knew it was an opportunity."
"Mum grew up in Sikhoraphum, where my family has always made street food, and my grandmother was her mentor. When Mum was younger, she cooked all sorts of dishes, from stewed pork knuckle on rice (a common Thai street food), to doughnuts. She worked in schools, where, instead of a canteen, they had street-food vendors.
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"The dynamic in Thai street food is very different to here, more hand-to-mouth and competitive. No one is looking to get a residency or restaurant, or franchise it and become a millionaire. Street food is a daily utility in Thailand. If you have a dish that sells well, you definitely don’t share that secret recipe. "Mum had me at 22, which cut her career short, and later she married my stepdad, Roger, moved to Britain and had my three half-sisters. Then, one day, she decided to start a street-food stall. It was Christmas Eve at Gloucester farmer’s market and she took £80, a meagre amount after days of prep. But, 20 years later, she’s one of its busiest traders. It’s her life. All my sisters cook under the Niang’s Thai Snacks umbrella, too. Mum’s monopolised Gloucestershire!
"Strangely, I was never encouraged to cook at home. It wasn’t until I started Buddha Belly when Mum stood over me and said, 'This is how you do it.' But, we were all obsessed with food and helped Mum where we could, skewering chicken satay or rolling spring rolls for the stall. We’ve a family friend, Loui, who now works full-time with us at Buddha Belly and she’s incredible at making spring rolls because, aged five, she’d spend summers rolling them at our house.
"At home, we ate both Thai and English food (we always had a Sunday roast), but the meals I loved – Thai families eat like this a lot – were buffets of soup, rice, salads and grilled meats. When we had Thai food, we always sat on the floor on a straw mat. Your feet had to be facing away and you could never step over the food. A spread like that feels like an occasion.
"Served from an aluminium steamer with hot sauce, crab was a good sharing dish. We were also always excited about what Mum called 'betsa' (I’ve never found the actual name). You grill a large, salt-crusted trout or catfish and eat it in lettuce leaves with herbs, vermicelli noodles and sweet ‘n’ sour or chilli dipping sauce. Fish, noodles and chilli, all in one mouthful.
"Suki was the meal we’d ask for on birthdays. My recipe is a noodle soup version that you plate at the hob, but Mum served it in a coal-filled apparatus with a trough around it that kept the broth boiling hot. We all had wire baskets to cook our raw marinated meat and sliced vegetables in it. As kids, that responsibility – cooking your own dinner – was so much fun.
"We’d eat the meat, noodles and veg “dry” or as a soup, changing it up as we ate and dipping mouthfuls into the punchy suki sauce on the side. Sat there, fishing meat and vegetables out of the broth and talking, was a bonding experience."
If you're inspired to cook more Thai be sure to read our Top 10 tips for healthy Thai cooking.